Friday, June 26, 2015

Know Your Enemy: Western Michigan

It's been a matchup that has been rumored for quite some time - ever since Seth Appert's college roommate became the head coach for a single season on his rocket path up the coaching ranks, RPI-WMU has been something that has been tossed around but has never quite come to fruition for one reason or another. This year, it's finally taking place - as the opening round game in the Shillelagh Tournament in South Bend. It will be the first game that another rising coaching star, WMU associate head coach Ben Barr, will have against the team he captained in 2003-04 since he left Union in 2011.


Western Michigan
Nickname: Broncos
Location: Kalamazoo, MI
Founded: 1903
Conference: NCHC
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 2012
Last Frozen Four: None
Coach: Andy Murray (5th season)
2014-15 Record: 14-18-5 (6-13-5-4 NCHC, 7th place)
Series: RPI leads, 4-2-0
First Game: December 28, 1979 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: January 23, 1999 (Troy, NY)
Last WMU win: November 28, 1980 (Kalamazoo, MI)

2015-16 game: November 27, 2015 (South Bend, IN)

Key players: G Lukas Hafner, sr.; F Nolan LaPorte, sr.; D Chris Dienes, jr.; F Sheldon Dries, jr.; D Taylor Fleming, jr.; D Mike McKee, jr.; D Neal Goff, so.; D Scott Moldenhauer, so.; F Aidan Muir, so.; F Willem Nong-Lambert, so.; F Frederik Tiffels, so.; F Johnny Curran, fr.; F Matt Iacopelli, fr.; F Mitch Makin, fr.; F Griffen Molino, fr.

The Broncos are a pretty young program in comparison to most other hockey programs out there in a major conference - their first season in existence was the 1973-74 season, the beginning of a two year process that saw them join the fledgling CCHA, at the time a minor conference by comparison to the two mainstays, the WCHA and the ECAC.

Some of the most famous names to come out of the WMU program actually played on some of those early teams, which featured a number of games against smaller schools without varsity programs. Long time New York Rangers GM Neil Smith played for the Broncos from 1975 to 1978, though he never reached the NHL as a player. Smith's teammates included Bernie Saunders, the fifth black player to play in the NHL, as well as Bernie's brother John, who has worked for ESPN for nearly 30 years and was once a mainstay on the network's NHL coverage (though he only appeared in two games for WMU).

Officially joining the CCHA in 1975, the Broncos were long an afterthought within a league that itself was largely an afterthought until 1981, when Michigan, Michigan State, and Notre Dame defected there from the WCHA. Even when the league had as few as five teams, it was not uncommon to see WMU finish in last place or next-to-last place, which they did in each of their first six seasons in the league. It wasn't until 1984 that the Broncos could even claim a finish in the top-half of the league table, which they did with a 5th place showing in what was then an 11-team league.

That was the second season for WMU's third head-coach, Bill Wilkinson, who would eventually become the most successful coach in program history, and under Wilkinson, the Broncos would quickly reach heights they'd yet to see in their first decade of existence. A season later, in 1985, WMU recorded their first winning season in CCHA conference play and finished 3rd in the standings.

The program's first rise peaked in 1986, when the Broncos took a second consecutive 3rd place CCHA finish and turned it into a title run in the CCHA tournament, ultimately knocking off a Michigan State team that would go on to win the national championship by a 3-1 score at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit for the program's first hardware of importance. That team won 32 games, by far a record for the most wins in a single season in program history, but WMU was swept out of their first NCAA tournament appearance by Harvard.

The next 10 years or so saw WMU settling into a middling role in the CCHA - rarely competing at the very top of the table, but never really falling into the doldrums of the conference, either. Wilkinson's teams earned their first two at-large bids to the NCAAs in 1994 and 1996, but the Broncos dropped lopsided games to Wisconsin and Clarkson in those years, respectively, leaving the program still in search of its first national tournament win.

Those two NCAA appearances proved to be another local peak for the program, as WMU began to tail off following their 1996 appearance. The Broncos struggled to two losing seasons following their loss to Clarkson and were well on their way to a third when Wilkinson was fired in February 1999, in part due to a scandal on the team in which a team party took place at a home that Wilkinson owned. His replacement was assistant coach Jim Culhane, a WMU alum who had played on the CCHA championship team who'd had a cup of coffee in the NHL following his collegiate career.

Culhane had some minor success early in his tenure in Kalamazoo, bringing the Broncos back to the mid-point of the CCHA standings in 2001 and 2002, the former a 20-win season that would be his only one as head coach. But after that, WMU returned to largely being an afterthought in the now powerful CCHA conference, and the program spent much of the 2000s in the doldrums of college hockey, far from competition for national tournament appearances or CCHA glory.

For some time under Culhane, WMU looked like a program whose administration didn't really care much about. In 11 full seasons as head coach from 2000 to 2010, the Broncos finished with a winning record only twice, making it to .500 in 2007 but never better than that after 2002. After two 8-win seasons in three years (2008 and 2010), Culhane was informed late in his final season that he would not be returning behind the bench.

The summer of 2010 was a tumultuous one for college hockey. At its very end, the news that Penn State was moving its program to varsity status threatened to explode the foundations of the college hockey conference structure - and ultimately, it did, with the CCHA right at the epicenter as teams fled for other conferences in a hurry. WMU, heading into that season, certainly didn't look like a candidate for a strong conference, not after essentially 15 years of stagnation as a program.

But Culhane's immediate replacement as head coach would end up leaving an impressive impact on the program in just a single year behind the bench. When Indiana Ice head coach (and former Seth Appert roommate) Jeff Blashill was named the Broncos' new head man, it didn't exactly make waves, but the team he put on the ice made plenty of noise. Against all odds and expectations, the Broncos rebounded from a last-place finish in 2010 to a 4th place CCHA result in 2011, followed by a run through the CCHA tournament that ended in the championship game. They fell to 5-2 to Miami, but still earned their first NCAA tournament bid in 15 years.

Blashill's charges gave Denver all they could handle in Green Bay (just after North Dakota had demolished RPI on the same ice), but fell 3-2 in double overtime. Four months later, Blashill was hired as an assistant coach with the Detroit Red Wings. A year after that, he'd take over the head coaching position at Detroit's AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids, and just this month he became the new head coach of the Red Wings, only four years removed from Kalamazoo.

