Friday, December 16, 2011

Reality Check?

Let's not mince words when it comes to the men's team. If the team continues on its current path, it will be the first season with fewer than 10 wins since 1982 (in which the team played 29 games), and the second worst winning percentage in the modern era of the program, following the 1966 season largely considered the worst in school history.

This is for a team that, coming into the season, had the pundits believing that despite the much ballyhooed losses of Chase Polacek and Allen York, RPI was going to vie for a first-round bye (4th in the coaches poll, 5th in the media poll). We weren't even that optimistic, but we thought sixth was a pretty strong likelihood.

A lot can change in two and a half months, but those pre-season projections don't lie - this should not be a team that could be considered one of the worst in program history. And at its base, that is what makes what has transpired to date all the more frustrating. In Seth Appert's first three years with the program, there was a lot of hemming and hawing over the Engineers' troubles (they were 31-68-14 in those years), but watching the games, it was apparent that the guys were just getting beat by better teams for the most part. Today, that isn't the case. 3/4 of this team has been on a 20-game winning NCAA tournament squad, many in integral roles.

There is a very recent comparison that can be made - Colgate, last year. The Raiders were chosen to finish 4th in the media poll (with 2 voters feeling they had the chops to finish first) and 5th in the coaches poll a year after a 4th place finish that ended with an ECAC tournament upset. They finished dead last, and for much of the season, it wasn't close. Their issue wasn't so much a problem scoring as much as it was keeping the puck out of their own net for much of the year, but the effect was the same. Colgate did salvage their season in March (requiring a pair of Game 3 overtime goals in the Capital District), but it was still mostly a lost season. That team had seven NHL draft picks, but was losing a star player in David McIntyre. As with Polacek and York, that absence alone certainly did not explain why a team with high expectations languished so miserably all year long, including a nine-game losing streak that was part of a 1-20-2 run from November to early February.

This year, while RPI has already matched their loss total from last season with 13 losses, Colgate has already matched their win total from last year before Christmas with 11 wins in 17 outings. Eight of the team's top nine scorers and both goaltenders were on last year's squad.

Fortunately, history isn't necessarily doomed to repeat itself. There's still time for the pendulum to swing in the opposite direction - but there's plenty of work to be done in order to achieve that.

Scoring - We've hashed this out pretty well, so let's just put this in historic context. The Engineers went 11 straight games without reaching what in college hockey is frequently the "magic" three goal mark - that is, if you can regularly pump three pucks to the back of the net, you're going to win more frequently than not. That's a school record for a single season. The last time they even went 5 straight games without reaching three was the dismal 2008-09 season (they did that twice), and they managed 9 straight in 2007-08, which had been the single season record before this year. The longest such streak in school history was a 12-game stretch between 1912 and 1916... but it was a very different game back then, of course.

There are absolute signs of improvement here, especially among the talented set of freshman forwards who appear to be adjusting well to the college game as the season goes along. Jacob Laliberte was hurt early on, but has been showing the ability that RPI fans have been waiting years to see over the last few games and has broken onto the scoresheet solidly. Ryan Haggerty was one of the earliest to "catch on" and is still the top goal-scoring forward on the team despite missing three games. Zach Schroeder and Mark McGowan potted their first career goals in the last two weeks after increasingly impressive performances.

Appert has frequently eschewed the use of the term "freshman" once the second half of the season begins, given that they have mostly gained the experience they need to be competitive by that point, so we'll have to see if the forwards are able to shoulder a heavier load going forward.

Finishing - Especially in October, it was apparent at times during the first half that the team wasn't playing all that poorly. We noted that they were basically doing everything right except for scoring goals. There were plenty of whiffs up and down on one-timer chances and rebound tries. That's certainly changing - the Haggerty goal at RIT was a great one-timed shot, and Schroeder and McGowan each put one home on textbook rebounders.

Including instances in which RPI allowed one or more empty net goals while being down by a single goal, the Engineers are 1-5 in one-goal games. With a little better finishing, we could have been looking at a team at least a little closer to .500.

Defensive breakdowns - The Engineers have only seven defensemen on their roster, and all but two are either freshmen or sophomores. Practically by definition, that's a young d-corps. Regardless, they have done a wonderful job for the most part of keeping the team in games, especially from the beginning of the season through late November. One or two times a weekend (and more frequently of late), however, we have seen defensive blunders creating odd-man rushes or straight up breakaway opportunities for the opponent, and those seem to be leading to goals more often than not. Worse, a worrisome number of these breakdowns have been from the two upperclassmen.

Goaltending - Bryce Merriam and Scott Diebold have done a fine job in net, all things considered. The one concern is on those defensive breakdowns, and perhaps this is the one area in which Allen York is missed. The goaltenders have typically been very solid when the defense is doing things right, but when hung out to dry we haven't seen a high number of "wow, he bailed them out there," type saves as York regularly made. Diebold is a freshman and has seen only four games in net. Merriam is a junior and could use a little more confidence in these situations.

Penalties - This, more than anything, may be the root of the team's current struggle. In interviews, Appert has said that the team must balance the physical game that they want to play with penalty discipline, and so far it seems that it's either one or the other. The penalty kill has been one of the shining lights on this team, and having a good penalty kill helps you maintain that physical presence by being a bit less apprehensive about dishing out that big hit, but when you spend too much time on the kill it keeps your offense from getting into a good rhythm and frequently keeps some of your better scorers off the ice.

RPI has been on the penalty kill an average of 5.5 times per game thus far. Although not all penalty kills last two minutes for whatever reason (some are majors, some start as an opponent comes out of the box, some end with a goal), that factors out to around 11 minutes of penalty kill per game, and it's not all at once. That's not good.

On the flip side, when the team isn't taking penalties, the physical aspect has not been as prevalent. A balance must be reached.

Upperclassmen - Gotta call out the juniors and seniors here. The top four forwards in scoring are all freshmen and sophomores. Not all of those juniors and seniors are supposed to be scorers - Alex Angers-Goulet and Joel Malchuk, for instance, have usually made their most important contributions defensively rather than offensively - but Appert has always pointed to his older players as the key leaders of the team. Some seem to be trying to do too much on their own, while others seem content to let others take the lead.

Injuries - It's worth mentioning that at no point during the season have the Engineers been at 100% healthwise which draws some comparison to Princeton two campaigns ago, who also underwhelmed despite strong pre-season expectations. Only eight players have played in all 16 contests - that compares to only four who made it through 38 games last season (Polacek, Helfrich, Bailen and Foss), but nine who made it through 39 games two years ago. Right now, the only known injuries are Ryan Haggerty (who we were told was sick but has missed the last three games) and Matt Neal (who's missed 11 straight with an ankle injury). Pat Cullen, Marty O'Grady, Brock Higgs, Jacob Laliberte, Mark McGowan, Greg Burgdoerfer, and Bryce Merriam have all missed at least one game due to injury this season.

Hopefully, the nearly three week layoff between Lake Placid and Storrs will help get this team to that elusive 100% readiness.

That's a lot to fix, but bear in mind - this team has the ability to fix it.

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