University of Denver season preview

By DJ Powers

The defending national champions will open their 2005-06 regular season on Oct. 14 when they travel to Alfond Arena to face off against host Maine in a rematch of the 2004 National Championship game.

The task of defending a national championship title for the second year in a row is difficult, but to be able to defend it without the services of seven key players from last season makes it even more of a challenge. Nevertheless, the Pioneers will enter the 2005-06 season as the team to beat.

Denver suffered its most significant losses on the blue line. The superb, hard-working trio of Matt Laatsch, Nick Larson and Jussi Halme has graduated. Brett Skinner, who was one of the nation’s top defensemen last season, opted to forego his final year of eligibility to sign with the Vancouver Canucks.

With the losses, much of the leadership on defense will rest with junior Matt Carle (SJ). The immensely skilled blueliner will serve as one of the Pioneers’ two captains this season. Carle became arguably the nation’s top defenseman last season, excelling at both ends of the ice. Carle finished second in the nation in scoring among defensemen with 44 points (13 goals, 31 assists) playing in all 43 games for Denver last season. He also finished second in points per game (1.02). His sensational season earned him numerous honors including a selection to the WCHA All-Conference First team as well as the CCM All-American West First team.

Sophomore Andrew Thomas (WSH) will be another player that the Pioneers will be relying on to provide leadership. The Bow, New Hampshire native was superb in his rookie season providing a strong presence on the blue line and as well as contributing in other areas such as special teams. Thomas played in 40 games last season, posting seven points (two goals, five assists). He finished second on the team with 78 penalty minutes.

While teams such as the University of Minnesota and the University of Michigan bring in outstanding freshman classes this season, many are vastly underestimating the small yet extremely talented group of recruits (collectively) that the University of Denver brings in.

An example of this is on the blue line, where the Pioneers will have four newcomers added to their defensive corps. Two are 2005 NHL draft selections in Chris Butler (BUF) and T. J. Fast (LA).

Butler is a highly regarded blueliner who comes to Denver from Sioux City (USHL). There he finished second on the team in scoring with 28 points (six goals, 22 assists) playing in 60 games. He also led the Musketeers in plus/minus (+36). His outstanding season performance earned him a selection to the All-USHL First Team. Butler is noted for his tremendous agility and his solid play in all three zones on the ice.

Fast was a much sought-after defenseman from Camrose (AJHL), where he had 46 points (13 goals, 33 assists) playing in 80 games. He helped propel the Kodiaks to an AJHL Championship and was also selected to the AJHL All-Rookie Team. Fast is noted for his outstanding offensive abilities as well as his superb skating.

With the significant losses on defense, solid goaltending will be absolutely essential in Denver’s quest for a third straight national championship title. The top-flight returning tandem of sophomore Peter Mannino and junior Glenn Fisher (EDM) will help to provide a stabilizing presence on defense.

Mannino, who was brilliant during the Frozen Four Tournament back in April, finished the season with an 18-4-1 record that included five shutouts in 23 games. His five shutouts ranked tied for fourth in the nation. He also finished fourth with a .804 winning percentage and sixth with a .927 save percentage.

While he didn’t see ice time during the Frozen Four Tournament, Fisher was just about equally as stellar, particularly in regular season play last year. The Edmonton native finished his sophomore campaign with a 14-5-1 record in 22 appearances. His .725 winning percentage ranked seventh in the nation.

Equally significant to the losses on defense was the four losses up front. Luke Fulghum, Jeff Drummond, Jon Foster and Kevin Ulanski have all graduated. The quartet accounted for 143 (30.4 percent) of Denver’s 470 total team points last season.

With the departures, Denver will be looking to players such as senior Gabe Gauthier, and sophomores Paul Stastny (COL) and Geoff Paukovich (EDM) to help fill the holes left by the four graduated players.

Gauthier, who will serve as one of the team’s co-captains, led the team in scoring with 57 points (28 goals, 31 assists) playing in all 43 games last season. His 57 points were tied for third in the nation. He also finished tied for ninth in the nation with 12 power play goals. The dynamic forward earned numerous honors last season including selection to the WCHA All-Conference Second team. This season, he is an early candidate for the Hobey Baker Award.

After a rather slow start to his collegiate debut, Stastny exploded onto the college hockey landscape and went on to have a sensational season that culminated with the WCHA Rookie of the Year award. He finished tied for first in the WCHA and third in the nation among rookies in scoring with 45 points (17 goals, 28 assists) playing in 42 games last season. Stastny also finished tied for third in the nation in points per game (1.07). While many people have marveled at Stastny’s offensive production, he was equally stellar in areas such as defensive responsibility and faceoffs.

Paukovich provided a strong, physical force on the forward lines. While he led the Pioneers with 120 penalty minutes, he proved to be far more than just an imposing figure on the ice. He finished his rookie season with 22 points (12 goals, 10 assists) playing in 41 games. He was outstanding in his play around the net and utilized his size and strength to create space for his linemates.

In addition to the returning forwards, two outstanding newcomers will make their debut in hopes of being major contributors as well. Brock Trotter and Patrick Mullen are two undrafted players who will be eligible for the 2006 NHL draft and ones that many will be keeping close tabs on.

Trotter has been on scouting radars for quite awhile. He comes to Denver from Lincoln (USHL), where he finished the 2004-05 season with 63 points (22 goals, 41 assists) in 64 appearances. Trotter is noted for his superb playmaking ability.

Mullen comes to Denver from Sioux Falls (USHL), where he played in 60 games last season with 37 points (14 goals, 23 assists). Mullen is the son of legendary former NHLer Joe Mullen. He was a player that was heavily recruited by several schools before Denver landed him. He is noted for his high skill level.

(Number of NHL prospects on 2005-06 roster: 8)

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