If there's another coach who had as significant a positive impact on the direction of a college program in just a single year at the helm, it would be awfully difficult to identify him. Less than a year after WMU looked like a program without a prayer, and just a couple of months after Blashill's departure, the Broncos were extended an invitation to join the new NCHC, an invitation to a sure-thing power conference they'd have never earned without the resurgence he brought to the program.

Following Blashill's departure, the Broncos landed another big name to guide the team through the final CCHA years and into the NCHC - Andy Murray, the former Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues head coach. Murray, who had flirted with the head coaching position at RPI in 2006 (he was apparently offered the job first), had coaching college hockey on his "bucket list," and he found quick success at WMU. In his first year, he guided the resurgent Broncos to their second CCHA championship, riding a second place finish - their best final position in the league ever - to a tournament run and a 3-2 title game victory over Michigan.

WMU would fall 3-1 to North Dakota in the 2012 NCAA tournament. The Broncos are still chasing the elusive NCAA tournament victory - with six losses in as many tries, they have the active record for most national tournament games without a win.

In 2013, their tenure in the brand-new NCHC began, and it has been difficult over the first two seasons. The conference has proven to be a total meat grinder, with no "breaks" on any given weekend as basically every team has been among the best in the nation. The inaugural season saw the Broncos finish in the middle of the pack, while last year they were ahead of only Colorado College. As the saying goes, somebody has to be last, but someone also has to be next-to-last. Murray is certainly keeping WMU competitive in a very difficult conference, but there's another step that likely will have to be taken before they can be among the best of the best in this new league.

The Broncos were 8-5-0 in non-league play last season, but only 6-13-5 in NCHC play. The eight non-conference wins included 6-2 and 8-2 destructions of Ohio State and Union in the Shillelagh Tournament, so they enter this year's affair as the reigning champs. This year's WMU squad returns most of the key elements from a decent offensive makeup, with LaPorte. Dries, and Tiffels all having reached double digits in both goals and assists last year. Hafner was strong in the net for the Broncos, with a 2.42, .914 line that really isn't that bad when you consider the level of competition he faced on a night-in, night-out basis.

Most of the top blueliners from last year are back as well, although the defensive corps did suffer one important defection to the pro ranks when Kenney Morrison signed with Calgary at the end of his year, forgoing his senior season. He had previously been slated to be the Broncos' only senior defenseman.

There's no question that WMU was one of the most dangerous sub-.500 teams in the nation last year, so take their losing record with a serious grain of salt. Put that team in practically any other conference and they're likely contenders for a title of some kind. They should be at the very least better than they were last year given what is returning, and while a resurgent RPI team could probably give the Broncos a good game, they're almost certainly the favorites. WMU has only an hour and a half drive to South Bend, RPI's time in the iron lung is 11 hours. This is a neutral site game with a definite home team. Give the edge to the Broncos in what will certainly be another difficult non-conference game for the Engineers, one of many across the first two months of the season.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Know Your Enemy: New Hampshire

A bit of an odd feeling this year not having Boston University on the schedule. The seemingly annual RPI-BU game has been a fixture for the last couple of decades, rarely taking a year off, but at the very least we do have the almost-as-frequent RPI-UNH game to look forward to again this season. This year the series shifts the scene back to Troy as the Wildcats arrive for a little mid-week action just before Thanksgiving in a more-rare-than-games-against-UNH Tuesday night matchup at Houston Field House.

New Hampshire
Nickname: Wildcats
Location: Durham, NH
Founded: 1866
Conference: Hockey East
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 2013
Last Frozen Four: 2003
Coach: Dick Umile (26th season)
2014-15 Record: 19-19-2 (10-11-1 Hockey East, 8th place)
Series: UNH leads, 25-22-0
First Game: February 7, 1964 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: November 25, 2014 (Durham, NH)
Last UNH win: January 6, 2013 (Durham, NH)

2015-16 game: November 24, 2015 (Troy, NY)

Key players:  F Dan Correale, sr.; F Maxim Gaudreault, sr.; D Harry Quast, sr.; F Kyle Smith, sr.; D Matias Cleland, jr.; F Tyler Kelleher, jr.; F Shane Eiserman, so.; F Warren Foegele, so.; F John Furgele, so.; D Cameron Marks, so.; F Andrew Poturalski, so.; G Daniel Tirone, so.; D Joseph Masonius, fr.; F Marcus Vela, fr.

Previous KYE installments:
Last season got off to a horrible start for UNH a month before the puck dropped as goaltender Casey DeSmith was arrested and charged with domestic assault and battery for an incident that happened in late August. He was suspended and eventually kicked off the team.

That left the Wildcats with basically two options in net for the first semester - freshman Adam Clark, and junior practice goaltender Jamie Regan. Clark had been recruited to back up DeSmith for last season and then eventually Tirone for this year. With the lack of a D-I level second option, UNH accelerated Tirone's arrival for the spring semester, and he ended up playing most of the team's minutes in the second half of the season.

Clark certainly had his struggles. After all, giving up two goals to RPI in late November last year was kind of like giving up four or five to almost anyone else. That was definitely a time when the Engineers had a hard time buying goals, but two was enough to produce a victory for the road team in Durham that night, even despite the injury to Jason Kasdorf that kept him on the sidelines for the rest of the semester.

That's in part because while the Engineers couldn't score goals around that time, neither could UNH. But they picked up their offensive output significantly late in the year, coinciding with better defensive play. The Wildcats won six of eight games down the stretch in February and managed a trip to the Garden for the Hockey East semis after winning a tightly-held three-game affair in Providence against the eventual national champions.

So while it's tempting to point out that they played six games against UConn and Merrimack down the stretch, that series win over Providence has to at least indicate that the Wildcats did in fact finish strong. They'll have Tirone ready to go from the outset this season, although the scoring isn't a sure thing by any stretch of the imagination. Outside of Kelleher (18 g, 22 a) and Poturalski (19 g, 16 a), UNH doesn't bring back a huge chunk of what offense they had last year.

