Hey we’re almost done! Tomorrow will be the end of our preseason ranking series, but today’s team is the #2 Denver Pioneers
Denver finished 2nd in both the WCHA regular season and tournament last year. DU’s biggest loss however came later in the summer when it was revealed that goalie Sam Brittain played the team’s two NCAA tournament games with an injured knee. He’ll miss at least a big chunk of the upcoming year, and could miss the entire year. More on this in the last section of the post, but how the Pioneers replace Brittain’s production will determine whether they have a shot at the national championship, or are fighting for an NCAA tournament bid.Forwards: As much as I raved about Jaden Schwartz when previewing Colorado College, I don’t think he was the best Freshman in the country, or even his own conference (or, of course, state). That would be Jason Zucker, who was 3rd in WCHA conference games with 36 points and 2nd with 20 goals in WCHA play. His .71 goals per game was 3rd only to Matt Frattin and Jason Gregoire. He’s played on the last two WJC teams and will likely play on his third this winter. Though he’s small in stature, the Wild draftee could be spending his last year in college hockey. First Round Bust ranked him
4th (oops, 5th, my bad) in the Wild’s system, and the growth in his offensive game has been tremendous.
As much as I love Zucker, he might not even be the best player on his own team. Drew Shore had 23 goals and led the team with 46 points. The Panthers draftee also played on the WJC team and was possibly team USA’s best forward there. His brother Nick had a very solid Freshman year, scoring 7 goals.
In all, the Pioneers had the 3rd best offense in the league, despite having a power play that ranked only 8th at 17%
Defensemen: Denver lost Matt Donovan early. He tied for 4th in WCHA play in scoring among defensemen with 21 points. He was very solid (though I wouldn’t say spectacular) defensively and while he’s the most talented player Denver lost, I think they’ll be able to replace him fine. The Pioneers also lost Seniors Chris Nutini and John Ryder their blueline.
Senior John Lee is now probably the best defenseman on Denver’s blueline. He doesn’t have a ton of offensive ability but is very responsible defensively and plays a pretty physical game.
I don’t know a ton about Denver’s defenseman recruits, but one who figures to be very good is Scott Mayfield, who went 34th overall in the most recent NHL draft.
Goalies: Sam Brittain was perhaps the best goalie in the WCHA last year. He’s also likely out for the year. Taking his place will likely be Adam Murray. Murray struggled last year (.879 save%) and the year before (.874) but might be Denver’s best option. The other goalie who will compete for a spot is Juho Olkinuora, who had a .900 save percentage for Sioux Falls (USHL) last year.
Goalie play is maybe a bigger issue for the Pioneers than any other team, and with the uncertainty a #2 ranking is admittedly aggressive. Still, with the fluctuation in performance and uncertainty surrounding the position as a whole (eg Ryan Rondeau can go from a .880 goalie to a .928 goalie in a year) I think the Pioneers will at the very least be able to survive the loss of Brittain and be in the title hunt.