Friday, September 24, 2010

Men's Hockey - 2010-11 Season Preview

With the season now upon us - we get our first glance at the men in just eight days in the Cherry and White scrimmage - it's about time to sit down and analyze the Engineers. We've attempted to break down the team a couple of times early in the offseason, but the changes never stopped coming.

First, we'll analyze the schedule for the upcoming season.

The season kicks off a week from Tuesday with an exhibition against New Brunswick. The Varsity Reds will be playing their third game in four days, as they also have games at UMass and Vermont on the preceding Saturday and Sunday. As we saw last season against Prince Edward Island, the Canadian schools in the Maritimes are no pushovers, and UNB should provide an excellent challenge for the Engineers.

Three nights later, the games that count get underway as RPI plays a weekend series out west against Colorado College. They return east the next weekend to face Northeastern in Boston followed by the home opener the next night against Bentley on Homecoming weekend.

The first full home weekend follows, as the Engineers host RIT and Niagara, and a week later, RPI returns to the home of the Miracle on Ice for the first time in eight years as they face off against Union in a non-conference game the night before Halloween.

From there, the ECAC schedule gets underway as RPI travels to Dartmouth and Harvard on the first weekend of the month. The following weekend, the Union home-and-home weekend returns, with the meeting in Schenectady coming on 11/12 and the return trip to Troy coming the next night. As that Saturday night's game is the only ECAC home game before January, Black Friday has become Black Saturday this season.

After a week off, the November schedule concludes after Thanksgiving with the annual RPI Invitational. The Engineers face UConn on Friday before taking on Bowling Green or Alabama-Huntsville on Saturday.

On December 3rd, the Engineers try to make it three in a row against Yale in New Haven, and face playoff nemesis Brown the next night in Providence. They return home the next weekend for the annual game against traditional rivals Boston University.

From there, the team is pretty much done with the first half of the season, but they do return eight days later to face the US World Junior team in Troy - likely including Jerry D'Amigo - for the Yanks' tune-up and final audition game before they head to Buffalo to defend their title.

After Christmas, the Engineers take a vacation down south, but it's a working vacation as they play on 12/30 and New Year's Eve against Alabama-Huntsville.

From there, it's all ECAC matchups for RPI - 16 games, 10 of which are at home. It begins in the second weekend of the new year as Clarkson and St. Lawrence come to town - during break, unfortunately. The remainder of break is taken up with a road weekend at Cornell and Colgate.

Students should, however, be back in town for the longest homestand of the year as Harvard and Dartmouth come to town to finish the season series with those teams, followed in the last weekend of January by Brown and Yale - the Yale matchup being this year's Big Red Freakout! on 1/29.

The final month of the regular season kicks off with a road weekend at Quinnipiac and Princeton, playing those teams for the first time on the year even after having already finished the season series with four other squads. They return home the following weekend for Colgate and Cornell.

The dreaded North Country trip comes in the final road weekend of the regular season as the Engineers face St. Lawrence and Clarkson, finishing the season the following weekend with their second Princeton/Quinnipiac series of the month, with the Bobcats on 2/26 coming in for senior night.

That's the schedule. Now, the team. Seniors are listed in italics.

Departed since last September (6) : Jerry D'Amigo, Paul Kerins, Christian Morrisette, Brandon Pirri, Garett Vassel, Jordan Watts.
Returning (12): Alex Angers-Goulet, Kevin Beauregard, Bryan Brutlag, Patrick Cullen, Scott Halpern, Tyler Helfrich, C.J. Lee, Joel Malchuk, Marty O'Grady, Chase Polacek, Josh Rabbani, Justin Smith.
New this season (4): Greg Burgdoerfer, Brock Higgs, Johnny Rogic, Matt Tinordi.

It had looked like there was going to be a glut of forwards when we looked at the team in April - there were expected to be 20 forwards competing for 12 slots. Then we found that Jacob Laliberté would not be coming in. Then in August, it was Jerry D'Amigo signing a pro contract. Then Jordan Watts transferred to D-III Adrian. Then Brandon Pirri was signing on the dotted line, too. What had been expected to be an unassailable asset for the Engineers is starting to become something of a question mark.

Fortunately, there are a lot of potential and realistic answers to that question mark within the 16-player bloc. Polacek should be a constant, but he'll need other producers chipping in around him if he's going to be able to operate. The potential replacements for D'Amigo, Kerins, and Pirri? Cullen wowed the scouts at the Washington Capitals rookie camp this summer (as an undrafted free agent). Helfrich led the Engineers in scoring his freshman year (on a team that included Polacek) but has dealt with injuries the past two seasons. Brutlag and O'Grady were significant contributors up front last season. Higgs, Rogic, and Tinordi all come in with the size and talent to produce. And all RPI needs is two or three of those names with demonstrated ability stepping up as scoring threats to make the offense work.

The supporting players have done their job well in the last couple of seasons. Angers-Goulet played his role as a secondary threat very well, but RPI could use more output from Halpern and Lee in this regard.