The Wildcats' challenge will be much the same as that of the Engineers over the last couple of seasons - broadening their scoring appeal beyond their top line. If they can manage that they will be a serious threat in Hockey East. If they can't, they're going to have to rely on their defense - which will be young but talented - in order to make waves. Anything and everything can and will happen when RPI and UNH play each other, and while the games haven't tended to produce much in the way of fireworks, they've been unpredictable. The Engineers now ride a two-game winning streak over the Wildcats into this season's game at the Field House, and by that time a battle tested team should, one would hope, be able to run with UNH, especially on their own ice surface.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Know Your Enemy: Bentley

There were a number of significant low points for RPI last season. We detailed them heading into the playoffs. There was the Mayor's Cup fiasco. There was a major power outage on offense during the trip out west. And on the cusp of the Route 7 series, there was an embarrassingly poor performance against Bentley. For the first time, RPI was swept at home in a two-game series by a team from Atlantic Hockey. But as poorly as the Engineers played that weekend, it's hard not to point out that the Falcons played very well. This year, they earn their first ever visit from the Engineers.

Bentley
Nickname: Falcons
Location: Waltham, MA
Founded: 1917
Conference: Atlantic Hockey
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: None
Coach: Ryan Soderquist (14th season)
2014-15 Record: 17-15-5 (14-9-5 AHA, 3rd place)
Series: Tied, 3-3-0
First Game: October 9, 2007 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: October 16, 2010 (Troy, NY)
Last Bentley win: October 25, 2014 (Troy, NY)

2015-16 game: November 20, 2015 (Waltham, MA)

Key players: F Derek Bacon, sr.; D Matt Blomquist, sr.; D Billy Eiserman, sr.; F Andrew Gladiuk, sr.; F Michael Reardon, sr.; D Charlie Donners, jr.; F Max French, jr.; G Jayson Argue, so.; D Chris Buchanan, so.; F Andrew McDonald, so.; F Kyle Schmidt, so.; F Drew Callin, fr.; F Jonathan Desbiens, fr.; F Josh Lammon, fr.; D Alexey Solovyev, fr.

Previous KYE installments:
The October Engineers last year were a rough bunch. They simply couldn't put the puck in the net against anyone. Bentley took advantage, playing with confidence and poise, coming into the Houston Field House and sweeping a pair of games for two of their three non-conference wins. That may seem kind of rough, but for an Atlantic Hockey team, three wins outside the conference is actually a pretty decent showing. Most teams from AHA are fortunate to get one some years.

The Falcons had a pretty good run in Atlantic Hockey last year. They didn't lose back-to-back games in conference all year until the last two games of the regular season. Those were big losses that kept them from finishing second in the league, forcing them to settle for a tie for 3rd and the #4 seed. That loss of position cost Bentley, as they were drawn into an all out war with Mercyhurst in the quarterfinals in which the Lakers came out victorious in three games.

Bentley returns both of its top two scorers from last season, Gladiuk and French, and they have a seasoned defensive corps in front of their newly established #1 goaltender in Argue (who played neither of the games against RPI last season in what's kind of another blow to the Engineer ego). In his freshman year, Argue put up some decent numbers at .934 and 2.00. This looks like a team that could possibly contend for the Atlantic Hockey title this coming season.

One decided advantage that RPI should have coming into this game is the fact that they'll be coming off a game against a much tougher opponent in Michigan the previous weekend. But then again, the fact that RPI was coming home to play Bentley after two really tough opening weekends in Indiana and Colorado this past season was supposed to be a solid advantage, too. That didn't exactly pan out.

This is, however, the only game of the weekend for the Engineers, and it should probably be an out-and-back affair. Bentley plays in one of the smallest rinks in all of Division I, and pretty much never sell it out outside of the season opener - the Falcons haven't released their schedule yet, but this probably isn't going to be the opener. Therefore, with some concerted effort, RPI alums from the Boston area and anyone willing to hit up Boston on a Friday night could conceivably turn this into a home-away-from-home game for the Engineers. The average non-opening-night crowd at Bentley is around 300. Can we double that? Let's do it.

Anyway, despite what happened last year, being on the road, and despite Bentley seeming to be an even better team in the coming season, this still reads like a game the Engineers should be favored to win. This time, they certainly know that there's not going to be any gimmes when it comes to the Falcons.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Know Your Enemy: Michigan

Michigan returns RPI's favor this year (and begins one for Union) by swinging through the Capital District for the first time since 1984-85, when they dropped a pair to the Engineers in Red Berenson's first year as head coach. That was a pretty good season for RPI. Riding right along with the mythical 31-year gap between national championships for the Engineers is the fact that they beat the Wolverines in both seasons where they won it all. They'll have the opportunity to try and repeat both of those "trends" this season.

Michigan
Nickname: Wolverines
Location: Ann Arbor, MI
Founded: 1817
Conference: Big Ten
National Championships: 9 (1948, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1955, 1956, 1964, 1996, 1998)
Last NCAA Appearance: 2012
Last Frozen Four: 2011
Coach: Red Berenson (32nd season)
2014-15 Record: 22-15-0 (12-8-0-0 Big Ten, 3rd place)
Series: RPI leads, 7-5-1
First Game: March 12, 1954 (Colorado Springs, CO)
Last RPI win: December 29, 2009 (Detroit, MI)
Last Michigan win: November 29, 2014 (Ann Arbor, MI)

2015-16 game: October 24, 2015 (Troy, NY)

Key players: F Cristoval Nieves, sr.; F Justin Selman, sr.; F J.T. Compher, jr.; D Nolan De Jong, jr.; D Michael Downing, jr.; F Alex Kile, jr.; F Tyler Motte, jr.; G Zach Nagelvoort, jr.; D Zach Werenski, so.; D Nick Boka, fr.; D Joe Cecconi, fr.; F Kyle Connor, fr.; F Brendan Warren, fr.

Previous KYE installments:
The Wolverines made the all-time series against the Engineers look a bit more respectable by sweeping last year's home series. Game 1 was actually a pretty good showing for RPI, but the visitors blew the game with some mental mistakes across a very short span in the third period and Michigan, as good teams will do (especially at home), jumped on those mistakes. In Game 2, the Wolverines put on a clinic, dissecting the Engineer defense for three goals in the first period en route to a 6-0 victory. Jason Kasdorf, fighting a mid-season injury, was not on the trip.

