Next week, Vancouver Canucks top prospect Brock Boeser and his University of North Dakota teammates will fly to Tampa Bay for the Frozen Four tournament. They’ll be looking to take home the school’s first national championship in 16 years.
If their dominant performance this past weekend against the Michigan Wolverines is any indication, they’ll enter the Frozen Four as prohibitive favourites.
Michigan was the best offensive team in the country, boasting a roster peppered with top NHL prospects such as TJ Compher, Zach Werenski and Kyle Connor. Against North Dakota though, the Wolverines were outmatched – outshot three-to-one in the opening 20 minutes and nearly two-to-one overall.
To hear Boeser tell it, that game was North Dakota’s best 60 minutes this season. Considering UND has won more games than any other school in the NCAA, that’s saying something.
North Dakota’s stellar performance certainly caught the attention of Canucks GM Jim Benning.
“That North Dakota team, that first period, they were fast,” recapped Benning in a conversation with Sportsnet this week. “They seemed like they were all over the place.”
Though the school’s eighth national championship has proven elusive, North Dakota has been a mainstay at the Frozen Four for much of the past decade. Under former head coach Dave Hakstol, the school qualified for the Frozen Four seven times in 10 years. Along the way North Dakota churned out a dizzying number of NHL stars, including Jonathan Toews, Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, Brock Nelson and T.J. Oshie.
North Dakota is now seen, basically, as the New York Yankees of college hockey. The school is widely considered to provide players with as close to a professional hockey environment as anything you’ll find in college hockey.
"I think the biggest thing is that (North Dakota head coach) Brady Berry has coached and played in the NHL, Matt Shaw – our other assistant coach – has coached in the NHL, so we're really just trying to mimic the things we learned playing and coaching at the highest level - the professionalism it takes on a day-to-day basis,” explained assistant coach Dane Jackson, who started his NHL career with the Canucks organization in the mid-90s.
The trappings of the professional environment and the expectations that come with it aren’t lost on North Dakota’s players.
"Playing here at North Dakota, not too many people really understand it out west, but the Ralph Engelstad Arena is one of the most beautiful rinks in North America,” said UND defender Troy Stecher. “When you play there you have the intimidation factor of all those fans behind you."
Added Boeser: “The facilities, our locker room, our workout area - it's all just that pro-type style here. It's a great place to be.
“We have this level of excellence that we try to pursue. It's an honour to be part of this tradition and we expect that excellence. It's not pressure, it's just a thing you want to do and that you have to do when you're here."
Though North Dakota’s depth powered them past Michigan, their dynamic first forward line will be crucial if they’re to emerge as national champions. It’s a trio that includes Boeser, who plays right wing along with Chicago Blackhawks first-round draft pick Nick Schmaltz and senior Drake Caggiula – who is likely to draw significant interest as an unrestricted free agent once North Dakota’s season is over.
"They all have really good vision and playmaking ability,” Jackson said of the ‘CBS line’. “They don't play a ton of one-on-one hockey. They use each other well, they're selfless, they share the puck extremely well and they all bring something a little bit different.
Count Benning among the many people in hockey who have been enormously impressed by what Boeser, Schmaltz and Caggiula have accomplished together.
“(Boeser) went in there as a freshman and you don't know how these guys are going to adapt to the college game and the speed and the strength of the players, but the coaching staff did an excellent job with him this year,” Benning said.
“They played him with Cagguila and Schmaltz and they meshed as a line,” he continued. “They really compliment each other and they're a fun line to watch play because they seem to be buzzing around all over the place and they get a lot of chances in the offensive zone. I think everything meshed for him perfect this year and I think that's why we're seeing him playing well, scoring and being a big part of a good team."
Boeser, meanwhile, insists that playing with Caggiula and Schmaltz has helped him understand that he has to make plays more quickly at the NCAA level than he had to in the USHL.
“They took me under their wing once we started playing together,” Boeser said. “We have great chemistry and feed off one another. It's worked from the start. We never try and do things by ourselves, we talk on the bench and work together and try to have some success."
The CBS line has had more than ‘some success’. Boeser will finish his freshman season among the top-five in the nation in goal scoring and total points. Playing with excellent players has helped him, but he appears to be the straw that’s stirred the drink.
“Boeser is one of those rare individual talents that he can generate scoring chances with whomever he's playing with.” Benning said. “From the top of the circles down, his speed when combined with his instincts and the release on his shot is what makes him a good player."
Like Boeser, Benning is set to fly to Tampa Bay next week to take in the Frozen Four. It’ll be his first opportunity to watch North Dakota play in-person this season.
Told about Detroit Tigers analyst Chris D. Long’s statistical model, which projects Boston College and North Dakota to meet in the final next weekend, Benning sounded giddy.
“Well that would be perfect for us,” he exclaimed, “because we'd have Brock Boeser on one side and (Boston College goaltender) Thatcher Demko on the other!"
It’s not the Stanley Cup playoffs, but the NCAA Frozen Four could well provide Canucks fans – not to mention Canucks executives – their best chance to enjoy some meaningful April hockey this year.