Feels good to be back. College hockey season opened up in earnest last weekend and with that, the College Hockey Roundup makes its return to USofH on a new day. Usually a Monday or Tuesday piece, I’m moving the CHR to Thursdays for the time being.
With so much college hockey on TV this year, I figured I’d switch up the format a little bit and do more of a weekend prep than a weekend review. This weekend’s TV schedule is relatively light compared to some weekends this fall, but it does feature one of the most intriguing match-ups of the young season.
Additionally, a new weekly feature of the College Hockey Roundup will be a player spotlight, focusing on a particularly great performance from the previous weekend, as well as why that player is worth watching going forward.
Then we get back to our regular roundup of bigger news elements from the week in college hockey, in addition to one new twist. I’ll also have a “Five Thoughts” every week, which is a blatant rip-off of Elliotte Friedman’s brilliant weekly 30 Thoughts column on the NHL for CBC. Five Thoughts will usually just be a random smattering of brief musings on news items and various opinions.
So enough explaining, let’s get to the meat…
Weekend Viewer’s Guide to College Hockey
North Dakota at Miami, Friday, 7 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network
This game is an exciting one on a lot of levels. It’s the first NCHC conference game ever, pitting the league’s best two teams against each other right away. Miami is coming off a weekend sweep of in-state rival Ohio State in which the RedHawks scored 12 goals. Meanwhile, UND beat and tied Vermont.
Miami is the new consensus No. 1 team in the country, while UND is hovering near the top five in the polls.
There’s plenty to look for in this game, including Riley Barber, who is the nation’s leading scorer after one weekend with seven points including a four-goal performance against OSU Saturday. UND’s Rocco Grimaldi is another one to watch as he had five points in North Dakota’s home series with Vermont including one really pretty goal.
Both squads are going to be in the running for the NCHC’s first championship and it wouldn’t be a surprise for either team to want to send the other an early message. With the national spotlight, one of the best buildings in college hockey and two terrific teams, the NCHC is getting kicked off in style.
Others of Note:
Minnesota Duluth at Colorado College, Friday, 9:37 ET, CBS Sports Network — The second of CBS’ NCHC double-header, UMD’s goalies have looked good, but goal-scoring against Michigan Tech was an issue. This will be Colorado College’s first live game of the season after a pair of high-scoring exhibitions for the Tigers.
Michigan at New Hampshire, Friday, 7:30 ET, FCS — After Michigan’s huge opening-night win against Boston College, the Wolverines put a hurtin’ on RIT on the road. UNH beat Clarkson and hung with Minnesota, only to lose 3-2. These are two quality teams with a lot of goal-scoring potential up front. This will be an interesting test for both teams.
Also on the air:
Bemidji State at Minnesota, Friday, 8:37 ET, FCS
Michigan at UNH, Saturday, 7:00 ET, FCS
Bemidji State at Minnesota, Saturday, 8:07 ET, FCS
College Hockey Roundup Player Spotlight
Riley Barber, So., RW — Miami University
Stat Line: 2 GP, 4-3–7
NHL Rights: Washington Capitals
A four-goal night at any level is pretty incredible, but to do it on opening weekend in front of a packed house and against an in-state rival on the back half of a home-and-home is extra special. That’s exactly what Barber did on Saturday night. You can watch highlights of his performance here.
Barber’s emergence over the last two seasons as both a college hockey star and high-level NHL prospect has been a bit of a surprise. He’s really taken some big steps forward in his physical strength and it showed already this weekend.
His first goal Saturday night was off a terrific power move to the net, where he just lowered his shoulder, cut to the front and tucked it home. The thing Barber has really shown is a more natural affinity for scoring. He’s also far from one-dimensional. He has good on-ice vision, he plays with plenty of energy and while he’s offensively dynamic, he’s not slacking in his own end.
After his seven-point weekend, Barber’s career point total is up to 46 in 42 games. For those following along, that’s good.
Barber will have a big test this weekend when North Dakota comes to town. The NCHC will be tougher than the CCHA was last season, without a doubt. That means Barber’s production is worth watching. After putting up 39 points as a true freshman last year, he’ll remain a focal point of Miami’s offense along with linemate and team captain Austin Czarnik. Those two are vital to meeting the lofty expectations heaped on Miami coming into the season.
This weekend will present a big early challenge for the RedHawks. No one expects Barber to put up another seven points, but he’ll need to be a factor in the games for Miami to have success in a huge home series.
It’s too early to predict how this season will go for the 19-year-old sophomore, but what a great start to the campaign he had. Barber is a lock to make the U.S. National Junior Team and is more than likely going to be a top-line player for Team USA and if he keeps producing he could sneak into the Hobey Baker discussion. This could be a really interesting year for the guy the Washington Capitals took a late-round stab at two years ago.
Top Canadian Recruit Decommits from North Dakota, Signs in WHL
Ryan Gropp had a lot of hype surrounding him as a No. 6 pick in the WHL Bantam Draft. When he committed to North Dakota in July, it was considered a major win for college hockey to nab a highly-regarded player from inside WHL territory. That enthusiasm died when Gropp signed with the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds earlier this week.
A late 1996 birthdate, Gropp is not eligible for the NHL Draft until 2015. He had been struggling to produce in the usual goal-friendly BCHL. He had eight points in 10 games with the Penticton Vees, which isn’t bad, but not great for a player of Gropp’s talent.
