Monday, March 19, 2018

Relevant

I was asked at the last home game this season whether RPI was "in danger of becoming irrelevant," with Lake Superior State and Dartmouth offered as examples of "irrelevant."

Sorry in advance to any Laker or Big Green fans who may have stumbled upon this. It wasn't my example - but I did have a hard time arguing the logic.

Lake State had a dynasty in the 1990s with three national championships among nine straight NCAA appearances with four CCHA titles in that stretch. They haven't won a lick of hardware since 1996 and have had just five winning seasons since then. Dartmouth had a couple of moments of national prominence, in the late 1940s and the late 1970s. Otherwise - not a whole lot. The Big Green were awful in the 1980s and 1990s, and while they've been much better under Bob Gaudet since the turn of the millennium, there's still not a whole lot of "there" there. A shared ECAC regular season title in 2006 and a shared Ivy League title in 2007, and that's about it. No ECAC title games, no NCAA tournament appearances despite coming close on both fronts a number of times.

So that got me thinking. What makes a team "relevant?" Winning is really what it comes down to, and there are several great benchmarks to tell you if a team is winning. Let's explore. (TL;DR - If you want to skip the nitty-gritty, just scroll down to the final bold line near the bottom.)

National championships. It's an elite club - only 21 out of 60 programs have even won one, and RPI can count itself among just 14 of those with more than one to their name. So there's a historical aspect here of which the program can be rightly proud.

So when I say that RPI's title drought (now the longest in school history, as 1985 is farther from 2018 than it is from 1954) is the fifth longest in the country among schools with a title, that's really nothing. There are almost 40 schools out there, including some historically heavy hitters like Clarkson and New Hampshire, who don't even have one. This one's not something that should weigh heavily on our minds.

Frozen Fours. I'll skip the honor of even reaching the national championship game, even though we've now had to watch half of the ECAC reach that level (including three champions) since RPI's last one in 1985. Let's just cut to the entire last weekend of the season. The creme de la creme. The top dogs. A party that unites the college hockey world. If you've ever been to a Frozen Four, you know you can see practically every sweater in the country in the stands (and checking them off is a fun pastime there).

21 schools have never been, so again, this isn't a whole lot to quibble over. But since the Engineers were last there, 33 different programs have had this honor. That's more than half of all teams in the country. 22 different schools have been to the Frozen Four just in the last decade.

Since RPI's last turn in 1985, we've watched Clarkson (1991), Colgate (1990), Cornell (2003), Harvard (1989, 1994, 2017), Quinnipiac (2013, 2016), St. Lawrence (1988, 2000), Union (shoot me), Vermont (1996), and Yale (2013) reach the promised land. That's 9 out of 14 ECAC schools, 14 times. The balance? Army, Brown, Dartmouth, Princeton... and RPI.

The Engineers just haven't been close ever since hoisting that national championship in 1985. Not even a single NCAA tournament win since then. Not even a goal, but let's explore that further.

The NCAA tournament. Just making it into the tournament field in any sport is a great achievement. Watching those last few days of the conference tournament tick down, keeping an eye on the Pairwise, it's all great fun. We've done it occasionally here at WaP, and the Engineers even snuck into the tournament once during this blog's tenure, backing in for the 2011 edition, where RPI were thoroughly destroyed by North Dakota. That was RPI's first NCAA appearance in 16 years, and it's now been a further 7 years without a bid.

Division I hockey actually has a fairly large tournament for its size - 16 teams out of 60 makes for over a quarter of programs in any given year playing a tournament in which four wins makes you a national champion. Consider that in that other sport that gets all the attention in March for some reason, 68 teams make the tournament out of 351 - 19.3% as opposed to college hockey's 26.7%.

So it's not terribly surprising that since 2012, 38 different programs have earned NCAA bids - nearly two-thirds of the nation has been dancing since RPI last had the opportunity. Only St. Lawrence (2007), Brown (1993), and Dartmouth (1980) have gone longer in the ECAC without a bid (to be very fair, Princeton and Clarkson in 2018 are both on their first bids since RPI's last turn).

The Engineers didn't score an NCAA tournament goal in 2011 (6-0 losers against the Fighting Sioux). Nor did they score in their 1995 appearance (1-0 to Minnesota). Nor in 1994 (2-0 to New Hampshire). In fact, in a stat that will undoubtedly crop up should the Engineers ever reach the tournament again, RPI has gone over 10 and a half NCAA tournament periods without scoring a goal, reaching back to George Servinis' unassisted, short-handed (and, yes, offsides) goal at 3:49 of the second period in the 1985 title game. That's a stretch of 216:11 of tournament play over the last 36 years without scoring even a goal.

So I went and checked. Literally every program that has played in the NCAA tournament since 1986 has scored at least one goal. That makes Dartmouth (1980) the only school in the country with a longer drought by total years since their last NCAA goal, and only seven teams have never made the NCAA tournament, of which Army is the only one that doesn't have the excuse of not having had a D-I varsity program in 1985.

And when it comes to NCAA wins in general - only Michigan Tech (1981), Dartmouth (1980, or 1949 if you don't count the defunct third-place game), and Brown (1976, or 1951 discounting third-place games) have gone longer since winning their last NCAA game. 14 D-I programs have never won an NCAA tournament game, and of those only Alaska, Army, Princeton, and Western Michigan lack the longevity excuse. (And, of course, Michigan Tech and Princeton have the opportunity to remove their names this year.)

League championships. For most programs, just being the top dog in your own conference can sometimes be bragging rights enough to signal a very successful season - Princeton's title this year certainly qualifies as being plenty for them this go round, with the NCAA tournament very much an opportunity to play with house money.

There are only 18 programs that have not won a league championship since the Engineers last enjoyed one nearly a quarter-century ago. 11 of these have never won one (although, to be fair to Arizona State, they've never had an actual opportunity to compete for one). Four are in Atlantic Hockey, which doesn't have a history as long as RPI's current drought. Two more are Omaha and Penn State, who also doesn't have a history that long.

Taking them out, we're left with Lake Superior (1995, along side RPI), Northern Michigan (1992), Colgate (1990), Alaska and Bowling Green (1998),  Alaska-Anchorage (1987), and Colorado College (1978) among teams that have won league titles in the past, and Brown, Dartmouth, Merrimack, UMass, and Vermont among those who haven't.

That means there are only three other ECAC programs that haven't won it all since the Engineers were last on top in the league: Brown, Colgate, and Dartmouth. Four if you want to include Vermont's 10 chances during that time.

League championship game. Just the opportunity to play for a title is enough to send thrills through the spines of supporters around the country. The Engineers last had this chance in 2000, when they fell 2-0 to St. Lawrence in the ECAC championship game in Lake Placid.

2000 was also the last time Omaha (falling 6-0 to Michigan State) and UConn (beating Iona 6-1) played for a league title - titles which no longer exist with the CCHA and MAAC now being defunct (along with Iona). Lake State last appeared in the CCHA title game in 1996 (losing 4-3 to Michigan), while Dartmouth's last hurrah playing for hardware was way back in 1980, a 5-1 loss to Cornell.

AIC, Arizona State, and the two Alaska schools are the only ones that have never appeared in a conference tournament championship game.

Every other school in the nation has had that thrill of seeing their team 60 minutes away from being crowned kings of their conference since 2000. With the notable exception of St. Lawrence (2001), every other team in the ECAC besides the Engineers, Saints, and Big Green have had that experience in the past eight years.

League semifinals. Now we're really lowering the bar - but even just the opportunity to reach what is frequently a neutral-site celebration of the league in general is a chance for fans to hitch up the wagon and go watch their team play as one of the conference elite with a title within reach. This is, as we've seen, sometimes an easy bar to clear, to the point where failing to reach this level can be seen by itself as a total failure for a season. RPI was more or less at this level of expectations when they last reached the semifinals in 2002, their 7th such visit in 10 years, and 9th in 15 years.

At worst, in 12 team leagues like the ECAC, 1/3 of the conference can be among the final four, which is still a significant chunk. It's even "easier" in places like the Big Ten, where the last four comes out to being more than half of a seven team league.

RPI's long-running drought of failing to reach Albany, then Atlantic City, and now Lake Placid again are well known and painful to what can now be termed RPI's long-suffering fans. 2002 was the last hurrah, marking the beginning of what is now a 16-year drought. Only one team that has ever been to a league semifinal currently has a longer ongoing drought - Omaha, who last appeared in a league semifinal (in the CCHA - two leagues ago) during the 2001 season.

This is where I point out that the Mavericks have been to three NCAA tournaments during that stretch, including a Frozen Four appearance in 2015. I'd trade our experience in the last 17 years with theirs in a heartbeat. (They'd probably ask for our prior 50 in return, so no deal.)

Only two other programs haven't been in that timeframe - Arizona State, who again, doesn't have a league semifinal to reach and have only completed their third Division I season, and American International, who came within a win this year of doing it for the first time.

Regular season titles. These mean absolutely nothing anymore, but they're at least good indicators of a great season over the course of four months of league play.

Let's cut right to the chase. RPI hasn't done this since the national championship in 1985, and every other ECAC team has won at least a share of what they apparently call the Cleary Cup since except for Brown and Princeton (and Army).

