NCAA Hockey Season Preview: BU well-positioned for another Frozen Four run

The start of the NCAA hockey season is upon us, and there is chaos at the top of the national standings.

Most of the best teams in the country suffered heavy losses to graduation, transfer, and/or early signings, as is usually the case. Boston University was no exception. The Terriers suffered a lot of losses, including pro signings for guys like starting goalie Drew Commesso and nearly point-a-game defenceman Domenick Fensore; transfers from heavily used players Ethan Phillips and Jamie Armstrong; and graduation for high-scoring forwards Matt Brown, Jay O'Brien, and Wilmer Skoog.

And yet, it appears as though the Terriers will be one of the very best teams in the country once again this coming season, which kicks off this Saturday, October 7.

The other three teams that made last season's Frozen Four — Michigan, Minnesota, and national champion Quinnipiac — suffered heavier losses. All of them lost at least one player you would have called their most valuable. Adam Fantilli, Erik Portillo, Mackie Samoskevich Luke Hughes, gone. Yaniv Perets, Ethan De Jong, Zach Metsa, gone. Logan Cooley, Matthew Knies, Brock Faber, gone.

And yes, the Terriers lost all their own good, veteran players listed above, but they return Hobey Baker finalist Lane Hutson (Montréal Canadiens), who was by far their best player last season, as well as six other players who got to 20 points last season (almost all of them as freshmen) despite lesser roles with the club. Guys like Jeremy Wilmer and Ryan Greene (Chicago) will be asked to step up, but the way things went for the Terriers last year and their own obvious talent levels, there's little reason to believe coach Jay Pandolfo can't get more out of each of them.

But let's not make any bones about it: Hutson probably has the inside track for a Hobey this season. As a freshman, he posted 48 points, the most by any rookie defenceman in college hockey in decades. When he was on the ice, BU outscored its opponents 72-34 (a goal share of 67.9 percent), and while that will be hard to beat next season, the fact is that guys don't tend to get worse between their age-18 and age-19 seasons.

But far more importantly, Hutson is poised to get the kind of help most players can only dream of. Macklin Celebrini, the odds-on bet to become the No. 1 overall pick in next June's draft, is coming to Comm. Ave. and seems poised to have a similar impact to another former highly rated Terrier who played college hockey in his draft year: Jack Eichel.

In Eichel's first and only season of college hockey, he went wild, posting 26 goals and 71 points for a team that had been downright bad the previous season with a very similar roster. He had some help along the way, of course, but he was the engine that carried his BU club to a national title game (best not to talk about what happened in that one). The fact is that adding a player of this calibre to the roster of a team that went to the Frozen Four last spring makes the Terriers terrifying.

You can dismiss the impact of even a really good, young freshman, but at this point you do so at your own peril. Adam Fantilli won the Hobey Baker just last year on a stacked Michigan team, and beat out Cooley, another freshman, who was in his draft-plus-one season. It remains possible that the level of play is maybe a smidge too high for Celebrini to be impactful in the way Fantilli or Eichel or even Paul Kariya — these are the only three freshmen to ever win the Hobey, all of whom did so in their draft years — but the fact is to propel a team like BU even higher in the national rankings for a good chunk of the year, Celebrini would just need to be "pretty good."

It should be noted that Celebrini may miss the start of the year while recovering from a shoulder injury suffered at World U18s, but he's already practicing with the team (albeit in a no-contact jersey) and Pandolfo is hopeful he and defenceman Case McCarthy, Hutson's D partner last season, can be ready for the opening game against Bentley.

It's worth noting, too, that BU will have eight other freshmen, but that includes No. 11 pick Tom Willander (Vancouver Canucks), as well as a handful of other players who were just drafted in Nashville this past June.

But beyond Celebrini and (maybe) Willander, BU's most impactful offseason addition is undoubtedly in goal. The Terriers turned over their entire goaltending group from last season but replaced them all with transfers, rather than relying even partly on rookies. Headlining this group is the surefire starter, Mathieu Caron. The senior netminder transferred from Brown, where he was excellent as the Bears' starter from the day he arrived on campus. Despite getting very little help from the team in front of him, Caron went .916 in 50 games across two seasons.

At BU, the lift will be a lot easier, because the Terriers used an exceptional defensive system that allowed a feast-or-famine goaltender like Commesso (.914 over 73 games in his three years) to shine in key moments. The Terriers won the Hockey East regular-season and postseason championships and outscored two extremely good opponents 7-2 on aggregate in the NCAA regional. There's little reason to believe these events are not repeatable.

Hockey East should be a tougher competition this year, especially because the Terriers' archrival Boston College is bringing in arguably the best freshman class in the country, which includes the incredible top line from last year's USNTDP club Will Smith (San Jose Sharks), Ryan Leonard (Washington Capitals), and Gabriel Perreault (New York Rangers) (the Nos. 5, 8, and 23 picks, respectively, in the 2023 draft) among others.

But BU was the near-unanimous choice to win Hockey East once again this season in both the coaches' and media poll because there's proof of concept, a Hobey Baker-calibre defenceman, a future No. 1 pick, and a proven college hockey goaltender. Plus, the crowd at the top of the national picture opened up a little bit for the Terriers to move into the light a bit more.

Now it's up to them to take that step. The pressure is on and, really, there can't be any excuses.

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This article is about:
NCAA Boston Univ. Bowling Green State Univ. Minnesota State Univ. (Mankato) Mathieu Caron Macklin Celebrini Lane Hutson Jay Pandolfo
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