Monday, August 30, 2010

The Summer From Hell

There is reputed to be an ancient Chinese proverb (its true origin may have been American English) that sounds like a blessing, but is meant as a curse: "May you live in interesting times."

As college hockey fans, the 2010 offseason absolutely qualifies as "interesting times." For fans of the Engineers, our "interesting times" have been... well, more interesting than most.

We've recounted very well here at Without a Peer the major personnel issues facing the college hockey world - the recruiting war with the CHL on the front end and the NHL's collective bargaining agreement on the back end - and as it has turned out, we were not vulnerable to these issues.

From the beginning of the offseason through the present, RPI has been kicked repeatedly while they're down... a category in which they are not alone. Let's recount the tough-to-hear news that we've encountered since we last watched the Engineers skate.

Jim Montgomery departs
The difficult summer got underway before the 2009-10 season had officially come to a close. Weeks after the disappointing loss to Brown in the ECAC First Round, news came down that assistant coach Jim Montgomery would be leaving RPI to take over as head coach and general manager of the USHL's Dubuque Fighting Saints. This didn't take many people by surprise and Monty's departure had been expected to be coming down the pike sooner rather than later because of his outstanding pedigree as a coach and recruiter, but it didn't make it easy to take, either.

Nick Quinn holds off
The next issue materialized shortly thereafter when Nick Quinn, a defenseman who had been expected to step in right away and provide some big-time blueline support, was moved back to 2011. This may have been a decision made by Seth Appert and the coaching staff, but it could have been Quinn's choice as well. At any rate, the decision to hold off Luke Curadi as well (who had never been firmly expected in 2010 at any point prior to or after his commitment) meant the Engineers were in need of another defenseman, necessitating the early arrival of Patrick Koudys, who was expected in 2011 and probably could have benefited from another year in juniors before starting his NCAA clock, but that's the way it goes.

Jacob Laliberté holds off
In early May, news came through the Record's Ed Weaver that prized recruit Jacob Laliberté would, for the second consecutive season, not be coming to Troy as expected. Ever since Laliberté committed to RPI in February 2008, Engineer fans have been hotly anticipating his arrival given his near total domination of the junior A ranks in Ontario and his stature being of a nature that has the NHL overlooking him - meaning he could ultimately spend more time in college than someone putting up his numbers with a bigger frame. The news was rather deflating - it was hoped that Laliberté would have the ability to come in and make RPI a much more feared team, seeing him playing alongside Chase Polacek, Jerry D'Amigo, and Brandon Pirri.

Jerry D'Amigo departs
From there, the bad news, at least as it pertained to RPI, was done for much of the summer, but in early August, a bombshell dropped when word started to leak out that star sophomore Jerry D'Amigo was close to signing a deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs. After reports of D'Amigo's massively increased size started to leak out of the World Junior camp in Lake Placid, pundits began to believe that D'Amigo, even at the age of 19, might well be NHL ready. Given the developing situation in which dozens of talented underclassmen had already bolted the NCAA ranks for pro contracts, D'Amigo's signing ultimately took few people by surprise once it happened, even if it appeared likely at the beginning of the offseason that he'd probably be back for at least one more year.

Brandon Pirri departs
The other shoe dropped early last week, when Bob McKenzie and Ken Schott broke the news that Brandon Pirri was about to sign with Chicago, a situation, as we mentioned last Monday, that was more than likely brought on by Chicago's roster woes and possibly somewhat sparked by D'Amigo's leaving. For a few weeks, we'd thought the team wouldn't have been as good as they could have been with D'Amigo, but that they'd be perfectly fine as long as Pirri was still on board. Now, life seems a little bit harder, especially considering the amount of attention Chase Polacek is going to draw from defensemen without those two super sophomores to worry about.

Nick Quinn decommits
The capper on the worst week thus far in the offseason came at the end of last week, when recruiting guru Chris Heisenberg caught wind that Quinn had made the decision not to attend RPI in 2011, or ever, moving back into the pool of uncommitted recruits. The reasoning is unclear at this point, but some have conjectured that there may have been some unhappiness with his situation vis a vis Jim Montgomery, who apparently was the key element in recruiting Quinn. The young Canadian had been expecting to play alongside Curadi and under Montgomery in Dubuque, but a USHL ruling on the number of imports allowed to play on any given team meant that one had to leave Dubuque, and Quinn ended up being the odd man out in Monty's plans. Quinn will play instead for Des Moines, assuming he stays in the USHL. If he does, he's probably looking to go to another school (which would likely make him Chris Huxley's replacement among the RPI student section, especially if he goes to another ECAC school). If he doesn't, he's probably just another NCAA recruit who leaves to go to the OHL. At any rate, the departure leaves RPI with one defenseman (Curadi) and one forward (Laliberté) committed for 2011 at present. Three defensemen and five forwards graduate at the end of the upcoming season.

