College Hockey Roundup: National championship confidence rankings; Hobey Baker Watch List
Plus: NCAA Women's Frozen Four moves to ESPN; Mike Richter Award Watch List
The college hockey season has been wild on so many levels. From teams opting out to the schedule being a moving target. But we’re getting closer to the finish line. It’s in sight and the intensity of the season has really picked up in recent weeks.
As the end of the regular season nears, I wanted to take stock of the teams that are in contention for the national championship. The lack of non-conference games and seeing teams in tough environments away from home makes it a little harder to gauge than in regular years. It also takes away the PairWise formula for selecting teams. The selection committee will be able to be a little bit more subjective.
Either way, I’ve spent a lot of this year watching quite a bit of the games and looking at the numbers to see where things stand. Instead of doing a traditional power ranking, I wanted to look specifically at how I’d order teams in terms of confidence in their ability to win the NCAA title. It adds a little more subjectivity to the process and focuses a little less on what they’ve done specifically than what I think they could do in a tournament situation.
The Fighting Hawks have been one of the most consistent teams this season and they’ve split the polls at No. 1 with Boston College. I think they’re the team to beat for the national championship this season, based on what I’ve seen so far.
North Dakota is the deepest team on paper, with the ability to score throughout its lineup. They have size, they have experience and they have that empty feeling from last season where they were trending towards national title contention. The commitment from all the players to come back for another crack at it is not to be ignored.
The club has two legitimate Hobey Baker candidates in Shane Pinto (OTT) and Jordan Kawaguchi. Pinto in particular has looked like one of the most dominant players in all of college hockey this year and his goal-scoring prowess has been remarkable. Kawaguchi has always been a clutch performer and is so difficult to contain. He was one of those players who came back to make sure last season’s unfinished business got finished.
There’s a host of other players that can step up at any point in time. Collin Adams (NYI) is a versatile talent who has put up points, Jasper Weatherby (SJS) is on a goal- scoring tear, Grant Mismash (NSH) provides a good dose of physicality and scoring, while Riese Gaber has been an impact freshman. There’s no one line that is easy to shut down.
On top of that, UND has a sensational blue line led by Jacob Bernard-Docker (OTT) and senior Matt Kierstad who is going to walk out of the college season with an NHL contract as a top undrafted free agent. Then you’ve got super-talented freshmen Jake Sanderson (OTT) and Tyler Kleven (OTT) who have made the transition to college hockey look seamless. This is a really mobile blue line that can defend with the best of them.
To top it all off, the Fighting Hawks have gotten strong goaltending from Adam Scheel, who is another player I think earning a NHL deal in the near future. Scheel has a .928 save percentage.
The Fighting Hawks wrapped up the NCHC regular-season title last weekend, an impressive accomplishment given how competitive the conference has been. This is a group that is built for a deep run.
If you’ve got a goaltender, then you’ve got a chance. Boston College may have the most talented netminder in the country in Spencer Knight (FLA). the Eagles also have an impressive scoring attack led by highly-skilled first-round forwards Matthew Boldy (MIN) and Alex Newhook (COL), but bolstered by depth and balance.
Junior captain Marc McLaughlin is a gifted two-way player and tied for BC’s scoring lead with Bodly with 22 points. Minnesota Wild prospects Jack McBain and Nikita Nesterenko have stepped up in a big way offensively, too.
On top of that, BC has a mobile defensive corps with freshman Eamon Powell (TBL) and Drew Helleson (COL) producing at a decent clip from the blue line. The Eagles also added Yale transfer Jack St. Ivany (PHI) to provide even greater depth for their D corps.
The team as a whole is averaging four goals per game. When you’re scoring like that and have drivers like Boldy and Newhook who have the ability to take over games, and a goaltender that can steal wins for you when you’re not at your best, there’s a lot going your way. With Knight already backstopping USA to World Junior gold, would anyone be surprised to see him take the Eagles to the title? Probably not.
The Gophers are back and looking pretty darn good this season. They’ve had a few weird stumbles here and there, which prevent them from being in the same tier as the more consistent North Dakota and Boston College, but this Minnesota roster has some impressive firepower.
Sampo Ranta (COL) is leading the team in scoring this year with 25 points, but Minnesota has six players with 21 or more points including junior captain Sammy Walker (TBL) who is third on the squad with 23 points. Walker is one of the most threatening players in the country with his combination of speed and skill and one of my personal favorites to watch.
