2014-15 NCHC Preview, Part 2: Denver looking to improve on conference championship

By DJ Powers
Brendan O'Donnell - University of North Dakota

Photo: University of North Dakota forward and Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Brendan O’Donnell could be a breakout player in the NCHC in 2014-15 if he can avoid the injury bug (courtesy of Tim G. Zechar / Icon Sportswire)

 

In part one of this 2014-15 NCHC preview, Hockey’s Future looked at four of the eight teams in NCAA Hockey‘s newest conference. Part two takes a closer look at Denver, Nebraska-Omaha, North Dakota and Western Michigan.

University of Denver
NHL prospects: 7

The defending NCHC Tournament champions open their 2014-15 season on Oct. 17th versus RPI.

Denver enjoyed a successful 2013-14 season under first-year head coach Jim Montgomery, claiming the NCHC’s inaugural tournament championship and advancing to the NCAA Tournament. With few off-season losses, the Pioneers are once again poised to be a strong contender for the conference crown.

One issue that Denver will contend with to start the season, however, is replacing All-American and NCHC Goaltender of the Year Sam Brittain (FLA), who has graduated.

The daunting task of filling his role this season could potentially fall to sophomore Evan Cowley (FLA). The Evergreen, CO native appeared in just five games last season as Brittain’s backup, posting a 1-2-0 record and playing 204:24 minutes. He has very good size (6’4”, 185 lbs.) and possesses great athleticism.

With the uncertainty in goal, the Pioneers will be looking to their outstanding defensive corps for stability on the back end. Part of that group is sophomore Will Butcher (COL), who is expected to play a big role for Denver this season. Butcher is one of only two Colorado Avalanche prospects playing in the NCAA this season. The Sun Prairie, WI native is coming off of a terrific freshman campaign where he posted 15 points (eight goals, seven assists) in 38 games. Butcher also co-led with six power play tallies as well.

“Will has looked great so far and he’s gotten into the best condition of his (collegiate) career,” Montgomery said of Butcher. “I think that’s made him quicker and it has also slowed the game down for a guy whose biggest strength is his hockey smarts. Now that he’s quicker, Will has got even more time to make the special plays that his hands and brain allow him to.”

The Pioneers return some outstanding depth up front this season that is also hoping to stay healthy. Among them is senior Zac Larraza (ARZ). The Scottsdale, AZ native missed the first two months due to injury last season. Once Larraza returned to the lineup he played remarkably well, finishing with 20 points (10 goals, 10 assists) in 34 games. Now healthy, Larraza is poised to have his best campaign with Denver this season.

“Zac is going to be someone who is going to be a focal point for us on special teams and in our top three lines,” Montgomery said of Larraza. “We’d like to see him use his big body more, possessing the puck a lot down low and owning the front of the net. We expect Zac to be a big part of our team this year.”

In addition to the returning veterans, the Pioneers will also welcome five newcomers, including center Danton Heinen (BOS). The Langley, BC native is noted for his great hockey sense and high level of competitiveness.

“What really surprised us about Danton is how hard he competes and how knowledgeable he is in playing a 200-foot game. He can create offense out of nothing and his hockey IQ is off the chart. He’s one of those players that’s looking to score every time he takes the puck to the net. So we’re excited to see Danton do those things at this level for us.”

University of Nebraska-Omaha
NHL prospects: 7

The Mavericks opened their 2014-15 season on Oct. 10th versus Minnesota State-Mankato.

Nebraska-Omaha had a very good 2013-14 campaign that saw them finish third in the NCHC, but it could be a challenge to duplicate or better last season’s finish. The Mavericks lost 10 players, most notably All-American Josh Archibald (PIT). With those losses come a number of issues that will need to be addressed this season.

Among the players that the Mavericks will be looking to help replace some of the offense that left with Archibald is his now former linemate, Jake Guentzel (PIT). The Woodbury, MN native is coming off of a fantastic freshman campaign where he co-led the Mavericks with 27 assists and finished with 34 points in 37 games. His 27 assists also set a new school single-season record for assists by a freshman. As head coach Dean Blais explains, Guentzel’s physical maturity has greatly enhanced his game and skill set.

“I think the biggest thing with Jake is his physical development,” said Blais. “He’s gained 20 pounds of muscle in a little over a year for us, and it has showed. Jake’s stronger on the puck and it’s also added some quickness, too. Those things are going to be important for Jake this year because he’s going to a player that other teams will be seizing on.”

One area where Nebraska-Omaha took a big hit was on the blueline with the departures of Jaycob Megna (ANA), Michael Young and Nick Seeler (MIN). This season, Nebraska-Omaha’s defense will be very young with only two upperclassmen patrolling the blueline.

One of them is junior Brian Cooper (ANA). The Anchorage, AK native is coming off of a rock solid sophomore campaign where he posted nine points (two goals, seven assists) in 37 games. In all likelihood, Cooper will see a greater role this season.

“Brian has great leadership qualities and he’s one of our most important defensemen,” Blais said of Cooper. “I think the area where he really improved last year was the quality of his shots because his shots are better. He’s been one of the players that we’ve been able to count on and we’re counting on Brian to anchor our defensive corps this year.”

With a predominantly young defensive corps, the Mavericks will be relying heavily on their returning goaltenders in senior Ryan Massa and sophomore Kirk Thompson, who are expected to be better this season.

Nebraska-Omaha brings in a 10-member freshman class which includes Tyler Vesel (EDM), who is among the nation’s best recruits this season. As Blais notes, he’s very excited about what Vesel will bring to his team.