The Gropp hype machine really kicked into high gear following Team Canada’s Ivan Hlinka camp, where he performed well. Many believed his not making the team was tied to recent commitment to North Dakota.
According to Penticton Vees head coach Fred Harbison in a released statement, Gropp’s departure from the team came after a mutual agreement:
“Ryan’s mindset last summer when he committed to UND (University of North Dakota) and decided to return to Penticton, was that he would enter the NCAA as a true freshman which coincides with his draft year.
“Unfortunately Ryan did not get off to the start everyone expected this season, hence possibly affecting his long term goals. After a few discussions with Ryan and his family, we came to the conclusion it would be best for Ryan to change directions and move on to the WHL.
Ryan was a great teammate during his time in Penticton, and our organization wishes him nothing but the best in his future hockey endeavors.”
It seems Gropp leaves his current team early in the season with no hard feelings, but I’m sure the North Dakota faithful is feeling a bit shell-shocked.
Gropp is the fifth major commitment in three years to go back on a commitment to sign with a CHL club. The big forward joins J.T. Miller (Plymouth), Stefan Matteau (Blainville-Boisbriand), Miles Koules (Medicine Hat) and Brendan Lemieux (Barrie) as former UND commits opting for the major junior route.
Losing recruits to the CHL is a growing problem for top programs as they do the best they can to bring in top talent. It’s the risk college programs run when going after the more highly-regarded NHL prospects that have yet to sign with a CHL club. There’s always that possibility they’ll head north.
Some coaches are starting to restructure their recruiting plans to go after safer players, guys with a low flight-risk and enough upside to develop into a serviceable college player over a four-year span.
At this point, it’s hard to blame them. The best players come in and usually only stick around for two years anyway. Still, if college hockey wants to remain a top-level producer of NHL talent, it should keep going after elite recruits in the hopes they keep a few, even if it’s only for a few years.
They’re still landing guys like Jacob Trouba, Nic Kerdiles, Jordan Schmaltz and others that had CHL options, high draft position and talent. Getting guys like that makes the college game better and keeps the skill level high.
It will be interesting to see how North Dakota readjusts, if at all after getting burned so often after years of essentially being immune to such troubles.
Top programs in college can produce pro talent with the best of them, but the landscape has changed. The recruiting battle for top talent remains as hot as ever.
1. The Sacred Heart 2-1 upset win over UMass-Lowell last week was rather stunning. The fact that the Pioneers were able to get even two past the nation’s top returning goaltender statistically, is almost unfathomable. The fact that the River Hawks could only manage one goal is even more puzzling. Last season, Sacred Heart allowed 99 more goals than it scored en route to a two-win season. Their victory over Lowell was the school’s first-ever against a Hockey East foe and first since 2011 against a non-Atlantic Hockey opponent. It’s a crazy huge upset.
2. Wisconsin travels to Boston for a tough weekend with games against Boston College and Boston University on back-to-back nights. These are two interesting match-ups in a lot of ways, but I’m most interested in seeing how the Badgers come out of it. With so much veteran talent, they have to take advantage of the youth on both teams. BC has a lot of freshmen in the lineup, while BU relies heavily on its sophomore class. Since it’s still so early in the season, I don’t put too much stock in the end results, but this is a chance for the Badgers to make an early announcement to college hockey that they’re for real on the road.
3. I’ll be contributing some columns over at USCHO.com this year and my first was on Penn State’s potential impact on college hockey going forward. I think watching what happens at Happy Valley over the next two or three years is going to be one of the most fascinating experiments we’ve ever had in college hockey. Beyond realignment, we can watch a program get built from the ground up (with, admittedly a ton of money) and see how long it takes them to become a championship contender. Given Penn State’s name recognition, the facility they have and the possible fan support, I think they’re a possible sleeping giant. As I wrote in the column, if they can succeed quickly, it could make other Big Ten athletic directors take a much longer look at adding hockey. We’ll see how it goes.
4. Have you been watching what Jacob Trouba is doing with the Winnipeg Jets this season? Perhaps it shouldn’t be much of a surprise after his dominant performance as a true freshman last season at Michigan, but he looks very close to an NHL regular at this point. The big defenseman is leading all rookies with an average of 23:25 on ice and appears to have stapled himself to Winnipeg’s top-four on defense. He had a goal and an assist in his first NHL game, is getting used in every situation and the fancy stats show the Jets are a better team when he’s on the ice. It takes a special player to do what Trouba is doing, and he really is a freak developmentally, but he showed that even college can be a quick and successful route to the NHL. He definitely made the right move signing after his freshman campaign.
5. Providence’s weekend sweep of Minnesota State was not necessarily a surprise, but it was interesting. Again, I try not to put too much weight into early results as most teams haven’t had a lot of practice time with coaches due to the ridiculous NCAA rules on the matter, but out-scoring a tournament team 8-1 over a weekend in notable. Minnesota State looks to be the WCHA’s best team and Providence took it to them. Jon Gillies was once again brilliant, allowing just one goal over two games and coming up with a 38-save shutout Saturday against the Mavericks. Hockey East is a top-heavy conference, with its top six teams looking all like legitimate conference title threats. I picked Providence to finish sixth in the league, but if Gillies maintains this kind of play and the goal scoring holds up throughout the year, the Friars are going to make me look really bad. I’m OK with that.