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If you don’t like reading entire previews or prefer the Twitter version of things, here’s the 2022-23 DU Hockey season preview:

The Denver Pioneers are still really, really good at hockey.

Now, for the rest of you…about this time a year ago, questions were swirling around the Pioneers’ program. Just a few months removed from missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time in nearly two decades, fourth-year head coach David Carle had his work cut out for him, not only on the ice but off of it in reinstilling confidence in a fanbase that was, to put it lightly, beginning to worry.

Now, just a year later, Carle, entering his fifth year, is a national champion and will forever be remembered as the coach who led the Pioneers to the top of the college hockey world, tying the program with Michigan for the most NCAA titles.

In other words, what a difference a year makes!

This year, sky-high expectations replace last year’s questions. Where it was, “can the Pioneers make the NCAA Tournament again?” it’s now “the Pioneers will go back-to-back for the fourth time in program history and win an NCAA record 10th national title.” In some ways, this is the preseason climate that the Pioneers are more accustomed to as one of the premiere, if not the premiere men’s hockey program in the country.

Will the Pioneers repeat as NCAA Champions and officially take the mantle from Michigan as the greatest men’s hockey program in history, though? If you know, open your DraftKings or FanDuel app and put your mortgage on it now while the odds are still good (The Pios are currently at +1000, tied with North Dakota and Minnesota Duluth, on DK to repeat). But otherwise, there’s no way to know. But there is one thing that is assured: the Pios certainly have the roster – even with all the departures and professional signings that befit a team of 2021-22’s caliber – and coaching staff to get it done in Tampa next April.

Forwards

Departed: Ryan Barrow (Graduation), Cameron Wright (Graduation), Brett Stapley (Graduation), Cole Guttman (Graduated), Bobby Brink (Signed – PHI), Carter Savoie (Signed – EDM), Jack Works (Transfer – Mich. Tech)
Incoming: Rieger Lorenz (2022 2nd Round Pick, MIN), Aidan Thompson (2022 3rd Round Pick, CHI), Jared Wright (2022 6th Round Pick, LAK), Tristan Lemyre, Tyler Haskins, Casey Dornbach (Graduate Transfer, Harvard), Tristan Broz (Transfer, Minnesota; 2021 2nd Round Pick, PIT)

Outlook: There are some big, big names in the ‘departed’ category including last year’s four top Pio scorers. Denver lost their Frozen Four semifinal game-winning goal scorer (Savoie), National Championship game-tying goal scorer (Barrow), Hobey Baker Award finalist and NCAA points leader (Brink), and team captain (Guttman) along with consistently huge third-line goal-scorer in Stapley, and Wright, who scored the highlight-reel game-winning goal against UMass-Lowell in the Loveland Regional Semifinal. Replacing that kind of production is, to put it lightly, a challenge. But even with these departures, DU’s forward depth figures to once again be a huge team strength.

Among the five incoming freshmen, Lorenz, Thompson, and Wright highlight the group as the three NHL draftees. Lorenz and Wright impressed at the Wild’s and Kings’ Summer Development Camps while Thompson performed well with the Blackhawks at their camp and even earned an invite to Team USA’s World Juniors camp and likely would have made the final roster if not for an injury. Then, add in the transfers of last year’s Harvard captain in Dornbach and dripping-with-potential Broz from the Gophers, and all of the Pios’  forward newcomers are going to play huge roles from the top line all the way down to the fourth line.

Of course, the biggest source of turnover from a year ago is on the Pios’ vaunted top line which featured Brink, Guttman, and Savoie for most of the 2021-22 season. This year, at least to open the season, expect to see the likes of sophomores Carter Mazur (Pre-season All-NCHC), Massimo Rizzo, and Jack Devine atop the line chart. Mazur and Rizzo combined for 26 goals and 74 points alone a year ago while Devine played a key role on the Pioneers’ difference-making third line tallying three goals and 16 assists playing alongside Stapley and Barrow. Early on, the top line will certainly see various names and faces as DU looks to iron out its most effective lineup, but it’s these three that, at least on paper, jump out as the likely trio to lead the Pios up front.

After the top line, Carle has so many options to fill out the second, third, and fourth lines. In a lot of ways, these lines are something of a blank canvas for him, and he will be able to mix and match newcomers with returners to see what works. That’s a luxury not all head coaches across the country have. There is no shortage of talent among this group and finding the right spot on the line chart for all of it is going to be a challenge…but that’s a challenge Carle would take 10 times out of 10.

