Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Your 2014-15 RPI Engineers

Last week, the annual press release highlighting the incoming freshman class was released, and as we've mentioned a few times here, it's getting harder and harder to figure out exactly what incoming classes will look like until we see that release. Sure enough, when it came out, there were three surprises - one of which was at least a little bit expected after some news that came just before the release, one of which was a mild surprise, and one that came pretty much out of the blue.

So, without further ado, we present a first official look at the 2014-15 Engineers, by position.

Forwards
Gone: Ryan Haggerty, Brock Higgs, Johnny Rogic, Matt Tinordi, Mike Zalewski.
Returning: Riley Bourbonnais, Milos Bubela, Jimmy DeVito, Travis Fulton, Jacob Laliberte, Mark McGowan, Mark Miller, Matt Neal,  Zach Schroeder, Jake Wood.
Arriving: Kenny Gillespie, Viktor Liljegren, Drew Melanson, Louie Nanne.

The biggest changes for RPI this coming season are coming up front - a team that relied too heavily on a few players to score goals last season is going to have to do without practically all of the players that they relied on, especially Haggerty and Zalewski, who left with eligibility remaining.

For the last several years, we've been looking to see if the Engineers were going to increase the number of forwards they had on their roster. There were frequently in the last several recruiting classes opportunities to do just that. Before the defection of Zalewski to the pros, it looked possible that we'd see one extra forward.

In 2010, RPI had 17 forwards available to them. Unless something changes between now and the start of the season - to possibly include a defenseman moved up onto a wing - the Engineers will have only 14 forwards on their roster, including four freshmen. That means that while last year's freshmen forwards were infrequently seen, this year the team will be forced to dress a minimum of two freshmen in every game they play.

That might not be terrible, however. Neal and Laliberte return for their senior seasons as the team's bonafide scoring leaders, each having contributed 20-point seasons in their last two campaigns. Bubela struggled to score points last season after an impressive and eye-opening freshman year. After that, there isn't a lot of demonstrated scoring prowess among returning forwards.

Schroeder has shown a serious amount of potential, but has been slowed by injuries. Last year's freshmen simply didn't see the ice with much frequency, dressing just 51 times out of a possible 111 and scoring only 2 goals and 7 assists in those 51 games.

It adds up to a number of good options to fill the void left by the departed forwards, and adding to that list will be four freshmen with a good amount of potential. Gillespie comes in with about as much junior experience as one can accrue. Liljegren may end up being a sneaky "get" for RPI, considering that he is coming off a great junior season and was an unknown quantity to college scouts before this season. Melanson has been long awaited for his speed and puckhandling, and Nanne is an NHL draft pick who displayed offensive talent at a high level in Minnesota and British Columbia ahead of his injuries. Both of the latter two have represented the US in international play.

The trick is going to be a solid improvement on offensive output from somewhere between 4-6 forwards over last season in order to not only fill in the offense that has left but to give the team at least a couple of scoring lines that opposing defenses will find difficult to handle (and hopefully, a strong third line as well).

The unexpected omission from the incoming class is Evan Tironese, who apparently will be heading back to juniors for a fourth season, following two in the BCHL and one in the USHL. Tironese had been aimed on 2014 since his commitment in May 2012, and it didn't seem that his performance was much of an indicator that he wouldn't be ready for college hockey this year. At this point, you start to ponder whether there's been an admissions issue, a scholarship issue (availability or simply timing), or some other off-the-ice concern. All of it is simply conjecture and, honestly, not important as long as Tironese is still committed to the program, which doesn't appear to have changed at all.

Defensemen
Gone: Bo Dolan, Guy Leboeuf.
Returning: Craig Bokenfohr, Chris Bradley, Luke Curadi, Phil Hampton, Curtis Leonard, Parker Reno.
Arriving: Bradley Bell, Michael Prapavessis, Jared Wilson.

The blue line is an area where the Engineers return a wealth of experience and add some significant talent as well. Bradley, Curadi, and Leonard are proven multi-year must-start elements, which gives us half of RPI's healthy lineup component right off the bat - when these guys are ready to go, they're certain to be playing as they represent the core of the Engineer defensive effort.

Bokenfohr certainly made it impossible for him to be a healthy scratch during the latter half of last season, and Reno definitely looked like he belonged in the lineup before Bokenfohr's emergence kept him out late in the season. That adds up to five known good quantities for six defensive slots.

The biggest name joining the mix is Prapavessis, who is very likely to be arriving on campus as RPI's third NHL draft pick on the roster. Based on the season he just concluded, he's going to be tough to keep out of the lineup as well - even before you talk about guys like Bell and Wilson who also project to be pretty decent options for the Engineers, though Bell's learning curve (see what I did there?) for the college level may be a little steeper given the league he's coming from.

Bell's arrival for this season is a minor surprise, and it likely stems from the return to juniors for both Meirs Moore and Charlie Manley. The latter's return is not too shocking, and after Moore was taken in the first round of the NAHL Draft, his omission wasn't that shocking either. We've previously chronicled the concerns that both have had over the past season.

