One glance at the National Collegiate Hockey Conference stat sheet will tell a glaring story about the 2014-15 Denver Pioneers.
They were good. Actually, they were really good. Reaching the NCAA quarterfinals in just his second year with the team was beyond expectations for head coach Jim Montgomery, but it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who spends 15 minutes researching the Pioneers.
First off, they could score. Three of the top five NCHC scorers last year called Magness Arena their home. Danton Heinen, Trevor Moore and Joey LaLeggia each finished with at least 40 total points on the year. Heinen led the conference in total points with 45 and Moore found the net 22 times, also tops in the NCHC.
“We’ve always been a puck possession team, which we’ll still try to be,” Moore said. “I think our scoring off the rush and our ability to create more exciting plays is going to be better this year compared to last year.”
Last year’s Pioneers could also stop the puck. When Tanner Jaillet was in the net, he won games. He finished fifth in the conference in wins with 15. When Evan Cowley was in net, teams had a hard time scoring. He ranked third in the NCHC in save percentage (.924) and fourth in goals allowed (2.16).
Now here’s the really scary part about last year’s Pioneers: They were young.
LaLeggia is the only Pio who finished at or near the top of a given stat category and won’t be returning. DU has shown to be explosive already, but they’re still regarded as a team filled with youth.
Last year Montgomery relied on his seniors when the Pioneers were on either the power play or penalty kill. In all, Denver lost seven seniors from a year ago. The coach insists that, even with a young and talented team, the veteran presence will be missed, despite the fact that only a few of them were at the top of the stat sheets.
“They all played one or both special teams,” Montgomery said. “There are a lot of quality minutes that we have to replace. Everyone will point to Joey LaLeggia, and he’s a huge piece that’s gone, but all of our seniors are big minutes crushers.”
With the departure of every senior class comes an incoming group of freshmen. But it’s unclear how many of those vital minutes will be filled with those fresh faces.
According to Moore, the freshmen are adding a level of excitement to this team that will translate to success when the puck hits the ice for real.
“I wasn’t really sure; I (didn’t) know our freshman class that well,” Moore said. “After watching them skate this summer, I’m really excited about it.”
Among the lessons that upper-classmen like Heinen and Moore will have to teach incoming players will be traditions that start at home. For starters, there is always a fight to bring home the coveted Gold Pan, the traveling trophy awarded to the winner of DU’s season series with Colorado College.
The Pioneers were able to claim the Gold Pan last season with a complete sweep of the Tigers, outscoring them 23-8 in the four games. Despite the difficult seasons the Tigers have faced lately, when it comes time to battle for the Gold Pan, Moore and Montgomery know they’ll get CC’s best effort.
“We have to be ready every time we play them,” Moore said. “Last year they weren’t so good, I’m not sure how they’re going to be this year, but it doesn’t matter where either of us are in the standings, it’s always going to be a good game.”
Montgomery echoes the sentiment and even acknowledges that planning for CC plays a big role in how the Pioneers prepare for the season.
“I found out my first year here how important (winning the Gold Pan) was to faculty, campus and our Denver hockey alums,” Montgomery said. “It’s something that’s important to us and it’s part of our goals that we map out every season.”
The players who were a part of last year’s quarterfinal run understand what it means to be a Pioneer. They understand the traditions of old, and they vividly recall what it took to advance deep into last season’s NCAA hockey playoffs. But can an experienced core paired with a talented incoming class be the difference in advancing even further in the tournament than in 2014 and ‘15?
That’s the question Pioneers are ready to answer.