Big Ten Conference coaches expect Cole Caufield to pick up where he left off.
And some around the league think the University of Wisconsin sophomore forward, picked Monday as a first-team preseason All-Big Ten player, could be the best player in NCAA hockey this season.
Caufield is one of them.
"That's something I've wanted to prove this year, coming back and showing my teammates, showing college hockey that I just want to be the guy," he said. "I'm just really excited for this year because it's a huge opportunity for us."
Coaches were less enthusiastic about the Badgers than they were about the 2019 Montreal Canadiens first-round draft pick. UW, which finished in last place in the seven-team conference in 2019-20, was tabbed for fifth in the coaches' preseason balloting this year.
Minnesota was the choice to win the Big Ten, with defending champion Penn State predicted to fall to last place after losing several key players.
"There isn't one team ... that doesn't think they're in a position to have a year where they can compete for the Big Ten title and should be a team that makes it to the (NCAA) tournament," Badgers coach Tony Granato said. "I think all of us feel that we have teams and programs that should feel that way going in."
Badgers sophomore forward Dylan Holloway and junior defenseman Ty Emberson were honorable mention selections for the preseason teams.
With Caufield, there are high expectations for the follow-up to his Big Ten Freshman of the Year season when he led the league with 24 points in 24 games.
The offseason brought questions of whether he would return to UW or turn pro. With assurances that the pandemic-delayed NCAA season would start in November, he passed on offers to play in Europe, where leagues have started this season earlier than in North America.
Caufield scored 19 goals overall last season, the best from a Badgers freshman since Dany Heatley 20 years earlier.
Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson, whose team will host UW on Friday and Saturday to open the season, called Caufield "maybe the best player in the country."
The challenge for Caufield has been to augment his goal-scoring ability with better play when he and the Badgers don't have the puck. Being predictable and reliable in a full-ice game is an important step to the pro level.
"I think his commitment and his work ethic and what he's put into it, he knows that," Granato said. "He's a smart kid. We watched the playoffs. We watched some of the games together with Montreal. He's got a drive to be there."
Caufield said extra time in the weight room before the delayed start of the season has given him boosts of confidence and comfort.
"I'm just really looking forward to showing it in the games and proving myself that it did pay off and I'm a different player," he said.
While the league kicked off its first game week of 2020-21 with the preseason predictions, Big Ten coaches worked Monday toward finalizing changes for how the standings will be calculated.
One part was a nod to the COVID-19 pandemic and the potential that some games will be canceled. The league has considered using percentages instead of points for the standings and has to adjust tiebreakers.
Another part was a nod to NCAA hockey's new overtime rules that, like most other levels of hockey, send games tied after regulation to a 3-on-3 overtime for five minutes. The Big Ten has to decide whether to award a standings point to a team that loses in the 3-on-3 overtime or to give the winning team all three points.
Final decisions are still to come.
Picking the top 20 NCAA men's hockey teams ahead of the start of an unusual season
Picking the top 20 NCAA men's hockey teams ahead of the start of an unusual season
1. North Dakota
USCHO preseason ranking: 1st
2019-20 record (final PairWise ranking): 26-5-4 (1st)
The nation's leading returning scorer, senior Jordan Kawaguchi, drives a team that brings back 68% of its goal-scoring from what was in contention for a title last season.
USCHO preseason ranking: 6th
2019-20 record (final PairWise ranking): 23-2-4 (3rd)
There are questions about when the Big Red and other Ivy League teams will start playing but when they do, this group should have the balance to be a big factor.
3. Minnesota State
USCHO preseason ranking: 4th
2019-20 record (final PairWise ranking): 31-5-2 (2nd)
Almost half of last season's goal-scoring is gone but the Mavericks have shown themselves to be the class of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
4. Minnesota Duluth
USCHO preseason ranking: 3rd
2019-20 record (final PairWise ranking): 22-10-2 (4th)
Still the two-time defending NCAA champions, the Bulldogs have to piece together a new defensive corps after the departure of Hobey Baker Award winner Scott Perunovich, three other defensemen and goaltender Hunter Shepard.
