USCHO.com Decade in Review: NCHC takes over the college hockey landscape

North Dakota at Denver, 2-12-16 (Candace Horgan)
Will Butcher won the Hobey Baker Award and also helped lead Denver to a national championship 2017 (photo: Candace Horgan).

Though it is only in its seventh season of play, the NCHC has clearly established itself as the dominant conference in the college hockey landscape.

Not since the early 2000s, when the WCHA captured six national championships in a seven-year span, has a conference ruled the roost the way the NCHC has.

If four consecutive national championships was not enough to prove how much the NCHC rules college hockey, a Dec. 16 tweet from Grand Forks Herald writer Brad Schlossman showed it even more.

Over the last six seasons, NCHC teams have occupied the top spot in the poll for 84 weeks. The conference in second place, the Big Ten, has spent 15 weeks in the top spot. In fact, four NCHC teams, North Dakota (22), St. Cloud State (22), Denver (21), and Minnesota Duluth (19), have spent more time in the top spot than any other conference.

In the postseason, the NCHC has sent at least three teams to the national tournament every year and has also sent at least one team to the Frozen Four. Further, in four of the league’s six seasons, two NCHC teams have made the Frozen Four. The league has had 10 teams total in the Frozen Four during its history, more than any other conference.

Breaking down the numbers further, the NCHC has had at least one of the top four seeds in the NCAA tournament in every year of the league’s history except its first, and in three of the six seasons, two NCHC teams have been among the top four seeds. The NCHC also produced one of only two No. 1 seeds overall to win the NCAA tournament this decade when Denver did it in 2017.

The NCHC consistently has the best out-of-conference winning percentage in the regular season, and often has 4-5 teams in the USCHO.com poll. This season is no different, with Denver, Minnesota Duluth, North Dakota, Nebraska-Omaha, St. Cloud State and Western Michigan all having been ranked at one point.

If the season were to end today, two NCHC teams would again be among the top four seeds, with North Dakota atop the PairWise rankings and Denver fourth, and a third NCHC team, Minnesota Duluth, would also qualify.

As we look back at the league’s six seasons, here are five moments that stand out:

1. First national championship

In the first two seasons of the league, NCHC teams made the Frozen Four, but hadn’t secured a win there. In Tampa Bay in 2016, an NCHC team was guaranteed to advance to the championship game when North Dakota faced Denver, with the Fighting Hawks ultimately prevailing 4-2 in an electrifying game that saw Denver rally from a two-goal deficit in the third period to tie it before North Dakota’s Nick Schmaltz scored at 19:03 of the third to send North Dakota into the championship game. North Dakota went on to roll over Quinnipiac 5-1 in the title game, securing the young conference its first national championship. Senior Drake Caggiula, who had 51 points on the season, second to dynamic freshman Brock Boeser, was named tournament most outstanding player.

2. The all-NCHC national championship

One year after North Dakota’s run, the NCHC produced the top two seeds in the NCAA tournament in No. 1 Denver and No. 2 Minnesota Duluth. Denver had won the Penrose Cup as the league’s regular season champion, going 29-7-4. Minnesota Duluth went 25-6-7 and won the NCHC Frozen Faceoff tournament. The two had been, for the most part, the best teams in college hockey all season long. In the Frozen Four in Chicago, Denver rolled past Notre Dame 6-1, while Minnesota Duluth won a typical defensive battle over Harvard, 2-1, when Alex Iafallo scored with 27 seconds remaining in the game. In the championship game, Denver jumped out to a 2-0 lead in a 16-second span early in the second period. Duluth got one back two minutes later on a power play, but Jarid Lukosevicious completed his hat trick at 12:23 of the second. Duluth got one back late in the third, but couldn’t get the equalizer, and Denver won the eighth national championship in the program’s history.