Considering that Michigan made a record 22 consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament from 1991 to 2012, the fact that the tournament has been missing the Wolverines the last three years in a row is more than just a little bizarre. But this is a team that is definitely moving back in that general direction. Last season, they got back on the 20-win bandwagon (they'd managed that milestone 25 years in a row prior to 2013) and were more or less on the bubble for a tournament appearance.

Werenski and Connor are both fairly likely to go in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft this month - Werenski is a virtual lock to be a top 15 pick, while Connor could be a mid-to-late 1st round selection. Boka, Cecconi, and Warren are all highly likely to come to campus as NHL draft selections as well. All told, if there are no additional defections to the pro ranks (just two, senior-to-be Andrew Copp and sophomore-to-be Dylan Larkin, have left thus far), Michigan could be looking at as many as 11 NHL draftees on their roster.

The Wolverines boasted the nation's top offense and 3rd best power play last year, and many of the important drivers of those honors - Nieves, Kile, Compher, and Selman especially - are back in the Maize and Blue again this season. Copp, Larkin, and the leading scorer from last year, Zach Hyman, are gone, but there's plenty of talent there, and the addition of Connor to the attack should help the offense continue to hit without too terribly much of a hitch.

The defensive side of the puck was where Michigan was somewhat vulnerable, but even there they were doing an acceptable job. With the exception of one senior blueliner, all of the Wolverines' regulars on defense, including goaltender Nagelvoort, were either freshmen or sophomores. That fact tends to make Michigan's team GAA of 2.89 look a lot better. This year, there are no seniors at all among the UM defense, but expect this team to keep the puck out of the net better than they did last year as the core gets more experienced.

Honestly, there's never a time when Michigan wouldn't represent a good test for RPI - even in the 2009 GLI, the last win that the Engineers claimed over the Wolverines thanks to some shoddy goaltending by the ersatz home team. That's going to be true this year as well. If there are any areas in which RPI looks favored, it's going to be playing on home ice and arguably being the "fresher" of the two teams, as Michigan is the only game of that weekend for RPI while the Wolverines have to tangle with Union the previous night in Schenectady. That's not terribly likely to even up the score to any great degree and turn the home team into the favorites, but it should help make an exciting matchup for the home crowd that bit more interesting. What areas there are to be exploited in the defense need to be hit early, because Michigan will be a difficult team to come back on, even at home.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Desertion

It's a kick in the gut no matter when it happens and where it happens - a promising young player decides to take off for major junior.

These things tend to happen far more frequently with top level programs, the ones that grace the NCAA tournament more often than not. Those programs are usually more easily able to absorb the hit.

So it's an extra whammy when it happens to RPI. It's even worse when it's a goaltender.

That's what's happened to the Engineers. Alec Dillon, who's been expected on campus this coming August since back in September 2013, is off to the Edmonton Oil Kings of the WHL. RPI's plans for the most crucial single position in the game, set for nearly two full years, have just been thrown in the garbage.

We've warned that Dillon was a flight risk in the past. Edmonton specifically went out of their way to acquire his rights despite his "commitment" to RPI. But we thought his year spent in the USHL was a pretty solid sign that he was bound for Troy after all, especially since he could have been in the WHL this past season if he'd wanted to be. Oops.

What changed, and when? We may never know. Perhaps the Los Angeles Kings decided their property would develop better in major junior than in college (they of incumbent starting goaltender Jonathan Quick, a UMass alum). Perhaps Edmonton waved enough money and fed enough lines. Doesn't matter. The result from our perspective is still the same. It's another kick in the stomach for a program that has had plenty of them in the recent past.

Appert's comments to Ken Schott pretty much tell the entire story:
“I was surprised because he had given us his word for two years,” Appert said Saturday. “That’s the way we recruit. We recruit personally. We have a good relationship. My deal is that we don’t mass recruit. I’ll give you my word that we won’t recruit another goalie. If you give us your word, it’s a done deal and not continue to explore options. 
“He, obviously, decided to change his mind on that.”
We mentioned when the incoming freshmen press release came out that Seth Appert believed a Kasdorf-Dillon platoon was possibly the best one-two punch in net in the entire nation. Now, we'll never know. It leaves the team in a precarious position heading into next season, as the goaltending corps now comprises a very talented but often injured starter and a senior who played club hockey for two years.

The reaction from these parts is more annoyance than disappointment. We've written at length about the CHL/NCAA divide. It's something every single NCAA program with talented players has to deal with pretty much all the time - if you think the Engineers are safe from Mike Prapavessis potentially ending up in London some day just because he's played a complete season in the Cherry and White already, think again.

So let's not waste words on what could have been. Dillon made his choice, and no matter what you think of it, moving on from it is in everyone's best interest.

Moving on means finding another goaltender for 2015-16. As you can imagine, the options aren't vast with puck drop only about four months away. #1 goaltenders these days are usually found a couple of years in advance (like with what's his name that isn't coming).

What's out there? We'll spitball for you. Here are a few potential names that could (and should) drop in the next month or so. Ages are as of August. Bear in mind that RPI's academic standards may potentially make some players ineligible, but that's nothing we'd know anything about. These names are ranked more or less in the order of preference in terms of who we'd like to see fill the void.

Adam Huska - 18 - Zvolen, Slovakia
It isn't known 100% if Huska is even looking at playing college hockey, but if you want a netminder on the NHL's current radar, Huska is really the top one available for next season that could potentially accept an NCAA scholarship. He was ranked as the 5th best North American goaltender eligible for the 2015 NHL Entry Draft in the midterm rankings (as he was on Green Bay's roster in the USHL at the time), but has since slid to 16th, still better than prospects bound for places like Boston College and Minnesota. His countryman and teammate on last year's Slovakia U-18 team, Matej Tomek, is bound for North Dakota. If he's willing to spend a full year in the USHL next season, he could find himself a similar gig with a power program. If RPI could tempt him to become the second Slovak on the roster next season, they could find themselves with a large (6'3") goalie who could make that one guy who just left easily forgotten.

