Wednesday, December 26, 2012

What If: Wait Until Next Year

* August 2010: Brandon Pirri and Jerry D'Amigo sign NHL contracts shortly before the beginning of their sophomore seasons

Taio Cruz - Break Your Heart

For a program that was in desperate need of salvation, Brandon Pirri and Jerry D'Amigo seemed like godsends - and despite a bitter ending to an otherwise successful season, better days were certainly on the horizon. Given all the things RPI fans were expecting to happen in the offseason following the team's bitter Game 3 loss to last-place Brown, the 2010-11 season was full of all kinds of hopes and dreams.

The first three seasons of the Seth Appert era were difficult to say the least. Making it clear early on that he intended to start essentially from scratch and build the program into prosperity with his own recruits, the team went 31-68-14 between 2007 and 2009, bottoming out in the third season with a .282 winning percentage that was the second lowest in the modern era, ahead of only the 3-19-0 season of 1965-66.

That 2009 result was deflating for a lot of RPI fans. After all, the new coach by that point was now at the head of a team that was comprised more than half of its roster with players he had recruited. There was little question that sophomores Chase Polacek and Tyler Helfrich were the heart of the offense, but team defense continued to suffer by and large.

Hope, it seemed, was on the way in the form of three prized forward recruits that had been landed just ahead of that dismal season. The first was a small forward from Ontario who could score in bunches, Jacob Laliberte, who committed in February 2008. Then came two big names at the almost same time - Jerry D'Amigo, who would play the 2008-09 season for USA Hockey's Under-18 program, who committed in July, and then the talented Brandon Pirri, a somewhat larger forward from Ontario who could also score in bunches.

Laliberte, who would have turned 19 just before the 2009-11 season got underway, was eventually pushed back a year, but the arrival of D'Amigo and Pirri as boosters for Polacek, Helfrich, and freshman standout Patrick Cullen certainly mitigated that move significantly, with interest piquing after Pirri was selected late in the second round of the NHL Entry Draft that summer, followed by D'Amigo's selection in the sixth round, not to mention the head-turning he did at the US Junior camp in Lake Placid that summer.

The season got off to a slow start as RPI put together a 1-2-1 record in its first four games and then posted lackluster wins against Sacred Heart and American International on back-to-back nights. A dramatic come-from-behind win in Schenectady over Union was overshadowed the next night by a loss to Army on Halloween night which concluded a lackluster October.

Hope began to spring in November with the ECAC schedule getting underway, as the Engineers whipped off wins against Yale, Brown, and Clarkson to start the league season 3-0, the first time the team had accomplished the task since the ECAC championship season of 1995. They then jumped out to a 1-0 lead over St. Lawrence, only two give up two goals in the span of 1:49 in the third period to lose 2-1. That would be the first of six losses in the team's next seven games, including four ECAC games, which sunk those early high hopes, especially given that the other three league games were all in Troy.

In December, D'Amigo was invited to join the US junior team in Canada, and he not only played, he starred on a team that defeated Canada for the gold medal. By the time he returned to Troy in January, his stock had risen significantly, and it coincided with a rise in the team's performance.

Things slowly cranked back up in mid-December. After an upset over BU in Boston, RPI took down Michigan in the first round of the Great Lakes Invitational and then swept the Quinnipiac/Princeton road trip. Between New Year's Day and Freakout, RPI put up a 7-3-2 record that put the team right back in contention for a first round bye. By this point, people were well aware of D'Amigo and Pirri as potential rookie of the year candidates, and Polacek was becoming a legitimate Hobey Baker candidate himself.

Then came Freakout, which was also senior night, and the Engineers could not have played more poorly. With sophomore goaltender Allen York out with an injury, Princeton destroyed RPI 7-0 and dealt a serious setback to the Engineers' first-round bye hopes. A one-point weekend in Central New York sealed the Engineers' fate, they would be the sixth seed after losing a tiebreak with St. Lawrence for fifth place.

Then, the Brown debacle. After a terrible third period performance in Game 1 put RPI down in the series, a 4-1 win in Game 2 forced the a deciding Game 3 - but the Engineers were flat as could be in that contest, falling behind 3-0 early in the third period. Two third period goals were too little, too late, and the turnaround season ended with an upset loss.

But, fortunately, another talented freshman class was waiting in the wings, chock full of defensive strength and, of course, Laliberte.

In August, as the team was getting ready to congeal again for the season, word came from Lake Placid - where D'Amigo was training again for the World Juniors - that the rising sophomore had gained a good 20 pounds of muscle during the offseason, and that Toronto, who had drafted him a year earlier, was impressed with his Rookie of the Year season and previous WJC exploits. After camp ended, D'Amigo was offered the money, and he signed.

