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It’s officially the most wonderful time of the year.
It just wouldn’t be fall without college hockey.
After a long hiatus with uncertainty as to when games would begin, college hockey is finally returning this weekend. For the first time since the NCAA created a hockey championship in 1947, there is not an incumbent champion. The start of a new season places every team on even ground but, because COVID-19 cancelled last season before the NCAA tournament could determine a champion, that sensation of it being anyone’s season feels more true than ever before.
Moreover, if you’re a Predators fan who wants to learn more about prospects in Nashville’s system, there are plenty of prospects playing college hockey this season. From David Farrance at Boston University to Chase McLane of Penn State, there are a ton of Predators in college hockey—nine prospects to be exact. If you are new to college hockey, this is a great time to dive into one of the best sporting leagues in the country.
The season kicks off on Friday November 13th, with the Big Ten beginning play. Atlantic Hockey, Hockey East, and the WCHA all start the next weekend on the 20th,
Eric joined me for a few predictions at the end of this article, including conference winners and our picks for the national championship. But first, let’s look at each of the conferences and what could be in store this college hockey season.
Recently, the Atlantic Hockey Conference’s reputation as a competitive conference has taken some hits. They begin play without a single team ranked in the USCHO’s top 20 poll. That isn’t to say they haven’t had recent success—many college hockey fans remember AIC upsetting #1 overall St. Cloud State in the opening round of the 2018-19 NCAA tournament. The conference simply tends to only produce one team at a time that can compete with other ranked teams.
Nonetheless, this conference is always a challenge to predict because there’s so much chaos every season. There’s a lot of parity and it always feels like every team has a chance. AIC has the best odds of winning the conference but teams like Sacred Heart, RIT and Bentley could all compete for the conference title.
The Big Ten, despite not producing a national champion since its founding in 2013, is a recruiting powerhouse. Wisconsin snatched up Cole Caufield and Dylan Holloway in previous years, but now all the top prospects are headed to either Michigan or Notre Dame. Michigan’s freshman class is absolutely loaded with talent, prepared to find revenge on Ohio State for dominating them the past four seasons. Meanwhile, if a US National Development team player isn’t going to Michigan, there’s a good chance that the Fighting Irish claimed their rights. Yet, Penn State may have the most talented roster in the conference and enters the season as the highest ranked Big Ten team.
Despite Ohio State being a power in the conference the past few years, it feels like their time near the top of the conference is over. They lost a huge piece of their team in Tanner Laczynski, not to mention other departing seniors in Carson Meyer and Ronnie Hein. Tommy Napier is still a phenomenal goaltender, but can they replace all of the goal-scoring talent they lost? It’s a question that should worry the Buckeye faithful.
An important change to the Big Ten this season is the temporary addition of Arizona State. The Arizona State Sun Devils are technically an independent team but, for just this season, they will square off against the Big Ten. The Sun Devils enter the season ranked #15 overall, meaning there are six ranked teams in the Big Ten to start the season. However, with the highest ranked team being Penn State at only #9 overall, there do not appear to be any elite teams. There are many great teams that should produce a competitive season, but it remains to be seen if there is a NCAA title contender in the Big Ten.
Out of every team in the country, Cornell likely lost the most sleep over the early end to last season. Ranked #1 in the country and playing at a level that made them look the part, last year was supposed to finally win their first championship since 1970. However, with COVID-19 cancelling the remainder of the college hockey season, Cornell never got their chance.
The preseason rankings have Cornell as the #6 team in the country and they are still led by goaltender Matthew Galajda, but they may face more challenges in the ECAC this season. Clarkson is ranked just two spots behind Cornell as #8 overall and Quinnipiac, a program know for surpassing expectations, is #13 in the country. Cornell certainly is the favorite, and the heartbreak of last season ending without getting their shot could be an incredible motivator. However, they look mortal, and it would not be surprising to see another talented team win the ECAC.
Eric: “I’m not sure how much of a surprise this will be given their success last season, but Clarkson has a real shot of dethroning Cornell in the ECAC. They’re returning several top scorers and adding some young talent, including Alexander Campbell. A two-division set up in the ECAC would mean these two will see a lot of each other in 2020-21.”
It looks like Nashville Predators prospects will constantly play each other in Hockey East. A conference loaded with Nashville draft picks, there’s David Farrance at Boston University, Luke Reid at New Hampshire, Marc Del Gaizo at Massachussets, Jachym Kondelik at Connetticut, and Gunnarwolfe Fontaine at Northeastern. If your sole reason for watching college hockey is to observe the Predators’ prospects, then you need to watch Hockey East.
Unfortunately, there are no Predators on the early favorite to win Hockey East, the Boston College Eagles. Ranked #2 in the country, Boston College is led by goaltender and Florida Panther draft pick Spencer Knight. Knight not only manned the pipes for Team USA in World Juniors last season, but posted a 1.97 GAA and .931 save percentage for the Eagles in 33 games as a freshman. However, there are concerns about his ability to perform in big games. Knight did not look himself in the Beanpot (an annual tournament featuring all four Boston-area teams) when Boston University defeated Boston College 5-4 in double overtime. He was also seriously outperformed by his peers in World Juniors last year, although Team USA as a whole was a disappointment.