These events have RPI fans looking fairly punch drunk, waiting for the next bit of bad news to fall down like a sandbag from overhead. Well, not to sound like a negative Nancy, but brace yourself - the whole college hockey world, perhaps, should be bracing themselves.

Penn State
Year after year, one of the schools most often rumored to be starting a new varsity program has been Penn State, thanks to their wildly successful and popular club program. Now it appears that this rumor may actually be about to become reality. The school is apparently getting closer to announcing plans for a new 6,000 to 8,000 seat arena and men's and women's varsity programs which could get underway as independents in time for the 2012-13 season, potentially with an eye on the CCHA as an initial home.

Exciting, right? Well, it's also... "interesting." Penn State would more than likely change the face of the college hockey world more than any other school could. They would become the sixth Big 10 school to sponsor college hockey (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State). Six is the magic number for a conference with an autobid. Is a Big 10 super-conference in the works, one that would fundamentally alter the landscape of the sport, especially in the west, where the CCHA would be utterly devastated?

But western teams are not the only ones who should be watching the situation at Penn State. If they're going to have a team in 2012, especially at a big name school like theirs, recruiting has to start this season, which means, they need a coach. Know any that have shown a recent ability to bring outstanding players to a program without a lot of natural advantages? Wow, I can think of two of them right here in the Capital District - our own Seth Appert, and Union's Nate Leaman. Penn State would be fools not to inquire as to either man's availability, and both men would be fools not to at least consider the position if it were offered to them. The chance to be for Penn State what Ned Harkness was to either Capital District program is practically priceless.

So yes... if you're an RPI fan, there's got to be some cause for concern as we watch Penn State potentially become the 59th Division I program.

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We asked the question at the beginning of the offseason "will he or won't he (be in Troy)?" for four talented scorers. The answer was "he won't" for three of the four. If all four had been coming, who knows what this team could have done. We'll never get the chance to find out, so it's time to move on, forget about what might have been, and focus on the future.

Be happy for them
We will miss their services dearly, but Montgomery, D'Amigo, and Pirri are moving on to bigger and better things. We've at least got the consolation of being able to watch them pursue those bigger and better things.

Nolan Graham arrives
At the very least, Montgomery's replacement among Appert's lieutenants is not only a familiar face, but a rising star among the coaching ranks. Nolan Graham has had success everywhere he's gone behind the bench since hanging them up, especially last season in Alberni Valley. He's an alum to boot, which likely gives him a little edge in the passion department when it comes to speaking to recruits. It will be good to have him back in Troy.

The new faces arrive
There's every bit of reason to be excited about the new players who will be pulling on the cherry and white this year. Viewed through the scope of last season's incoming crop, this group may not seem as exciting. Viewed through the scope of 10 years worth of incoming groups of freshmen, and it's another solid class. Nick Bailen will more than likely step in and provide the same type of outstanding defense we would expect from an upperclassman. Patrick Koudys is likely to be a high draft pick in 2011. Apparently, we got the right Tinordi after all, and Matt appears to have size and a scoring touch. Then there's Brock Higgs and Johnny Rogic, both of whom we have mentioned could be key players right off the bat.

Signs of success
In the modern game, losing players early is a sign that your program is successful in attracting the best. We'd like to remind some of the haters that RPI has sent more players to the NHL in the last month than most ECAC teams have sent there in the last few years, or in more than one case, more than they've ever sent there. And we don't want to get too far into rumor and innuendo, but... there may be some more blue-chippers in the near future. Stay tuned.

We don't suffer alone - or in poor company
The other teams to lose multiple players early to NHL contracts? Minnesota. Wisconsin. Boston University. Denver. Michigan State. Notre Dame. Ohio State. UMass. Northern Michigan. That's some pretty select company. Only Minnesota also lost two freshmen. The only downside to this company is that most of those teams are better suited to rebound from their losses this year or next year.

The rebound will be the challenge. With the team we've got right now... it's possible, as long as they believe. It won't be easy to stop thinking about what might have been, but that's exactly the hurdle the Engineers will need to overcome early in the season - there is no "might have been," there is only what is.

Classes start today on the hill. One month left. Wake me up when September ends.

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