Preseason Top 16: #12 Denver
The Pioneers had to do without stalwart goalie Sam Brittain for much of the year, but it did not hinder them too much as they mounted a late charge, winning 6 of their final 8 WCHA games to finish third in the league. Denver then advanced to their second straight WCHA championship game before losing to North Dakota in a rematch of the 2011 game. They then lost their first NCAA tournament game to Ferris State
It was the best of times….
During that aforementioned stretch when the Pioneers needed to make up points in a hurry to improve their WCHA position and they did just that, sweeping Minnesota and Nebraska-Omaha while splitting with Wisconsin and North Dakota. They then had a four game winning streak right after that, winning the 2nd and 3rd games of their first round playoff series vs. Wisconsin and then winning their first two games at the Final Five.
It was the worst of times…
Denver never really had an extended losing streak, so instead we will highlight a couple injuries to star forward Jason Zucker. Zucker was hit from behind by Minnesota's Kyle Rau in their February 10th matchup and then had to miss much of the WCHA title game against North Dakota.
The Coach - George Gwozdecky (Wisconsin '77)
Gwozdecky is the only coach to win a title as a player, assistant and a head man, and he has enjoyed nothing but success behind the bench at Denver. The Pioneers are the last school to win back to back championships, winning it all in 2004 and 2005. He's won 398 games at Denver and has made 11 of the last 19 NCAA tournaments. He has coached one Hobey winner, Matt Carle in 2006.
Notable Current NHL Alumni
Players to watch
Denver lost a lot from last year's team, but still bring a lot of talent back. Sam Brittain and Juho Olkinuora form probably the best goalie tandem in the WCHA, with Brittain posting a .932 save percentage and Olkinuora a .924 mark. Denver loses John Lee and John Ryder, two backbones of their defense, to graduation, but with all the talent on the blueline back both of those goalies should post very good numbers again.
The goal scoring duties will probably fall to Chris Knowlton and Nick Shore. Shore is the most talented forward on the team with Drew Shore and Jason Zucker leaving early. Shore was drafted 82nd overall in the 2011 NHL Draft and is Drew's brother. Knowlton scored 12 goals despite missing the team's first 6 games due to disciplinary reasons.
Shawn Ostrow is undrafted and spent last year as the center on DU's third line, but the brother of former DU captain Kyle Ostrow set a career high with 11 goals last season as a Junior, topping his previous career high on November 18th.
The most talented player on the Pios roster however is defenseman Joey LaLeggia. In 2012, his final year of NHL Draft eligibility, LaLeggia was picked 123rd overall by the Oilers. He piled up the points in the BCHL and has continued to do so with Denver, scoring 11 goals and 38 points as a Freshman
Nolan Zajac will become the fourth of the Zajac clan to play D1 hockey after Travis and Darcy played at North Dakota and Kelly just finished a great career at Union. Zajac differs from his brothers however in that he is a defenseman. He played at both Cedar Rapids and Omaha last year, factoring as a nice puck moving defenseman while playing solidly in his own end.
Quentin Shore, the brother of Nick and Drew Shore, had 17 goals (8 of them game winners) with the NTDP last year and had 3 goals at the Under 18 world championships.
Garrett Allen was the subject of a bit of controversy when it was falsely reported by a Wisconsin blogger that he wouldn't attend the school. Allen had a huge drop off in points from his first to second USHL season, but he'll likely be a four year contributor and at a school like Denver that loses so many kids early to the NHL that is an important piece to have.
Non conference series to watch:
Just after the new year the Pioneers host Cornell, who were a bounce or two away from the Frozen Four last year, and whom we will see in the rankings a bit later.
With Brittain and Olkinuora back the Pioneers should be in nearly every game. That will give some of their young forwards time to adjust to college hockey, and some of their veteran forwards time to adjust to their new roles. With the star power of LaLeggia and potential star power of Shore as well as a couple of their recruits, Denver should be in the hunt for another top 3 WCHA finish.