Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Closing the Book on the Pirri/D'Amigo Era

We've been as guilty as anyone - perhaps more than anyone - of pontificating about the arrival and sudden departure of Brandon Pirri and Jerry D'Amigo. Hopefully, this is the last one. Admittedly, it does feel a bit odd to still be talking about them, or even their era, when we're nearing the end of the third season without them, a season few ever expected to still see them in Troy anyway. That should underscore some of what the whole thing means to RPI hockey.

There's little doubt looking back now that the pair, in just one season in the Cherry and White, left an indelible impact on the program that could be felt for years going forward.

It somehow makes total sense that D'Amigo and Pirri became known as RPI commits within 10 days of each other during the summer of 2008. Committing some five months after current sophomore Jacob Laliberte and current junior Matt Tinordi, their names have been and will continue to be linked in the annals of RPI hockey.

They tantalized RPI fans with outstanding play in their final season in juniors, creating high expectations on them when they arrived on campus in the fall of 2009 - and then they didn't disappoint. Combining for 21 goals and 56 assists in their freshman seasons, helping to propel junior Chase Polacek and senior Paul Kerins to big years as well. D'Amigo was a major contributor to the United States' World Junior Championship gold medal, and ended up being the ECAC Rookie of the Year (though some, including this writer, felt Pirri was more worthy of the nod). They were expected to play a big role in what many felt would be a year of major expectations, perhaps not seen in Troy in a quarter century.

Then, just like that, they were gone.

There was really a confluence of events that led to both players leaving. First, the summer of 2010 saw an abnormal number of players choosing to forego college eligibility to sign pro contracts, in part due to the soon-closing window on the NHL's collective bargaining agreement, which had been very kind to entry-level bonuses. Second, D'Amigo it was said added a good 20 pounds of muscle in the offseason, which piqued the interest of then-Toronto GM Brian Burke, especially after the accolades he'd picked up in his freshman year. Third, Chicago - the team holding Pirri's NHL rights - had just won the Stanley Cup, but had pressed its team flat against the salary cap to do so and was holding a bit of a talent fire sale, opening roster slots in Chicago and with their AHL affiliate that needed to be filled.

Throw all of this together, and it's not hard to see why the dominoes fell as they did. If D'Amigo had not left, Pirri likely would have stayed as well, but at the end of the day, it was a perfect storm.

There were plenty of naysayers at the time who felt the duo were leaving school far too early, and in hindsight, that probably has been confirmed. Two full seasons on from their departure, they've combined for a grand total of six NHL games, all by Pirri. D'Amigo's struggles have been especially pronounced, highlighted by a difficult first season that began with hopes of making the NHL roster out of camp but slid into a struggle in the AHL and finally a trip to major junior, which is what RPI fans in particular feared most - what ultimately became a lateral move to the OHL.

Both probably could have used at least another year or two in college, but that is neither here nor there at this point. Now it appears the negative impact from their early departure - felt in a less-than-hoped-for showing in 2010-11 and a rough 2011-12 season - may finally have been mitigated. With the Engineers back in legitimate competition for a league championship and riding a streak of 10 wins in the last 12 games, the holes they left behind appear to have finally been filled on a team-wide basis, and with a very impressive set of recruits ready to arrive in the fall - not to mention the impending graduation of the players Pirri and D'Amigo arrived with - we can finally examine the lasting impact that their short association with RPI brought to the program.

There's an opportunity cost whenever a college team brings in a recruit of any kind. Bringing in D'Amigo and Pirri meant there would be no room for other forwards who could have potentially come to Troy, some of whom are surely playing for other teams right now as juniors and seniors. That's been a part of the game forever, though, and it becomes pronounced only when you lose your recruits early.

The matter of two suddenly open scholarships certainly comes into play as well. Four current sophomore forwards (all but Laliberte) committed to RPI in the weeks and months following the departure of Pirri and D'Amigo. If they hadn't left early, two of those four are probably playing somewhere else right now. Pick two guys out of Matt Neal, Ryan Haggerty, and Mark McGowan you wouldn't mind subtracting from this year's team. Didn't think so.

That covers the short-term impact. But what about the long-term?

Most of the players on this current team - the one that has finished higher in the ECAC standings than any team in the last 20 years - were recruited after Pirri and D'Amigo began playing at RPI. That's all of them with the exception of the graduating seniors and the aforementioned Tinordi and Laliberte. Consider those players and the outstanding talents expected to come into Troy next season, and compare them with recruits prior to Pirri and D'Amigo. There's an absolute increase in the talent level.

The bottom line is that these talented players provided a quick bump to the program that, after a short hiccup last season, seems to have provided what could well be a lasting boost to a team that may well have finally found its way out of the dark. Rather than lament their departures, going forward it is perhaps more appropriate to laud them for their contributions, limited as they may be in the direct sense.

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