12 teams nationally have never won even a share of a regular season title (again, this includes Arizona State, who have never been able to), but of the ones who have, only Providence (1983 in the ECAC) and Ohio State (1972 in the CCHA) have gone longer without accomplishing the feat.

Is RPI irrelevant?

I don't know. I don't have a very good vantage point because the team is relevant to me and it probably always will be.

But there are a whole lot of gaps in the line when it comes to benchmarks of success, benchmarks of relevancy. Some of the same teams of comparison keep popping up when you take a hard look at them, and Lake Superior State and Dartmouth do seem to be frequent cohorts. The other ones that are coming up often are Brown and Army - and I will leave it to other observers to determine whether all that adds up to "irrelevant." I don't personally see Lake State and Dartmouth as being irrelevant - especially considering that the Big Green are the conference opponent that RPI has gone the longest without beating at present - but I can see how others might feel that way.

What I can say is that, more immediately, the program has just endured its worst back-to-back seasons in modern history by winning percentage. This can't be pinned on any one person, especially since there were different head coaches in both seasons and a great deal of turmoil with the roster between seasons in part because of that change. So if you're looking for me to point fingers at Seth Appert or Dave Smith, you'll be waiting for quite a while.

It's not a question of whether I or any other observers think RPI is irrelevant. It's a question of whether players think RPI is irrelevant. According to Chris Heisenberg's master sheet, at least 24 programs (including RPI) have at least one committed recruit who wasn't even born yet the last time the Engineers made it to the ECAC semifinals - and the longer it keeps up, the bigger that number will get until it maxes out at every program. There are only five players slated to be on next year's RPI roster who were alive the last time RPI won the ECAC title.

No college hockey player in over a decade was alive the last time the Engineers scored a goal in the NCAA tournament.

It is the players who will decide whether RPI is irrelevant - and if that's the decision they are starting to make, there is not a whole lot of time left to make some of these droughts referenced above start to disappear.

But there is hope. After all, Union was irrelevant for decades before they finally started breaking through and climbed all the way to the top. Michigan Tech needed a shakeup of conferences to help clear their path back to relevance and the NCAA tournament, but that alone can't account for the fact that the Huskies were ranked #1 in the country for a week in 2014. Even if we've found irrelevancy, anything is possible.

We've been searching for rock bottom for a very long time. Let's hope we've found it.

Monday, June 19, 2017

What's This Team Look Like?

Haven't posted on the blog for a while, but we've been keeping up with goings on with the Engineers - new coach and all - on the Twitters, which is our primary outlet for breaking news. Do check it out.

This is a bit more heady of a discussion, far more than can be squeezed into 140 characters, even multiple times, so here it is, a blog post. What exactly does this team look like heading into 2017-18? There's been a lot of turnover, so it's a legitimate question to ask, especially since we're not 100% sure of who's in and who's out. Time to make some educated guesses.

For the most part, we're making the assumption that any recruit who isn't known to have decommitted is still coming. To date, there's only one recruit that has been confirmed to no longer be coming to Troy, and that's forward Bailey Conger (now bound for Providence College). If there are any others, we may not know for certain until they commit elsewhere.

Additionally, any player who is listed on the current RPI roster for 2017-18 is assumed to be returning, even though there have been murmurs about one or two of those names looking to possibly leave.

Forwards
Senior departures: Riley Bourbonnais, Jimmy DeVito, Jake Wood.
Other departures: Drew Melanson, Lou Nanne, Sam Rappaport, Alex Rodriguez.
Returning: Jacob Hayhurst, Viktor Liljegren, Jake Marrello, Jesper Ohrvall, Patrick Polino, Max Reisinger, Evan Tironese, Brady Wiffen.
Definitely arriving: Todd Burgess, Jaren Burke, Gavin Payne, Troy York.
Possibly arriving: Billy Jerry, Emil Ohrvall, Jon Richards, Owen Stout.
In the pipeline: Jon Bendorf (2018), Matt Cameron (2019)

The amount of turnover up front for RPI is going to make the 2017-18 Engineers drastically different than the 2016-17 team. Nearly half of the forwards on last year's roster will be gone (although one, Rappaport, never played).

Nanne's departure was somewhat unexpected although it doesn't appear to be directly related to Seth Appert's firing -- graduating with a degree in biomedical engineering in three years is a laudable accomplishment even without adding hockey to the mix, and his struggle with injuries both before and at RPI have been well known. Throwing in his brother's heart ailment and it's certainly a move that makes sense for him.

Melanson's move to grad school at BU may also have been planned in advance, although the high amount of uncertainty with next year's team and the low point the program reached this past season does make the move even more understandable. On Comm Ave, Melanson will get the opportunity to play for titles and a new venue could be just the thing he needs for development in a still-promising career. The last two seasons especially have been a struggle for him in Troy to reach his true potential.

Rodriguez was much more unexpected -- he was even seen in a video that Dave Smith posted on Twitter taking part in team workouts. At times, he seemed on the verge of breaking into a much stronger role this past season, but ultimately managed just one goal in 20 games last year, a drop off from his 8 points in 26 games as a freshman. It's possible that Smith decided he didn't fit the system the way he wants it.

The moves leave the Engineers with only two forwards who have two or more full seasons of college hockey under their belts -- Liljegren and Jesper Ohrvall. Wiffen, a junior, had to sit out his freshman year, and Tironese, a redshirt sophomore, played just a handful of games as a true freshman before suffering a season ending injury two seasons ago.

This season's forward corps, therefore, is going to be painfully inexperienced. Even if counting Burgess as a sophomore, RPI will be forced to suit up three freshmen up front for every single game even if every single returning player is healthy. Two of those returning players played only sparingly last season: Marrello appearing in just over half of RPI's games, Reisinger in juts 11 out of 37.

Burgess is already in school, but when he hits the ice for the Engineers this season, he's a definite addition to last year's functional team, so he's listed as an arrival.

Jerry, Richards, Burke, and York are Smith's first four RPI recruits. Burke and York are '96 birth years, which means they have to come in for this coming season, but in all honesty we can expect all four of them in the fall. Emil Ohrvall and Stout could technically play juniors again, but considering they'd make the optimal 16 forwards and with Bendorf already primed to replace the lone loss after next year (Liljegren), there's no reason for them not to come right now.

The biggest question mark with the incoming forwards revolves around just how late so many of them committed. Unusual for this day and age, six of the seven likely true freshmen committed less than a year before their expected arrival on campus and five of them are just since February (Smith's recruits and Payne). That's a short amount of time to be throwing together almost a third of the offensive element.

As with many RPI teams in the last several years, there are enough options for the Engineers to be competitive offensively if the most talented of the bunch can start scoring with some regularity. We've seen great stretches from the juniors and seniors (Liljegren, J. Ohrvall, Wiffen). Hayhurst and Tironese were dynamic players last year for an otherwise moribund team. If Burgess can bounce back from his medical redshirt season and display the kind of form he had in juniors, he can be a solid boost. Emil Ohrvall was impressive in high school and juniors playing these past two seasons in the US. That's seven guys right there who, if RPI could get outstanding seasons from even half of them, would be cooking with fire. And who knows? Perhaps one of these late gets is a diamond in the rough.


Defensemen
Senior departures: Parker Reno.
Other departures: Bradley Bell.
Returning: Tommy Grant, Charlie Manley, Meirs Moore, Mike Prapavessis, Will Reilly, TJ Samec, Jared Wilson.
Definitely arriving: Mat Harris.
Possibly arriving: Cory Babichuk, Austin Cho, Atte Tuliara.
In the pipeline: Jacob Modry (2018)

The rock upon which the 2017-18 Engineers is built is their defense - the lone element that appears to have been relatively untouched by the massive turnover. Reno's graduation was obviously expected, and Bell never truly established himself at RPI despite some serious expectations, ultimately appearing in just 41 of 118 games while at the Institute, some of which were played as a forward.

There are, however, still some questions left to be answered, especially with regards to the status of Cho, RPI's longest tenured commit at three years and three months. There are basically three options: he could come in this year, he could return to juniors, or he could be decommitting due to the coaching change. Only the first and third options are realistic. Although his age would allow him another year in juniors (and could actually happen if he decommits), at this point and with the turnover in coaching and recruits, it would almost certainly mean he's not coming at all.

Harris is a guarantee since he's turning 21 in July. He gives the Engineers a total of eight defensemen, which has been the roster complement in recent years but nine is certainly preferable as a hedge against injury and slump. So it's likely that at least one of the other recruits will be coming in as well.

Cho and Babichuk had long been considered likely to push off their original expected arrival date, perhaps even as far back as early 2016. Cho did that this past season, and it had previously been thought that Cho would replace Reno and that Babichuk would probably spend another year in juniors. Babichuk recently turned up in camp for the Bloomington Thunder of the USHL, so
that would seem to be his path - either a move to the USHL, or another year in the BCHL. Again, if Cho is still coming, he's going to make nine.

Tuliara, a product of Finland, has yet to get any North American hockey under his belt, but there's a good amount of buzz about his potential capacity to step in immediately and contribute in similar ways to Wilson, Reilly, and (despite his rough season last year) Prapavessis. It's a bit of a tossup as to whether he'll do a tour in the USHL first and then come to Troy, or whether he's due in the fall as was expected when he committed. Some reports from Finland have suggested that it's going to be this year. Either way, whether he makes nine or ten defenseman, he'd be a very welcome inclusion on a team in need of solid depth somewhere.


