Two years removed from a national title title, the Denver Pioneers were in prime position to return to the championship final. They fell short in their quest to grab a repeat title in 2018 after they were handed a 5-1 defeat by Ohio State in the regional final.
Entering this year it was a young Denver squad driving the Pioneers back to within striking distance of a national championship. Just seven upperclassmen, three seniors and four juniors, highlighted the roster while 19 underclassmen shouldered the load. Of the 10 leading scorers on the team, six are sophomores or freshmen, including Montreal prospect Brett Stapley.
Stapley finished sixth in team scoring with five goals and 14 assists, yet he didn’t seem concerned about his achievements on the year following Denver’s 4-3 overtime loss to the UMass on Thursday.
“It’s been great, obviously a huge feat to make it to the Frozen Four, but still feeling a little bit disappointed right now” said Stapley after the game.
The second semi-final between the Pioneers and the Minutemen was quite the affair, between multiple ejections for hits to the head, to a nail biting overtime period, where despite Denver’s best efforts they fell just short. Yet, even with the loss the freshman forward still had plenty to takeaway from his first year in the NCAA.
“There’s always a lesson to be learned in losing for sure,” he explained “I’m going to remember this feeling for next year, and hopefully it’ll motivate us to get back here again.”
Given the overall youth of the team, and the success they had in one of the NCAA’s harder conferences it wouldn’t be overly shocking to see Denver closing in on a chance at the national title once again. He’ll have a good supporting cast in that quest as well, as the Canadiens have done their part to keep in touch with Stapley in his freshman season.
“They’ve been in touch here and there, I’ve gotten to know Rob Ramage a bit this year, he’s been a good influence on me.” said Stapley. “They’ve been sending me things on things they notice game in and game out, they’ve been super helpful” he added.
It’s not just the Canadiens organization who has been a support for Stapley, as his linemate Liam Finlay is one of the few upperclassmen on the team, in addition to their leading scorer.
“He’s a huge help absolutely.” said Stapley of the Kelown native, “All our seniors, Luko (Jarid Lukosevicius), Stauby (Colin Staub), Les (Les Lancaster), and our juniors like Fin and all those guys they gave us everything all season.”
Luckily for Stapley, Finlay has one season left on his eligibility, giving the Pioneers a new potential top line with Lukosevicius and others departing.
“There’s always a lot to learn from these guys, and it’s nice to have that comfort level with them,” he added. “There’s a tough adjustment in dealing with the size and speed of the guys and the game at the NCAA level, but luckily I had a bunch of guys who helped with my transition this year.”
Much like the team that drafted him, Stapley and the Canadiens had similar seasons, right down to their bitter endings. Montreal put on a desperate fight down to the last two games before falling shy of the playoffs, while Stapley and Denver almost battled into the championship game. It’s not something that had escaped his eye either.
“Yeah, it’s very cool, and encouraging to see from [Montreal], I’ve been following them all year, and they had a really good season, just a few wins shy of the playoffs.” said Stapley “It’d be a dream to play for them in the future though.”
It would not be the strangest thing for the 2018 seventh-round pick to make an impact at the professional level for Montreal either. In recent years the last round of the draft has yielded some incredible gems for the Canadiens organization as a whole. Jake Evans was drafted 207th overall in 2014, and even in a injury-filled rookie season he’s among the AHL’s best rookies in scoring. In 2017, Montreal took a swing at Cayden Primeau who was drafted 199th overall, and he just signed an entry-level deal after dominating the NCAA between the pipes for two years.
“Yeah absolutely it’s a goal of mine,” said Stapley when asked about potentially becoming that next late round gem in Montreal.
Denver’s loss closes the books on the NCAA prospects in the Canadiens organization, with Ryan Poehling and Cayden Primeau jumping to the professional ranks. Despite losing those two star players from the league, it would look like Brett Stapley is quietly poised to break out into another budding star for Montreal.