Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Know Your Enemy: St. Lawrence

Last week, we took a look at a team in Cornell that had the second fewest total goals (scored and allowed) per game in the nation. This week, the focus turns to a team that was the exact opposite, as no team played in as many track meets as St. Lawrence last season. The Saints undoubtedly had one of the best offenses in the nation last year, but they also had one of the worst defenses, and the team has gone five straight years allowing more goals than they've scored. Turning that around this year might be difficult.

St. Lawrence
Nickname: Saints
Location: Canton, NY
Founded: 1856
Conference: ECAC
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 2007
Last Frozen Four: 2000
Coach: Greg Carvel (3rd season)
2013-14 Record: 15-19-4 (7-11-4 ECAC, 8th place)
Series: SLU leads, 77-55-6
First Game: January 3, 1951 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: February 1, 2014 (Canton, NY)
Last SLU win: February 21, 2014 (Troy, NY)

2014-15 games: February 6. 2015 (Canton, NY); February 28, 2015 (Troy, NY)

Key players: F Patrick Doherty, sr.; F Gunnar Hughes, sr.; F Chris Martin, sr.; F Alex Hagen, jr.; F Tommy Thompson, jr.; F Brian Ward, jr.; D Gavin Bayreuther, so.; F Alexander Dahl, so.; F Woody Hudson, so.;  F Drew Smolcynski, so.; D Eric Sweetman, so; D Mitch Eden, fr.; G Kyle Hayton, fr.; F Christian Horn, fr.; D Matt Purmal, fr.

Key losses: F Greg Carey, F Matt Carey, F Jeremy Wick, G Matt Weninger, D Justin Baker, F Kyle Essery, D Pat Raley, D Riley Austin

Previous KYE installments:
Part of what made SLU's games goalfests was the stark contrast between the Saints' power play and penalty kill. The very best power play in the entire nation last year belonged to St. Lawrence, who produced goals at a 27.2% clip for the season on the man advantage. Meanwhile, the penalty kill was the next-to-worst in the country, succeeding only 73.7% of the time with a national median about ten percentage points higher. The end result was a special teams output that was even on the year (when including both power play goals and short-handed goals), something you usually don't get out of the very best power play in the land.

It added up to a nation-leading 6.66 (shut up) average in total goals per game featuring the Saints. Fans were practically guaranteed a barnburner when SLU was in town (which makes RPI's 4-0 home loss to the Saints even more infuriating - it was a harbinger of things to come offensively). 

Weninger's graduation deprives St. Lawrence of their go-to-guy in net from the past four years, but his departure may not be overly problematic. Although he was known for putting together a solid outing from time to time - he pitched two shutouts in each of his four seasons - his overall numbers were mediocre at best and somehow his stats from his senior season were worse than any other single year that he had in Canton. 

The new man in goal is Hayton, a former teammate of RPI freshman Kenny Gillespie at the renowned Shattuck St. Mary's prep school in Minnesota. He's coming off a pretty decent season for Sioux City in the USHL and may actually represent a quick upgrade at the position for the Saints. But the SLU defense looking to improve on one of the worst showings in college hockey last season is painfully young in front of the freshman netminder. Aside from one junior who's made just 25 appearances in two years (about 1/3 of SLU's games), the blueliners will all be in either their freshman or sophomore years.

That's not to say that there isn't talent there. Bayreuther especially was dominant last year as a two-way defenseman and is SLU's top returning scorer. The ECAC co-Rookie of the Year last season scored six of his nine goals on the power play, and leads returnees in both goals and assists (27). Sweetman, his classmate, also showed a proclivity for being able to move the puck in back.

The fact that Bayreuther was not drafted in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft - something that seemed fairly impossible given the incredible season that he had - may bode poorly going forward for the Saints, as he's now a free agent open to fielding offers from any NHL team that's interested in plunking down the cash for him. If he duplicates what he did last season in Canton, it would be hard to see him sticking around much longer.

As rough as the defense may be, the main power for SLU's high-flying offense has been stripped away as well. The Carey brothers are both gone (Greg to graduation, Matt to a pro contract with three seasons of eligibility remaining), as are Wick and Baker, meaning four of the Saints' top five scorers, accounting for 62 of the team's 122 goals, 33 of 47 power play goals, and 162 combined points. Hughes (18 points), Doherty (17 points) and Ward (17 points) are the team's top returning scorers from last season.

Added up, you've got a team that still has question marks where they were rough last season (defense and penalty kill), and a team that has new question marks where they were strong (offense and power play). It's not a recipe for success, and this season has all the hallmarks of a rebuilding year for the Saints, which is kind of a downer for them since they're not rebuilding from a position of great success, having finished in the bottom half of the league standings.

Unfortunately for RPI, they won't see St. Lawrence until late in the season, which gives them plenty of opportunity to make something operational by the time the Engineers pull into Canton. From where things stand here, however, SLU could be in for a long season unless Carvel is able to make this squad far more than the sum of its parts. The basic elements are there to grow this team into a contender in a season or two, but this probably won't be the year.

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