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Patrick Donnelly | NCAA.com | October 14, 2022

Way-too-early men's Frozen Four picks for 2023

The goal that sent Denver to the 2022 Frozen Four final

It's hard to remember a year in men's college hockey with so many teams seemingly having a real shot of making some serious noise at the national level.

Last season's national tournament brought the excitement once again, between a number of high-scoring affairs, overtime finishes, or clutch performances from individuals like Denver's Mike Benning or Minnesota's Matthew Knies. In the end, the Pioneers stifled two of the nation's most potent attacks in Michigan and Minnesota State en route to another championship. 

Even though we may still be a long way from the national tournament, here are the teams right now that could have the best shot at reaching the Frozen Four in Tampa:

Denver

Although the reigning champions lost some key players, perhaps none bigger than Hobey Baker finalist Bobby Brink, the Pioneers are still loaded and looked primed to make a big push to repeat.

With the returns of impact players like Carter Mazur, Sean Behrens and Benning as well as starting goaltender Magnus Chrona, Denver retained much of the core that head coach David Carle guided to the top last season. Mazur, a sophomore, looks to build on a strong start to his career and lead a new-look forward group, which also added former Harvard captain Casey Dornbach. Meanwhile, the defense remains staunch with Behrens and Benning leading the way. 

Denver started the year with two straight wins, making light work of No. 14 Notre Dame in a 5-2 win before taking down Maine, 3-1. 2021 champion No. 13 UMass will host the No. 1 Pioneers Oct. 14-15 to kick off a tough stretch of weeks for DU. 

Denver is picked as the favorites to win the NCHC, but that doesn't mean they won't have to fight their way out of one of the toughest conferences, facing the likes of North Dakota, Minnesota Duluth, St. Cloud State and Western Michigan on a regular basis. The Pioneers will be battle-tested, which should only more prepare them for a deep run. 

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

North Dakota

Speaking of the Fighting Hawks, they look to be the biggest challenger to Denver in the NCHC. 

Like their conference rival, they won't be without their far share of adjustments after losing star blue-liner Jake Sanderson to the pros and graduating starting netminder Zach Driscoll. However, much of the forward group remains intact with Jake Schmaltz looking to take a step after a solid freshman year and Riese Gaber figuring to lead the way as a legitimate Hobey Baker candidate. The addition of transfer fifth-year Drew DeRidder, formerly the starter at Michigan State, should also soften the loss of Driscoll.

The No. 3 Fighting Hawks (2-0-0) cruised to a sweep of Holy Cross to open their season, outscoring the Crusaders 10-1. They'll have the opportunity to back up their high ranking when they host No. 8 Quinnipiac Oct. 14-15 before traveling to No. 2 Minnesota. 

It's been a disappointing few years since their last national championship (and Frozen Four appearance) in 2016, at least by North Dakota's high standards. Last season the Fighting Hawks failed to advance beyond the first round of the national tournament, bowing out to Notre Dame. Conveniently, this year's Frozen Four is in the very place that they took home their eighth title.

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

Minnesota

In spite of a tumultuous first half of the season last year, Minnesota rolled to the Frozen Four before falling to national runner-up Minnesota State in the national semifinals.

Like many teams at the top of the rankings, not only do the Gophers see many of their top performers return this season, but they also bring in one of the best first-year groups this season between 2022 third overall pick Logan Cooley and fellow first rounder Jimmy Snuggerud.

On top of the exciting newcomers, Bob Motzko's squad is well-equipped to handle the losses of Hobey Baker finalist Ben Meyers as well as impact players like Sammy Walker. Knies, a sophomore, will surely be in the Hobey conversation as he looks to build on a point per game freshman season, while starting goaltender Justen Close looks to continue one of the best stories in college hockey. On defense, captain Brock Faber is primed to be one of the best defensemen in the nation, and Jackson LaCombe should be an offensive catalyst on the backend again.

Needless to say, the Golden Gophers are stacked. After jumping out to a 4-1-0 start, they jump into the fire with series against North Dakota, No. 11 Ohio State, Notre Dame, Michigan and No. 20 Penn State in the coming weeks. 

HOBEY BAKER: Click or tap here for a way-too-early Hobey Baker Award watchlist

Boston University 

This pick is definitely a little out there, at least with it being so early in the season, but the Terriers have one of the deeper and more talented teams in Hockey East (at least on paper) to go along with a wealth of experience with 10 seniors and seven juniors. 

Starting goaltender Drew Commesso is back and should have another quality season in net, while eight of the team's top-10 scorers last year return to the roster, including power-play quarterback Dom Fensore, top centers Jay O'Brien and Wilmer Skoog, as well as scoring winger Matt Brown. The Terriers' solid crop of freshmen, a group headlined by shifty defenseman Lane Hutson, had a strong showing in their season-opener.