The balance in scoring makes the Gophers difficult to match up against. They also have a good mix of youth and experience with players like Ranta, Walker and seniors Scott Reedy (SJS) and Brannon McManus playing significant roles for the team.
On the blue line, Jackson LaCombe (ANA) has become an offensive threat while Ryan Johnson (BUF) has taken a step at both ends of the ice, even though he’s not producing a ton of points at the moment. Meanwhile, freshman Brock Faber (LAK) has become one of the best pure defenders in the country.
For all the scoring they’re doing, though, they’re also regularly getting the saves. Jack LaFontaine (CAR) has been the best goalie Minnesota has had guarding their nets in some years. He’s a major contender for the Richter Award as the nation’s top goalie, which is explained in greater detail below. He can be the difference maker this team needs to come out on top in this bizarre season.
One of the most suffocating teams in the country on an annual basis, Minnesota State never gives you an inch. That’s true of most Mike Hastings teams over the years — they’re going to contest every puck and they’re going to make you earn their offense while having enough weapons to keep teams on their heels.
Goalie Dryden McKay has been a headliner this season thanks to his incredible goaltending with a nation-leading .941 save percentage and eight shutouts over 17 starts. The team in front of him has been doing a remarkable job in suppressing shots, however.
The Mavericks have allowed 351 shots on goal in 19 games played, an average of 18.4 per game. Their even-strength shots-on-goal share is a national-best 66.7% — nearly seven percentage points better than the next closest team (via chnews.com). As a team, Minnesota State has allowed 25 goals over 19 games, least in the country including teams that have played fewer games than they have. The Mavs own a stunning +48 goal differential right now.
This is where the buzzkill comes in and the quality of competition argument is made fairly. The Mavericks are playing in the WCHA and don’t have the head-to-head matchups that the other teams ahead of them do. I’ll maintain, however, that they can handle themselves against the best of the best just fine. They’re a well-coached group, but the Mavericks also have the stigma of not having won an NCAA tournament game yet. They’ve been bounced in the first round every year, often by heartbreakingly close margins.
Will they be battle-tested enough to make this year different?
Wisconsin — The offensive attack they possess can be deadly and their goaltending has been more reliable than it’s been in years with Cam Rowe and Robbie Beydoun sharing the duties. Cole Caufield (MTL), Linus Weissbach (BUF) and Dylan Holloway (EDM) are all in the conversation for All-American status, as well as some individual awards.
St. Cloud State — Currently ranked sixth in the USCHO.com poll, the Huskies have been battle-tested in a difficult NCHC schedule. Led by freshman Veeti Miettinen (TOR) and defenseman Nick Perbix (TBL) in scoring, the Huskies have been getting contributions from throughout their lineup. David Hrenak (LAK) hasn’t had amazing numbers this season, but he remains a goalie that can keep this team in games and give them a chance against the best of the best. They had one win and an overtime loss against North Dakota in the NCHC Pod, showing they’re more than capable against the big boys.
Michigan — The inexperience factor has shown up at times this season, but the stellar freshman class this team has is giving the Wolverines a chance. I’m not entirely convinced they defend well enough as a team to challenge some of the top contenders, but they definitely have the skill to hang around.
Quinnipiac — The odd schedule the Bobcats are playing is difficult to really get a good read on this team, but they have legit Hobey and Richter hopefuls in Odeen Tufto and Keith Petruzzelli (DET), respectively. I think they’ve got a really special freshman in Ty Smilanic (FLA) and I’m a big fan of their D corps led by Zach Metsa and Peter DiLiberatore who are among the defensive scoring leaders. They were my darkhorse heading into the season and I still like their potential if they can get in.
UMass — It’s been a minute since we’d seen the Minutemen, having spent the last month out of action. They came out of the extended break with a vengeance, blowing out Providence 8-1. They have two capable goaltenders in Matt Murray and Filip Lindberg (MIN), and a whole lot of talent throughout their lineup. That’s especially true on the blue line where Matthew Kessel (STL) and Zac Jones (NYR) have each put up 17 points from the back end. Forwards Bobby Trivigno and Carson Gicewicz have also put up great numbers as veterans.