USCHO preseason ranking: 5th
2019-20 record (final PairWise ranking): 21-9-6 (5th)
Death. Taxes. The Pioneers winning at least 20 games. A shortened 2020-21 schedule will make it more difficult for Denver to do so for a 20th straight season but don't rule it out despite some key personnel losses.
6. Boston College
USCHO preseason ranking: 2nd
2019-20 record (final PairWise ranking): 24-8-2 (6th)
Having a second year of Spencer Knight in goal and Alex Newhook up front should mean good things for the Eagles.
USCHO preseason ranking: 12th
2019-20 record (final PairWise ranking): 18-14-4 (14th)
Two top-40 NHL draft picks in 2020 and two potential top-five picks in 2021 join a team that found a steady goaltender in Strauss Mann last season.
USCHO preseason ranking: 7th
2019-20 record (final PairWise ranking): 21-11-2 (8th)
The Minutemen continue to bring in strong recruiting classes to build on the 2019 NCAA runner-up finish but they'll have to find new scoring sources.
USCHO preseason ranking: 14th
2019-20 record (final PairWise ranking): 16-14-7 (17th)
Another year of Sammy Walker, Scott Reedy and Co. producing goals and worthy options in goal could push the Gophers back among the elite.
10. Arizona State
USCHO preseason ranking: 15th
2019-20 record (final PairWise ranking): 22-11-3 (13th)
No one will have a tougher challenge than the Sun Devils, who will play all 28 of their games on the road against Big Ten teams. If Johnny Walker posts a third straight 20-goal season, don't count them out.
11. Bemidji State
USCHO preseason ranking: 16th
2019-20 record (final PairWise ranking): 22-10-5 (12th)
The Beavers return 80% of a team that was 12th in the PairWise Rankings and challenging for its first NCAA tournament spot since 2010 when last season ended.
USCHO preseason ranking: 8th
2019-20 record (final PairWise ranking): 23-8-3 (9th)
Last season's top two scorers graduated but the next seven are back, with Josh Dunne looking to build on a 13-goal sophomore campaign.
13. Ohio State
USCHO preseason ranking: 10th
2019-20 record (final PairWise ranking): 20-11-5 (10th)
The Buckeyes lost more than half of their goal-scoring from last season but having Tommy Nappier and his career .934 save percentage in goal helps soften the blow.
14. UMass Lowell
USCHO preseason ranking: 11th
2019-20 record (final PairWise ranking): 18-10-6 (11th)
A River Hawks team that was top-heavy in freshman scoring last season — Matt Brown, Carl Berglund and Andre Lee were Nos. 1, 2 and 3 in points — has plenty back to build on.
15. Penn State
USCHO preseason ranking: 9th
2019-20 record (final PairWise ranking): 20-10-4 (7th)
Seven of the top 10 scorers last season have departed, including Big Ten player of the year and Stoughton native Cole Hults. The Nittany Lions also have to replace their starting goalie but they're relying on a winning culture that has become well established.
16. Bowling Green
USCHO preseason ranking: Not ranked
2019-20 record (final PairWise ranking): 21-13-4 (21st)
No one returns more goal-scoring from last season than the Falcons (96) but they'll need to avoid the kind of prolonged struggle that they faced in the middle of last season.
USCHO preseason ranking: 13th
2019-20 record (final PairWise ranking): 21-11-2 (16th)
Top goal- and point-scorers Wyatt Bongiovanni and Odeen Tufto have the Bobcats in place for a run at an NCAA tournament bid.
USCHO preseason ranking: 17th
2019-20 record (final PairWise ranking): 16-12-6 (22nd)
The Friars need to replace top national scorer Jack Dugan and No. 1 goalie Michael Lackey after a season where they were under .500 in Hockey East.
19. Western Michigan
USCHO preseason ranking: 18th
2019-20 record (final PairWise ranking): 18-13-5 (18th)
Five players scored 10 goals or more last season but only Paul Washe is back. The Broncos need a lot out of an 11-player freshman class.
20. Notre Dame
USCHO preseason ranking: 20th
2019-20 record (final PairWise ranking): 15-15-7 (20th)
Jeff Jackson has never had back-to-back mediocre seasons as a college coach, but the Irish have to replace three-year starting goalie Cale Morris.
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