Goaltenders
Senior departures: None.
Other departures: Cam Hackett, Liam McBain.
Returning: Chase Perry, Kyle St. Denis.
Definitely arriving: Linden Marshall.

Even the usually straightforward goaltending has been the focus of a lot of drama in the last six months or so. Hackett's apparent implosion set off a chain reaction that led to the inclusion of St. Denis midway through last season as an emergency backup for Perry, the fact that St. Denis never saw any ice time could mean that he can treat the spring semester as a redshirt year, although the fact that he dressed for the team's last 11 games as the backup could mean that he doesn't qualify and will be an athletic sophomore even though he's almost certainly still an academic freshman. Whether he is or not is probably not really relevant until 2020 at the earliest, since he now projects as the team's third-string.

McBain didn't play either after being brought in from club to serve as the third-string goaltender, since St. Denis is likely to serve that role now, McBain is probably returning to club, depriving college hockey of its only D-I player from Oregon (unless there is one in this year's crop of freshmen).

Marshall is going to be 19 by the time the season starts, which means he'd have the option of going back to juniors, but everything we've heard has him not only sticking to his commitment but also coming in as a freshman this fall. Given the struggles that Perry exhibited early last year, expect Marshall to get every opportunity to establish himself as the team's first choice, but Perry is certainly right there as well. He did have some flashes of excellence at times, including the noteworthy accomplishment of being the only netminder in the country to shut out Harvard last year.


Outlook
If all of the seven potential incoming forwards (not including Burgess, of course) arrive in the fall along with Cho and Tuliara, with Babichuk pushing off to 2018, the Engineers would appear ready to field a full roster in both 2017-18 and 2018-19, with Bendorf, Babichuk, and Modry to be the entirety of the Class of 2022 (replacing Liljegren, Wilson, and Prapavessis).

When the roster is released, hopefully we'll be able to do a full, extremely late (by over 6 months) pipeline piece detailing the new arrivals - of which nine of them have never appeared in a previous pipeline edition. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Two More For 13

News reports say that RPI has invited four finalists to interview for the open head coaching position this week.

Two of the names, we covered in our previous look at potential candidates: Ben Barr and Bill Riga. Go ahead and click on their names if you'd like a refresher.

Two of them weren't ones that had previously come up. Fortunately, that possibility was covered at the beginning of that long screed:

"It is not meant to be exhaustive by any stretch of the imagination, in fact, if the ultimate new coach was not even on this list, I would only be mildly surprised (when I did this 11 years ago, Seth Appert wasn't on the list)."

So it's really not that unexpected. Anyway, let's have a look at the two other finalists.

Ed Gosek (Oswego '83)
Oswego (SUNYAC) - 1990-2003
Oswego (SUNYAC) - 2003-present

Want a track record of success? How's a .755 winning percentage over 14 seasons as a head coach, complete with six Frozen Fours and a national championship strike you? That's what Gosek brings to the table from the Division III level.

Oswego has had nothing but success under Gosek, who took over from George Roll when Roll took the open job at Clarkson. 13 of his 14 seasons have featured winning percentages over .650, the lone exception being in 2016 (14-11-2). RPI hasn't managed that over the course of a season since 1985 (which was a good year). That's not something that's likely to carry over easily into Division I, but it's proof positive that he's got a great system that wins hockey games.

The Lakers moved into a new arena in 2006, a bright and vibrant 3,000 seater, huge for Division III. They won the national championship in their first season there (Gosek's fourth as head coach), and have missed the NCAA tournament only three times since then.

Gosek's overall record at Oswego is 288-85-25, and his trophy case includes eight first-place finishes in the SUNYAC regular season, three SUNYAC titles, eight NCAA tournament appearances and six Frozen Fours, including five in a row from 2010 through 2014, and that national championship in 2007.

The question with Gosek is this: here's a guy who played at Oswego, and then has been coaching there for the past 27 seasons straight. That's more than three full decades of association with one place. Why leave now? Is it time for a new challenge at a higher level? Is he looking for contract leverage at home?

From RPI's perspective, Gosek offers a résumé that is difficult to top as long as he can transfer that level of success to the Division I level. He's renowned as a strong recruiter (especially in RPI's usual Ontario stomping grounds), regularly putting together teams that could probably run with a few Division I teams (the Lakers memorably knocked off RIT in 2006, the last time they played a Division I program).

In many ways, Gosek projects a bit inverse to Bill Riga, both of whom have reputations for being able to assemble championship level teams. He's older than Riga and has the head coaching experience, but lacks the Division I résumé. Riga, on the other hand, has loads of Division I experience, but lacks the element of having been the man in charge. A lot of it depends on determining exactly what someone's looking for in a head coach. Is it playing safer to go with the guy who already knows Division I, like Barr or Riga, or the guy who has the record of getting it done at the helm?

Dave Smith (Ohio State '92)
Miami (CCHA) - 1998-2000
Bowling Green (CCHA) - 2000-02
Mercyhurst (AHA) - 2002-05
Canisius (AHA) - 2005-present

Smith offers something that only two of the names from the original 21 had: actual Division I head coaching experience (Paul Pearl and Don Vaughan were the names, and neither were really ever serious candidates). For over a decade, he's headed up the program at Canisius. In some ways, that makes him the blend of Barr/Riga and Gosek - the Division I experience, and the head coach experience.

He's got some very recent success, too. This year, Canisius finished atop the Atlantic Hockey standings for the first time (in a year where the Golden Griffins were picked to finish 9th out of 11) after rattling off a 17-game unbeaten streak from January through March (14-0-3). It marked the Griffs' first 20-win season in 17 years and earned Smith Coach of the Year honors in Atlantic Hockey.

It all came to an unsatisfying halt in the Atlantic Hockey semifinals, where the Griffins were beaten 6-2 (two of the six were empty-netters) by Robert Morris, bringing an end to both the unbeaten streak and the season in general. While eventual AHA champs Air Force were on pace for a potential at-large bid even if they hadn't won the AHA crown, Canisius was not on a similar pace thanks to a 1-7-1 record outside of the conference.

Smith did guide the Griffins to their first ever NCAA appearance in 2013 after a Cinderella run through the AHA tournament ended with Canisius' first AHA title. In Providence, they held a 3-1 lead over eventual national runners-up Quinnipiac with 12 minutes left in regulation, but fell 4-3 after Quinnipiac's trademark third-period comeback.

Canisius just finished their third season playing in their new home at HarborCenter, the downtown Buffalo arena opened in 2014 as the Sabres' practice facility and the Griffins' first home of their own, having spent a quarter-century playing second fiddle in Buffalo State's D-III digs.

There's a lot of baggage with Smith's record, though. His overall tally at Canisius is 172-223-59, only slightly better over the same exact period of time as the man he'd be replacing in Troy, but accrued playing in a weaker conference.

This season's high water mark is also largely in part thanks to one player: senior goaltender Charles Williams, who led the nation in save percentage (.943), shutouts (6), and was second in GAA (1.82). That helped backstop the nation's fifth best defense, but the offense was almost perfectly ordinary at 37th out of 60. If there's one thing RPI needs imminent help with, it's with the offense. And, of course, as mentioned, the 17-game unbeaten streak meant nothing as soon as the Griffs were upset in the AHA tournament.

It's not surprising that Smith would look to strike while the iron is hot - he's being rightly feted for the work he's done this season. The question from RPI's perspective has to be whether that's enough to warrant taking him on as the new head coach in Troy.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

21 for 13

After 11 seasons, the Seth Appert era is over at RPI. It was a decade-plus that started off rough as Appert sought to retool the team's chemistry and strategy, built into a middle-stage that included a ton of promise and a few high points but ultimately little in the way of glory, and of late descended into a frustrating pattern of underperforming and underdelivering.

A page is certainly being turned, and the identity author of the next chapter - the 13th head coach in the history of the program (10th in the modern era) - is quite obviously the next big thing to come for this team.

But as the season wraps up for more and more teams in the 2016-17 season, the field of open head coaching positions has grown. When Appert was fired last week, it was the first opening of the year. Since then, Northern Michigan has fired Walt Kyle, Niagara announced that it would part ways with Dave Burkholder, and Dean Blais announced that he will not be returning to his position at Omaha. That already leaves RPI competing with three other programs to attract the very best available coach - an additional concern that gets added to the mix.

So the time is good to have a look at the names that have been thrown around in connection with the RPI position. What follows is a list of 21 names I've heard on a fairly serious level from people around the college hockey world - writers, fans, and other observers. It is not meant to be exhaustive by any stretch of the imagination, in fact, if the ultimate new coach was not even on this list, I would only be mildly surprised (when I did this 11 years ago, Seth Appert wasn't on the list).

I've included each potential's coaching résumé - all positions are assistant coaching spots except for those in italics, which are head coaching experiences. I've further broken the list down between those with experience at RPI, either as a player or a coach (or, frequently, both), and those who would be coming to RPI fresh.

Familiar Faces
Alums are frequently a good place to look for coaches: 23 Division I coaches this season were an alumnus of the school at which they were coaching, which is better than 1/3 of the entire complement. It's quite common in the Ivy League especially - only Princeton (Ron Fogarty - Colgate '95) does not have an alumnus at the head of their program.