Keep an eye on: Jack Devine. Expectations for him last year were sky-high as he was seen as a potential draftee in the first few rounds of the NHL Draft but because of the forward depth that the Pios boasted and rode to their ninth title, Devine was slotted into a third-line winger role and thrived with Stapley and Barrow. DU’s third line was the Pios’ difference-making line a year ago and Devine’s elite skating ability and hockey IQ were huge reasons why. While his goal total and role as a third-line winger likely (and unfairly) pushed him down the draft board to the seventh round where he was taken by the Florida Panthers, who also drafted defenseman Mike Benning in 2020, his role as a top-six, if not top-three forward this year is going to give him the chance to break out as a legitimate scoring threat that opposing teams will have to account for.

Defensemen

Departed: Antti Tuomisto (Signed – TPS, Finnish Liiga), Reid Irwin (transfer – Colgate)
Incoming: Lucas Olvestad, Kent Anderson (2023 NHL Draft-Eligible)

Outlook: At times a year ago, it was remarkable how similar the Pioneers were to the Stanley Cup Champion Colorado Avalanche. Beyond the striking similarities in style of play, there was, of course, the high-powered offense with an abundance of star-power atop the line chart combined with incredible depth and secondary scoring. Those parallels were obvious. But what made the comparison really stick was the teams’ blue lines. The Avs, led by Norris Trophy-winner Cale Makar and Devon Toews, had without a doubt the best defensive core in the NHL. The Pios, for their part, had one of the strongest blue lines in the country with a perfect mix of skill (think Sean Behrens & Mike Benning), grit (Kyle Mayhew & Justin Lee), and stout, responsible defense (Shai Buium & Antti Tuomisto).

The Pioneers have long been known for their ability to develop strong defensemen. Last year’s group led them to a national title, as did Will Butcher’s in 2017. This year’s group of blue liners figures to build on the foundation built a year ago and be even more elite. Behrens, appropriately the Avs’ second-round pick in 2021, and Benning lead the group as the two NCHC preseason All-Conference Team defensemen. They combined for 18 goals and 67 points last year and Benning scored the game-winner against Minnesota State in the National Championship in Boston on a highlight-reel one-timer from Buium.

Beyond Behrens and Benning, though, Buium rounds out the Three B’s of the blue line. Buium, Detroit’s second-round pick in 2021, and just-announced team captain Justin Lee were two of the Pioneers’ most consistent, responsible defenders last year and figure to be even better this year. In fact, in terms of the flawed +/- statistic, Lee was second among DU defensemen last year with a +23 while Buium was just behind him at +20.

Where there was much turnover among the forward group, DU’s blue line is going to be a source of stability and continuity this year as they lose only Tuomisto from last year’s core of starters. Detroit’s 2020 2nd round pick decided to forgo his final two years of eligibility and go back to Finland to play before joining the Red Wings. They will add freshmen Lucas Olvestad (Dubuque Fighting Saints, USHL) and Kent Anderson (Green Bay Gamblers, USHL). Anderson was eligible for the 2022 NHL Draft and was ranked 189 among North American skaters in the final NHL Central Scouting rankings but he will be eligible for the 2023 draft once again next summer.

Keep an eye on: Sean Behrens. Did we put him here last year? No? Should we have? Absolutely. Behrens is worth the price of admission night in and night out. Even though he’s a bit undersized which has at times, affected his defensive play, it never changed the way he played the game. He was a great quarterback of the power play last year and his hockey IQ, especially in the offensive zone, is off the charts. Every time the puck is near him, it becomes plainly obvious why the Avs, who at the time already boasted Cale Makar and defenseman prospects Justin Barron and Bowen Byram, decided to use their second-round pick on him. For much of last year, Behrens led the team in assists, bested only by Brink, who exploded for 43 and tied by Guttman. He led DU defensemen with 29 points, 26 of which were assists (that mark led all NCHC defensemen). There are parts of his game that certainly need refining, especially in DU’s zone in front of Magnus Chrona, but that is exactly why he’s worth watching this season. After another year of development under Carle’s tutelage and in the meat grinder of the NCHC, Behrens is going to continue to establish himself as an elite defenseman and cement himself firmly in the Avs’ future.

