The best time of the year is back and so is college hockey! The A/C is off for the season. You can sleep with the window open. The ELITE combination of shorts and a crew neck sweater is finally perfect to wear out comfortably. Football is there every Sunday while you’re nursing a hangover from the weekend bender. Everything about this point of the year is awesome!In anticipation for the upcoming weekend, hockey fans around the country have been frantically looking at all the changes to their teams roster. More importantly, to some, is where they’re listed in the national polls. With little difference between the two polls to start the year, it’s only right that I provide you with a conference-by-conference breakdown of what to expect, and the official 10K rankings.
Independent College Hockey Programs
- Arizona State
- Alaska Fairbanks
- Alaska Anchorage
Arizona State is the runaway favorite out of all the independent schools and it’s not particularly close. This program had an incredibly hot start and with the college PUMPING money into the program there’s no signs of slowing down either. While they’re not ranked in either poll, the Sun Devils are ranked as high as 16 by other credible sources. I may not have had the kindest words to say to ASU in the past, but my tone has changed. I’ve got nothing but respect for how this school is treating hockey as a priority instead of an afterthought. Some others could really take note.Lindenwood is making their first appearance in the college hockey landscape this season. St. Thomas was the most recent school to show how difficult that transition can be. With Lindenwood playing as an independent program instead of in a designated conference, we’ll see how their schedule treats them.
Alaska Anchorage FINALLY makes their way back onto the ice. After a lot of fundraising to save the program, the Seawolves have found a way to save one of the best sweaters in all of College Hockey. The program was even able to snag a couple of skaters out of the transfer portal so they’re looking to come back in a similar position to where they had left off. Look for at least one upset out of them this year!
- Minnesota State University-Mankato
- Bowling Green
- Northern Michigan
- Michigan Tech
- Lake Superior State
- Ferris State
- St. Thomas
Bowling Green has been the talk of the hockey community this off-season. On the ice, they’re looking to be much improved and contend for the conference title. Off the ice, they may be getting more recognition than ever. Barstool Sports finally brought in a guy who’s trying to promote the College Hockey game and atmosphere in John Rich. He’s partnered with the boys at ECH and they’ll be putting on a College Hockey Gameday event when the Falcons take on Michigan State.
St. Thomas will finish last in this conference again and there is little doubt about that. Having made that scorching hot take, I would not be surprised to see them more than double their win total. They’ve got some solid players coming in combined with transfers from other quality D1 programs like UMD. I wouldn’t call them “good” yet, but given how they were giving teams fits at the end of last year, they’ll be pesky.
- Boston University
- UMass Lowell
- Boston College
- New Hampshire
If Northeastern doesn’t run away with this conference, nobody knows anything about anything. Every source on the planet has the Huskies on top. That likely has to do with all the love going towards Devon Levi. They might be lacking some defensive stability, but when you’ve got a game-saving tendy like that between the pipes, you can afford to be thin on the blue line. Plus, when you’ve got Aidan McDonough and Justin Hryckowian putting points up alongside the nation’s best name in Gunnerwolfe Fontaine, you’ll be JUST FINE.Boston College and Boston University will both see new coaches on the bench this season. After a disastrous showing for both squads (respectively) last year, it was time for changes to be made. Each have had down years in recent memory, but I can’t recall the last time that NEITHER was in the postseason conversation at the end of the year. If we’re being really honest, there’s a decent chance it happens again.
While they may not be as historically connected as BC and BU are, UMass and UMass Lowell will always be connected in my twisted mind. While I’ve still taken the cowards way out and have UMass ranked above Lowell in my rankings, I would not be shocked in the least to see the Riverhawks surpass the Minutemen at the end of the season. Lowell was bounced in the first round of the College Hockey playoffs by the eventual national champions last year, but they put up a hell of a fight in that game. If they can come back that strong and build off of it, big things are ahead.