This raises the question: can Boston College win the conference tournament, or overcome the pressure in the NCAA tournament to reach the championship? The safer bet to win Hockey East may be the Massachusetts Minutemen. Head Coach Greg Carvell has cultivated a winning culture and well-oiled machine the past few seasons. The Minutemen may no longer have flashy names like Cale Makar on their roster but, with five of their top seven scorers returning, they pose a real threat. Moreover, unlike Boston College, Massachusetts has experience both playing in and winning big games. Don’t count the Minutemen out this season.
Eric: “While ranked #11 overall, I worry about UMass-Lowell. They’re a solid team from top to bottom and deserving of their pre-season ranking but, in an ultra-competitive Hockey East, I think they could fall flat. Teams like Boston University, Providence, and Connecticut will be hungry to prove they’re more legit than they seem, and I don’t know that the River Hawks have the firepower necessary to be a top-ten team.”
As of late, all the buzz around North Dakota revolved around freshman Mitchell Miller, who was cut from the program after news of his torture of a disabled youth came to the public forefront. It’s a terrible look for a team that seemed destined to play Cornell in last year’s national championship, especially considering that Head Coach Brad Berry must have known at least some of Miller’s history. However, make no mistake: this North Dakota team may be the most talented college hockey team assembled since the 2005-06 Wisconsin Badgers.
Many of their NCHC colleagues were hoping that some players on North Dakota’s top line would sign NHL deals because that line didn’t feature a single senior. Everyone came back for another year. Jordan Kawaguchi finished second nationwide in scoring. Shane Pinto posted 28 points as a freshman. New York Islanders draft pick Collin Adams also scored 28 points. It’s rare in college hockey to create that perfect line, but to also get a full two seasons to develop chemistry? It’s an unparalleled opportunity granted to North Dakota.
The rest of North Dakota’s roster is also dangerous. Defensemen Matt Kiersted and Jacob Bernard-Docker are both excellent at moving the puck up and down the ice. Predators prospect and forward Grant Mismash enters his senior year having scored 20 points last season. Every player feels like a contributor this season. It would be ridiculous for them not to be ranked as the best team in the country entering this season and, with the overwhelming majority of first-place votes, they are.
Of course, there are other great teams in the NCHC. Minnesota-Duluth is ranked #3 in the country, while Denver follows close behind at #5. That’s three teams for the NCHC in the top five nationwide. North Dakota simply looks so talented on paper that it feels like they’re in a league of their own.
This is the final season of the WCHA, a conference that will be remembered fondly as most teams leave to form the new CCHA. The legacy of the WCHA touches every conference that isn’t located on the east coast. The members of the old WCHA are cast across its current iteration, the Big Ten, and the NCHC. When people think about physical, midwest-style college hockey, people think of the WCHA. While the CCHA will keep most of its current members together, it will be sad all the same to watch the WCHA’s final hurrah in men’s hockey.
Thankfully, the WCHA should provide excellent entertainment this season. The members of the WCHA are perennially underrated and there are some seriously talented teams that are ready to make some noise. The Minnesota State Mavericks have been kings of the conference for years and are almost always a top-four team in the country. Nonetheless, despite goaltender Dryden McKay being considered a favorite for the Mike Richter Award, the Mavericks lost some key seniors and look vulnerable to other challengers.
The Bemidji State Beavers, a team that was sneaky-good last year, felt like they had a chance to take on Minnesota State. Because of COVID, they never got the chance. Now they’ll get another shot, but will they learn how to deal with the pressure that comes with high expectations? It’s a tall task, especially considering that their leading scorer Adam Brady, who netted 19 goals for the Beavers last season, graduated and is now in the AHL. They still have junior Owen Sillinger tied Brady for the team lead in points but replacing all of those goals is a tall task for Bemidji State.
However, there’s another team with a very real opportunity to win the WCHA, and that’s the Bowling Green Falcons. Even before Head Coach Ty Eigner took over for Chris Bergeron, the Falcons targeted this season as their chance to topple Minnesota State, as Bowling Green features a very skilled senior class. They almost beat the Mavericks for the WCHA title two years ahead of schedule in the 2018-19 season, when the Falcons also nearly upset Minnesota-Duluth in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, but they came up just short both times.
The 2018-19 Falcons were led by a strong sophomore class headlined by Vegas draft pick Brandon Kruse and forward Cameron Wright. That core group now enters their senior season, armed with not just talent, but also experience. Although they have a great senior class, Bowling Green has other great players on their roster. For example. junior Alex Barber has developed into a dynamic two-way forward for the Falcons. A dangerous threat on the power play, Barber ended last season fourth on Bowling Green in scoring, finishing above Wright. Bowling Green has always played with more skill than brawn, especially compared to the rest of the WCHA, and they’ve assembled enough threats on their roster to potentially beat McKay and Minnesota State.