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Patrick Donnelly | | October 6, 2022

5 men's college hockey storylines to watch ahead of the 2022-23 season

The top college hockey storylines for 2022-23

Men's college hockey is here. 

Last season saw the return of normal scheduling and packed student sections as Denver went on to win its ninth national championship, tied with Michigan for the most titles. While the western college hockey teams dominated the national landscape, a couple goaltenders stole the headlines in the east. 

The season is set to kick off Saturday, Oct. 1, and all eyes will be focused on the Pioneers' title defense, some new faces in new places as well as several promising young prospects. 

With the amount of talent across the country, it's sure to be another exciting year. Here are five storylines to watch ahead of the 2022-23 season:

Can Denver repeat?

We go through this every season. Last year everyone wondered whether or not UMass would repeat. 

There have been only eight repeat champions since 1948. Denver's done it three times, first in 1960 and 1961, then 1968 and 1969 as well as 2004 and 2005. Michigan has done so twice with a three-peat from 1951-1953 before winning again in '55 and '56. Then there's Boston University (1971 and '72), Minnesota (2002 and '03) and most recently Minnesota Duluth in 2018 and 2019. 

Meanwhile, five of the last six national champions are NCHC teams (the Pioneers also won in 2017), so there is a solid chance that this season's winner will be from Division I's most competitive conference top to bottom, even if it isn't Denver. 

CHAMPIONS: How Denver took down Minnesota State to win the 2022 national championship

Denver comes into this year having lost stars like Bobby Brink, Carter Savoie and Cole Guttman to the pro ranks. With that said, the Pioneers are the favorite to come out of the NCHC for a second straight year and have some exciting freshmen coming in to compliment veterans. Denver will see the returns of offensive firepower like Carter Mazur and Massimo Rizzo, starting goaltender Magnus Chrona as well as Sean Behrens, who is poised to be one of the best defensemen in the nation. 

You could say the Pioneers are positioned for a repeat, but it won't happen simply because history is on their side. 

Coaching turnover at major programs

The offseason saw historic programs Michigan, BU, Boston College and Michigan State in search of new skippers. 

Adam Nightingale has to almost start from the ground up at MSU after the Spartans dismissed Adam Cole, who failed to bring them out of the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament or above .500 in five seasons. The Spartans have posted a losing record seven years in a row, as well as 11 of the last 14. Since the national championship in 2007, MSU has made the tournament just twice. Nightingale will be tasked with making Michigan State a destination for top recruits once again.

At BU, former Terrier standout Jay Pandolfo will succeed Albie O'Connell after he and the team parted ways in April. The Terriers had quite the second half resurgence last year, highlighted by a Beanpot title, but ultimately collapsed at the end of the regular season, falling to UConn in the conference quarterfinals and missing the national tournament. Despite boasting plenty of talent, BU made the tournament just once in four years under O'Connell and failed to make much noise in Hockey East. Not good enough for a program with such high expectations. Pandolfo will look to get the most out of all that skill on the preseason No. 12 Terriers. 

Meanwhile, BC found itself having to fill some absolutely massive shoes when the legendary Jerry York announced his retirement. Enter Greg Brown. Like BU, the Eagles have had some inconsistency the last few seasons. Picked to finish fifth in Hockey East this season, Brown doesn't have the same type of loaded roster that York frequently had, but the Eagles do have some promising recruits. Definitely keep an eye on how Brown can coach up BC and keep building up the recruiting pipeline. 

PRESEASON RANKINGS: Click or tap here for the USCHO Division I men's preseason poll

Michigan is an entirely different beast altogether. Mel Pearson is out, and assistant Brandon Naurato is in as interim for this season. Naurato only has one year of assistant coaching experience under his belt, but he does have a strong resume as a player development coach. It will be intriguing to see how he switches from that dynamic into the head coaching role during his audition this season. At the very least he should bring balance to the program after all the noise surrounding Pearson's firing and contract situation during the offseason. 

We'll get to the Wolverines more in a second.

How will Michigan rebound?