That said, there's only been one RPI alumnus who has coached the Engineers in the modern era: Garry Kearns (RPI '58), whose five years at the helm included some of the roughest years in the program's history, but whose crucial legacy was to maintain RPI's status in Division I hockey. There also haven't been any RPI alumni among the Division I head coaching ranks since Ronn Tomassoni (RPI '80) was relieved of his head coaching position at Harvard in 1999 after eight seasons (and 15 total behind the Crimson bench).

Is there anyone out there that can break both of those trends? The short answer is yes, although of the many names that have popped up, only a handful could honestly be considered strong contenders.

Ben Barr (RPI '04)
RPI (ECAC) - 2004-05
Capital District Selects (Peewee) - 2005-07
RPI (ECAC) - 2007-08
Union (ECAC) - 2008-12
Providence (Hockey East) - 2012-14
Western Michigan (NCHC) - 2014-16
UMass (Hockey East) - 2016-present

Starting off with the name most frequently brought up, and for good reason. It just so happens that one of the hottest commodities in college hockey coaching is an Engineer, and as with Garry Kearns, was captain of the team as a senior. It's not outside the realm of possibility that Ben Barr still being on the head coaching market was a contributing factor to the decision making process that led to Appert's dismissal.

Barr's links to the Capital District are now deeply rooted - he was here as a player or a coach from 2000 through 2012. He served as a volunteer assistant under both of RPI's most recent head coaches, first under Dan Fridgen the year after he graduated from the Institute, and later for a season under Appert after working in local youth hockey. He was about to take up a position at Albany Academy in 2008 when Nate Leaman at Union came calling, and for the last decade his star has done nothing but rise - because the programs he's been with have risen, too.

We all know what he was a part of in Schenectady, and while he wasn't there for the national championship victory, he was certainly a crucial element in putting that team together. The same goes for the national championship that Providence won in 2015 - the second time in as many years that a team had won it all shortly after Barr departed.

If not for a similar happenstance at Western Michigan, perhaps those wins could have just been chalked up to Leaman's influence. But this year, we're seeing a resurgence at WMU, undoubtedly boosted by Barr. UMass, where he came prior to this season, limped to another rough year, but his recruiting touch, which now reaches all the way across North America, has yet to be fully felt there. Folks in Amherst are certainly hoping he sticks around a little while longer.

As one of the hottest commodities on the coaching market - practically a head coach, somewhere, in waiting - you can rest assured that RPI will have interest in one of its favored sons. Most college hockey observers have tabbed him as one of the top contenders, and some have gone so far as to say that the job will be Barr's should he want it. That's probably accurate. He essentially checks every single one of the Institute's boxes with the exception of head coaching experience (which isn't always easy to find anyway and surely wouldn't be a deal-breaker).

The question then becomes whether Barr is interested in starting his head coaching career at his alma mater. There are pitfalls at RPI for sure, and given his two stretches under two different coaches as an assistant in Troy, you can rest assured that he is well aware of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats that the position will offer (he did, after all, graduate with a management degree). If RPI's recruiting atmosphere, facilities, or other intangibles (including salary) aren't to his liking, he could well take a pass for a better opportunity down the road, which surely will eventually come his way. If the Institute wants to make Barr their man, they're going to have to come strong, and even that may not be enough. Time will tell.

Nolan Graham (RPI '03)
Nanaimo (BCHL) - 2006-09
Alberni Valley (BCHL) - 2009-10
RPI (ECAC) - 2010-present

Given that he's still under contract with RPI as an assistant coach - and in fact is currently running the day-to-day operations of the program alongside his counterpart, Bryan Vines - it would certainly be understandable that Graham would not only be a candidate for the position, there are some ways in which it would make total sense.

For one thing, full familiarity with the atmosphere of the program is certainly a plus. The players already know him, and if they have the requisite respect for him already, that's an otherwise necessary part of pretty much any coaching change that can be moved through with minimal problems. He also has a small bit of experience running a hockey program, having been the head coach and general manager of a BCHL team for a rather successful season before he was brought back south of the border.

One of the things people never seemed to have much of a problem with during the Appert-era was the recruiting efforts. There's always going to be a handful of voices complaining if every single recruit isn't a blue-chipper as though we were BC or North Dakota, but by and large the conventional wisdom on the last decade is that recruiting was a strong point even if the result on the ice wasn't always terribly successful. The assistants, by and large, are usually responsible for doing the leg work on recruiting, even if it's the head coach who usually comes in to close deals when candidates are making the decisions - Jim Montgomery was widely credited with playing a major role in recruiting when he was at RPI, and that seems to have continued into his head coaching career at Denver. So, to the extent that recruiting has been successful during the Appert age, Graham probably deserves a solid amount of credit for his work in the last seven seasons.

The drawback, of course, is that for seven seasons, Graham has been tied to the coach that was just shown the door. The immediate question is going to be blunt and obvious: what kind of changes will he bring to the program? Continuity is important as far as it can go, but the reason there was a coaching change in the first place was to cease some levels of continuity that were undesirable. To be a serious candidate, Graham would have to articulate ways in which his approach to on-ice strategy and player development differ from that of the man he's worked under several years.

Bryan Vines (Denver '02)
Miami (CCHA) - 2006-07
Alberni Valley (BCHL) - 2007-08
RPI (ECAC) - 2008-present

I'm including Vines among the RPI section because he's been with the team for nine seasons now and, like with Graham, his long-term association with the program as it currently exists is both a positive and a negative aspect for any aspirations he may have for taking over the head coaching position. Many of the same things that were said for Graham would ring true for Vines as well.

One serious pitfall for Vines: he's an Appert man, from beginning to end. He played under Appert in Denver and was brought in at RPI to replace another Appert man from Denver, Shawn Kurulak. His tenure at the Institute was pretty much always linked to Appert, and his name doesn't appear to have publicly popped up in conjunction with any other Division I openings during his time behind the bench at the Field House. It would be very easy to see how those who wanted Appert out would be unsatisfied with arguably his top lieutenant then taking over.

On the positive side, he has some deep ties to RPI now - besides nearly a decade in Troy, his wife, Sachi, also works in the athletic department at the Institute. But ultimately, as with Graham, the challenge for Vines would be to firmly outline just how he would do things differently from the man under whom he's been learning the trade, as it were. The vast, vast majority of his coaching résumé falls under Appert's purview, and that might be a little difficult for him to overcome.

RPI has hired one of its own assistants to fill a vacancy fairly recently (or as recent as one can get when it comes to coaching vacancies) - Dan Fridgen had been the top assistant to Buddy Powers when he ascended to the head coaching position in 1994. The major difference between then and now - and indeed, when Frank Bretti and Jeff Matthews were considered in 2006 - was that Powers wasn't forced out of his position, he gave it up to take the same job at Bowling Green.

Kirk MacDonald (RPI '07)
RPI (ECAC) - 2013-14
Reading (ECHL) - 2014-present

Another potential from the RPI assistants tree is, like Barr, a former team captain. A terrific goal scorer during his tenure at the Institute, he's very well known for potting the game-winner of the 2005 Freakout! against Brown mere weeks before he was diagnosed with testicular cancer, a diagnosis that caused him to miss the 2005-06 season for treatment. He bounced back from the ordeal to have a very solid minor league career, spending enough time with the Providence Bruins to eventually earn a two-way contract with Boston, although he never got called up to the NHL.

In his final season as a player, he won a Kelly Cup in the ECHL with the Reading Royals as an assistant captain, and after a year back in Troy as the volunteer assistant, he returned to Reading as a full-time assistant coach. Since MacDonald's return to Pennsylvania, the Royals have gone to the playoffs in back-to-back years, and are primed for another playoff appearance this season - although it's probably difficult to chalk that all up to him exclusively, as the team was having a string of solid seasons under head coach Larry Courville in the years prior to MacDonald's arrival as a player, let alone as a coach.

MacDonald has a solid history across his career of holding leadership roles, holding captaincies in junior, college, and minor league hockey during the course of his career. Anyone who's been through what he's been through with cancer has a pretty strong grasp on perseverance and handling adversity. It certainly looks like he has a bright future in coaching. But is that future now? It's possible, but in all likelihood, the top spot at RPI might be a little too much, too soon, especially given the other candidates that are out there right now. Still, it's certainly worth watching MacDonald's coaching career to see where it might go.

Marc Cavosie (RPI '03)
RPI (ECAC) - 2014-present

A local hero and former Hobey Baker candidate, Cavosie has been volunteering behind the RPI bench for the last three seasons since hanging up his skates following a 12-year professional career. He's undoubtedly gotten more than his feet wet in tangling with the rigors of coaching in college hockey.

But as with MacDonald, there are probably other candidates with more experience that would be considered first. It would be very tough to see anyone go from a volunteer assistant directly to Division I head coach in one fell swoop. Perhaps the new regime might take a look a full-time position for Cavosie.