Boston University — We don’t have a big sample to work with, but the Terriers have been doing awfully well this season in a short schedule. Newcomers Jay O’Brien (PHI) and Luke Tuch (MTL) have been among the offensive leaders in the absence of senior defenseman David Farrance (NSH) who has only played in six games but has a staggering 14 points. One of the big surprises of the season is freshman Vinny Duplessis putting up a .962 save percentage in four appearances with would-be starter Drew Commesso (CHI) sidelined.
HM. Minnesota Duluth — The most recent national champions are still a threat even though they’ve got some significant work to do in the consistency department. The Bulldogs still have a good veteran core with juniors and seniors mostly leading the way. Nick Swaney (MIN) is the team’s leading scorer, while Cole Koepke (TBL) and Noah Cates (PHI) have been among the veterans making significant contributions. UMD is still putting its blue line back together after significant losses from last year’s roster, but Wyatt Kaiser (CHI) has shown some great signs early in his NCAA career. The question mark is if UMD has an adequate enough replacement for former goalie Hunter Shepard. Sophomore netminder Ryan Fanti has a .906 save percentage in 17 appearances.
Women’s Frozen Four comes to ESPN
ESPN announced earlier this week that it has acquired the rights to broadcast the Women’s Frozen Four starting with the 2021 event. It is part of a multi-year agreement that will see the network expand its coverage of women’s college hockey in the coming years. It is unclear if that means there will be more games in general on ESPN’s family of networks, but it’s good news for the most important event of the season — the national championship.
The first semifinal will be a stream only production on ESPN3, which is still pretty easily accessible for those with ESPN on their cable or streaming packages. Meanwhile, the second semifinal and final will be aired on ESPNU in primetime.
The Women’s Frozen Four had been an event often left in limbo. It was not part of the package that ESPN had for national championships for sports like baseball, softball, lacrosse and women’s basketball. CSTV and later CBS Sports Network aired the games for several years in the early 2000s, but it wasn’t that long ago that the tournament was relegated to a free stream on NCAA.com on webcasts that couldn’t really do the games justice like a big TV network could.
The Big Ten Network had acquired the rights to the Women’s Frozen Four in 2017 finally giving the event a television home. With Wisconsin and Minnesota being among the most successful women’s hockey teams of the era, it made sense, but it was more than a little bizarre to watch Clarkson claim their national championships on a network associated with a conference that does not even sponsor women’s hockey. It wasn’t a natural fit, but it was on TV. This is an additional step forward with more steps to take.
There is a practical benefit to this change in rights. BTN is in about 60 million homes nationwide, while ESPNU is carried in nearly 75 million homes according to the networks’ own reporting. ESPN’s streaming apparatus is a little more comprehensive as well, which can increase the reach in other ways.
ESPN is also the home to most other NCAA championships, which is one reason why I view this as a win for women’s college hockey. The promotional efforts ESPN puts behind its own events can provide additional exposure to a college sports audience outside of hockey. It creates more awareness with a more extensive reach up and down the east coast where there is a large women’s hockey presence, particular in Boston and New England, is going to make the games more accessible than they have been on television.
Having just spent three years at ESPN, I might be biased to the benefit being on that network provides, but it really does bring some extra gravitas. There are some really dedicated hockey-loving people there who will do their best to do right by the sport. Broadcast teams have not yet been announced, but I would definitely love to see Linda Cohn involved in some way as a former women’s college hockey goalie herself and one of the faces of hockey at the Network.
One thing I think this move points to is that it is yet another example that there is tangible momentum in women’s sports and women’s hockey in particular. There’s a lot of work to be done on the professional side, but getting the Women’s Frozen Four in front of a national audience, especially with the nation’s largest sports media entity, is a huge positive.
Women’s hockey is growing rapidly in the United States. In 2018-19, USA Hockey reported a 10-year growth of 34% with more than 83,000 women and girls taking up the sport.
The Olympics remains the pinnacle for women’s hockey, but with over 40 programs at the Division I level, NCAA hockey is an even more tangible goal for more of the girls playing hockey in the U.S. and Canada. Giving prospective players a chance to see the quality of the hockey at this level, with all of the production quality ESPN can provide is a win on any level. It allows women’s college hockey to put its best foot forward with its best teams in the biggest audience it will have all year.
