Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Evolving Picture

Well, it's only been a week since we laid out the amorphous situation that the men's program finds itself in as we move into the summer, but already we are finding some answers.

Nothing has been confirmed by RPI yet, but the understanding right now is that Nolan Graham, RPI class of2003, will be coming aboard as the replacement for Jim Montgomery among Seth Appert's lieutenants.

Graham notched 27 goals and 50 assists in 140 games during his four years in Troy before moving on to a three-year career in the minor leagues, splitting time in the ECHL during his first pro season with the Alaska Aces and the Long Beach Ice Dogs before playing two years for the Lubbock Cotton Kings of the CHL. After hanging up the skates, Graham returned to his hometown of Nanaimo, B.C., where he joined the staff of the BCHL's Nanaimo Clippers as an assistant coach. During his three-year tenure, the Clippers won the Fred Page Cup in 2007 as BCHL champions. In March 2009, he took the reins of the Alberni Valley Bulldogs in Port Alberni, B.C., as head coach and general manager, signing a deal through 2012.

Under Graham, the Bulldogs succeeded right away, finishing at the top of the BCHL's Coastal Conference with a record of 45-12-1-2, turning around a team that finished with a record of 16-36-1-7 just a year prior, and taking the Bulldogs to the BCHL semifinals.

The 30-year-old Graham is slightly younger than assistant coach Bryan Vines, which dispels the idea that Appert was necessarily looking for an older, more experienced assistant that some thought put recent alums like Graham, Kevin Broad and Union assistant Ben Barr out of the running. But given Graham's four-year record as a coach and his already existing connections to RPI, it's possible that he could be the perfect fit.

Two other questions were solved regarding the myriad recruiting issues that we mentioned last week. On Saturday, the Dubuque Telegraph-Herald reported that Nick Quinn would indeed be playing for Montgomery and the Dubuque Fighting Saints next season alongside Luke Curadi. This is a pairing that should excite RPI and Dubuque fans alike - both are very strong defensive recruits with big upside. Dubuque fans will get a season of solid defense from a pair of big guys, RPI fans will hopefully get two freshmen defensemen to replace John Kennedy and Jeff Foss in 2011 who will have already played together under a coach who knows what they'll be expected to do at RPI - meaning they should be ready to hit the ground running when they arrive at a level we might not normally associate with a freshman.

Quinn's confirmed move to Dubuque opened questions about the team's defense for next season, but those questions were answered pretty quickly as Patrick Koudys' name popped up in the campus directory on Sunday, all but confirming that he will be on campus for the 2010-11 school year, a year earlier than expected. When the puck drops in October, Koudys will still be two months shy of his 18th birthday. This starts the clock early for the young defenseman, but he brings some immediate size and skill - not to mention, some required depth - to the RPI blueline. He may spend his first year or two getting up to speed and filling out his massive frame, but hopefully he'll develop into the solid prospect that he's been expected to become. It also means there is still at least one more defenseman that will be needed for 2011, but there's plenty of time to worry about that.

With Quinn confirmed to be coming in 2011 and Koudys now confirmed to be joining Burgdoerfer, Bailen, Leboeuf, Tinordi, and Higgs, that leaves just two more question marks among known recruits - Jacob Laliberté and Johnny Rogic.

Let's touch on Rogic first. He played last season for Alberni Valley and was coached by Nolan Graham. Is that another hint that he might be on his way to Troy? We didn't find out about Rogic through Chris Heisenberg until after it was known that Jim Montgomery was leaving Troy. Perhaps Graham's candidacy for the RPI job was a deal-sealer? At any rate, we may be finding out soon about Rogic.

Laliberté, on the other hand, now suddenly has more questions. We know he's not the second recruit in Iowa, and even though Montgomery has now said he's looking to stock his team with scorers, Laliberté is unlikely to be one of those forwards. The USHL has a cap on the number of international players that a team can have, and Quinn makes two in Dubuque already - the other being a Swedish defenseman that is bound for Cornell in 2011. Plus, while it's exciting to have a guy with RPI connections as a head coach in the USHL, this is ultimately Montgomery's team. He might nudge some uncommitted talent in our direction, but it's their choice as to whether RPI is the right fit - he doesn't suddenly create a "pipeline to Troy." Additionally, his goal is going to be to develop talent and win hockey games, not to be a development ground for RPI.

So what are Laliberté's options for next season?

1) Troy. The best-case scenario. That puts him in the fold.
2) Major junior. The worst-case scenario. That puts him out.
3) A return to Cornwall. Probably the second worst-case scenario. Laliberté has already dominated the CJHL for two years running. There's really not much more room for growth in Cornwall.
4) A move to the BCHL or the USHL. These leagues are generally more competitive and better development grounds for college-bound players, especially the USHL. If Laliberté doesn't come to Troy this year, this is the second best option. Either league would move him out of his local comfort zone and allow him to continue to grow as a player before coming to RPI.

In the long run, whether it's this year or next year, college is probably the best route to professional hockey for Laliberté. Laliberté has been variously listed at 5'9" or 5'10". That's pretty short for the NHL. But look at the route the shortest players in the NHL have taken. Brian Gionta? He's 5'7" and had four dominant years at Boston College. Martin St. Louis? We all remember how much his 5'9" frame tortured the ECAC while he was at Vermont - and he was undrafted. Zach Parise? 5' 11" out of North Dakota. Remember 5' 10" center Todd White from Clarkson? He's had a 12-year career in the NHL after being undrafted. The list goes on and on - a disproportionate number of smaller North American players in the NHL came through the college ranks.

Laliberté compares favorably to another small player who lit up the CJHL - St. Cloud State's Ryan Lasch, a 5' 7" forward who just finished his collegiate career as the all time leading scorer in SCSU history. That's no mean feat, and he lit up Cornell's Ben Scrivens at the Frozen Four skills competition just for good measure. Lasch was overlooked because of his size by major junior (and a number of college programs), but now he might be on his way to a professional career thanks to the gaudy numbers he put up in college, and in one of the toughest leagues in the nation to boot. Laliberté has a chance to keep from being pigeonholed at the next level as being too short if he comes to RPI.

Some questions answered, some still yet to be solved, but the waiting game continues.

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