The NCAA men’s hockey Frozen Four isn’t just about bragging rights. It’s an opportunity to glimpse the future of the sport, to watch elite players on college hockey’s biggest stage before their names adorn the backs of NHL jerseys.
Take the Minnesota Golden Gophers. The top seed in the 2023 Frozen Four has NHL prospects such as forward Logan Cooley (Arizona Coyotes), winger Matthew Knies (Toronto Maple Leafs), forward Jimmy Snuggerud (St. Louis Blues) and defenseman Brock Faber (Minnesota Wild). Twenty years ago, when the Gophers won another national title in the 2003 Frozen Four, it was Thomas Vanek, Paul Martin and Keith Ballard leading the way — all of whom played over 600 games in the NHL.
Today’s NCAA champions, tomorrow’s NHL players. But which school in the 2023 Frozen Four could put together the greatest “ultimate” lineups of alumni: Boston University, Michigan, Minnesota or Quinnipiac?
A couple of ground rules for our ranking. First, this is based on the players’ NHL careers, both in overall accomplishment and for what these players were at the height of their powers. These are six-player lineups with left and right wings, a center, two defensemen and a goalie. Alas, no cheating by moving a wing to center who never played center in the NHL.
Here are the ultimate lineup rankings for the 2023 Frozen Four:
4. Quinnipiac University
LW Bryce Van Brabant (2011-14; 0-0-0 in 6 NHL games)
C Matthew Peca (2011-15; 6-15-21 in 83 NHL games)
RW Connor Jones (2010-14; 0-0-0 in 4 NHL games)
D Devon Toews (2013-16; 39-135-174 in 307 NHL games)
D Connor Clifton (2013-17; 10-31-41 in 71 NHL games)
G Yaniv Perets (2020-23; n/a)
As you can see, Quinnipiac hasn’t produced much NHL talent through the years. Consider that the highest level reached by Chris Cerrella, the school’s all-time leading scorer with 205 points, was six games with the ECHL Baton Rouge Kingfish in 2000-01.
Granted, the Bobcats’ program was jump-started when they joined the ECAC in 2005, and the players who have made the show all played for Quinnipiac after that conference move. Perhaps more frequent trips to the Frozen Four — this is their first since 2016 — could entice more talent to play for the Connecticut school.
Toews, 29, is the class of the alumni. He helped the Colorado Avalanche capture the Stanley Cup last season, and in the process showed that he had some offensive pop (57 points) to go along with being one of the most effective defenders in the NHL. Clifton has set a career in games played for the first-place-in-everything Boston Bruins this season, his fifth with the franchise.
The three forwards listed here are the only ones from Quinnipiac to make the NHL: Jones with the New York Islanders in 2016-17, Van Brabant with the Calgary Flames in 2013-14 and Peca having played with four NHL teams starting in 2016, most recently the Blues in 2021-22.
Since the Bobcats haven’t produced an NHL goalie, we’ll take the player who could sign with an NHL team after their run is done. Yaniv Perets was a top-10 finalist for the Hobey Baker Award and a finalist for the Mike Richter Award. He has a 32-4-3 record with a .932 save percentage and a 1.46 goals-against average. He returned to college this season to turn some scouts’ heads. His performance in this tournament has no doubt helped that cause.
Quinnipiac’s unbelievable goal counts after review
Cristophe Tellier’s goal is initially ruled no good but is overturned on review, giving Quinnipiac a 3-1 lead.
3. University of Minnesota
LW Thomas Vanek (2002-04; 373-416-789 in 1,029 NHL games)
C Neal Broten (1978-81; 289-634-923 in 1,099 NHL games)
RW Phil Kessel (2005-06; 412-577-989 in 1,278 NHL games)
D Mike Ramsey (1978-79; 79-266-345 in 1,070 NHL games)
D Erik Johnson (2006-07; 76-208-284 in 710 NHL games)
G Frank Pietrangelo (1982-86; 46 wins in 141 NHL games, .873 save percentage)
This is not meant to be Blake Wheeler erasure. The former Gopher has 917 points in 1,112 NHL games with Boston and the Winnipeg franchise. But is he a better right wing than “Iron” Phil Kessel? He is not, which is why Wheeler is an honorable mention.
Kessel, Vanek and Broten were all fairly easy calls here. In Broten’s case, there isn’t another Minnesota center who played 600 games and scored more than 600 points in the NHL. Ramsey was another no-brainer. He was a workhorse defenseman in the 1980s, playing the majority of his time with the Buffalo Sabres. He’s one of only two Gophers defensemen to play more than 1,000 games in the NHL, with the other being current Wild defenseman Alex Goligoski. He was also on the 1980 Miracle on Ice team with Broten.