Mark Jooris (RPI '86)
Dundas Real McCoys (OHA) - 2001-07
HC Sierre-Anniviers (Swiss) - 2007-08
Burlington (CCHL) - 2009-10
Oakville (OJAHL) - 2010-11
Markham (OJHL) - 2011-12
Burlington (OJHL) - 2015-present

A vital element of the 1985 national championship team, Jooris enjoyed a 15 year career in Europe before returning home and becoming the player-coach of a senior hockey team in southern Ontario (for which he became their all-time leading scorer and had his number retired). After a short gig as an assistant in Switzerland, he began a string of head coaching jobs in Ontario junior leagues, starting as the coach of his son Josh's junior team in Burlington. Josh, of course, had a stellar career at Union (there are varying accounts of his interest in following his father to RPI and why that did not happen - no scholarship availability, took the wrong classes to be admitted, whatever) and is now getting NHL experience.

At this point, Jooris has a significant body of work as a coach, especially at the junior level of late, where he was recognized in 2016 as the Ontario Hockey Association's Coach of the Year, an honor which saw him besting 120 other coaches. His return to Burlington in 2015 sparked a complete turnaround of the Cougars' fortunes, powered by a sudden burst of goal-scoring from a previously moribund offense.

Sounds like a winning combination all around from RPI's perspective. Tactically sound, an outstanding developer of talent, and someone who knows the ropes at RPI. The biggest question would definitely revolve around his interest in the position - and given what he told the Hamilton Spectator around the time he won the OHA's Coach of the Year award, it sounds like moving to Troy is kind of a non-starter. At the time, it was indicated that he had plenty of offers to coach in Europe, but didn't want to uproot his family from Southern Ontario - and he professed that he had interest in a then-current vacancy with the OHL's Hamilton Bulldogs, a vacancy that was filled by Ferris State alum John Gruden.

The Capital District is at least a lot closer to Southern Ontario than Europe is, but would that be enough to draw his attention? It may well be in RPI's best interest to at least find out if Jooris has any inclination to return to his alma mater.

Joe Juneau (RPI '91)
Nunavik Youth Hockey Development Program - 2006-present

Juneau gets a lot of attention because of the wild amount of success he had at RPI - still the only player in program history to lead the team in scoring for every year of a four-year college career. Following that up with an appearance in the Olympics and a lengthy NHL career has him among the top names to ever come through Troy. His story - that he spoke no English when he arrived on campus but finished his masters in aeronautical engineering in four years while accomplishing what he did on the ice at the same time - is well known and adds to his legend.

Since his retirement from the professional ranks, Juneau has gone on to work in youth hockey, first in Fairbanks and most notably in the Inuit village of Kuujjuaq in northern Quebec, where he now lives. The Nunavik Youth Hockey Development Program that he instituted focuses on teaching First Nation youth through hockey and encouraging academic development - a very noble pursuit that has earned him accolades throughout Canadian media.

There's unlikely to be a whole lot of interest on either side for a Juneau move to Troy. For the last decade plus, he's been having a positive impact on an economically depressed region - not something he's likely to give up for the "you must win hockey games" atmosphere that he'd find in Troy. Don't count on either side here exhibiting very much interest at all.

Adam Oates (RPI '86)
Tampa Bay (NHL) - 2009-10
New Jersey (NHL) - 2010-12
Washington (NHL) - 2012-14
New Jersey (NHL) - 2014-15

There are an extreme few members of the Hockey Hall of Fame who have also won a national championship in American college hockey. The list is Ken Dryden, Ed Belfour, Chris Chelios... and Adam Oates.

Easily one of the biggest, if not the biggest name in the history of RPI hockey, his name popped up a few times after Dan Fridgen's departure, which more or less coincided with Oates' retirement from the NHL. It cropped up almost immediately after Appert's dismissal as well, only this time, he has actual experience as a coach, having spent parts of six seasons behind the bench in the NHL, most recently as head coach of the Washington Capitals for two seasons and co-head coach of the New Jersey Devils for half a season.

So it sounds like a match, right? Not really. While a prominent hockey broadcaster once said of Oates that "there are two things you can't get him to shut up about - his family and his alma mater," Oates coming to Troy is almost certainly never going to happen unless, for some reason, he has a jones for those bus trips to the North Country and to exotic Hamilton, NY. He's currently serving as a private coach for NHL players, a gig which is almost certainly going to be far more lucrative than anything he could encounter at RPI. There's no doubt the Institute would have to pony up huge bucks to attract him, something they probably can't do given that they're buying out four years of salary for the previous coach. While having a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame as the coach could certainly attract talented players, it's doubtful that he'd be taking a very hands-on approach to recruiting. And then there's the larger aspect - could anyone really see him staying at RPI for more than a handful of years? Why would he?

In short... keep dreaming, folks.

Kevin Constantine (RPI '81)
North Iowa (USHL) - 1985-86
Northwood Prep (HS) - 1986-87
Rochester (USHL) - 1987-88
Kalamazoo (IHL) - 1988-91
Kansas City (IHL) - 1991-93
San Jose (NHL) - 1993-96
Calgary (NHL) - 1996-97
Pittsburgh (NHL) - 1997-2000
Pittsburgh (NAHL) - 2001-03
New Jersey (NHL) - 2002
Everett (WHL) - 2003-07
Houston (AHL) - 2007-10
Angers (France) - 2010-11
HC Ambri-Piotta (Swiss) - 2011-13
Everett (WHL) - 2013-present

For many years, Constantine was the absolute gold standard when it came to RPI alums in the coaching ranks. He spent most of the 1990s as a head coach in the NHL, and has had a practically uninterrupted résumé as a hockey coach for over 30 years running at pretty much every level - high school, juniors, major junior, minor league, NHL, Europe... pretty much everything except for college hockey. If he wants to get that experience, the school he attended might present a golden opportunity.

The problem is, Constantine probably doesn't have an awful lot of affinity for RPI, considering that he got kicked out of school after his junior season for crashing a car into the firehouse on 15th Street.- which also concluded his playing career. He was the starting netminder in his junior year after getting a handful of chances in net in his first two years.

The other problem is that he's pretty well ensconced in the WHL at this point. He coached the Silvertips in the middle of the last decade for four years, and he's been there for another four since returning from Europe in 2013.

Those two items seem to add up to "not a candidate," but with his résumé and history, it's not hard to see why folks have brought him up. Just don't count on it.

That brings an end to the RPI-associated names that I've heard linked with the coaching vacancy. Now, on to the non-alums.

Hello, Stranger
When it comes to mining assistants, it's frequently useful to take a look at teams that have had wild success in the last several seasons. RPI is trying to turn its program around from the depths in which it's currently langushing to the very top - so it's instructive to take a look at programs that have done that recently (it's worth noting that Seth Appert was part of that in Denver). In the ECAC, that means taking a look at coaches that have been through Yale, Union, and Quinnipiac, primarily, and in Hockey East it's taking a gander at Providence and UMass-Lowell.

Jason Lammers (Geneseo '98)
Clarkson (ECAC) - 2000-01
Hobart (ECAC West) - 2001-02
Clarkson (ECAC) - 2002-03
Alaska-Fairbanks (CCHA) - 2003-04
Princeton (ECAC) - 2004-05
Geneseo (SUNYAC) - 2005-06
Ohio State (CCHA) - 2006-09
Colorado College (WCHA) - 2009-11
UMass-Lowell (Hockey East) - 2011-15
Dubuque (USHL) - 2015-present

As much credit as we've seen Ben Barr getting for his work around college hockey, Jason Lammers may deserve at least as much credit for his work around the nation over an even longer period of time. He's college hockey's Johnny Cash; he's been everywhere (man). He logged multiple seasons in literally every one of the "Big Four" leagues from the pre-Big 10 shakeup. That's an impressive amount of experiences that gives Lammers a unique perspective of the national lay of the land.

His head coaching experience is fairly solid as well, even though it's a small percentage of his overall résumé. In one season at his Division III alma mater - after coaching at four different schools in five years - Lammers guided the Knights to a 19-win season (a 20-win season being an even bigger accomplishment in the shorter-season D-III than it is in D-I) and the program's third NCAA tournament appearance in its history.

Since taking up the reins with the Fighting Saints in the USHL, Lammers has continued the tradition of success started in Dubuque by Jim Montgomery. The team has never failed to make the USHL playoffs, and last season in his first year in Iowa, Lammers led them to the Eastern Conference title and an appearance in the Clark Cup Finals. This year, they'll be back in their usual position in the playoffs, again one of the best squads in the USHL. As the head coach and general manager (a typical combination in junior hockey), Lammers has the same kind of control of the program as he would have as a head coach in college hockey. Since turnover in the USHL tends to take place a bit faster than it does in college, his success over the last two seasons is probably a good indicator that he has what it takes to be a solid head coach in Division I hockey.

And there's no question that even as an assistant in recent years, he's had a tremendous amount of success as well. Both of his seasons at Colorado College were winning seasons, and he joined UMass-Lowell at the same time as head coach Norm Bazin, who reversed UML's fortunes pretty much overnight. This season will be the eighth consecutive winning season that Lammers has helped to manage.

We'll see where Lammers ends up. Given his experiences across the country, he's pretty much in control of his own destiny. He'd probably fit in well at RPI or Omaha especially - or if neither of those options are appealing to him, he's already got a pretty decent thing going on in Dubuque. Like Montgomery, he can probably afford to wait for the right opportunity to come along if it suits him.

