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.
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.
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.
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.
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.