The other defenseman is Erik Johnson, the No. 1 pick in 2006 whose injury-riddled career hit its apex with Stanley Cup win in Colorado last season. He makes the cut over Reed Larson, a 70-point defenseman in the 1980s for the Detroit Red Wings — but then, weren’t they all 70-point defensemen in the 1980s? Among the other defensemen considered were Paul Martin and Nick Leddy.
Pietrangelo was the best they could do in goal, with due respect to Robb Stauber.
Two names to think about for the future, both of whom are on the 2023 Minnesota roster: forward Logan Cooley of the Coyotes and defenseman Brock Faber of the Wild.
2. University of Michigan
LW Max Pacioretty (2007-08; 326-319-645 in 855 NHL games)
C Red Berenson (1959-62; 261-397-658 in 987 NHL games)
RW Michael Cammalleri (1999-02; 292-348-640 in 902 NHL games)
D Jack Johnson (2005-07; 73-246-319 in 1,099 NHL games)
D Zach Werenski (2014-16; 79-166-245 in 416 NHL games)
G Marty Turco (1994-98; 275 wins in 543 NHL games, .910 save percentage)
Berenson played decades earlier than most of the guys on this list, so here’s the deal: He was a solid two-way center who won a Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadiens and was better than a point-per-game scorer for the expansion Blues. Also, we’re going to make him our Reg Dunlop: He was a Jack Adams-winning NHL coach who went on to coach Michigan for more than three decades.
Pacioretty, now with the Carolina Hurricanes, and Cammalleri are the two highest-scoring Wolverine wingers who made the NHL. But these forwards could have company over the next decade: Winnipeg Jets winger Kyle Connor and Red Wings center Dylan Larkin are among the NHL’s better offensive players, while Seattle Kraken center Matty Beniers is just getting started in his NHL career, with a campaign that might net him rookie of the year honors.
Among the other NHL forwards under consideration: Avalanche winger Andrew Cogliano and former NHL players Mike Knuble (1,068 games) and Brendan Morrison, Michigan’s all-time leading scorer who had the national championship-winning goal in overtime in 1996.
On the back end, Jack Johnson’s longevity is hard to ignore, having added a Stanley Cup to his résumé with the Avalanche last season. The other defenseman was a tough call. In the end, we gave the nod to Werenski, a top-pairing defenseman with the Columbus Blue Jackets, for having slightly more proof of concept as a two-way player than Quinn Hughes of the Vancouver Canucks, who is right there with him. Other defensemen under consideration were Aaron Ward, who played 839 games in the NHL; Mike Komisarek, who played 551 games; and current New York Rangers captain Jacob Trouba (672 games).
Waiting in the wings: Sabres defenseman Owen Power, the first pick in the 2022 NHL draft; fellow blueliner Luke Hughes, who will join the New Jersey Devils after Michigan’s run is over; and of course Adam Fantilli, who is expected to be the No. 2 pick in this summer’s draft.
1. Boston University
LW Keith Tkachuk (1990-91; 538-527-1,065 in 1,201 NHL games)
C Jack Eichel (2014-15; 99-153-252 in 278 NHL games)
RW Tony Amonte (1989-91; 416-484-900 in 1,174 NHL games)
D Kevin Shattenkirk (2007-10; 75-273-348 in 601 NHL games)
D Charlie McAvoy (2015-17; 40-186-226 in 374 NHL games)
G Rick DiPietro (1999-2000; 130 wins in 318 NHL games, .902 save percentage)
Tkachuk is a borderline Hockey Hall of Famer, currently 34th in career goals. The only players in front of him who haven’t been inducted are just waiting for eligibility: Alex Ovechkin, Patrick Marleau and Sidney Crosby. Amonte is a clear choice on right wing with 900 career points, although 17-year veteran Scott Young (757 points in 1,181 games) had an underrated career.
The conundrum up front was at center: Chris Drury, now the GM of the Rangers, who had 615 points in 892 games? Or Jack Eichel, star center with the Vegas Golden Knights, with 439 points in 470 career games? One played in the Little League World Series. The other is a point-per-game player when healthy. We opted for Eichel. Shoutout to John Cullen (550 points in 621 career games) and current Coyotes center Clayton Keller (337 points in 435 games), who were also in contention.
Shattenkirk has 456 points in 883 career games over 13 seasons as one of the better puck-moving defensemen of his generation. While Adrian Aucoin (399 points in 1,108 NHL games) could make a claim to that second spot on the blue line, McAvoy is something special for the Bruins.
ESPN analyst Rick DiPietro gets the nod in goal, but Dallas Stars goalie Jake Oettinger is certainly on a trajectory to pass him. If you think Otter has already passed DiPi, that’s fine. Either way, BU has the best ultimate lineup in the Frozen Four this year.