By most measures, Denver had a successful season last year, finishing fourth in the conference, taking third place in the NCHC tournament and avenging their loss to Boston College in the first round of the NCAA tournament before falling to eventual national champion Providence 4-1 in the regional final.
Seven players from that team graduated last spring, and while most would focus on big names such as All-American defenseman Joey LaLeggia, Denver coach Jim Montgomery said it’s the minutes played that really factor into the approach for this year.
“They all played every night, and they all played either both sides of special teams or just one,” said Montgomery. “That’s a lot of valuable minutes, so that’s our biggest challenge. On the back end, we think Adam Plant is going to assume a lot of minutes. He was phenomenal for us the last couple months of the season, and his confidence is sky high, so he’s someone that goes with ‘Butchie’ [Will Butcher] and [Nolan] Zajac.
“I think we have a lot of really talented defensemen back there that had success in college hockey, and just need to consistently do so.”
One area Denver is still loaded at is forward, with returning All-American junior Trevor Moore, senior Quentin Shore and conference rookie of the year Danton Heinen.
Montgomery also will be leaning on several collegiate prospects, including one he coached at Dubuque in the USHL, Dylan Gambrell.
“Up front, if I think about names that have come up, there are some freshmen that have come to our program that we expect help fill holes on our top two lines,” Montgomery said. “I think Troy Terry, Dylan Gambrell and Jarid Lukosevicius come to mind right away, and then we have other players that haven’t had the opportunity to play a lot lately, or who are freshmen that are coming in, to replace the MASH line (departed seniors Matt Tabrum and Larkin Jacobson with current senior and captain Grant Arnold) and provide the energy and enthusiasm in games.”
In net, Denver has experience with Evan Cowley and Tanner Jaillet. The two split time last season, and Montgomery plans to continue platooning them.
“Both of them had way more success when they did platoon than if we tried to ride one,” he said. “They fed off each other in a positive fashion, and it gave us more consistent goaltending throughout the year than if we went with just one, so we’ll start the year that way and see what evolves.”
While players don’t look ahead too often, there is one game all the DU players have circled: a contest against archrival Colorado College on Feb. 20 that will be played outdoors at Coors Field in downtown Denver.
“We’re all pretty excited,” said Heinen. “I’ve never played an outdoor game. I’m really excited. We’ll have a lot of friends and family come down. It’s against CC, too, so it should be an awesome atmosphere.”
24-14-2, 13-10-1-1 (fourth) in the NCHC. Lost to Providence in the NCAA East Regional final.
Names to know
The Pioneers’ two top scorers from last season, Danton Heinen and Trevor Moore, are both back. Also adding scoring are senior forward Quentin Shore and senior defenseman Nolan Zajac. Junior defenseman Will Butcher will need to step into the top spot on the power play unit to replace Joey LaLeggia. Rookies Troy Terry, Dylan Gambrell and Jarid Lukosevicius are expected to contribute early.
1. Can the Pioneers overcome the loss of seven seniors, including regular point producers like Joey LaLeggia, Daniel Doremus and Zac Larraza?
2. Will Heinen have the dreaded sophomore slump, or score at the same clip he did last year?
3. Can either Evan Cowley or Tanner Jaillet improve their goaltending, as both gave up over two goals per game?
The Pioneers have enough returning strength that they should challenge Minnesota-Duluth for the top spot in the NCHC, and most likely will advance to the NCAA tournament.