Cam Ellsworth (Michigan Tech '05)
Sioux City (USHL) - 2008-11
UMass-Lowell (Hockey East) - 2011-present

Ellsworth may be one of the most similar assistants in college hockey today that has a hockey résumé that most closely mirrors that of Appert's when he was hired at RPI - a goaltender in college who put together a strong reputation as an important lieutenant at a program that rose from the ashes to become one of the strongest teams in the nation. Essentially, he's missing only the national championships that Denver won in the early 2000s, although UML has certainly become a practical mainstay in the NCAAs since he arrived in eastern Massachusetts alongside Norm Bazin (and Lammers) in 2011. The River Hawks were somewhat famously (thanks to a clueless Lowell Sun columnist) the first ones out of the 2015 tournament, and when they make their appearance this season, they'll have been to the NCAAs in every other season in which Bazin and Ellsworth have been behind the bench.

That comparison to Appert is a bit more flattering than some of the other comparisons, really. The only major drawbacks that could be put forward based on his background would be that he was a goaltender - which is not a big deal, but offense is one of the more long-term pressing issues with the Engineers. The other item is that he doesn't have any prior experience as a head coach. But that's not a disqualifier either, as evidenced by the amount of buzz surrounding Ben Barr.

The slightly more questionable element is his limited range of programs. One of the things that makes Barr an attractive candidate is that teams have tended to have success wherever he has put his mark on the program. Ellsworth has had a tremendous amount of success, but it has largely only been in one place, in one set of circumstances. Would he be able to replicate the success he's had at a public school with a wide diversity of academic studies at a private school a quarter of the size with a much more narrow array of majors available and a distinctly more demanding admissions standard? He attended one of the most similar schools out there in the Division I hockey world at MTU, but it's worth pointing out that while he was there, MTU was still pretty well mired in what ended up being a nearly 35-year rut from which the Huskies have only just recently been able to solidly break out. Can his experience at an academically rigorous institution translate?

Ellsworth is certainly off to a robust start to his coaching career and the work he's done in Lowell will certainly merit opportunities for him in the future, perhaps even in the very near future, but from RPI's perspective, there's at least a little bit of a gamble in going with Ellsworth.

Dan Muse (Stonehill '05)
Milton Academy (HS) - 2005-07
Williams (NESCAC) - 2007-08
Sacred Heart (AHA) - 2008-09
Yale (ECAC) - 2009-15
Chicago (USHL) - 2015-present

In Dan Muse, there's a healthy mix of Lammers and Ellsworth. He combines Ellsworth's relative youth and strong application at a single Division I program with Lammers' expanded experience (relative to age) and current position as a second-year USHL head coach who's finding success in the junior ranks.

Muse has two things that neither Lammers or Ellsworth can boast: he's got a national championship winning team that he helped put together at Yale (in his fourth season), and over the course of six seasons in New Haven, he surely got a very solid grounding in how to put together a winning program at an academically rigorous school. He's also spent some time with the US World Junior Championship program for USA Hockey, serving as an assistant coach in 2013 and 2014.

Now in charge with the Chicago Steel, Muse has taken a USHL program that has been in the doldrums for the last several seasons and turned them into the team with the top record in the Western Conference, duking it out with Lammers' Dubuque squad for the divisional lead. The squad has seen marked improvement in pretty much every facet of the game from the year before he took over, although unlike Lammers, who essentially has total control of personnel decisions as general manager of the Fighting Saints, Muse is only Chicago's head coach. That's not to diminish what he's done for the Steel in any way, however. Any head coach has input on who the general manager brings in - much as when he was in New Haven, the final decisions merely rest with someone else. What he's done with the talent he has is remarkable in and of itself.

In his final season at Yale as the assistant in charge of the Bulldogs' defensive efforts, he helped spearhead the nation's best team defense (1.64 GAA) and best penalty kill (90.1%), both remarkable figures that are going to set any team up for success. The fact that he was able to do this in the ECAC has to be an attractive feature for the athletic department at RPI.

With Muse at the helm, one would probably expect to see the Engineers start to draw more names from New England than we've seen essentially since Mike Addesa left. That might shift some long-term paradigms just a bit - perhaps away from Minnesota and western Canada. In that sense, there would probably be a lot more head-to-head duels with Hockey East programs for talent, but as we've seen with the work he's done at Yale, winning those duels can fuel some great success.

Bill Riga (UMass-Lowell '96)
Boston Jr. Bruins (EJHL) - 1996-2003
Union (ECAC) - 2003-08
Quinnipiac (ECAC) - 2008-present

Riga is doubtlessly one of the top lieutenants in the ECAC - for the last fifteen years he has been a part of two of the most successful programs during his tenure in the league, playing a role in Union's rise from the absolute doldrums into a team capable of competing for top honors on a regular basis, and for nearly a decade helping Rand Pecknold at Quinnipiac develop a squad that has been to two national championship games in the last five seasons.

Riga's work at Union was done by and large while the team was on its way up, helping Nate Leaman put together winning combinations at a school that was behind the eight-ball on a number of issues, scholarships and facilities primary among them, finding the hidden gems that worked well together. He continued that trend at Quinnipiac. The Bobcats have never had a losing season in the ECAC (the only team that can make that claim since they joined the league), but their fortunes certainly accelerated from the time Riga came aboard. He helped land several players who made immediate and lasting impacts in Hamden, becoming household names in college hockey in the process - guys like Matthew Peca, Sam Anas, and Travis St. Denis. In the process, he's helped fuel a squad that has been an absolute wrecking ball in ECAC play many years with three regular season titles in the last five years and the aforementioned NCAA runs during the same time frame.

RPI might represent a middle ground between Quinnipiac and Union. At the Q, Riga has the benefit of brand-new, state of the art facilities to pitch to potential recruits along with athletic scholarships. He had neither of those at Union, at RPI he would at least have some renovated facilities and the scholarships.

Pecknold's contract runs through 2021, at which point he'd be finishing his 27th year as the head coach of the Braves/Bobcats. He's taken the program from an unremarkable and flatlining Division II doormat to the cusp of the ultimate Division I glory, and with last year's ECAC championship, the NCAA title is literally the only thing missing from his trophy case. It would be difficult to see him leaving on anything but his own terms. The question as it pertains to Riga becomes whether he wants to stay in Hamden with eye on the top spot, which may not even necessarily come open in four years should Pecknold choose to continue. Even if it does come open, there would likely be a pair of exceptional candidates who are Quinnipiac alumni in his assistant counterpart, Joe Dumais (who we'll talk about shortly) and current Hershey Bears assistant coach Reid Cashman, who was behind the Q bench with Riga for five years before joining Hershey this season.

RPI, therefore, could represent an opening that would be rather appealing - it's within the league he's been working in for 15 years and should know like the back of his hand. That should be equally appealing from RPI's perspective as well. If he can do a satisfactory job with player development and grow the team's on-ice success, he checks most of the boxes of what a team like RPI is looking for in a head coach.

Joe Dumais (Quinnipiac '06)
Ohio (ACHA) - 2006-07
Mahoning Valley (NAHL) - 2007-08
Connecticut (AHA) - 2008-11
Union (ECAC) - 2011-16
Quinnipiac (ECAC) - 2016-present

Ben Barr rightfully gets a lot of the credit due for assembling Union's national championship team, but besides Nate Leaman and Rick Bennett, there should be little doubt that Joe Dumais deserves some respect as well for his contributions in Schenectady.

As with Riga, Dumais plied his trade in Schenectady before moving on to Quinnipiac, just a few seasons behind in each case. Dumais was with Union for the Dutchmen's greatest successes, his first four years being laden with championships of every sort leading up to the ultimate success in the 2014 Frozen Four. While Riga's fingerprints were on Union's rise, Dumais had his all over their greatest successes - Bennett heaped effusive praise upon Dumais for the work he did during the championship season to tweak the team's minor flaws down the stretch, turning Union into the runaway train that scored seven goals against one of the nation's most elite programs in the national championship game. Even before his move to Quinnipiac, his name was being linked with openings last season.

Dumais did just return to his alma mater for the first time since graduation after Reid Cashman left for the AHL, and it's a little less likely that he'd be willing to jump back to the Capital District right away (unless five years here enamored him with the place). And, as mentioned with Riga, Dumais' alumnus links with Quinnipiac may make him an attractive candidate to take over for his mentor whenever Pecknold may decide to call it a career sometime after 2021.

Between Riga and Dumais, it's a bit easier to see Riga choosing to leave Hamden for the top job in Troy, if only because of his additional experience and his longer tenure in his current position. While both should likely be bench bosses in Division I hockey down the road, Riga's body of work is a little more complete - although, to be fair, he did have a decade's head start. Neither have experiences as a head coach anywhere, which is a caveat but only a minor one for both as the successes they've both seen in Schenectady and Hamden are appealing to a program that is hungry for even something as slight as advancing to the ECAC semifinals.

Kris Mayotte (Union '06)
Cornell (ECAC) - 2011-12
St. Lawrence (ECAC) - 2012-14
Providence (Hockey East) - 2014-present

In the annals of RPI lore, Mayotte may always be linked with his actions in the third period of Game 2 of the ECAC first round series during his freshman year against the Engineers. Twice during the same power play, Mayotte came out of his crease to his left to try and play a cleared puck. Both times, the puck ended up on Ben Barr's stick and thrown into an open net. Ironically, Mayotte replaced Barr as an assistant coach in Providence in 2014 as he rejoined his former coach in Schenectady, Nate Leaman, just in time to be part of Providence's national championship in 2015. Barr now works with Greg Carvel in Amherst, who previously worked with Mayotte at St. Lawrence. And now both names have come up with a head coaching opening at RPI. Weird.

