Welcome back to another season of the best sport in America! It seems like just yesterday that Minnesota Head Coach Bob Motzko was benching five future NHL players for the first shift of overtime, resulting in Quinnipiac’s first NCAA championship 10 seconds later. It’s my pleasure to be here for another season with you, discussing the national picture as Tech enters the season with high expectations and an opportunity to grow beyond last year’s NCAA tournament appearance. This is my reminder that watching games across the country is worth your time, especially now that the beauty of a regionalized sport with regionalized play styles grows ever more at risk in the midst of NCAA uncertainty. But enough proselytizing, let’s dig into a preview of the 2023 season with my thoughts on the power players in the sport.
In my first article of the 2022-23 season, I provided a short list of teams that I was considering for my top five. Among that list were three of the four Frozen Four representatives, including National Champion Quinnipiac. That’s not to toot my own horn but to instead say that even for as random as college hockey can be game to game, the best teams prevail more often than not, and the best are often easy to spot. With that said, here’s who I think the best teams are entering the season.
Boston University. This is the pre-season number one team in the country for me, and I think there’s a pretty large gap after them. The Terriers have shades of recent Michigan teams with their elite talent. You might want to say, “why would you compare them to Michigan, a team that hasn’t won with any of those recent teams?” Michigan has been to back-to-back Frozen Fours and won back-to-back Big Ten Tournament titles. Their lack of NCAA Championship does not suggest to me that youth can’t win against older teams. BU is going to be similarly dominant for stretches this season, especially in a conference that I think provides numerous opportunities for easy games that will help BU’s youth grow without the risk of a long losing streak. Among the big names is 2023 NHL first rounder Tom Willander, possible 2024 1st overall pick Macklin Celebrini (potential Adam Fantilli level dominance), Hobey Baker contender Lane Hutson, and Northeastern transfer Jack Hughes. BU’s trip to the Frozen Four will help the returning players know what it takes. The Terriers are primed to be the class of the sport, and their ceiling is pretty close to their dominant 2009 team, the last time BU won the championship.
The rest of my list is in no particular order, because I don’t think there’s a clear 2-5, meaning the default for most rankers is going to be the other 2023 Frozen Four teams in some order. I don’t like doing that, so below are the teams I think have a solid shot at being in St. Paul the second weekend in April.
- Boston College. It has been a few years since Boston College has been in the upper echelon of the sport, but they finally might be ready to turn the corner. They remind me a bit of last season’s BU team in that they may be another year away from contending at their true power, but there is some legitimately high end talent here including multiple first rounders. Sophomore Cutter Gauthier could end up in the Hobey Hat Trick and as he goes so go the Eagles. I think they peak next season, but that doesn’t mean they can’t do what BU did last year and make a run to the Frozen Four.
- Denver. Denver returns some of its biggest contributors from its top-four seeded 2022-23 team, including Massimo Rizzo and Aidan Thompson. I think some will be concerned with the departure of goaltender Magnus Chrona, but his backup Matt Davis was just as good in limited time next year, and I think he fills the gap seamlessly. Doubting the Pioneers has become a fool’s errand and I won’t be the one to do it.
- Michigan. Michigan finally gets to enter the fall without drama, but with far less first-round talent than they have enjoyed since 2020. While the offensive power is certain to drop off with the loss of Adam Fantilli and Mackie Samoskevich, the Wolverines still have as much talent as just about anyone in the country and a full year of Head Coach Brandon Naurato’s system under their belts. Considering the Frozen Four semifinal struggles of last year’s starting goalie Erik Portillo, a fresh start between the pipes might be less of a negative than it is for other teams.
- Michigan Tech. Tech’s inclusion here is a combination of legitimate talent (Kyle Kukkonen, Blake Pietila, Arvid Caderoth, Patriks Marcinkevics, etc) and simple opportunity. I’d wager Tech is the most likely team in the country to get their conference’s automatic bid so their odds of making the Frozen Four are therefore higher than most. The likely mid-season addition of Austen Swankler should add scoring down the stretch, which isn’t a bad thing for a team that can struggle scoring at times.
- Minnesota. The Gophers were in the same class as BU up until Logan Cooley decided to go pro late in the summer. His departure substantially harms the offensive upside of this team, and they will now have to rely on depth scoring rather than simply powering up a first line and letting them carry the load. Still, they return Justin Close in net and as always have an abundance of talent throughout the lineup. No reason to think they won’t win yet another Big Ten regular season title.
- Quinnipiac. The defending champions lost some pieces, but they are still chock full of graduate students and upperclassmen. I’m concerned about their goaltending, considering the departure of goaltender Yaniv Perets. If they can maintain their recent standard of limiting shots and chances, it may not matter who is between the pipes.
Conference Power Rankings
As discussed extensively last season, one of the biggest factors in making the NCAA tournament is the success of your team’s conference in non-conference play. While I won’t predict the 16-team field yet, I will give you my prediction for conference rankings (we’ll determine this by winning percentage). We’ll revisit this list around the holidays once the majority of non-conference ends. If the Big Ten or Hockey East were weaker, I might predict a record number of NCHC teams making the tournament as I think seven of the eight schools have NCAA-caliber rosters, but there’s enough depth nationwide that four or five is more likely. Elsewhere, the CCHA is primed for a down year overall with only the Huskies looking like a true contender.
- Big Ten
- Hockey East
- Atlantic Hockey
Cover photo by Kyle Prudhomme