The conventional wisdom in sports is that the hardest thing to do is repeat as a champion. This accepted generally for all sports, pro and college, when it reality it’s been shown to be more much more difficult for certain sports. This isn’t to take away from Alabama winning 4 of 7 national titles in football or UCLA basketball cleaning up in the 60’s and 70’s.
No sport presents a greater challenge to a defending champion than in hockey. Many factors might explain this, such as a grueling post-season system and a natural element of luck in the sport. The Pittsburgh Penguins just did it in the NHL for the first time in about 20 years. But it proves to be just as difficult, if not more so, in the college game, where it has happened just eight times overall and twice since 1972.
The DU Pioneers are almost assuredly to be ranked No. 1 going into the 2017-18 season after winning the title for the 8th time last season. Along with the eight titles in program history, DU has shown an uncanny ability for winning titles in pairs — a repeat this upcoming season would be the Pioneers’ fourth. To get a sense of what lies ahead for DU in the quest for a repeat, it feels like a good time to take a look back at how the team pulled it off the last time around.
The hype surrounding the 2017-18 season justifiably comes from an impressive level of talent returning to the team. Hobey Baker winning defenseman Will Butcher is the only player who was top-5 in team scoring who won’t return in 2017. But Butcher is a talent unlikely to be replaced by just one player.
On a larger scale, DU will be in a better spot in terms of returning production than it was after winning the 2004 title: 70.6% of scoring production will be back in 2017, while 63.7% returned after the first of two tiles in 2004. Of course it helps when your top three scorers — Troy Terry (22 G, 23 A), Henrik Borgstrom (22 G, 21 A) and Dylan Gambrell (13 G, 29 A) — all choose to delay their professional careers for another season in a Pioneers sweater.
This illustrates the first key factor for predicting a repeat — even if a team’s best player departs, a solid chunk of returning contributors is the foremost factor.
But for the 2005 title team, equally important contributions came from underclassmen who played a lesser part in the first title or weren’t yet in the program at all. Sophomore defenseman Matt Carle (13 G, 31 A) and a freshman by the name of Paul Stastny (17 G, 28 A) were top-five scorers in 2005.
Carle showed much promise in his 26-point freshman season and Stastny was well-regarded coming before putting on a DU uniform. But their success on the 2005 champions shows the other side of putting together a repeat — that not only do you need top contributors to return, but you need someone to fill the shoes of lost production, no matter how minimal that lost production is.
This factor ought to give pause to anyone wanting to anoint DU as back-to-back champions already. NHL talents like Stastny and Carle don’t come around often, even for the most prestigious programs like DU. To have two of these elite players slot into key roles for a defending champion is a show of the fortunate timing that is needed for a repeat title.
In a Denver Post article by Mike Chambers earlier this summer, DU coach Jim Montgomery went on record saying that the incoming freshman class was equal in caliber to the past two classes, which brought in players now leading the push for repeat titles like Terry, Borgstrom and Gambrell.
As noted above, the 2017-18 Pioneers are in a better spot in terms of returning production. It might not take two NHL-level talents to push this team over the edge, but finding a player or handful of players to minimize the loss of Butcher’s contribution on the blue line would be a start. An intriguing candidate to do so is Ian Mitchell, a Canadian d-man who will join DU after two successful seasons with the AJHL’s Spruce Grove Saints. Despite being listed at only 5’11’ and 175 pounds, the Chicago Blackhawks saw enough potential in Mitchell to spend a second-round pick on him in the 2017 entry draft.
Another young defenseman to watch is sophomore Michael Davies, who could be in line for a big step forward after putting up 14 assists in his freshman season
With the overwhelming success he’s had, one has to trust Montgomery on the outlook of his team this season. He seems to think that they have the incoming talent to repeat, and that alone should get them a pre-season No. 1 ranking. But what can’t be known is whether everything else required for a repeat — the luck, good health and development across the board — will fall into place for the Pioneers to repeat for the 4th time.