Anyway, Mayotte's fairly new to the coaching scene, as he's just finishing up his sixth season as an assistant, but it's hard to deny that he's been part of a number of successful teams in his short career - only once in those six years has been been with a team that finished with a losing record (SLU in 2013-14). But his rising stature has already seen him linked with some bigger fish, including at the international level. Mayotte was part of St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko's staff for Team USA at the World Junior Championships this year as the Americans took gold in the Under-20 tournament in Canada.

This job probably isn't for Mayotte, though. He still needs a little bit more time to build his already growing reputation, and he does seem to be very much on track for a head coaching job somewhere down the road. As with many other potential options, from RPI's perspective, he'd be something of a gamble considering who else is out there on the market. That's probably a bit of a relief for Leaman, who is quickly growing one of the most successful coaching trees in recent memories.

Gary Heenan (Hamilton '97)
Brockport (SUNYAC) - 1998-99
Hamilton (NESCAC) - 1999-2000
Utica (ECAC West) - 2000-present

It hasn't been with a whole lot of frequency that Division I programs draw head coaches directly from the Division III ranks, but there are a couple of examples that we can point to quickly that are both local and recent. In 1989, after Mike Addesa was forced out of the top spot in Troy, RPI turned then D-III RIT to find his replacement in Buddy Powers. And just a couple of years ago, Princeton reached out to D-III Adrian to hire the man that had built the Bulldogs from the ground up into a national power - Ron Fogarty. This season, the Tigers have shown signs of life under Fogarty more or less for the first time since Guy Gadowsky left for Penn State.

Heenan and Fogarty are similar in that the latter was the only head coach Adrian had ever had when Division I came calling. The same is true for Heenan, only on a much longer term. A very young coach when he was hired as the very first bench boss for the Pioneers, he's now been in Central New York essentially since coming south of the border to play at Hamilton (Brockport is west of Rochester and probably doesn't count), and for 16 years now as a head coach. There's no question that he knows the recruiting game, and he's relatively local to boot.

Utica got good quick under Heenan and they've mostly stayed good. In the program's 16 seasons, they've had just four losing seasons - and two of those were the first two overall. The Pioneers have had seven consecutive winning years, and were above .600 in five of those seasons, including a Frozen Four appearance in 2013 and the team's fourth ECAC West regular season title this year. The only thing Heenan hasn't done at Utica outside of winning the national championship has been to win the ECAC West tournament title, coming closer than ever this season but falling at home to Hobart in overtime in the championship game back on March 4.

Among the impressive statistics that Heenan has put up at Utica is the attendance at Pioneers games. This will be the 11th consecutive season that Utica College has led Division III in average attendance - a complement that now has them besting 84 other programs. Lately, that lead has been completely unquestioned: over the last several seasons, they've outpaced second-place Oswego by around 1,000 fans per game. At 3,311 fans per game this season, the Pioneers draw in nearly as many fans as Utica Memorial Auditorium's other tenants, the AHL's Utica Comets, on a per-game basis (and beats RPI's average this season by 24). Bearing in mind that the level of play difference between Division III hockey and AHL hockey is rather drastic, there's no question that Heenan has put together a style and a record that draws fans in on levels mostly unseen in Division III - and that has to be appealing to a school like RPI.

Heenan did have an agreement to come to Union in 2005 as an assistant under Nate Leaman, but he changed his mind in under a week and returned to his previous position at Utica. Could he now be enticed to come to Troy? As mentioned above, there are still some things he has yet to accomplish at Utica, especially that league championship. But there are certainly new horizons that could be breached at the Division I level. Could the addition of athletic scholarships and the ability to recruit higher levels of talent draw him east? Given his track record, RPI should probably have some interest in finding out.

Curtis Carr (Kent State '03)
Kent State (ACHA) - 2003-05
Mahoning Valley (NAHL) - 2006-09
Youngstown (USHL) - 2009-11
Merrimack (Hockey East) - 2011-present

There's not a whole lot to say about Carr, who I've only seen mentioned at SBN College Hockey as a "dark horse candidate." A former club player at Kent State who worked his way up the junior coaching ranks, he had a rough couple of seasons as the head coach in the USHL's Youngstown franchise before joining Merrimack as an assistant coach, where he's been for the last six seasons.

He apparently has a solid reputation as a good recruiter, and hails from the Toronto area originally - long one of RPI's key recruiting grounds. But other than that aspect of his résumé, there's not a lot to get overly excited about. Merrimack had a brief surge of excellent play that resulted in the Warriors' first NCAA bid in nearly a quarter of a century in 2011, the year before Carr's arrival in North Andover, but after a winning season in 2012, Merrimack has largely returned to their previous pattern of mid-to-lower table finishes that have long plagued the program in the ultra-competitive Hockey East.

When compared to other candidates, there's just not a great deal to be excited about beyond the recruiting aspect.

Paul Pearl (Holy Cross '89)
Connecticut (ECAC East) - 1992-94
Holy Cross (ECAC East) - 1994-96
Brown (ECAC) - 1996-97
Holy Cross (AHA) - 1997-2014
Harvard (ECAC) - 2014-present

When Pearl left his alma mater after 19 seasons to become an assistant under Ted Donato at Harvard in 2014, it was a little bit shocking. After all, his name has come up more than a few times with eastern coaching openings in the past, especially ever since he helped author one of the biggest upsets in NCAA history when the Crusaders defeated the University of Minnesota in the NCAA tournament in 2006. It was mentioned during the Engineers' last opening that same year, in part because of that win.

At age 50, he's relatively young for the vast amount of head coaching experience that he would bring to the job, but a quick glance at his entire history shows that he's pretty much a New England man through and through. Grew up in Massachusetts. Played at Holy Cross, coached there too, and besides his present gig, only ever had short-term positions in Connecticut and Rhode Island. There's not a whole lot of expectation that he'd have uprooted himself from his long-term position at his alma mater to become an ECAC assistant with his sights set on Troy. Should Harvard, Brown, or Northeastern have an opening in the near future, that would probably be more his speed.

RPI does have a bit of experience with Holy Cross alums who led the Crusaders as their head coach, however. Mike Addesa graduated from CHC in 1966 and was their head coach in 1979 when he left to become RPI's 9th head coach, eventually guiding the Engineers to their second national championship in 1985.

Albie O'Connell (Boston U. '99)
Colby (NESCAC) - 2003-04
Niagara (AHA) - 2004-06
Holy Cross (AHA) - 2006-07
Merrimack (Hockey East) - 2007-08
Northeastern (Hockey East) - 2008-11
Harvard (ECAC) - 2011-14
Boston University (Hockey East) - 2014-present

O'Connell is a name that falls into the "often mentioned with eastern head coach openings" and he has a couple of intersections with Paul Pearl in his career as well. He served at Holy Cross under Pearl for a year just after the Crusaders' big win over Minnesota, and later was replaced by Pearl at Harvard when O'Connell left for his alma mater.

And, much like Pearl, O'Connell seems to fit into the "New England man" mold. With the exception of his professional playing career and his two-season stint at Niagara, he's essentially been there his entire life. He was born just outside of Boston in Watertown, and for the last nine years in a row he's been at three of the four Beanpot schools right in Boston (all of which have had some pretty good seasons while he's been behind the bench). He has all the hallmarks of a guy who's happy where he is and who isn't going to uproot himself just to become a head coach somewhere - anywhere.

Jerry Keefe (Providence '00)
UMass-Boston (ECAC East) - 2006-07
Westfield State (ECAC Northeast) - 2007-09
Brown (ECAC) - 2009-11
Northeastern (Hockey East) - 2011-present

Another name I've seen mentioned only by SBN, Keefe probably also fits the same New England theme as the two gentlemen above. From eastern Massachusetts, went to Providence, and he's been in New England for the entirety of his coaching career. As the top assistant at Northeastern, he was part of the Huskies' massive second-half that led to a very unexpected in December Hockey East title - recall that NU started off the season 2-11-3, and at that record went on a 20-1-2 tear to the end of the season, which ended at the hands of the eventual national champions.

This season wasn't quite as successful as last year, as it ended in the Hockey East quarterfinals last weekend, but also certainly wasn't nearly as bipolar as it was last year and the firmament has been set at NU for some success down the road. Even if he wasn't deeply rooted in New England, Keefe might do well to raise his star a bit more in the South End before potentially attracting a high-visibility head coaching position.

Don Vaughan (St. Lawrence '84)
Enschede (Holland) - 1984-85
St. Lawrence (ECAC) - 1985-88
Cornell (ECAC) - 1988-90
St. Lawrence (ECAC) - 1990-92
Colgate (ECAC) - 1992-2003, 2004-present

I find it very interesting that Don Vaughan's name was brought to me by a longtime RPI fan as a potential replacement behind the Engineers' bench, and I recall his name being in the mix 11 years ago as well. It may have made slightly more sense back then, but it's hard to look at him now that he's been at Colgate for a quarter-century and see him as a viable candidate, especially now that he's got a brand new rink to work with in Hamilton.