Matt Jurusik - 18 - La Grange, IL
Ranked 21st among North American netminders on the CSB's midterm rankings, Jurusik was unranked in the final accounting but still had a pretty outstanding season as the top choice goaltender for the Janesville Jets of the NAHL. The Jets were the NAHL's top team during the regular season, and Jurusik's play (1.57, .939 in 40 games) was a big reason for that. He led the Jets deep into the playoffs with a further 1.89, .931 in 9 games. He earned a bronze medal with Team USA's Ivan Hlinka tournament team last summer. At 6'1", he'd be exactly the same size as the netminder he'd be replacing on the roster. Like Huska, he'd represent a potential future #1 goaltender for the team, and he would certainly benefit from a season as Kasdorf's understudy, as he may still be a little bit raw for the NCAA right out of the gate - but the talent is certainly there, as he demonstrated this season, his first since graduating from the Midwest's Tier 1 Elite League. He's going to be playing college hockey eventually, the only question is when. As with Huska, he might be a 2016 arrival for a program with more visibility, but who knows if he could be tempted into the NCAA for next season with the chance to platoon right away?

Cam Hackett - 19 - Sault Ste. Marie, ON
Formerly committed to Cornell, Hackett has been in limbo this season after he decommitted from the Big Red in February 2014, about 14 months after giving his verbal. He had originally been slated to arrive in Ithaca this past fall - supposedly, his decision to look elsewhere was driven by Cornell's request that he delay his arrival by a year. This season, with the Lincoln Stars of the USHL, he had a stat line of 3.85, .895 in 43 games as Lincoln struggled through a difficult campaign that could have been far worse without him. A fairly high (4th-round) OHL draft pick by the Owen Sound Attack, Hackett probably could have played this past season in major junior had he been so inclined to do so, but as with that guy that just departed for the WHL, that option does still remain open to him. As with Weyrick, the fact that he was previously associated with an ECAC team is a solid indicator that he'd be a fit academically, and he is similar in stature at 6'2". The Big Red beat out interest from BU, Michigan State, North Dakota, and Wisconsin to initially land Hackett. Those are the kind of teams usually on the lookout for the best of the best and little else.

Blake Weyrick - 19 - Malibu, CA
A former Brown commit, Weyrick is an alum of the US Under-17 and Under-18 teams (though he played second-string most of the time to current Michigan State goaltender Edwin Minney). He's an interesting option that would fall into the category of "high-risk, high-reward." You don't make a U-17 or U-18 roster without having a lot of great potential, but over the course of the last three seasons, he hasn't seen a great deal of playing time. His NHL stock fell precipitously last season, going from 3rd among North American goaltenders, a sure draft selection in the midterm rankings, to 15th in the final rankings, ultimately going undrafted. This year, he was beaten out by some guy who just bolted for the WHL for the starting job with Tri-City of the USHL, eventually landing in the NAHL with Janesville, but he spent much of the season as the second choice to Jurusik. There's a lot of potential here. He got into Brown but decommitted over a lack of financial aid. He's likely got the academic background that would work at RPI, he'd likely at least be able to earn an athletic scholarship, and the school could certainly represent a new beginning for him. Appert could take a flier on the 6'3" Weyrick and see if he develops into the potential that once had him as a surefire top-end NHL draft pick.

Jared Rutledge - 21 - Chicago, IL
Rutledge would be an intriguing option for the Engineers because of his eligibility situation. He played 10 games at Michigan in 2012-13, putting up a pretty rough stat line of 4.24, .854 before leaving to return to the USHL, where he's been the past two seasons. That means he's got only two seasons of NCAA eligibility remaining - potentially allowing RPI a bit of a bridge to go out and find a new top-end netminding prospect.  He was the starter in the season opener for the Wolverines his freshman year despite an eye injury that required surgery during the preseason. This season in the USHL, he served as the backup in Tri-City for some guy who just went to the WHL, putting up an impressive 2.20, .920 line in 20 games. Rutledge also saw six games between the pipes for Janesville of the NAHL (there they are again!). He would be eligible to play immediately, but at 5'11" is definitely short by Seth Appert goaltender standards.

Jonah Imoo - 21 - Surrey, BC
Another interesting older possibility for RPI, Imoo has aged out of the BCHL after three full seasons as a starting netminder in the league. In 2012, he was named the top goaltender in the World Junior A Challenge while leading Canada West to the silver medal. As the Merritt Centennials' starter this year, Imoo has the top numbers from the BCHL among uncommitted goaltenders. His father, Dusty, is a goaltending development coach for the Winnipeg Jets, but some scouting reports from a few years back suggested that he needed to become a bit more consistent. If he's worked out those issues since then, his 6'1" frame is probably enough to fit into the RPI system, but bringing him in would probably require the Engineers to go out and find an even stronger goaltending recruit for 2016.

Kevin Aldridge - 21 - Beverly Hills, MI
The Engineers have been picking up players from the Fairbanks Ice Dogs of the NAHL left and right, so why not one of their goaltenders? Aldridge was the top choice netminder for Fairbanks in 2014 when they won the NAHL title (along with Viktor Liljegren and future Engineer Todd Burgess). He then headed to Lake Superior State, where he made only two starts and four total appearances (4.80, .833) before leaving school in December and returning to Fairbanks. He left in part because he had been recruited by the previous coaching staff, and the current one wasn't giving him much ice time. The first major hangup with Aldridge is that he would require a waiver from the NCAA to be able to play next season since he suited up for LSSU last year, and those waivers have gotten pretty stingy in recent years. The second is that he stands just 5'8", which is absolutely lilliputian for the way Appert wants his goalies.