Hot Take Alert
My hottest take of the year might be around Vermont. This team was ABYSMAL last season. A laughing stock both within the conference and nationally. I can’t confirm it, because I’m an old man incapable of searching the internet correctly, but I believe they were one of the few teams who were ranked below St. Thomas in the Pairwise at one point. This year, that will be different. The Catamounts played below their talent level last year and they have a good set of talent coming in. Don’t get me wrong…they have no hopes of making the post-season, let alone anywhere near Tampa. With that being said, they’re officially upgraded to “frisky” within their conference.
- American International (AIC)
- Air Force
- Sacred Heart
- Holy Cross
My official stance on Atlantic Hockey: Who cares. This conference has been taking up the final slot as a 16-seed in the playoffs for too long. I understand that’s what you get with established conferences and the agreements made, but man is it frustrating. That being said, it would be very fun to see St. Cloud lose to AIC again, because I know it still haunts the Huskies to this day.
One thing to keep an eye on in this conference is the Air Force and Army uniforms throughout the season. Both squads released some pretty decent sweaters last season, and if they can keep that up, they might have found a way to bring some more eyes their way. The only reason they’re ranked two and three in this conference is because of history and because I respect the troops. Do you?
My dark horse for this conference? Canisius. I know literally nothing about them. They’re always flying under the radar and this conference tournament can legitimately be won by anyone. Why not the Golden Griffins?
- St. Lawrence
Much like Hockey East, this conference is one team’s to lose. If Quinnipiac can’t utilize all of their talent to take the title, it’s a failure of a season for them. For starters, they have Yaniv Perets in net, who posted a .939 save percentage last season…only the best in the nation. Not only that, but they’ve got SEVEN fifth-year seniors on the roster acting as leadership and size for the team. They play a strong defensive game with a brick wall in net and that is FRUSTRATING for opposing teams.
While Q-Pac might have a claim to the nation’s best goaltender and a slew of returners and transfers, Harvard is no slouch either. It may be shocking to learn that they’ve got more NHL draft picks on their roster than anyone else! With FIFTEEN players having their rights owned by a major club, there’s no doubts about their talent. They were dangerous last year, and this year they’ll be deadly. I don’t like it when the nerds are good, but you gotta tip your cap when it happens.
Clarkson, Colgate, and Cornell will all be in the mix this season as well. I expect them all to be fighting for the 3rd spot in this conference and bordering on playoff teams at the end of the year. I’d be surprised to see any of those 3 in the final four, but if you gave me 10,000 to 1 odds, I’d have to take that bet…responsibly, of course.
- Notre Dame
- Ohio State
- Penn State
- Michigan State
This Minnesota team might be getting the most hype I can remember from a Gopher’s squad this decade. There’s obviously a little recency bias there, but I legitimately think it’s up for debate. Brock Faber, Jackson LaCombe and Ryan Johnson are ALL back for the Gophs, giving them one of the best blue lines in the country. Because of that solid squad, Justen Close may not see much work come his way, even though he was able to step up in a BIG way last season. The talent doesn’t stop there either. Both Matthew Knies and Logan Cooley are officially on Hobey watch to start the season.
After how dominant Michigan was (at times) last year, this will likely be a step back. Not only was there quite a bit of internal drama within the organization’s coaching regime, but there was quite a bit of turnover on the roster as well. It’s Michigan, so they’ll have NHL draft picks and quality talent coming in every year, but this is the first time in a while that we’ve seen kids de-commit from the Wolverines because of uncertainty with the program as a whole. They’re going to be good. They’re going to be a contender, but they’re not going to be dominant.
Football Schools – Playing Hockey
I can’t, in good conscience, leave the Big 10 section without mentioning Notre Dame and Ohio State. Notre Dame “upset” North Dakota in the first round of the National College Hockey tournament last year with their solid defensive play. If you followed my picks to a perfect bracket in the first round, you knew that was going to happen. They were also one of the few teams to notch multiple wins against last year’s dominant Michigan squad. The Irish are good enough to beat anyone, but they’ll need all the pieces to be clicking together to do it. I think they leapfrog Michigan from a talent and production standpoint this year.
