Midseason NCAA men's hockey takeaways: Cornell, North Dakota legit national title contenders

Matthew Galajda is the backbone of a tough Cornell defense this season. Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire

The men's college hockey season is just past its halfway point, with postseason play rapidly approaching. Cornell and North Dakota have stood out, and defending national champion Minnesota Duluth hovers in the top 10.

Now is a good time to take stock of the collegiate landscape across the country, including which teams are poised for a tournament run and which players are making noise in the Hobey Baker Award race. Let's dive in with five big takeaways at the midseason mark.

1. Blue-chip recruits, subpar results for college hockey powers

As the NHL gets younger, pro teams are enjoying the benefits. But that isn't quite the case in college hockey. Experience, size and age all matter a great deal, and schools with the blue-chip prospects are often getting them for only a year or two these days. A couple of teams that had especially high hopes coming into this season have yet to hit their strides, despite a litany of high-profile recruits, including first-round picks. Boston University, Minnesota and Wisconsin are the three youngest teams in the nation this season, yet none of the three looks poised for postseason success.

BU, with an average age of 20.9 and 12 NHL draft picks, has a team save percentage of .904 as it struggles to replace Jake Oettinger, who signed with the Dallas Stars last offseason. Veterans have carried the mail up front, as Nashville Predators draft picks David Farrance and Patrick Harper have scored consistently, with Anaheim Ducks first-rounder Trevor Zegras becoming more and more effective as he finds his footing. But the Terriers can't seem to hold leads consistently and are at risk of losing a lot of their scoring next season.

The Badgers have first-rounders Cole Caufield (Montreal Canadiens), Alex Turcotte (Los Angeles Kings) and K'Andre Miller (New York Rangers), plus likely 2020 first-round pick Dylan Holloway, but Miller is the oldest of that group as a 19-year-old sophomore. Similar to the Terriers, the Badgers haven't had the goaltending needed to win (.895 team save percentage), but the talent is there for them to improve.

Minnesota has made no bones about the fact that it is still in the rebuilding phase. In his second year as head coach, Bob Motzko has relied heavily on young players in big spots -- with mixed results. The hope would be to keep as many of those players as long as it can and hope to be more competitive in the next year or two. The team's leading scorer, Tampa Bay Lightning prospect and sophomore captain Sammy Walker, has just 14 points this season, and the blue line is very young, with freshmen Ryan Johnson (Buffalo Sabres) and Jackson Lacombe (Ducks) playing significant minutes. On top of that, the Golden Gophers haven't managed to settle on a goaltender amid a .900 team save percentage. There might be a little more pain before they're ready to compete again.

Not all of the young teams are struggling, though. Boston College has the fourth-youngest team in college hockey, at an average age of 20.1, yet the Eagles find themselves tied for fifth in the Pairwise rankings, which mimics the criteria used for selection to the national tournament. A lot of that probably has to do with freshman star goalie and Florida Panthers first-rounder Spencer Knight, who has collected a .937 save percentage in 17 appearances.

Notably, several of the top teams in the country have an average age of 21 or higher, with 20-3-1 Minnesota State coming in as the second-oldest team in the country (22.8).

2. Super sophomores keeping Providence in the discussion

The Providence Friars could have easily taken a step back this season following key losses from a team that made it to the Frozen Four in 2019. But a pair of super sophomores took their games to another level to fill gaps left by departing players.

Vegas Golden Knights draft pick Jack Dugan entered college after an extra year of junior hockey, was a standout freshman in 2018-19 and is now a bona fide Hobey Baker favorite as a sophomore. The Pittsburgh native is in the midst of one of the most productive college hockey seasons of the past 20 years. With 41 points through 23 games, he is the nation's scoring leader and is very near the scoring pace that Johnny Gaudreau put together during his 80-point Hobey Baker-winning campaign as a junior. Only two other players topped 80 points in the 2000s prior to Gaudreau doing so in 2013-14.