3. Back to back

In April 2019, Minnesota Duluth became the first team since Denver in 2004 and 2005 to repeat as national champions. The Bulldogs entered the tournament as the second seed, having gone 25-11-2, and won the tournament with a dominating defensive displaying, giving up a single goal in each of the first three games of the tournament before blanking Massachusetts 3-0 in the championship. An OT goal by Massachusetts prevented a repeat of the 2017 all-NCHC national championship, as Denver’s rally fell short.

4. Moving to the Xcel

After playing the Frozen Faceoff, the league’s playoff tournament, in the Target Center in downtown Minneapolis the first four seasons, the tournament moved to the Xcel Energy Center in 2018. The newer, glitzier arena has proved a great venue to showcase the NCHC. Fans came out in force, with the 2018 two-day combined attendance of 23,355 being the greatest in the league’s history.

5. Six squads

In the league’s second season, its out-of-conference dominance was rewarded when six teams made the NCHC tournament. Those six teams all had 20-win seasons. Two of those, North Dakota and Omaha, made the Frozen Four. Further, four NCHC teams played in the regional finals, and tight games won by Boston University and Providence over Minnesota Duluth and Denver, respectively, prevented an all-NCHC Frozen Four.

Team of the Decade: Denver, 2016-17

Picking a team of the decade comes down to definitions. One way to look at it would be program of the decade. In that case, it would have to be Minnesota Duluth, which won three national championships this decade, though one was when the team was in the WCHA. However, it seems most other conference writers are going with single-season picks, and in that case it has to be Denver in 2016-17. The Pioneers dominated the regular season, going 29-7-4 and winning the Penrose Cup as league champion by going 18-3-3 in league play. They made the Frozen Faceoff, losing to North Dakota, 1-0. They rolled through the first three rounds of the NCAA tournament with powerhouse offensive performances, beating Michigan Tech 5-2, Penn State 6-3, and Notre Dame, 6-1. Before the national championship game, goalie Tanner Jaillet won the Mike Richter Award and defenseman Will Butcher won the Hobey Baker Award. The Pioneers then earned their eighth national championship in a tight 3-2 battle over league rival Minnesota Duluth.

Honorable mentions: 2018-19 Minnesota Duluth, 2015-16 North Dakota, 2018-19 St. Cloud State

Player of the Decade: Will Butcher, Denver, 2013-17

In terms of dynamic players, the NCHC has been blessed with so many that it’s really difficult to choose this winner. Some players have only hung around for a couple of seasons before moving on to the pros. Brock Boeser, for instance, played two years at North Dakota and was named to the NCHC first team as a rookie before departing for Vancouver, where he has been an electric player. Henrik Borgström wowed in his two seasons at Denver, including being a Hobey Hat Trick finalist in his sophomore season. Minnesota Duluth’s Scott Perunovich has been a huge part in his team’s back-to-back national championships, and if this story was being written at the end of next season, he’d probably be in line for the honor.

Ultimately, it seems fitting to pick a player who played four full years of college hockey and four seasons in the NCHC, and based on that, Will Butcher of Denver gets the nod. Butcher is the only NCHC player to win the Hobey Baker Award. That season, he was also NCHC player of the year and NCHC offensive defenseman of the year and an NCHC first team pick. His leadership as a senior was a key part of keeping Denver grounded and on track to win the national championship. I’ll never forget interviewing him in the Chicago Blackhawks locker room on the day before the championship game and how he projected an aura of calm that seemed to rub off on his teammates.

Butcher finished his college career with 103 points on 28 goals and 75 assists in 158 games played at Denver.

Honorable mentions: Jimmy Schuldt, St. Cloud State; Alex Iafallo, Minnesota Duluth; Austin Ortega, Omaha; Tanner Jaillet, Denver; Drake Caggiula, North Dakota; Hunter Shepard, Minnesota Duluth

Looking ahead

College hockey is cyclical. For instance, after Wisconsin won the last national championship in the WCHA’s dominating run in the early aughts, Hockey East teams won four championships in five years from 2008-2012. Nevertheless, the NCHC should be the major player in college hockey for years to come. The teams in the conference have outstanding facilities and electrifying rivalries that will continue to attract top talent.