Colin DeAugustine - 20 - Burgettstown, PA
The Youngstown Phantoms were the best team in the USHL during the regular season, led by its strong offense but also by its solid platoon in between the pipes. BC commit Chris Birdsall had the better numbers, but not by much over DeAugustine (31 games, 2.68, .910). An older goaltender who hasn't yet caught on with a college program, he could fit in well as an experienced guy who'll make for a more than capable backup to Kasdorf in the coming year. He made several highlight reels in March with this idiotic save that shows off his flexibility, but like Aldridge, count his size against him in RPI having a great deal of interest in his services. He's slightly taller at 5'9", but he still doesn't quite fill the goalmouth the way pretty much all Appert recruits have in the past.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Know Your Enemy: Alaska

There are only a handful of current NCAA Division I teams that the Engineers have never beaten. There's the group of four that they've never even played (Canisius, Penn State, Nebraska-Omaha, and Northern Michigan). They haven't beaten Colorado College in seven tries. All three games against Ohio State have been ties. And then there's the host team of the Brice Alaska Goal Rush, who have only stared down RPI twice in their 30+ year modern history. This year, the Engineers head to Fairbanks to take on the Nanooks, carrying with them a pair of Swedish players who first acclimated to North American hockey in that very city just under 200 miles from the Arctic Circle.

Alaska
Nickname: Nanooks
Location: Fairbanks, AK
Founded: 1917
Conference: WCHA
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 2010
Last Frozen Four: None
Coach: Dallas Ferguson (8th season)
2014-15 Record: 19-13-2 (14-12-2 WCHA, 4th place)
Series: UAF leads, 1-0-1
First Game: November 28, 1986 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: Never
Last UAF win: November 28, 1986 (Troy, NY)

2015-16 game: October 17, 2015 (Fairbanks, AK)

Key players: D Josh Atkinson, sr.; F Alec Hajdukovich, sr.; F Nolan Huysmans, sr.; F Tyler Morley, sr.; F Marcus Basara, jr.; F Shawn Hochhausen, jr.; G Davis Jones, jr.; F Brandon Morley, jr.; D Zach Frye, so.; F Peter Krieger, so; F Tayler Munson, so.; F Austin Vieth, so.; F Jasen Fernsler, fr.; D Nik Koberstein, fr.; F Chad Staley, fr.

"Alaska" is actually the University of Alaska Fairbanks if we're getting hypertechnical. It's a source of some friction between the younger but larger UAA that the school chose to drop the name of their city when it came to identifying their sports teams in 2006 (leading to the somewhat demeaning sobriquet "UA_"). The move emphasized UAF's position as the University of Alaska system's flagship campus, as it was established well before statehood as the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines, opening for classes in 1922. Understandably, it was a fairly small school, as more people lived in Troy at the time than lived in all of the vast territory of Alaska.

Considering the small size of the population base and the very small size of the school - there was a grand total of one graduate in 1923 - it's pretty impressive that the hockey program at UAF got its start in 1926. There are plenty of teams in the Lower 48 who can't claim a lineage that goes back that far. UAF was certainly not your average college hockey team. Given that there were no other colleges for well over a thousand miles (and before the advent of improved road or air travel), the school's hockey team, when they assembled one, typically played other amateur teams from the Fairbanks area.

After a four-game season in 1926, the school's team returned in 1933, playing through the Great Depression and into 1941, shuttering for World War II and returning in 1950. The squad had an on-and-off existence throughout the 50s, not getting any firm establishment until Bill Daltri took over the program in 1960. Daltri coached the Nanooks for three years, leading them to 14 wins in 16 games in 1961, the first season in which the team played more than six games in a single campaign since they had a 16-game sechedule in 1933. Overall, Daltri led the Nanooks to a 32-3-1 record in his three years as coach, including a perfect 8-0 record in 1963. Following Daltri's reign, UAF returned to playing shorter schedules with less success for the remainder of the 1960s and into the 1970s.

The modern era of Nanooks hockey undoubtedly begins in the same season as their arch-rivals from Anchorage: 1980-81. While the Seawolves found success playing in the Anchorage Senior League, the Nanooks had a dreadful first two seasons. Not only did Fairbanks lose all eight games they played against Anchorage, they lost all 22 games on their schedule, and went 2-21-0 the following season. By 1983, however, coach Ric Schafer had the squad pointed in the right direction. In the three years leading up to the founding of the Great West Hockey Conference, UAF had three winning seasons and a pair of 20-win campaigns. He guided the team to two more 20-win seasons in the GWHC before he left to take over the program at Notre Dame.

Schafer's replacement was a young coach starting his very first head coaching gig: Don Lucia. The current leader of the Minnesota Golden Gophers got his start in Fairbanks in 1987, leading the Nanooks to their first and only GWHC title in 1988 and guiding the team to .500 or better records in five of his six seasons, including a number of years where the team were independents again after the GWHC's demise.

Lucia left for Colorado College in 1993, shortly after the independent bid to the NCAA tournament was scotched without the Nanooks having ever achieved it, always having been blocked by their nemesis to the south, UAA. The team did, however, become associate members of the CCHA that season, finally slotting into an established college hockey conference for the first time. They became full members in time for the 1995-96 season.

The CCHA wasn't nearly as dog-eat-dog as the WCHA, so the Nanooks' experience wasn't quite as difficult as UAA's was in that league, but they still struggled to make an impact. In the mid-to-late 1990s, UAF lost at least 20 games in each of Dave Laurion's five years behind the bench within the CCHA.

UAF's first major nibble of success came after the accession of another young, dashing coach working his first head coaching gig in college hockey. Guy Gadowsky took a couple of seasons to get the Nanooks back on track - he won only 15 games in his first two seasons - but in 2002 UAF had their first 20-win campaign since joining the CCHA. They finished in the top half of the league standings for the first time with a 4th place showing and they advanced to the CCHA's Super Six tournament in Detroit, where they fell 6-5 in overtime against Ohio State.

Gadowsky's star was rising, but he took that star to Princeton (and eventually, Penn State) in 2004. Tavis MacMillan, an alum who had been associated with the team for over a decade, took over and brought the Nanooks to the CCHA Semifinals in 2005, but resigned due to family concerns in 2007. That led into a single tumultuous season under the tutelage of Doc DelCastillo, who eventually resigned before being fired thanks in part to an alleged team revolt and allegations of sexual harassment.

Current head coach Dallas Ferguson took over from DelCastillo in 2008, and in just his second season behind the bench, guided the Nanooks to their first ever NCAA tournament bid, making Alaska the next-to-last team from the "Big Four" conferences at the time to play in the national tournament for the first time (Union, who would become the last in 2011). The Nanooks fell 3-1 to Boston College in Worcester, in a game that was tied at one heading into the third period.

