Men's college hockey check-in: Top teams, players, Frozen Four picks

Defenseman Lane Hutson is one of the major reasons Boston University is among the top teams in the country. Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images

With the calendar turned to a new year, the college hockey season is hitting high gear, with conference play heating up and the NCAA tournament about two months away.

There are some different squads than we've seen the last few years near the top of the national rankings and their respective leagues, with traditional powers and old stand-bys also in the mix.

Conference tournaments will begin on or around March 8, with league champs being crowned by March 23. The 16-team NCAA field will be announced March 24, with regional play beginning March 28. The Frozen Four will be held April 11 and 13 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota.

To get you caught up on what's happened in the first half of the season and what's ahead, we asked ESPN college hockey analysts Colby Cohen, Andrew Raycroft and Sean Ritchlin about their favorite players to watch, the biggest surprises of the season, the most intriguing league races and their Frozen Four picks.

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What team has been the biggest surprise so far this season?

Ritchlin: Mike Hastings had an incredible decade of dominance at Minnesota State, building that program into a proven winner over his tenure, including a spot in the national championship game in the 2022 Frozen Four at Boston. Then came the switch for Hastings to Wisconsin after the completion of last season. Coming off a last-place finish in the Big Ten with 13-23-0 record, the Badgers already have 19 wins and have given up only 39 goals (1.63 per game), by far the best in the conference (Minnesota is next at 2.73 goals allowed per game). The attention to detail in the neutral zone and defensive zone have completely turned this program around.

Raycroft: Sean is right. Hastings was hired with a great pedigree, but I did not expect the turnaround to be so quick. At 19-4-1, Wisconsin has the most wins in the country to go with an impressive 10-2 Big Ten record. This team will be a difficult out come March.

Cohen: I don't think any of us expected to see Maine and Wisconsin near the top of the Pairwise rankings to start 2024, but this is great for #Cawlidgehawkey. At Maine, it's great to see Alfond Arena back and energized again and it's incredible how coach Ben Barr has brought the Black Bears back in his second year at Orono. College hockey is better and more exciting when the Black Bears are making noise. The same is true in Madison, but the difference is we have all come to expect Mike Hastings magic. Hastings brought in a number of new recruits and players from the transfer portal and has Wisconsin back in the conversation to compete for the national championship. It's going to be really interesting to see if these schools can continue the upward trend in the second half of the season.

What league race do you find the most intriguing?

Raycroft: Hockey East is loaded, with the top two teams in the country (Boston University and Boston College) and four of the top nine (Maine, Providence) based on the current Pairwise rankings. It will battle to the end for the league title, but the fight in the middle of the league will be just as compelling. Matchups will be a huge key come playoff time, and any of the top seven teams could go on a run to win the conference tournament and more importantly the automatic berth into the NCAA regionals.

Cohen: As Andrew said, Hockey East is an absolute gauntlet this season. In addition to the teams he mentioned, New Hampshire and UMass are in the Pairwise top 15, and the conference is loaded with big-time NHL draft picks, strong goaltending and great coaches. The BU-BC series Jan. 26 and 27, to be followed by a first-round Beanpot matchup Feb. 5, could tell us a lot about how the conference is going to shake out.

Ritchlin: Every conference has some drama, but the CCHA and Atlantic Hockey do not have a team in the top 16 in the Pairwise currently. If that stands, only the conference tournament champ in those leagues will make the 16-team NCAA tournament, so home ice becomes crucial -- regular season games will take on a playoff-like atmosphere heading into the stretch run.

Who is your favorite player to watch?

Cohen: This is tough, but Macklin Celebrini and Lane Hutson blow me away every time they pull that BU sweater on. Hutson is the most dynamic defenseman I have seen at the NCAA level and what Celebrini has done as a 17-year-old has been tremendous. The freshman line down the street at BC isn't so bad to watch either. I could list a number of others too ... what a great year for college hockey.

Raycroft: Cutter Gauthier. As Colby alluded to, there has been a lot of buzz about BC's freshman line, which played intact for Team USA in the World Juniors, but the biggest offensive driver of the team is Gauthier. His size, speed, power and shot are all NHL ready and it's evident every time he steps on the ice. Between his on-ice presence and the off-ice commotion, Cutter Gauthier is can't miss.

Ritchlin: Teams want guys that can put the puck in the net. Don't get me wrong, seeing someone create open ice and dangle three guys is exciting, but the talent of finding the twine is special. There are a lot of great pure goal-scorers this year in the NCAA (Gauthier, Minnesota's Jimmy Snuggerud, Western Michigan's Dylan Wendt), but none greater than Denver's Jack Devine, who always seems to find the puck in front of the net. He has 18 goals in 22 games in the difficult NCHC. He will go to the dirty areas to score, but also can strike from the outside. His development from a 17-year-old freshman on the third or fourth line to where he is today is impressive; the Florida Panthers found a gem in the seventh round of the 2022 draft.

What team is set up to have a second-half surge?

Cohen: Keep your eyes on Western Michigan. The Broncos never get the publicity, but Pat Ferschweiler's group has played some high-quality hockey this season. They have seemed to get better with each passing week and will certainly have the opportunity to become battle tested down the stretch of the NCHC season.

Raycroft: Quinnipiac. The defending national champs have gone about their business, staying in the top 10 all season, and I think they are building toward another gear. The ECAC is light this season, which should set the Bobcats up for a big second half of preparing for defending their title.

Ritchlin: Michigan is off to a slow start at 10-7-3 and will need to have a sense of urgency in the second half in order to make the NCAA tournament. Four players (Rutger McGroarty, Seamus Casey, Frank Nazar and Gavin Brindley) are coming back from World Juniors with a ton of confidence after winning the gold medal; they will be leaned on heavily to get the Wolverines going in the direction coach Brandon Naurato envisioned. Team defense will be key. Offensively they are deep and can score from a lot of areas, but they will need to combine that scoring touch with strong defensive play in order to make a run.

Who do you expect to see in the Frozen Four?

Cohen: Boston University, Boston College, North Dakota and Denver

Raycroft: I'm going straight blue bloods too: BC, BU, Denver and North Dakota

Ritchlin: BC, BU, Denver and Quinnipiac. I think Wisconsin, with that great defense, has an outside shot as well. BC and BU are insanely talented with several players on both teams who are going to wear an NHL sweater sooner than later. We haven't seen a team with that makeup win it all in awhile -- maybe this is the year.