BU hasn't made a Frozen Four since 2015, but made the tournament in four straight seasons from 2015-2018. Since, they've made the tournament just once (2021). The knock on the Terriers in recent years has been that they haven't gotten the most out of the amount of talent on the roster. New head coach Jay Pandolfo will look to change that narrative. 

No. 9 BU opened their season with a big 8-2 win over Bentley, but they face a litmus test Oct. 14 and 16 when they play at No. 6 Michigan ahead of a challenging schedule over the next month. The coming weeks should help us figure out this team's ceiling. 

WHAT TO KNOW: Click or tap here for 5 men's hockey storylines to watch this season

Also in the mix

Michigan, Northeastern, Quinnipiac, Minnesota Duluth, Minnesota State

Having Michigan outside the above predictions may go against my initial pick in our preseason storylines video, but the Wolverines certainly have as good a shot as any of reaching the Frozen Four. Whether it's Hobey front-runner Luke Hughes, starting netminder Erik Portillo, or forwards like Mackie Samoskevich or soon-to-be NHL lottery pick Adam Fantilli, there's still lots of talent in Ann Arbor, even with last season's departures. They're off to a 2-0-0 start after beating up on Lindenwood, and have a big non-conference series with BU this weekend. 

Northeastern and Quinnipiac are both looking for their goaltenders to be in among the best in college hockey this season. Devon Levi had a historic season for the Huskies last season as he and top returning forward Aidan McDonough were two of the biggest reasons they made the tournament. No. 7 NU is off to a 3-0-0 start with a win over LIU and a sweep of Vermont. So far, Levi hasn't missed a beat with a shutout to go along with a .945 save percentage and a 1.33 goals against average. Meanwhile, McDonough is leading the way offensively, as expected with five points in three games. The supporting cast is contributing nicely so far as well.

Meanwhile, the No. 8 Bobcats are 1-0-1 after shutting out Boston College and tying Long Island. Like Levi, star goaltender Yaniv Perets has had a nice start to his season with a .944 save percentage and two goals allowed on 36 shots through two starts after a historic year of his own in 2021-22. Backed by a strong defense led by Zach Metsa and well-equipped to handle the losses in the forward group, Quinnipiac should once again be solid and in the conversation to make a run late in the season. 

Minnesota Duluth and Minnesota State are a couple interesting cases. Duluth wasn't the flashiest team on paper last season, scoring 2.6 goals per game while allowing 2.2 and struggling to separate themselves in the NCHC. The No. 4 Bulldogs (2-0-0 after sweeping Arizona State) aren't too far removed from back-to-back titles in 2018 and 2019, and manage to hang around the top without fail every season. Another year of Quinn Olson and Blake Blondi, in addition to freshman Isaac Howard should help the offensive output. Still, there's serious question marks in goal in addition to a relatively young group of skaters, but coach Scott Sandelin should be able to keep them in the running. 

The Mavericks are in a similar spot, especially when it comes to goaltending. They graduated program great and Hobey Baker winner Dryden McKay, leaving the inexperienced Keenan Rancier as the de facto starter. Not to mention the losses of scoring threats like Nathan Smith and Julian Napravnik, it feels like a completely different team in Mankato this season. Nevertheless, they retain Brendan Furry, the leading scorer among Division I returners, as well as contributors Ondrej Pavel and Jake Livingstone. The Mavericks started the season with a split against second-ranked Minnesota, and they'll face another good measuring stick when they square off with Duluth on Oct. 14-15.

FOLLOW LIVE: Everything you need to know for No. 4 Minnesota Duluth vs. No. 5 Minnesota State

National champion prediction 

Minnesota

Just like the rest of the teams mentioned here, No. 2 Minnesota (3-1-0) is absolutely loaded. The Golden Gophers are deep top to bottom, with Knies coming in as one of the preseason favorites for the top hardware at the end of the season, not to mention Faber or even Cooley, should he have a strong first year. 

They ripped off three straight wins to open the season, sweeping Lindenwood before splitting with No. 5 Minnesota State. Through their first four games, they have a 16-8 scoring advantage, and the freshmen have been as advertised and more. Cooley leads the team in scoring with five points (2g, 3a) in five games, while Snuggerud shares the early goal-scoring lead across the nation with four. 

If the freshmen can continue to jump in seamlessly and Close can have another strong year as the starter, No. 2 Minnesota could be really, really dangerous, and may have even started the year as the top-ranked team if Denver didn't have the benefit of defending a title, even though the Pioneers are worthy of the top spot themselves.

With a strong schedule over the next several weeks, we'll get an early idea of what the Gophers are made of. 

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