“The thing that’s been really impressive about Tyler is that he comes up with the puck a lot,” stated Blais. “He’s one of those players that always seems to be in the right place at the right time. He can play both center and wing, but I think Tyler is most comfortable at center. So we’re going to be putting him there and see what he can do.”

University of North Dakota
NHL prospects: 14

North Dakota opened their 2014-15 season on Oct. 10th versus Bemidji State.

No team in the NCHC features more NHL prospects on their roster than North Dakota. The team’s 14 NHL-drafted players are the second most among all NCAA teams.

North Dakota returns nearly intact this season, and among those leading the team up front is senior Brendan O’Donnell (TBL). The Winnipeg, MB native posted 18 points (seven goals, 11 assists) in 35 games last season. Since arriving at North Dakota, O’Donnell has been plagued with injuries. If he can stay healthy, he could potentially have the best season of his collegiate career. As head coach Dave Hakstol explains, for O’Donnell, it’s about growing through adversity.

“I think Brendan got off to a great start last year, then had that early injury and that really hampered him throughout the remainder of the year.” explained Hakstol. “He’s had a great summer and an outstanding camp with Tampa Bay. I think from those things, Brendan has built a high level of confidence. He’s gone through some of the tough injuries and has had some ups and downs in his career. I’m hoping that he’ll see the payoff of having been through it. I think Brendan will have a productive senior year for us if he can stay healthy.”

This season, North Dakota brings in one of the nation’s best freshman classes. Of the team’s six newcomers, the one many will be watching is highly touted center Nick Schmaltz (CHI). The Verona, WI native is noted for his creativity and elite offensive skills.

“What has really impressed us about Nick is his playmaking ability,” said Hakstol. “He does a lot of things pretty well, but his playmaking is off the charts. I’ve also been impressed with Nick’s effort away from the puck. He knows that it’s an area where he wants to improve and I’ve seen some very good effort from Nick in that area.”

Nick Schmaltz will also have the opportunity to play with his older sibling this season. Junior Jordan Schmaltz (STL) will be one of the leaders on North Dakota’s blueline. The elder Schmaltz, one of two St. Louis Blues prospects on the team’s current roster, is coming off of a fantastic sophomore campaign where he led all North Dakota defensemen with 24 points (six goals, 18 assists) in 41 games.

“I think Jordan will be more of a veteran presence for us this year and we’re expecting him to become a more efficient player,” Hakstol said of his top defenseman. “He’s physically matured, but I think it’s also an area where he needs to continue working at. For Jordan, it’s about being able to go out and play the game at his highest level with a high level of consistency. If he can do that, I think he’ll make our team better.”

Junior Zane McIntyre (BOS) returns as North Dakota’s starter. The Thief River Falls, MN native is coming off of an excellent sophomore campaign where he finished with a 20-10-3 record that included three shutouts in 33 games. One notable aspect of McIntyre’s development last season was his improved maturity level, which greatly enhanced his overall play and benefited his team.

Western Michigan University
NHL prospects: 3

The Broncos opened their 2014-15 season on Oct. 10th at Canisius.

Western Michigan finished tied for fourth in the NCHC last season. The Broncos will look to make a push up the conference standings this season, but they will also have some significant holes to fill in doing so. One notable attribute of the Broncos this season is their sheer size, with nearly half of the players being 6’1” or taller.

An area that Western Michigan will need to address this season is replacing the goal scoring that left with last season’s top two leaders in graduates Shane Berschbach and Chase Balisy, who accounted for 28 percent of the team’s goal scoring.

Among those that the Broncos will be looking to for more offense are junior Colton Hargrove (BOS) and sophomore Mike McKee (DET). Hargrove is coming off of a breakthrough sophomore campaign where he posted 24 points (11 goals, 13 assists) in 39 games. The Rockwall, TX native’s 24 points is more than double his freshman output two seasons ago. One notable area where Hargrove made great strides last season was in the more effective use of his strong, 6’2” and 215-pound frame in jamming the net.

Despite seeing limited playing time last season, particularly in the season’s second half, McKee played remarkably well. The Newmarket, ON native played in 21 games, posting just one goal. McKee began his collegiate career on defense and was later moved to forward, a move that gave the Broncos not only added size up front (6’5”, 250 lbs.) but also some muscle.

Despite the losses of Jordan Oesterle and Dennis Brown, Western Michigan’s blueline is shaping up to be very good this season.

Anchoring the Western Michigan defense this season is junior Kenney Morrison. The Llodyminster, AB native is coming off of a terrific sophomore campaign where he led all Broncos defensemen with 19 points (four goals, 15 assists) in 40 games. Morrison possesses a superb combination of size (6’2”, 205 lbs.), strength, toughness and puck-moving ability. He is also expected to be one of the most coveted collegiate free agents available at season’s end.

One area where the Broncos will look to get better this season is in goal as the tandem of senior Frank Slubowski and junior Lukas Hafner both return. Slubowski, who struggled last season to follow up his solid showing the previous two seasons, finished with a 10-10-3 record in 26 games. Hafner is coming off of an impressive sophomore campaign, where he finished with a 9-6-2 record that included two shutouts in 21 appearances.

In addition to the returning veterans, Western Michigan also welcomes eight newcomers this season, including power forward Aidan Muir (EDM). At 6’4” and 212-pound, Muir will certainly add size up front. He is also noted for his excellent play in the dirty areas.

Follow DJ Powers on Twitter via @DJPowersHF