Ohio State was also probably deserving of a playoff spot at the end of the season…but AIC got the auto-bid and bumped them out, unfortunately. They’ll be returning their best players, who were all FRESHMEN last season. With a little more mass and time under their belts, they’ll be looking to take a step forward too.
- North Dakota
- University of Minnesota-Duluth
- St. Cloud State
- Western Michigan
- Colorado College
There is no doubt in my mind that this will be the nations best conference, yet again. With three of their teams starting out in the top five (and five in the top fifteen) of the national polls, the expectations are high. I guess that’s what happens when five of the last 6 national championship trophies were handed out to the NCHC.
Denver will be returning their championship goaltender Magnus Chrona to the team. While I may have been unkind regarding his mediocre stats going into the postseason last year, he played well when it mattered. He won’t have to steal many games with Mike Benning and Sean Behrens playing in front of him alongside Shai Buium and Justin Lee rocking the “C” on his sweater. They did have MAJOR losses in uber-talented players like Bobby Brink, Cole Guttman (no doubt the puck bunnies are missing this man), AND Carter Savoie moving on. However, they were able to add talent in Casey Dornbach and Tristan Broz out of the transfer portal to level it out as well.
Without a single defenseman on their roster toting the Freshman title, North Dakota will be tough to expose or push around this season. The Fighting Hawks found another goalie to poach out of the transfer portal in fifth-year player Drew Deridder from Michigan State. After tackling that task for the 2nd year in a row, they’ll be secure in net for sure. With scoring help also coming from the transfer portal along with incoming players, NoDak is set to make yet another long run into the postseason. I guarantee it. It’s hard do make something exciting when it happens every year.
The Toughest College Hockey Conference Gets Tougher
The UMD Bulldogs may be giving the “experts” more fits than any other team in the country when in comes to predicting their season. After being one of the older teams in the nation last year, they’ve lost a ton of players to graduation, the transfer portal, and NHL contracts. The two biggest being Noah Cates and Ryan Fanti. Replacing Fanti is a tall task given how he performed at the end of the year. Not allowing a single goal in the Frozen Faceoff through the opening game of the NCAA tournament may never be done again. Some genius brains have already proclaimed him as the savior of the Oilers Franchise.
Zach Stejskal is still on the UMD roster and he’s no stranger to the spotlight or a tall task. He played UMass to OT in the year they were the eventual national champions as well as the majority of the game in the 5-OT classic between UMD and UND before needing relief from cramping. Conversely, he replaced Fanti early on in a HUGE win against Denver last season after battling and beating testicular cancer earlier in the year. On top of the proven talent in net, the Bulldogs brought in Matthew Thiessen from Maine to compete for the starting netminder job. UMD also has some serious scoring power coming in their young guns with Isaac Howard and Cole Spicer making their College Hockey debuts as well. It will be fun to see how the season plays out for the Bulldogs this year with a lot of hype.
St Cloud may have lost their long-standing tendy in the offseason, but if Dominic Basse can hold his own in net this year, the Huskies could be good yet again. They’ve still got the “flying finns” in Jami Krannila and Veeti Miettinen as a cornerstone of the program. To pair with that punch, Brendan Bushy and Spencer Meier have managed to find their way back to take advantage of their fifth year eligibility. While the Huskies were all bark and no bite when the postseason rolled around last year, I fully expect them to be in a dog-fight for a playoff spot again this year.
The More the Merrier
I’m absolutely LOVING the growth that the game is seeing. There’s legitimate excitement for all the schools announcing the move to D1. Hell, with USC and UCLA making the move to the Big 10, they could (and should) be next on the list! They’ve already got FIRE uniforms…along with another Pac 12 school that could join them.
I’ve been hit by cars three times, which is an indication of how stubborn I am.
I write about everything across the board, but focus on Hockey and the pain that is Minnesota sports.
Argue with me on Twitter: @venividiveech