Sunday, August 15, 2010

Seth Appert: Don't Stop Believin'

Funny how much can change in 12 months.

This time last season, some RPI fans were ruminating about whether Seth Appert was the right man for the program. Others were being more patient, understanding the process underway in Troy transitioning the Engineers into a high-flying, speed based team.

There's little question that the team was back last season. But that wasn't good enough for some segment of the fanbase. "Where are the titles?" they invariably ask, as though a team could go from nothing to winning championships overnight. "Why can't we win Freakout?" others ask. They point to Keith Allain, who came into the league at the same time as Appert, and ask why that couldn't have been RPI.

At this point, the refrain from the whiners is starting to get a little tired. Let's take a look at the year-by-year breakdown since Seth Appert arrived in Troy and see what's going on.

2006-07 (10-18-8)
Appert Recruits: 8% (Peter Merth and Garett Vassel)
Let's be honest - this was not Appert's team. He was not involved in the recruiting of hardly anyone on the roster besides Merth and Vassel, and none of them had been recruited to play the style of hockey Appert decided to play - a style that helped him earn two national championship rings as an assistant in Denver. The team got out of the box quickly, but fizzled after November. The up-tempo, high speed style isn't easy to just pick up and run with, and the team started running out of gas early in games.

Appert could have come in and cut players who didn't fit in with his new style wholesale, cleaning house and taking on a truckload of recruits. He could have done that from the very beginning. But he didn't. He decided to honor the commitments the players had received from the school under Dan Fridgen - a move which is worthy of praise. No one left ahead of his first season (except for Chris Huxley, who dropped his commitment after Fridgen's resignation and quickly committed to Harvard for 2007), and only three players left the team after the season - Reed Kipp (who stayed at RPI as a student), Jordan Cyr, and Jason Fortino. It's not uncommon for players to leave if they are frustrated with playing time. The truth is, Cyr and Fortino were not likely to receive lots of playing time under the new system.

2007-08 (11-23-4)
Appert Recruits: 32%
More growing pains during the second year, but the potential for future growth was obvious immediately. The top two scorers in Appert's second season behind the bench were two freshmen from his first full recruit class - Tyler Helfrich and Chase Polacek. Expectations were pretty low coming into the year, and the end result was hardly unexpected, especially given the exceptionally difficult schedule that Appert had pieced together for the year. Two games against Miami, two games against Notre Dame, a game against Colorado College and a game against Maine? That's a rough non-conference schedule even for solid teams. But the tough games accomplished their purpose, challenging the young team to raise their game.

2008-09 (10-27-2)
Appert Recruits: 64%
This season, at the time, seemed like a huge disappointment and really led to the minor cacophony of questioners that came out of the woodwork. The feeling before the season was, essentially, that the turnaround was due to begin this season since more than half of the squad were now Appert guys.

And yet, the conversion was still ongoing and obvious from the stat sheet. All of the top four, and 7 of the top 8 scorers on the team were freshmen and sophomores - Appert's recruits, playing the style he recruited them to play. To their credit, guys like Matt Angers-Goulet, Seth Klerer, and Kurt Colling stuck in there playing up-tempo hockey. But any time you're depending on that many young players to carry the team, it's probably going to be a long season, no matter who they are and what kind of style they play. We saw something similar from Dartmouth last season, which was heavy on young players and not so much on veterans.

This season, for those who could see the building blocks being put into place, was made much more bearable with the news that Appert had three blue chippers coming into the program - Jerry D'Amigo, Jacob Laliberté, and Brandon Pirri. For those who only go to games and see the team struggling, the questions were abounding. The way the season ended, just a game away from going to Albany against some tough competition in the playoffs, set the table for this year.

2009-10 (18-17-4)
Appert Recruits: 82%
Ten less losses and eight more wins as the Engineers finally finished with a winning record for the first time since 2004. At this point it was a lot more obvious to see that Appert's plans for RPI were beginning to come to fruition. RPI had their first non-local Hobey Baker finalist in a decade in Polacek, had two of the top freshman scorers in the nation in Pirri and D'Amigo, and was the only ECAC team to have a player in the World Junior Championships. Did the season end too soon? Yes, of course. They shouldn't have lost to Brown - but then again, neither should Yale have lost to Brown. But there's no reason to let a bad weekend at the end of the season completely drown the overall picture. This team was picked to be on the road in the first round. They very nearly landed a first-round bye.

Appert Recruits: 96% (Joel Malchuk)
As pointed out earlier in the week, the Engineers now have a proven offense and a proven goaltender. If the defense is up to snuff - and 4 of the expected regular starters (Bailen, Bergin, Kennedy, and Foss) have some solid college experience under their belts - RPI will be a very solid team. For the first time, the team will be 100% comprised of players who were either recruited by Appert or have fully bought into (and become an integral part of) the uptempo style. This team, even without Jerry D'Amigo, could well be positioned to claim a first-round bye for the ECAC Playoffs for the very first time.

Would it be nice to win Freakout! for the first time since Appert took over? Sure. But it's one game in 34 on the schedule, worth two points, same as any other league game. It's important to alums, but in terms of "must win" games, it's no more or less important than the game played a day prior. Let's not forget that the Engineers have mostly been playing very tough teams in Freakout! since Appert came aboard. St. Lawrence in 2007 and Yale in 2009 won the Cleary Cup as the ECAC regular season champions. Princeton in 2008 finished in 2nd. Princeton had been expected to be a bye-worthy team last year, and they played like it at Freakout (though I'm still at a loss to explain that game, generally). Guess what? Freakout! is against Yale again this season, and they're probably going to be right there at the top.

What's been going on these last four years? Quietly, Seth Appert has made RPI a destination for top recruits again. If you've never met him before, just talk to him for five minutes and you'll understand why good players want to come play for him. It's no wonder that Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke heaped the praise onto RPI and Appert (6:01 through 7:43 in that audio clip) for his ability to mold talent. 12 months ago, while the most shrill voices in the room were calling for a second coach search in less than half-a-decade, Jerry D'Amigo was a sixth round draft pick. Today, he's considered one of Toronto's top prospects. That's just another reason for RPI fans to be excited for D'Amigo's jump to the NHL - other top prospects are going to see the conversion that he made in such a short time and be interested in playing for the man that helped put Jerry D'Amigo on the road to NHL stardom.

In practically every facet, Seth Appert has proven himself to be worthy of the title of Division I head coach. He recruits well. He interacts with the school and the community well. He's even proven that he has the guts and the patience to build a strong program rather than shoot for short-term success at the expense of long-term success. He puts together solid schedules for his teams. The only thing that is missing at this point are the titles and title game appearances that the whiners are demanding.

But if you've been paying attention, you can see how those could well be right around the corner.

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