That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be a continued push to promote the women’s game and keep pressing for more coverage and more accessibility. As the primary feeder to both the Canadian and U.S. Olympic teams, women’s NCAA hockey — especially at the Frozen Four — has so much to offer fans who are watching this rapidly growing segment of the sport. This is a step, not the finish line.
Hobey Baker Watch List
Like everything else this year, we’re dealing with a lot of weird circumstances in predicting winners for awards. At this late stage of the season, the picture appears to be starting to clear up. The Hobey Baker voting is a little tougher for me to predict because the committee can go in a lot of different directions in a given year. This year, it’s anyone’s guess. There are a number of quality seniors that could get significant traction, but I think a pair of sophomores have been two of the best players in the country this season. Let’s dive in.
Cole Caufield, RW, Wisconsin (MTL)
The nation’s leading scorer is always a default Hobey front-runner especially when there’s a little cushion between him and the next player, but I also think Caufield makes a significant impact on his team on a game-by-game basis. He’s the most dangerous goal-scorer in the country with 19 in 24 games, and has a six-point lead on anyone else with 37 points so far this season.
So much of Caufield’s offense has come when it’s most consequential. When his team needs a big play, Caufield so often delivers. Of his 37 points, 22 have come when the Badgers are tied or trailing. Sixteen points have broken ties, which is tops in the country as well. He also has 10 third-period goals which leads the country.
The bounce-back of the Badgers this season has been driven largely, but not solely, by Caufield. The fact that UW’s scoring has been well spread out might diminish the way Caufield’s impact is viewed by the Hobey committee and I’m not sure whether his nation-leading 17 power play points help or hurt his cause. And while it is tougher to score at even strength, the object of the game is to score as many times as possible, right? That’s what Caufield does, often in big moments and with consistency.
Shane Pinto, C, North Dakota (OTT)
There are few players I’ve been impressed with as much as Pinto on a game-by-game basis when I’ve watched him this year. His offensive prowess continues to grow as I think he’s developed into a terrific goal scorer. His shot has continually gotten better and it was good before he even got to school. He is second behind Caufield with 15 goals this season. Seven of those goals have come on the power play, which matches Caufield for the NCAA high in that category.
Pinto makes an impact at both ends of the ice. He has the strength and physicality to get to the hard areas, win battles and make plays under pressure. He’s also, to me at least, the best player on one of the deepest teams in the country.
Odeen Tufto, RW, Quinnipiac
Tufto may be the best kept secret in the country. Sure, college hockey fans know the name, but he doesn’t get as much play as the NHL drafted players. The Hobey committee loves their seniors who stay all four years, and that keeps Tufto in the conversation as much as his points, but he belongs on merit alone.
The 24-year-old Minnesota native is having the most productive season of his career on a per-game basis with 1.52 points per game. His 31 points in 23 games are second only to Caufield. Of those 31 points, 27 are assists — six more than the next closest player in the country. The imbalance between assists and goals are probably not going to help his cause against other competitors, but as noted preference can sometimes go to the older players in Hobey voting. And in a weird season like this, who really knows what the best criteria is (though I will say it should definitely be a seasonal award and not one for career achievement).
Just to put it all into perspective in terms of Tufto’s career achievements, he has 156 career points in 133 games for the Bobcats. That is 16 more points than the next closest player over the last four years.
Jordan Kawaguchi, C, North Dakota
After finishing in the Hobey Hat Trick last year, Kawaguchi passed up NHL free agent offers in order to return for his senior season. That will go a long way with Hobey voters, but so will the fact he has 26 points — just two behind Pinto — for one of the best teams in the country.
Kawaguchi has had a great collegiate career with 116 points in 130 career games. The Hobey committee’s deference to seniors could come into play as could the fact that Kawaguchi was right in the mix last season. He does a little bit of everything and has a knack for scoring big goals. His numbers aren’t as impressive as they were last year, but there’s little doubt he’s a driver for the Fighting Hawks.
Dylan Holloway, C, Wisconsin (EDM)
Holloway’s chances may be hurt by his missing eight games while with Team Canada for the World Juniors, but the fact he has missed that much time and is still the third leading scorer in the country is crazy. He has 29 points in 16 games, good for a 1.81 points per game average, which is tops among players with at least 10 games played this season.