It was certainly a blow to the team to lose D'Amigo that early - after his successful freshman year, few thought he would stay through his senior season, but almost no one thought he'd leave before his sophomore year - but conventional wisdom had it that as long as Pirri was in the mix, RPI was going to be OK. Then Pirri was a conspicuous absence at captain's practices, and before long, he had signed a professional deal as well.

The departure of the freshmen actually made up two of a series of events we deemed the "summer from hell" that drastically changed the 2010-11 Engineers from what expectations had been at the end of the 2009-10 season. Assistant coach Jim Montgomery left the program to restart the Dubuque Fighting Saints in the USHL, prized defensive recruit Nick Quinn first pushed his arrival in Troy back a year and the decommitted altogether (ending up in the OHL), and Laliberte had his arrival in Troy pushed back for a second year in a row. That let a lot of the air out of high expectations for 2011 that had some pegging RPI as the top contender to Yale's dominance of the league table.

Pirri's departure was chalked up to the roster issues that Chicago, the Stanley Cup champions, had after being forced to let go of many of its role players to be able to afford some of the hefty contracts they'd taken on to make their championship run, but in all likelihood, D'Amigo's departure only hastened Pirri all the more. D'Amigo ultimately struggled in the AHL in 2011, eventually being sent to play in the OHL, while Pirri spent nearly the entire season in the AHL, save a single NHL game which extended RPI's streak of alums playing in the big leagues.

Despite diminished expectations, the Engineers still ended up having a phenomenal 2011. They chased after and picked up the team's first NCAA bid since 1995, and were nearly unbeatable at home - they won their first seven home games in a row, and didn't have a regulation loss at home until the final week of the regular season - which, as it turned out, could have helped them gain the first-round bye if they'd have had any other result in that contest. Overall, RPI went 14-3-1 between mid-November and early February, a showing for much of the season that helped them back into the NCAA tournament despite a 2-6-1 conclusion to the year.

How would the 2010-11 Engineers have fared if the "summer from hell" had never taken place? What if Toronto had told D'Amigo to hone his skills in Troy for another year to see if his skill level would catch up with his bigger size?

D'Amigo had a difficult first season in the pros, but it may have been portended by a rough WJC camp that summer, which had been chalked up to the attention Toronto had been giving him at the time. He may have been destined for a down year, but night-in and night-out at RPI is still a touch easier than the AHL or even the World Junior camp. Polacek managed to be a Hobey Baker candidate for a second straight season even without the pair, and Allen York came into his own as a top-tier goaltender as well.

Whatever kind of seasons Pirri and D'Amigo would have had in Troy in 2011, you have to think their presence would have boosted the Engineers in close games that were either tied or lost. That by itself likely would have been enough to boost RPI into a top four position in the ECAC playoffs, and probably would have made an NCAA bid more of a sure thing rather than the edge-of-your-seat waiting game that took place for two weeks after being upset by Colgate (which may have helped them get the bid, ironically).

Without considering how RPI would have fared in the ECAC tournament, the boost would surely have been enough to improve the team's draw for the NCAAs. Being matched up with the odds-on favorites for the national championship is never easy (and unfortunately, York wasn't in a good position to channel his inner Jon Casey against North Dakota).

Could that have produced at least the team's first NCAA goal since George Servinis, or perhaps even a first round win? I'd like to think that adding Pirri and D'Amigo to the NCAA roster combined with a less difficult first round opponent would have made the first likely, and the second one very, very possible.

Some have wistfully commented that given the actual turnout of the 2011 season, RPI could have been a Frozen Four team if not for the "summer from hell." It's certainly going too far to peg that as some kind of sure thing, but even to be able to say that such an event was even in the realm of the possible is an intriguing "what if" to chew on.

Beyond 2011, there's little likelihood either player would have ever been playing this season, as seniors, for the Engineers. After the 2010 season, most figured Pirri would stick around one more year, and D'Amigo two at the most.

To some extent, we are still seeing the fallout from the departure of Pirri and D'Amigo today through the depleted nature of this year's senior class. It's had a certain effect on recruiting, in all likelihood, too. While the fab frosh electrified Troy and got boosters dreaming of bigger things, their one season did not have the same impact as a player like Chase Polacek, whose career was overlooked by the NHL, allowing him to be a solid four-year contributor in Troy - or even Jeremy Welsh, who was a freshman at Union during Pirri and D'Amigo's lone year at RPI. Arguably, Welsh contributed more to Union's success by being undrafted and staying three years than Pirri and D'Amigo contributed at RPI.

As a positive aspect, though, their early success and quick professional attention at least portrayed RPI as a place serious hockey prospects could consider as a place to develop both the mind and body - something, however, that would have been enhanced had they stayed an extra year.

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