But it isn't a one-man or one-line show. The Friars are also getting big production out of sophomore Tyce Thompson, a fourth-round draft choice of the New Jersey Devils in his third year of eligibility. Thompson is tied for the national goal-scoring lead, with 17, and is second in the nation behind Dugan, with 36 points. Then there are junior Greg Printz, sophomore defenseman Michael Callahan (Arizona Coyotes), freshman Parker Ford (2020 draft-eligible) and freshman Patrick Moynihan (Devils). Also, graduate transfer Michael Lackey has a .927 save percentage while playing in 97% of the minutes for Providence.

3. North Dakota is back

A national title in 2016 was not going to satiate the masses in Grand Forks much longer after back-to-back seasons of missing the NCAA tournament. This season didn't necessarily have the brightest of outlooks, with a slightly under-heralded recruiting class and largely the same roster as the season before. North Dakota, however, could be a lesson in continuity and the importance of depth. The Fighting Hawks are a stunning 17-2-2, including an 8-1-1 mark in conference. They have a tough second-half schedule to battle through, but this team has responded to just about every test thrown its way so far this season.

Breakout junior Jordan Kawaguchi's 30 points have him high on the national leaderboard. Ottawa Senators second-round pick and recent World Junior standout Shane Pinto has 10 goals, tied with Kawaguchi for the team lead, providing the Fighting Hawks with a legit No. 1 pivot who brings value at both ends of the ice. Additionally, fellow Sens prospect Jacob Bernard-Docker has been a steady presence on the back end while contributing 14 points in 18 games.

There is no Brock Boeser or Nick Schmaltz type on this roster, like there has been in recent years, but UND has high-quality upperclassmen who bring experience. They've seen the hardship of missing the national tournament and are converting the frustration into elation with a balanced team.

4. The Big Red Machine is cruising along

The Cornell Big Red most recently won a national title in 1970. But after they rattled off 10 straight wins to start the season and ascended to No. 1 in both major polls with a 12-1-2 record, there has to be some belief in Ithaca that the drought could end.

Led by junior forward and Rangers prospect Morgan Barron, Cornell has three players scoring a point per game or better. However, as has almost always been the case for Cornell under longtime head coach Mike Schafer, this is a team that makes it awfully difficult for the opposition to score. Cornell is averaging just 1.4 goals against per game. In 15 contests this season, only nine goals have been scored against the Big Red at even strength.

The fact that Cornell is one of the nation's biggest teams, playing a physical, grinding and disciplined brand of hockey, is a big contributor. But junior goaltender Matthew Galajda has been a rock between the pipes for the Big Red the past three seasons, too. He has been the only goalie to appear in a game for Cornell this season, posting a .939 save percentage and 1.46 goals-against average, both of which are slightly above his career averages. The teams that manage to cut through the Cornell defense still have to get through him, and in 15 games, teams have found the back of the net only 22 times.

Cornell is hosting Northern Michigan for a pair of nonconference games this weekend. You can watch Friday's and Saturday's games on ESPN+ at 7 p.m. ET.

5. Who tops the Hobey Baker watch list?

Dugan and Thompson are going to have a lot to do with this conversation, as will the aforementioned Kawaguchi, as the most productive player on perhaps the nation's best team. Who else could make some noise?

There is some competition right there in Hockey East. Vancouver Canucks prospect Tyler Madden is leading Northeastern with 30 points, including 16 goals. He has already surpassed his freshman point total and is the kind of player who can take over games and score those big goals, propelling Northeastern in the national tournament conversation.

After last season saw three defensemen finish in the top three of the "Hobey Hat Trick," there's one player from the back end who stands out in 2019-20. I'm not sure there is a defenseman in the country who means more to his team than Scott Perunovich at Minnesota Duluth. The St. Louis Blues' prospect has 25 points in 20 games, but it's clear that he makes UMD a better team every time he is on the ice. It'll be hard to top the eye-popping numbers of the forwards, but you have to put Perunovich on the list to watch.

Others to keep an eye on include:

  • Marc Michaelis, Senior, Minnesota State

  • David Cotton, Senior, Boston College (Carolina Hurricanes)

  • Johnny Walker, Junior, Arizona State

  • Nate Sucese, Senior, Penn State

  • Mitchell Chaffee, Junior, UMass

  • Morgan Barron, Junior, Cornell (Rangers)