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College hockey has been chaotic this season. Here's a theory why

The ability to add college-ready players has eliminated the usual gaps between teams.

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Fighting Hawks goaltender Jakob Hellsten blocks a point-blank shot from Bemidji State forward Eric Martin (11) as UND defenseman Chris Jandric (7) looks on in the first period of a men's hockey game at Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks on Saturday, November 26, 2022.
Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald
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GRAND FORKS — The weekly men's college hockey national poll was released Monday.

Six different teams received first-place votes, reflecting the chaotic nature of this season.

Last weekend provided several examples:

  • Unranked Omaha outshot No. 1 Denver 40-22 en route to a 3-0 shutout victory in Denver.
  • Unranked Arizona State scored six goals in a game against No. 2 Minnesota without getting a single power-play chance.
  • Unranked Brown upset No. 8 Providence.
  • Long Island, previously 1-9-1, upset No. 12 Ohio State.

The weekend was not an outlier. It has been a common occurrence each weekend this season.

Someone asked the question this week: "Is anybody actually good in college hockey this year?"

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The answer: Yes. Probably more than usual.

The reason is the transfer portal, and to an extent, the fifth-year seniors.

In the past, when teams lost large senior classes — or others to NHL contracts — they'd replace them with freshmen.

It can often take those freshmen up to two full years until they are major producers in college hockey. Only the elite can score significantly as freshmen. So, those rebuilding teams drop off quite a bit.

UND has weathered that cycle better than anyone. It hasn't posted a losing season in over 20 years now.

The last sub-.500 season came in 2001-02. That was a result of one of those cycles. UND had 12 freshmen that year after losing prominent players from an NCAA runner-up squad.

It was an up-and-down season in 2001-02, and UND finished 16-19-2. Those freshmen followed a regular college hockey progression. By the time they were seniors, they led UND back to the NCAA title game.

But teams no longer have to go through those rebuilding routines.

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They don't have to fill those roster spots with freshmen who have to find their way. They can bring in experienced veterans who are ready to produce.

For example, take a look at UND's next two opponents — St. Cloud State and Western Michigan.

The Huskies finished tied for fourth in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference last season and lost top-scorer Kevin Fitzgerald, top points-per-game scorer Sam Hentges, top defenseman Nick Perbix, 125-point forward Easton Brodzinski, 87-point forward Nolan Walker and five-year starting goalie David Hrenak.

St. Cloud State's recruiting class had one instant impact player in forward Adam Ingram. The rest were players who figured to take a normal college progression.

In the past, the Huskies likely would have dropped back in the pack a little bit.

But that hasn't happened. They enter this weekend's series against UND (7:30 p.m. Friday, 6 p.m. Saturday, Herb Brooks National Hockey Center) with an 11-3 record and the nation's No. 3 national ranking.

Instead of having to plug players into roles they might not be ready for, St. Cloud State went out and got 24-year-old forward Grant Cruikshank, who has already developed into a high-end college scorer. The Huskies got 23-year-old defenseman Dylan Anhorn, who has been in college for three years at Union. They added 21-year-old goalie Dominic Basse, who was a two-year starter at Colorado College.

With that, the Huskies did not have to thrust any of their rookies into major roles. All of the sudden, they're back as a top team again.

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Western Michigan lost its top five scorers, top two defensemen and its starting goalie from last season's team.

The Broncos' recruiting class had one instant impact player in forward Ryan McAllister.

But the Broncos were able to fill needs by grabbing 25-year-old defenseman Zak Galambos, a veteran who played at both American International and MSU-Mankato, and 23-year-old defenseman Carter Berger from UConn to anchor the blue line. Western Michigan also picked up goalie Cameron Rowe from Wisconsin and forward Jack Perbix from Minnesota.

Despite losing 11 players off of last year's roster, Western Michigan is only suiting up one freshman on many nights. That would not have been possible in the pre-portal era.

As a result, the Broncos are again a top-15 team.

There are smaller examples, too.

In Grand Forks, UND was able to go get a fifth-year senior and NCAA national champion in Ty Farmer to play defense instead of bringing in Abram Wiebe, who likely would have struggled this season. Wiebe now gets to play an extra year of junior hockey and come in when he's ready.

In Duluth, the Bulldogs lacked an offensive-producing defenseman. Knowing it's extremely difficult for rookie defensemen to produce, they went and picked up fifth-year senior Derek Daschke from Miami.

And Arizona State, which has knocked off traditional college hockey powers UND and Minnesota this season, grabbed five of the most prominent players in the portal this offseason to rebuild. In three games against UND and Minnesota, the Sun Devils scored 11 goals — 10 of them were either scored or set up by transfers.

The usual gaps between top teams and rebuilding teams are not what they used to be, because teams don't have to wait for their freshmen to become upperclassmen anymore.

Everyone can address their needs with experienced players who are ready to make an impact instead of filling those roster spots with freshmen, who are going to go through growing pains.

In the past, college hockey's equalizer was the ability to bring in 21-year-old freshmen for teams that don't recruit the high NHL draft picks. Now, teams can do even better. They can grab 24-year-old seniors.

The gulfs between teams is not as great as the past, and don't expect that to change any time soon.

The transfer portal isn't going anywhere and the players who get a fifth year of eligibility due to the COVID-impacted season will still be ballooning the player pool for two more offseasons.

Schlossman has covered college hockey for the Grand Forks Herald since 2005. He has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors as the top beat writer for the Herald's circulation division four times and the North Dakota sportswriter of the year once. He resides in Grand Forks. Reach him at bschlossman@gfherald.com.
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