The dean of ECAC coaches since the resignation at SLU of his former boss, Joe Marsh, Vaughan has been coaching for over 30 years, immediately following his playing days at St. Lawrence and interrupted only by a year as Colgate's interim athletic director in 2003-04. Anyone who's ever met Vaughan knows that he's a great person and a tenacious competitor. RPI would absolutely do well to land someone just like him, but as for the man himself, it's really difficult to see him having any interest for leaving the school that has been his home for so long, especially for another school in the same conference.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Turning Point

"Something needs to change, or something needs to change."

That's how I ended my last blog post back in December. That was three full months ago - and unfortunately, nothing changed. Today, RPI decided that what needed to change was the head coach. After 11 seasons in Troy, Seth Appert is out.

I must admit, I found the news simultaneously shocking, and not shocking at all. After all, the team managed just eight wins this season, failing to win 10 for the first time since 1982. 28 losses was a school record for a single season. And a .230 winning percentage was the lowest since the benchmark for disastrous RPI seasons, 1966 (still tops at .136). This was a historically bad season.

Worse, it was almost entirely unexpected. This team was supposed to do much better than this. Expectations coming into the year weren't that the Engineers were destined to be cellar-dwellers. They may not have been world-beaters, but they weren't the worst team in the conference either. Amazingly, they didn't end up being the worst team in the conference (thanks, Brown). But it was a brutal, harrowing experience this year.

If this was a serious aberration, it may not have led to a change in management. But the problems really were adding up on a level that the school really couldn't keep living with. By now, they've been repeated over and over again. No ECAC semifinals since 2002. Just four winning seasons in the last 11 - just one 20-win season (at exactly 20) against five 20-loss seasons (all with 23 or more). The frustration has mounted, and a season this bad, against expectations much higher was too much to bear.

Even now, looking back, it's hard to say that Appert's extensions weren't warranted when they happened. His first extension was in 2011, after an NCAA tournament appearance. The feeling was that the program had turned the corner. A second-place finish in 2013 seemed to justify that feeling, and serendipitously for him, the head coaching job at Denver came vacant at the exact same time - one of the few jobs, it was felt, that he'd leave RPI to take. Some reports even suggest that he was offered the Denver gig, and went back to RPI to see if they wanted to counter. The star was on the rise, no doubt, it seemed. RPI anted up. Unfortunately, it appears they lost the bet.

The 2014 Engineers were tabbed to be among the best in the ECAC and potentially among the best in the nation. And then Jason Kasdorf suffered a freak injury that drastically altered not only his own career but the trajectory of the program. That was bad enough. Having to watch Union go on to win the national championship that year only twisted the knife even more. It's not super fair to include that in a list of reasons why Appert is gone, but it's human nature.

There was just never a recovery. A year after the Engineers were supposed to be the toast of the league, they lost 26 games. Last year, they underperformed regularly in a better season, finally killing the home playoff bugaboo but still failing to reach Lake Placid. And then this year.

Eating four years of contract is tough for a big school with a big budget. RPI is neither of those things. We don't know how much Appert was making in his position, but you can bet that the absolute, bare minimum floor of this buyout is well over a quarter of a million dollars - possibly even reaching upwards of half a million. That's why this move is at least a little bit shocking. It cannot have been easy for the athletic department to have made this move. But ultimately, the results of this season left few good options on the table.

The buyout is going to have an impact on the amount of compensation the school can offer a replacement - let there be no doubt about that. Whoever takes this position is likely to be doing so for a salary that's well below the Division I average. That's a reason why I thought it may make sense for RPI keep Appert, who, for all of his well detailed flaws, is at least at this point a well-experienced Division I coach. A low salary will more likely attract a head coach without such experience, making RPI an entry-level position for someone who will either fail to improve the program or will be gone just as soon as improvements start becoming evident to other programs. For those celebrating this moment, we're going to find out in the coming weeks if this is more of a "be careful what you wish for" situation.

Personally, I'm neither celebrating nor lamenting this action. I can understand why it happened. And most people also understand that RPI does lose a class act in Seth Appert as well.

But this story isn't finished being told, either. Who comes in next will play just as big of a role in determining the future of this program as today's decision did. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

On the Recent Unpleasantries

Never fails. The team strings together losses, folks start tweeting at WaP that we're not hard enough on the coaching staff. The team strings together wins, folks start tweeting at WaP that we're too hard on the coaching staff. Both are usually completely unreasonable, and the more extreme the strings, the more unreasonable the shouting.

We've chosen to be agnostic on the coaching staff. We're not going to advocate for either their retention nor their release. It's a departure from where we were when the site began, when we supported the coaching staff against, quite frankly, attacks that were beyond ridiculous given the circumstances at that time.

But here's all that really needs to be said, and it's something I told a friend about a month ago: "something needs to change, or something needs to change."

Take that for what you will.

We've endured some bad RPI teams in the past - but often times, those teams were just bad and the response among reasonable folks was always "well, they're just not good right now."

This year's team is outdoing so many of those other bad teams in producing bad results, but it's been even a step farther now. This squad as the talent to be far better than it has been in other years where the team put up L after L - and there's no really good reason why they haven't been.

In the past, where there have been plausible excuses for falling far too short: running into hot teams at the wrong time, a rise in the number of strong teams in the ECAC, injuries riddling the squad, there's always been something that could be pointed to that says "OK, that's a bad break."

What is it now?

Something needs to change, or something needs to change.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Long Time Running

This is a post we always expected to make some day but never really wanted to.

For seven years, Without a Peer has been a delight for us to run. We've met new people, engaged with fans on the Internet and in person, and had the opportunity to give our opinions on matters regularly.

We're very proud of the fact that we were the first source for RPI live tweets - both for the RPI women and for the RPI men from the very beginning. No one else that we knew of was doing that in 2009 - today there are multiple places where you can keep tabs on the game in progress.

But as life has evolved for both of us, so has the site in and around that. When we started WaP, both of us were not working full-time and both of us were single. Today we're both married, both of us have full-time jobs with significantly increasing responsibilities, and notably, Tom is going to become a father for the first time in November.

You can see where this is going.

This isn't the end, and it's not goodbye. We'll still be kicking around here. WaP will continue to exist - it just won't quite be the same thing you've seen for the last seven years.

First, live tweeting will come to an end. This is tough to do, since that has been one of WaP's bread-and-butter items since the very beginning, but after seven years, it's time for us to return to simply being fans instead of guerilla journalists in the stands, informing folks on what's happening at as many turns as we can. When we're busy tweeting, we're not celebrating goals, or appreciating saves, or fully getting the fan experience that we love so much. We miss that - and we hope our fans won't begrudge us deciding to go back to it.

Second, we won't be doing weekly recaps anymore. These have always been a staple of the site since the start, always fairly-research intensive, delivering game summaries with an RPI-centric eye in an attempt to convey the fan mood, with plenty of links and insights for the reader to digest. But lately, these recaps have been less fun to produce and have felt more like a chore. In past seasons, it was always a little more difficult to write these when the team was struggling, but it never truly felt like it was being done for form until some time last season. When Tom sat down to write last week's recap for the Niagara-RIT weekend, he felt more like he was writing a recap for a difficult and heart-wrenching borefest rather than the engaging and interesting weekend that the Engineers had.

After discussing the matter, we've decided that rather than continuing on as we have, with the site starting to feel more of a chore than a source of enjoyment, we're going to cut way back on expectations by eliminating these two elements. But when there's something either of us want to say, you'll still have WaP to read it if it's substantive, and you'll still have @without_a_peer on Twitter if it's short and/or snarky - possibly including in-game tweets, which will probably assume that you're already watching, listening, or otherwise keeping tabs on things.

Certain features will continue. When the mood strikes, we'll have a weekend pumpup with cogent commentary. The yearly recruit pipeline piece every January will continue. Tom is hoping to continue the summer's "Know Your Enemy" roll, although that may be altered somewhat. Engineer Bracketology will probably make a comeback whenever it's necessary (not looking good this year, but stranger things have happened).

This was not an easy decision, and it was made only after we tossed around a few ideas. Among the bigger items was deciding against starting a Patreon account. WaP has always been free. We always wanted it to be free, and it always will be. It'll also always be ad-free. We've had a tip jar for several years, but that has always gone directly to site related costs. We've now taken that down - and we thank those who have made donations over the years to keep WaP up and running.

Through Patreon, we considered that we could allow our readership to decide how valuable the site has been to them, and that we could offer additional content (or a return of past content, like podcasts and stupid photoshops) if our readership as a whole found it worthwhile enough to voluntarily fund. But when it felt like another job even without funding, it would have felt like even more of a job with funding.

So instead of forcing our way thorough the rest of the season, we decided that the time was right to make this change right now. We hope our readership will understand.

Gary will still be seen at women's games - when he's around to attend them - and you'll still be able to catch Tom on WRPI covering men's games. Feel free to say hello if you see us, we're always up for a chat on RPI hockey.

Thank you, so very much, from the bottom of our hearts. This entire endeavor would have been nothing without you. We both feel an immense amount of pride in Without a Peer, and we hope to continue bringing some insight and analysis through WaP, even if it's no longer going to be on a regular schedule.

-- Tom and Gary