The 2022 NCAA men’s Frozen Four is set to get underway Thursday from TD Garden in Boston, Mass., with the Michigan Wolverines, Denver Pioneers, Minnesota State Mavericks and Minnesota Golden Gophers vying for college hockey’s top prize.
The first semifinal features a duel of No. 1 seeds as Michigan and Denver are set to face off with some of the top prospects in hockey.
Watch Michigan take on Denver Thursday at 5 p.m. ET/2 p.m. PT followed by Minnesota taking on Minnesota State at 8:30 p.m. ET/5:30 p.m. PT streaming on TSN.ca and the TSN App.
Michigan boasts a star-studded lineup, including a pair of top defencemen in Owen Power, the No. 1 pick by the Buffalo Sabres at the 2021 NHL Draft, and Luke Hughes, who was taken fourth overall in the same draft by the New Jersey Devils.
Power has three goals and 32 points in 32 games this season for Michigan and skated for Team Canada at the Beijing Olympics and the World Junior Championship, where he became the first Canadian defenceman to net a hat trick before the tournament was cancelled.
“He’s the best prospect outside the NHL,” said TSN Director of Scouting Craig Button on Power. “He does it all. He’s in full control of the game at every moment. That’s a No. 1 defenceman.
“His intelligence, his ability to size up each and every situation, know how to handle it, how to take advantage of it, is what makes him so good. There’s no area he doesn’t excel in.”
Hughes is looking to follow in the footsteps of his older brothers [Vancouver Canucks defenceman] Quinn and [Devils centre] Jack to the NHL. The co-champion of the NCAA’s Big Ten rookie of the year, Button sees a different player in Luke, who had 17 goals and 39 points in 40 games this season.
“Luke is not like his brothers,” said Button. “He has this daring quality about him in the game and I love it. Luke competes hard defensively, he’s not loose defensively, he makes tremendous plays defensively but he’s a really impactful player.
”No question in my mind he’s going to be a star in the NHL just like his brothers.”
Up front, Matty Beniers and Kent Johnson carry a large part of the offence for Michigan. Taken second overall by the Seattle Kraken and fifth overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets respectively at the 2021 NHL Draft, both players have had seasons that have taken them all over the world.
Johnson participated at the World Juniors and Beijing Olympics for Team Canada alongside Power and with eight goals and 37 points in 31 games this season, Button sees a lot of similarities between Johnson and a current rookie phenom in the NHL.
“He’s got an imagination and creativity about him that is very similar to Trevor Zegras,” said Button. “There’s no play that Kent Johnson, No. 1 doesn’t think he can make. No. 2, isn’t willing to try.”
Beniers lent his talents to Team USA this season, suiting up at the World Juniors and Olympics for the Americans.
“High, high RPMs is where Matty’s motor runs,” said Button. “He’s smart, he’s skilled, he’s highly competitive but his ability to do whatever is required, he can play centre or wing, he can be a top scorer or a checker, penalty killer or power play guy.”
For Button, he considers Denver to be the sleeper team in this year’s Frozen Four. While the Pioneers didn’t have a great start to the season, including four straight losses in late October/early November, they are a team that improved as the season went on.
Up front, Denver is led by Hobey Baker finalist Bobby Brink, who led the NCAA in scoring this season with 56 points in 39 games.
“He’s a hockey player,” said Button on Brink, who was selected in the second round by the Philadelphia Flyers at the 2019 NHL Draft. “Every time you pick up your head, Bobby is in the middle of everything. He’s got a fiery competitive spirit. The whole is far greater than the sum of the parts.”
Joining Brink up front is Carter Savoie, a fourth-round pick (100th overall) by the Edmonton Oilers at the 2020 NHL Draft. As a sophomore, he was fourth in the NCAA in goals with 22.
“He’s an outstanding goal scorer,” Button said of Savoie’s game. “He doesn’t need many chances to score goals. He might be like Mike Hoffman. He’s got that goal scoring mentality.”
The second semifinal features an all-Minnesota matchup with the University of Minnesota taking on Minnesota State.
The Golden Gophers boast Matthew Knies, a Toronto Maple Leafs second-round pick and captain Ben Meyers, a Hobey Baker finalist.
“He’s such a well-rounded, skilled, powerful, smart [player],” said Button on Knies. “He can play a power game, he can play a skilled game. He can play left wing, he can play centre. He just has this innate ability to assert himself in so many different ways.”
Meyers, who is currently an undrafted free agent, also suited up for Team USA at the Beijing Olympics, where the 23-year-old had two goals and two assists in four games for the Americans.
“I think Ben is such a poster person for it doesn’t matter where you were at 18,” said Button. “He’s continuously progressed as a player to the point where he’s now considered one of the best college players. He’s quick, he’s fast he’s on the puck. He’s always attuned, always at the ready.”
State rivals the Minnesota State Mavericks don’t have a lineup bursting with top-end NHL prospects but with an older lineup, Button notes they have a maturity to their game.
In net, the Mavericks have a Hobey Baker finalist in goaltender Dryden McKay, who posted a .928 save percentage and 1.28 goals-against average in 41 games this season. He also became the NCAA men’s leader in shutouts with 34.
At 6-foot and 183 pounds, McKay doesn’t have the size many scouts look for in modern NHL goaltenders, but Button doesn’t see his size being a deterrent for the undrafted free agent.
“He does two things exceptionally well. Keep the puck out of the net and win,” said Button. “Don’t rule him out. He does things better than so many other goaltenders that might fit the mould.
“All I know is technically he is good, the foundation of his skill is good. If he was 6-foot-2 he would not be playing on Thursday, he would’ve been signed long ago. In the net, he’s a game changer.”
Now in his third season for Minnesota State is forward Nathan Smith, whose rights were acquired by the Arizona Coyotes from the Winnipeg Jets at the trade deadline. A third-round pick in 2018, Button says Smith has made noticeable strides in his development.
“I’ve watched Nathan for a long time and the first thing I’m going to say about Nathan is the improvement he’s made in his game with respect to skating, quickness and pace of play have just been nothing short of significant,” said Button. “It has led to him having a greater, wider impact on the game.”
Smith had 19 goals and 50 points in 36 games this season and had two points in four games with Team USA at the Olympics.
The semifinal winners will face off in the Frozen Four final on Saturday at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT streaming live on TSN.ca and the TSN App.