That experience definitely marked a high point for Fairbanks, but they've had their struggles ever since. The CCHA dissolved in 2013, requiring the team to move into the WCHA with UAA, a rival which frequently supplied them with the lion's share of their non-conference games through the Governor's Cup. The team hasn't been awful in his first two WCHA seasons - they managed a 4th-place finish this past season in a year where the league had two of the best teams in the nation - but last year was in many ways a low point for the team as well.

In November 2014, the NCAA handed down fairly severe sanctions to the school's athletic programs, including the hockey team, for fielding ineligible players between 2007 and 2012. The hockey team itself had allowed six different players to compete despite having been academically ineligible for various reasons. The NCAA wiped away all wins during the impacted period, leaving Ferguson, who had been close to becoming the school's all-time winning coach, with only a handful of wins from 2013 and 2014, and technically erasing the school's lone NCAA tournament appearance.

The Nanooks were also banned from post-season eligibility for 2015, leaving them unable to compete in the WCHA Tournament despite that fourth-place finish. They've also been docked a scholarship for the next two seasons to come.

By some metrics, one could say that coming into this season, the Nanooks are the hottest team in the country. That's kind of weak, since they'll be coming into their next game off a seven-month layover, but Alaska was unbeaten in their last eight games in a row to end the year. The only other team that didn't lose their last game was the national champions, Providence, and they only ended their year on a four-game winning streak.

The Nanooks had some pretty good balance to their attack last season. They return six different players who had at least five goals, including both of their top two scorers in Morley and Basara, who had 15 and 12 respectively. The team platooned goaltenders last year as Davis roughly split time in net with Sean Cahill, who graduated. That should leave things solely to Davis this season, though Alaska will surely be looking for an improvement on his .898 save percentage. If he doesn't, the team could be vulnerable defensively as they seek to replace three regular defensemen from last season, two who graduated and an All-American, Colton Parayko, who signed an NHL contract. Parayko would have been a senior this year, but instead the Nanooks will lose their lone NHL draftee.

That one loss certainly will hurt the team, but by and large, the other elements that made them function last season and finished the season strong will be back. They're certainly rebounding from the hit they took last year off the ice, and much like UAA, the Nanooks have a bit more room to operate in the new WCHA than they had before the big shakeup. We've seen before how winning, even against weaker teams, tends to beget winning, even being competitive against stronger teams. That could well be true just coming into the RPI game, as Alaska will be coming off a game in Anchorage against Arizona State and a game the previous night against American International. One would have to expect Fairbanks to be favored in both of those games, and they'll be the home team on Saturday night against the Engineers as well.

Once again, RPI will be presented with a team whose defense isn't going to be among the very stingiest in the nation, and a growing young corps of forwards - especially, perhaps, Viktor Liljegren and Jesper Ohrvall, who will get a bit of a homecoming as former Fairbanks Ice Dogs - will need to find ways to take advantage in order to be successful. With the larger ice and the home crowd, give the edge to Alaska, but if the Engineers play their game (and, as usual, get strong play between the pipes), there's no reason they couldn't knock the full list of Division I teams they've never beaten down to seven.

Look at that. Got all the way through and didn't even mention this.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Know Your Enemy: Alaska Anchorage

For the second time in Seth Appert's tenure at RPI - and the third time in 11 seasons - the Engineers take a long October road trip to the Last Frontier for an early season trip to one of the two Alaska fixed-schedule tournaments that open the season on top of the world. On back-to-back nights, RPI will do battle against the two Alaskan teams entering their third season as WCHA league-mates. The first night, the Engineers do battle against the more southern of the two teams by taking on Anchorage, a squad they've only seen sparingly since the Seawolves took on RPI in their first ever game on the east coast.

Alaska Anchorage

Nickname: Seawolves
Location: Anchorage, AK
Founded: 1954
Conference: WCHA
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 1992
Last Frozen Four: None
Coach: Matt Thomas (3rd season)
2014-15 Record: 8-22-4 (5-21-2 WCHA, 10th place)
Series: UAA leads, 2-1-0
First Game: November 23, 1981 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: November 23, 1981 (Troy, NY)
Last UAA win: October 16, 2009 (Fairbanks, AK)

2015-16 game: October 16, 2015 (Fairbanks, AK)

Key players: D Blake Leask, sr.; D Austin Sevalrud, sr.; F Blake Tatchell, sr.; D Chris Williams, sr.; F Brad Duwe, jr.; F Hudson Friesen, jr.; F Dylan Hubbs, jr.; D Chase Van Allen, jr.; F Matt Anholt, so.; F Austin Azurdia, so.; D Jarrett Brown, so.; F Anthony Conti, so.; F Tad Kozun, so.; G Olivier Mantha, so.; F Jeremiah Luedtke, fr.; F Jonah Renouf, fr.; F Nathan Renouf, fr.

Hockey at Anchorage got its start in 1979 under the guidance of Kelvin "Brush" Christiansen, who not only spurred the creation of a varsity program but would also serve as the team's head coach for its first 17 seasons, seeing the program through its birth through rocks and shoals and to its highest peaks thus far.

During their first season, the Seawolves participated in the Anchorage Senior League, playing only eight games against NCAA competition - all against the school's rivals from Fairbanks. UAA went 8-0 against the Nanooks in their opening year, for an officially undefeated NCAA record in 1980. The following year, playing a more full Division II schedule, UAA fell to Army in Anchorage to open the season, with the Cadets being the first non-Alaskan opponent to take on the Seawolves. Midway through the 1980-81 season, UAA ventured outside of Alaska for the first time for a six-game road trip to take on Division III programs in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

UAA's first ever trek to the east coast of the continental US took place in November 1981, starting with a game at Houston Field House against the Engineers ending in a 6-4 win for the home team. That trip was mostly against established Division I programs, and while the Division II Seawolves played well, they ultimately left empty-handed. But early in the program's development, Anchorage gained a well-earned reputation as a quality Division II side.