Goalies

Departed: None
Incoming: None

Outlook: This section of the preview is the shortest and most straight to the point for good reason: Magnus Chrona is elite. The senior (just fourth-year, not 9th-year as many on Twitter would like to believe) was rightfully named to the preseason all-NCHC team after a second half last year that saw him turn a corner in the crease. After a stellar freshman campaign after which he was named to the NCHC All-Rookie team, he ran into some inconsistencies during his sophomore year and part of the first half of last year. But when the calendar turned to January 2022, Chrona locked in and led the Pioneers to the promised land in Boston in April, at times putting the team on his back along the way. In DU’s seven postseason games, he allowed just 10 goals – that’s a 1.43 GAA – en route to a 6-1 record and, of course, a national championship. That’s the player that Denver needed him to be and he delivered in a big way. While DU’s defense figures to be one of their strengths once again, it won’t hurt to have Chrona at his 2021-22 best once again as he looks to etch his name in the DU record books as just the third goalie to win multiple national championships (George Kirkwood 1960 & 1961, Gerry Powers 1968 & 1969).

Keep an eye on: Matt Davis, just to keep things fresh. Chrona is entering his senior year and, barring a decision that shocks everyone by his using his extra Covid year in 2023-24, he will sign with the Sharks at the end of the season and Davis will enter the fold as the de facto starter. ‘Matty’ Davis showed tremendous potential in his six games as a freshman last year, going 3-1-0 with a 1.96 GAA and .923 SV%. While that is certainly a small sample size, he’s given fans plenty of reason for confidence if something should happen to Chrona or if the senior just needs a day off. Former DU head coach and current Boston Bruins bench boss Jim Montgomery always used to say that the best way to build a team is from goalie out. For the 2022-23 Pioneers, that certainly is the case as the DU crease is going to be a source of great strength once again.

Overall Outlook

On paper, it’s difficult to find a weakness with the 2022-23 Denver Pioneers and that’s why they’ve been picked as the preseason #1 in the USCHO, USA Hockey, and NCHC Preseason polls and claimed four of the six spots on the preseason All-NCHC Team. If there’s one thing to nitpick, it’s the (inevitable) turnover among the forward group that might slow down an otherwise powerful offensive team in the first half of the season as they come together and gel. Aside from that, this team appears to be every bit as good, if not better than last year’s national title-winning squad.

But they play the games for a reason and the Pioneers will have a massive target painted on their backs. Not only are they the defending champions but they take the ice next month looking to stake their claim as the first program to ever win 10 national titles in the sport. There isn’t a single team on DU’s schedule that wouldn’t love to spoil that. The preseason accolades are nice and it’s great to see the Pioneers atop the college hockey world to start the season, but in a lot of ways, the headlines and rankings are awards for last year’s team, not this one.

Unlike a year ago, the expectations for this team are sky-high. Anything less than a 10th national title will be seen as a failure. But hey, that’s just how the Pioneers want it to be.

Offseason Odds and Ends

Recruiting: It was a bit of a turbulent offseason in terms of recruiting for the Pioneers. Many had expected to see Samu Salminen and Miko Matikka in Crimson and Gold this fall based on prior reports and recruiting news. However, Salminen ran into some roadblocks in the admissions process that were outside of the program’s control and they released him from his NLI. Salminen will play for UConn instead of Denver. It was not a question of whether Salminen wanted to play for Denver, it was just not meant to be. European recruits have been great for the Pioneers over the years but there are always additional complications associated with international recruiting. Matikka, however, remains a DU commit and will join the program next year.

Captaincy: As alluded to in the preview above, Justin Lee was named the 93rd captain in DU history. Fifth-year senior Kyle Mayhew, junior McKade Webster, and sophomore Carter Mazur will serve as the Pioneers’ alternate captains.

Pioneers Radio News: There was some news just yesterday about the Pios’ radio relationship with 104.3 The Fan:

This development has been long overdue. The ability to stream the radio call online is going to be very important for fans since the radio signal, especially for 1600AM is always so inconsistent around the city. It will also help international fans of the program more easily access the games if they can’t get NCHC.tv or if games aren’t televised.

New Logo/Uniforms: Ignoring this site’s and fan opinions of the new logo for a moment, based on early videos, it looks like the old interlocking DU will be featured on uniforms for this season as they were likely ordered before the announcement of the new logo:

However, the uniforms did get a revamp as the arm stripes were inverted on the home whites. Instead of one crimson stripe with two gold stripes above and below, it’s now one gold stripe with two crimson stripes above and below. Otherwise, the sweaters’ basic design with the Denver Arch and the interlocking DU on the shoulders remains the same.


Top photo of the Pioneers celebrating Mike Benning’s game-winning goal in NCAA Championship Game credit: USA TODAY Sports



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