It appears that RPI is going to have some very solid defensive options out of the lineup at any given time, which is the very definition of a good problem for a team to have. This is an area where the Engineers look to be stronger this coming season than they were last year.

Hampton is the one question mark in the back. He's appeared in only 14 games in his first two seasons in Troy (of a possible 74), at the same time that three solid recruits come in to replace two graduating seniors. That would seem to move him even farther down the depth chart. With one extra defensive recruit incoming and one fewer than needed forward recruit incoming, perhaps Hampton or some other defenseman is being groomed for a move to the wing? It's purely speculation, of course, but it would make the numbers work better and might make for better utility of the team's skaters overall. We've seen it in the recent past with Bryan Brutlag starting his career at RPI as a defenseman and ended it purely as a forward.

Goaltenders
Gone: None
Returning: Scott Diebold, Jason Kasdorf, Jake Soffer.
Arriving: None

Goaltending is always the most straightforward of the positions. The big part of this coming year, obviously, is Kasdorf's return. Diebold did a solid job for most of the year as the top dog last season, but what he accomplished didn't approach what Kasdorf did as a freshman, so the position of #1 goaltender really hasn't moved at all, unless Kasdorf's rehab goes poorly or he has a hard time bouncing back from the surgery.

The full season as the top choice that Diebold has may ultimately help give RPI an additional advantage between the pipes. His numbers last year weren't super-star level, but they certainly weren't bad, either. He's certainly proven that he's a very capable Division I netminder, and he'll be far more reliable than most #2 options around the league.

Beyond that, in the limited viewing opportunities that we got of Soffer last season, he seems to be far ahead of the usual "practice goalie" options that we've seen over the years. It makes for a goaltending situation that won't have too many question marks, which is a good place for any team to be as a goaltender is the one player that can sometimes singlehandedly steal games - and Kasdorf, as a freshman, was one of the best in the nation at doing just that.

Overall outlook

Last year at this time, the Engineers looked like a team with few flaws. As it turned out, the rock they looked to have in net was upended when Kasdorf went down to a rather freakish injury - that really ended up turning the entire season on its ear in the end. This time around, it's fair to say that barring another freak incidence, the defense and goaltending looks overall pretty solid. Both would appear to be upgrades over last year's end result, especially with the offensive touch that Prapavessis brings to the table.

The main concern is going to be what kind of offense RPI can muster. Haggerty leaving was something everyone could see coming from a mile away. Zalewski would have been an important element, perhaps the most important element of the 2014-15 offense. The good news is that there are a lot of potential answers, the Engineers are simply going to have to find answers that work. The defense might be able to bail out the offense some nights, but if there's one thing the ECAC has proven time and time again, no team can survive long without consistent production from both sides of the puck.

Now, as we typically do, let's take a quick peek at what future versions of the Engineers are looking like early on...

2015-16
Out: Laliberte, McGowan, Neal, Curadi, Leonard, Diebold
In: Todd Burgess(?), Carlos Fornaris, Alex Rodriguez, Tironese, Charlie Manley, Meirs Moore, Alec Dillon

The good news is that RPI basically already has its recruiting done for 2015, although one can never be 100% certain anymore. Where there was a great deal of question about exactly who would be coming in this coming year, six of the seven recruits listed here are practical guarantees for 2015, with only Burgess being a possible 2016 arrival. As of now, unless something changes - for instance, another recruit or two, or an early departure - replacements are already in place for everyone graduating after the upcoming season.

The need for forwards this season was originally expected to be five, but with Haggerty's early exit and Schroeder's redshirt, the requirement is currently just at three. Since it's unknown if Schroeder will use the extra season his redshirt gives him, it's still hard to say for certain whether Burgess will come in 2015 or 2016, but there aren't really any scenarios in which Tironese, Fornaris, or Rodriguez wouldn't be coming this season.

Manley, Moore, and Dillon are practical locks too, with the only question on Dillon being whether he chooses to spurn the almost certain money offers that will be coming his way from the Edmonton Oil Kings, who own his rights in the WHL. Don't be surprised to see a goaltender recruit be confirmed in the next 7-9 months who could potentially arrive in 2015 if he had to, but would otherwise be a potential replacement for Kasdorf down the road.

2016-17
Out: Bubela, Fulton, Miller, Schroeder, Bradley, Bokenfohr, Hampton, Kasdorf(?)
In: Burgess(?), Jacob Hayhurst, Austin Cho

Not uncommon to see very little hammered down for two years out - in fact, this time last year, there were no known recruits for 2015-16 (we thought it possible that Prapavessis would be incoming that year), and a year later that class is pretty well set up. That puts RPI ahead of the game, with two likely recruits (both of whom seem to be anticipation-builders) and a third that will be in for either 2015 or 2016. Stay tuned in the coming months, as we should be seeing a number of new names pop up for 2016 over the course of the next year - and hopefully starting soon.

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