Division II, however, suffered from a lack of numbers. The defections of UMass-Lowell and Merrimack to Division I when Hockey East was formed helped precipitate an end to the D-II national championship, a serious blow to a UAA program that had managed a winning record in each of its first five seasons. But rather than move to a Division III schedule as many other D-II teams chose, Christiansen instead took the bold step of moving the Seawolves to Division I - a dicey prospect given the travel necessities from Alaska to the lower 48, and especially without a natural conference for UAA to join.

Christiansen led the way in creating an experiment of sorts - the Great West Hockey Conference. Banding together with three other formerly D-II teams from the far west (Alaska-Fairbanks, Northern Arizona, and U.S. International from San Diego), UAA sought to keep travel costs low by helping to grow the sport's western outposts.

Unfortunately, the Great West didn't last terribly long. Northern Arizona dropped its varsity program after the league's first year, and U.S. International dropped its team two years later. Meanwhile, the expansion of college hockey along the west coast never materialized. A two-team league being unfeasible, the two Alaska schools returned to the ranks of the independents.

But while the program was looking for a new home, it began to reach new heights even as the travel costs began to mount. With the NCAA tournament recently expanded to 12 teams in 1988, an at-large bid was earmarked for independent teams, and the Seawolves managed to cobble together a full enough and successful enough schedule to qualify with an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament in the 1990, 1991, and 1992 seasons. In 1990, UAA was blown away in two games by Lake Superior State, but the 1991 tournament brought the Seawolves to arguably their highest point as a varsity program.

Just over a decade after beginning play, Anchorage traveled to Boston College as huge underdogs against the Eagles. In a two-game, total goals series, the Seawolves managed not just one win, but two, taking down BC 3-2 and 3-1 to advance to the quarterfinal round, one step from the Frozen Four. They fell 8-5 and 5-3 to the eventual national champions from Northern Michigan, but UAA had put its stamp on the Division I map.

The following year, UAA again fell to the eventual national champions, this time dropping a single-elimination game against Lake Superior State, 7-3. Their "in" to the tournament was abolished the following season, giving greater urgency for the Seawolves to find a conference to play in. After one more year as an independent, UAA was invited to join the WCHA, giving the program some much needed schedule stability but requiring an increase in the number of trips between Alaska and the lower 48.

Having established the program he started in one of the nation's top conferences, Christiansen retired in 1996, three years into UAA's tenure in the WCHA. Under his guidance, the team had only five losing seasons - three of which were his WCHA years. But under his successors, the Seawolves would struggle to find any footing at all within the conference - a catch-22 of having the league as a safety latch for the program, but the super-competitive nature of the league making it difficult for UAA to find success.

Christiansen's successor, Dean Talafous, managed to crack 10 wins only twice in five years. John Hill then did this twice in three years, but those seasons bookmarked a horrible 2002-03 campaign in which UAA managed just a single, solitary win through an entire season, that one win coming in the very first game of the season against Fairbanks. The record winless streak to end the season was a mind numbing 35 consecutive games.

The following year, UAA made a playoff breakthrough by upsetting Wisconsin in the first round of the WCHA playoffs, then taking down Colorado College in the play-in game of the WCHA Final Five. Hill then left to return to an assistant's role at Minnesota, and Dave Shyiak took the helm. The same usual script continued: a bottom-of-the-barrel finish, a first-round matchup on the road, an early exit. Other than a historic two-game upset sweep at Minnesota in 2011 which sent UAA to the Final Five for a second time, that script followed exactly the same throughout Shyiak's tenure through 2013.

The reasoning was fairly simple. UAA was a minnow in a league of sharks, at a serious disadvantage in recruiting given the distance of the school from the core of the league in Minnesota and Colorado. In each of its 19 seasons in the WCHA, the Seawolves had finished with a losing record, only once coming as close as two wins under .500. But as Shyiak departed in 2013, that metric began to shake a bit. As the college hockey landscape shifted with the advent of the Big Ten and the NCHC, the sharks of the WCHA mostly swam off for those conferences, leaving a playing field that UAA could better handle.

2013-14 was a landmark season for UAA's post-independent existence. With Matt Thomas now coaching, the Seawolves finished with a winning record for the first time since 1993, and although they still had to travel on the road for the first round of the playoffs, they at least played their first ever playoff series in Alaska by taking on arch-rivals Fairbanks, one of the new arrivals in the WCHA following the shakeup. They won that series in three games, then took Ferris State to overtime in the WCHA semifinals - literally a goal away from playing for an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

Last year, however, the Seawolves backslid a bit. For the third time in four seasons, and the 10th time since joining the WCHA, UAA finished a season with fewer than 10 wins. The new WCHA may prove to give Anchorage more than a fighting chance eventually, but it's clear the program still has obstacles to overcome.

Two current members of the Washington Capitals, Curtis Glencross and Jay Beagle, played their collegiate hockey at UAA, but neither stuck around very long, both leaving after their sophomore seaasons. Among UAA alums who had more than just a cup of coffee in the NHL, none stayed for four years.

As bad as they were last season, UAA was still arguably better than RPI when one looks at the raw numbers. The Seawolves outpaced the Engineers in goals per game and had better defense and special teams. Tatchell paced Anchorage in scoring with seven goals and 15 assists, while Azurdia tied for the lead in goals with eight.

Among the more interesting additions to the UAA roster this year are the Renouf twins, Jonah and Nathan. The Ontario natives enrolled at Quinnipiac last season (where they love twins - see also the Jones twins), but for some reason never saw action in a game and transferred to Alaska-Anchorage. We'll have to see if there was a good reason Rand Pecknold never had them in a game, but they appeared ready to be solid contributors at the Q heading into last season, so if that potential blossoms in Anchorage instead, they could be big additions for the Seawolves.

The ice in Fairbanks is Olympic-sized, as it is in Anchorage. That's not a killer - RPI won a game they played on Olympic ice last year in New Hampshire - but it's an advantage for UAA. They are the nominal home team, although Fairbanks partisans who come out for the game may find a sudden affinity for the Engineers they never knew they had thanks to the bitter rivalry they share with Anchorage. RPI is likely to be improved from last year. If UAA can claim the same thing it should make for a great game, all things considered. As we'll surely mention throughout this series, having a netminder who has a proven ability to steal a game is a benefit the Engineers enjoy, but don't be surprised to see this as a spot where Alec Dillon may make his RPI debut as well.