Departed since last September (4): Erik Burgdoerfer, Christian Jensen, Peter Merth, Mark Zarbo.
Returning (3): Mike Bergin, Jeff Foss, John Kennedy.
New this season (4): Nick Bailen, Bo Dolan, Pat Koudys, Guy Leboeuf.

This position is practically the mirror opposite of the offense - in April, it seemed like the defensemen would be the biggest concern. The three returning names are stalwarts, representing half of the nightly defensive contingent. But the new faces, in many ways, could be ready to be practically immediate improvements over the guys they are replacing. Burgdoerfer's toughness won't be easy to replace, but Bailen and Dolan both have shown a willingness to stand up for their teammates at other levels. Bailen's past NCAA experience (he played one season at Bowling Green before transferring) should help him ease in as a regular. That leaves two defensemen per night that will be freshmen.

The most important addition, absolutely, is size, and that comes via Koudys and Leboeuf. The former is younger (still only 17) and 6'4" while Leboeuf is three years older and 6'5", but Koudys is bigger and comes with a lot of expectation - he may well be a fairly high draft pick in 2011 and should be a formidable regular presence for the Engineers. We expect the 6th defenseman to vacillate between Leboeuf and Dolan.

The drawback, of course, is in something of a lack of depth as there are only 7 players to fill 6 nightly positions, though the Engineers do have former defenseman Bryan Brutlag available in an emergency, as well as Kevin Beauregard, who is still practicing as a forward but has been mentioned as a viable emergency defensive option.

Departed since last September (1): Joe Harkenrider.
Returning (2): Bryce Merriam, Allen York.
New this season (1): Jeremy Coupal.

York is the top returning goaltender in the ECAC if you look solely at the numbers. That puts the Engineers in a firm position in net for sure, but they are going to need some better showing from Merriam in his sophomore year to be confirmed as a positive for the team. When York got hurt down the stretch last year, the team struggled. Merriam will need to be able to step in and be just as capable in net as York.

That's not to say that York doesn't have a few issues of his own to iron out. If he wants to snag the mantle of top goaltender in the league, it's certainly out there for the taking. He's got a full season as the top guy under his belt now, so if he can build on last year's positive experiences, he could be a force to be reckoned with all on his own.

In other news, the practice goaltender has changed, which isn't really much more than a note than an issue of great concern.

In The Pipeline

F Jacob Laliberté
Cornwall Colts, CHL

Laliberté has been long awaited in Troy. He committed to RPI before Jerry D'Amigo and Brandon Pirri even did, but he disappointed the Engineer faithful when he did not arrive with the fab frosh last season, and when it was announced early this offseason that he wouldn't be here this year either, people began to wonder whether Laliberté was ever going to wear the Cherry and White. Word began to leak out that despite his awe-inspiring offensive numbers, that he lacked work ethic, wouldn't play defense, and was still somewhat immature.

But at the beginning of this month,
Laliberté recommitted himself to RPI in comments to Ed Weaver at the Troy Record. "Me, my family and the RPI coaching staff felt I still wasn’t ready for RPI,” he said. “I had to mature both off the ice and on the ice. I had some personal problems... I’m putting that all behind me now." That's great news for the future, as Laliberté projects to be the prototype for the star four-year recruit - small of stature and overlooked by the NHL, but with the goods to be a collegiate star.

One does wonder how much more Laliberté can grow in his current league, which he has dominated offensively two seasons in a row. Perhaps he will have the opportunity to fine-tune his game defensively and grow his work ethic to become a better all-around player. With any luck, he'll have aged like fine wine by the time he arrives.

D Luke Curadi
Dubuque Fighting Saints, USHL

Curadi, when he committed to RPI earlier this year, was iffy on whether he would be due this season or next season, and while he probably could have fit well with the rest of the incoming defensemen - he's listed at 6'5", 255 and he may not be done growing yet - he could well be the largest player in all of college hockey when he arrives in Troy next year. Between him, Koudys, and Leboeuf, the Engineers will have an awful lot of size on defense.

This year, he will hone his craft under the tutelage of former RPI assistant coach Jim Montgomery, now the head coach and general manager of the expansion Saints. The word is that he needs to increase his speed a little bit, but the popular adage is that "you can't teach size," and in hockey, size often matters quite a lot. Even if he eventually arrives with some flaws, that's something he'll have going for him no matter what.

C Matt Neal
Stouffville Spirit, OJHL

Neal appeared as a commitment to RPI for the 2011-12 season just this week, so we're still finding out good information about him. He's listed at 5' 11", 175, turns 19 in November, and has two goals and three assists in five games so far this season for the Spirit. We'll keep you updated on his progress throughout the year.

Early indications are that Neal may be a pretty decent talent. He played alongside Pat Koudys on the Team Canada Selects squad that went to Sweden this past April, which is a pretty significant honor. Last year, he had 21 goals and 26 assists over 49 games, just short of a point per game.

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