I thought Alex Newhook made a strong Hobey Baker case last season based on his second half alone, and now am feeling similarly about Holloway. Does that mean the committee will feel the same way? Newhook wasn’t in the Hobey Hat Trick last year and I’m not sure Holloway will be in there, but he belongs in my book.
Of Note: Boston University defenseman David Farrance (NSH) has only played six games this season, but has 14 points in those six games. If he had a full season, based on the progression of his game and what he did last season, I don’t know if this race would have been much of a contest. It’s too bad we didn’t get a chance to see him at the height of his powers for a longer stretch of time.
Mike Richter Award (Goaltender of the Year)
There is an awfully crowded field for the top goaltender in the country. The inconsistency of games played and the uneven numbers of games in general means we’re grading a lot of these guys on different curves. Additionally, the lack of non-conference competition doesn’t allow these guys, especially the ones in weaker conferences, to make a stronger case for themselves and combat any doubts about their numbers based on where they play. That said, I think there are three clear front-runners, with a much more crowded field after them. Here’s where we’re at today.
Spencer Knight, Boston College (FLA)
He’s one of the top goaltending prospects outside of the NHL currently and has looked every bit of it from the World Juniors through this season with the Eagles. Knight has started 16 games this season and is 14-1-1, with a .938 save percentage, which is tied for third best in the country among eligible goalies. He ranks 11th in the country in shots faced and his 29.2 saves made per game is tops among significant Richter contenders. Knight also has three shutouts.
When it comes to quality of competition and the fact that his team gives up enough shots to force him into a higher workload than some of his peers around the country gives Knight the slight edge for me at this point.
Dryden McKay, Minnesota State
Yeah, I get it. The WCHA is not the strongest conference and Minnesota State is the class of the league and should be beating up on most of the teams, but I can’t help but marvel at the numbers McKay has put up anyway. He has eight shutouts in 17 games this season, with just one loss and owns has a .941 save percentage so far this season. His save percentage has actually been on the decline in the last few weeks, but it’s hard not to respect what he’s doing.
One thing that I do find interesting about McKay’s case for the award is that he’s averaging about 17.5 saves per game. That ranks 61st among goalies who have played the majority of their teams’ minutes this season. That’s 61 out of 61 primary starters. So there’s definitely some team effects at play, but I really don’t think that should take a ton away from McKay who has been excellent in his own right as the save above indicates. It’s just something that voters are going to have to weigh pretty heavily in addition to the quality of competition argument, which can’t really be augmented by a more robust non-conference schedule which he would have had in a normal season.
Jack LaFontaine, Minnesota (CAR)
The way LaFontaine has turned around his college career in Minnesota, giving the Gophers some of the best goaltending they’ve had in years, is a really great story. He started at the University of Michigan and just wasn’t ready to be a starter. He made 22 appearances over two seasons there, left to spend a year in junior hockey and rebuilt his game.
Now he’s a legitimate threat to win the Richter with a .941 save percentage, which ties him with McKay for first among NCAA starters, in a nation-leading 22 starts. LaFontaine has as many shutouts (5) as he does losses, and has backstopped the Gophers to 17 wins in the highly-competitive Big Ten where they sit in first place.
He’s gone from a player that I didn’t think Carolina would want to spend a contract on to being a guy they should hope will sign so they don’t lose him to free agency where there will certainly be a market for his services.
Keith Petruzzelli, Quinnipiac (DET)
Another goalie who has just stuck with the process and stayed patient, Petruzzelli is making the most of his senior season with the Bobcats. He is tied with LaFontaine in starts with 22, played more minutes than any goalie in the country and owns a .933 save percentage. And all of this comes after the uncertainty of if QU would even have a chance to play as so many ECAC opponents opted out this year.
Petruzzelli will run into the same concerns about quality of competition as Quinnipiac has been playing the same teams mostly with a few non-conference games against opponents that they handled mostly well, save for Bowling Green. Still, you have to give him credit for the way he’s built himself up over the last four years and put together a career year as a senior.
Honorable Mention: Adam Scheel (North Dakota), Mareks Mitens (Lake Superior State), Jaxson Stauber (Providence), Blake Pietila (Michigan Tech)
Coming up next week on the College Hockey Roundup, a look at the top rookies in college hockey and national tournament stock watch.