It's hard not to wonder how Michigan will bounce back this season. 

First, last year's loaded Wolverines squad was neutralized by Denver in the national semifinals before they lost key talents in Owen Power, Matty Beniers, Kent Johnson, Brendan Brisson and Thomas Bordeleau to the pros.

There was the saga surrounding Pearson's contract situation at the end of last season and during the summer before Michigan announced Pearson would not return. According to the Wolverines in a release, the program had a third-party review "into the climate and culture of our program."

Despite all the turnover, the Wolverines are still an exciting squad. They come into the season ranked sixth in the USCHO preseason poll, and are picked to finish third in the Big Ten behind No. 2 Minnesota and No. 9 Notre Dame. There is also still a strong core in place with starting goalie Erik Portillo returning in addition to forward Mackie Samoskevich and defenseman Luke Hughes, who should firmly be in the conversation for the Hobey Baker Award again. Not to mention an insane incoming freshman group, headlined by Adam Fantilli, who projects to be a top-five pick in the 2023 NHL Draft, as well as 2022 first rounders Frank Nazar and Rutger McGroarty, among others. 

HISTORY: Every Division I men's hockey champion since 1948

To say that Michigan has had a hectic offseason would be an understatement. However, there is still plenty of optimism with this year's squad.

Will Devon Levi replicate last season's form?

Levi was truly remarkable last season for Northeastern. 

He posted the second-highest save percentage in Division I history (.952) and had the most shutouts (10) in a single season for the Huskies on top of his 22-9-1 record and 1.54 goals against average (GAA). The Buffalo Sabres prospect was a top-10 finalist for the Hobey Baker and racked up the awards, earning National Rookie of the Year, Hockey East Goalie and Rookie of the Year as well as the Mike Richter Award, annually given to the nation's top netminder. 

The Canadian Olympian was arguably the biggest reason for Northeastern finishing atop Hockey East in the regular season and qualifying for the national tournament, and he'll lead a core that should keep the No. 8 Huskies near the top of the rankings again. 

Levi had a tremendous debut season by most measures, and many wondered whether his unconscious pace at the start of last year was sustainable. Turns out it was. Will that carryover into 2022-23?

The race for the Hobey Baker

There are just three returners from last year's top 10 finalists: Levi, Hughes and goaltender Yaniv Perets (Quinnipiac). 

It felt off to see Levi have a historic season and win the Richter, but not the Hobey, losing out to Minnesota State goaltender Dryden McKay. Levi wasn't even a top-3 finalist, and that should surely motivate him this season.

Not to be outdone in the crease is Perets, who led the nation in GAA (1.17, a single-season record) and shutouts (11) last season to go along with a .939 save percentage, leading the Bobcats to an ECAC regular season title and NCAA tournament berth. He was the backbone of a QU group that struggled for offense at times, winning conference Player and Goalie of the Year honors. The junior will once again be the pillar of the No. 7 Bobcats.

FROZEN FOUR: History and team records

Meanwhile, Hughes joins brothers Jack and Quinn as one of the most highly touted talents in the NHL pipeline. An early frontrunner for the award, he led all defensemen in points last season with 39 points in 44 games, breaking the record for goals by a freshman blue-liner (17). He should take another step in his growth this season as he's poised to be the center of attention at Michigan. Hughes' teammate, Fantilli, may make a run at the Hobey as well.

Minnesota could have a couple forwards in the running with sophomore Matthew Knies and perhaps even freshman Logan Cooley, the third overall pick in this year's draft, who was selected to the preseason All-Big Ten second team having yet to play a collegiate hockey game. Knies was a point per game player as a freshman with 33 points (15g, 18a) in 33 games and should take a big step in his development this season.

Some of last year's top scorers could find themselves with strong cases to make as well. Northeastern's Aidan McDonough was second in the nation in goals last year (25), and Minnesota State's Brendan Furry had the sixth-most points (44). 

Aside from Hughes, two defensemen that could jump into the conversation are Behrens and UMass' Scott Morrow, who had 33 points as a freshman last season. 

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