Thursday, October 16, 2014

First Impressions

Now that we've had a couple of weeks and three games - one exhibition, two competitive - to get a look at this year's Engineers, here are a few first impressions on what's been seen.

1. Jason Kasdorf is back, and he's still the best goaltender in the ECAC.

Nowdays, everybody wanna talk, but nothing comes out when they move their lips, just a bunch of gibberish, and everybody acts like they forgot about Kaz.

He's baaaaaaaack. Last year's Engineers were picked to be one of the best teams in the league in part based on the strength of their goaltending, and they didn't end up having the source of that confidence for basically the entire year. Now he's back, and because of the (correct) concerns about where the offense is going to come from, they're supposed to be a bottom four team? Excuse our guffaws. 62 saves on 67 shots to start the season against some of the best teams in the nation.

When was the last time a team with the best goaltender in the conference finished in the bottom four? For starters, the last four teams that featured the Dryden Award winner also finished first in the league standings. You have to go all the way back to 1997, back to when Union was still Union, to find the only time since the award began that the best goaltender in the ECAC didn't finish in the top four. That year, Trevor Koenig almost singlehandedly guided the Skating Dutchmen to a 5th place finish.

We're a long way from the awards ceremony in Lake Placid, but Jason Kasdorf, much as in his freshman year, looks ready to singlehandedly win more than a few games for RPI this season. He doesn't make the Engineers the best team in the league on his own, but... child, please.

2. The sophomores are vastly improved from last season.

There was much consternation last season about the lack of impact that the freshman class was exerting on the team's fortunes. Jake Wood and Jimmy DeVito were in and out of the lineup even when they were healthy (Wood lost time to a knee injury), and ice time was very scarce for Riley Bourbonnais. The only freshman to get a serious amount of playing time was Parker Reno, and he frequently became a healthy scratch down the stretch.

Reno may yet have trouble breaking the lineup with frequency (more on that later), but after what we've seen from Wood, DeVito, and especially Bourbonnais in the exhibition and the two Icebreaker games, all three look to play far greater roles this season. Bourbonnais may well be benefiting from playing on the clear top scoring line with two seniors who need to be key propellants for the RPI scoring scheme this year in Matt Neal and Jacob Laliberte, but he certainly looks like he belongs on that line the way he's played, and it's unlikely that Seth Appert would put him there for the sole purpose of making him look good.

Meanwhile, Wood and DeVito have proven to be more of an offensive threat while maintaining their physical play. Wood especially seems fit to serve as the team's physical pest.

3. Mike Prapavessis and Viktor Liljegren are ready to be impact players as freshmen.

One a highly-touted NHL draft pick, the other committed to RPI just this past April. Both already look as though they're ready to play serious roles for the Engineers.

Prapavessis looks like the kind of two-way defenseman that RPI was lacking last season, the one to fill the role Nick Bailen played two seasons ago. Appert has made no mistake about his desire to have at least one player to fill that position, and with the addition of Prapavessis, he's got a very talented one to lead a number of options that can attack from anywhere in the zone and provide an important boost to Kasdorf's defensive efforts.

Liljegren, meanwhile, may prove to be a diamond in the rough considering how late in the game he made his college commitment. The way he's played the in the three outings we've seen thus far, he may well be a vital element on RPI's second or third lines, which at the end of the day are going to make or break the offensive structure based on how well they're able to convert scoring opportunities. He already looks solid playing between Wood and Drew Melanson.

The rest of the freshman class that we've seen so far - Kenny Gillespie is the only skater who has yet to dress in any of the three games - also shows some promise. Melanson has played on Liljegren's wing so far and he generated offensive opportunities in the exhibition game especially. Lou Nanne scored a nice put-back in the exhibition and appears comfortable on the fourth line. Both Melanson and Nanne have a tremendous amount of speed, and both could be exciting to watch in the near future as they adapt their games to the college level.

4. The defensive corps is deep.

We knew there would be a lot of experience on the blue line this season, especially with Luke Curadi, Curtis Leonard, and Chris Bradley as three of the stalwarts, but the addition of Prapavessis, and the breakthrough late last year of Craig Bokenfohr that looks to be for real early on this year leaves the Engineers with five fairly firmly established defensemen that are likely to be regular parts of the lineup. That leaves three more-than-capable players for the sixth spot in Reno, Jared Wilson, and Bradley Bell. 

Early returns suggest that Wilson is a step ahead of the others right now, but Bell dressed as a seventh defenseman against Minnesota - and based on what we know about Reno from last season and how he looked in the exhibition, he's far from a throw-in or simply an injury replacement. The RPI faithful can be confident that RPI's eight-deep defensive set (nine if you include Phil Hampton, who's converting to a reserve center position) is among the best in the league.

5. The penalty kill looks sharp.

8-for-9 in the Icebreaker, with the one blemish basically a function of a faceoff loss and about the only mistake Kasdorf made all weekend. During the flow of the penalty kill, with the other team set up in the RPI zone, the penalty killers did a tremendous job of shutting down shooting lanes, keeping the puck to the outside, clearing, and forechecking down a man. Their efforts against Notre Dame were especially crucial to the Engineers' victory. A good penalty kill is an important compliment to strong, physical play. If it keeps up, it's another feather in the cap.

6. Scoring by committee is going to be a necessity, and there's some work still to be done there.

Bear in mind that RPI was taking on top-level competition last weekend, especially on Sunday, but it's very apparent that there isn't going to be a player like Ryan Haggerty last season who takes the team on his back and scores an inordinate number of goals himself. There's no question that upperclassmen like Neal, Laliberte, and Zach Schroeder are going to need to shoulder more of the burden than others, but consistent scoring from the second, third, and even fourth lines are going to be necessary if the Engineers are going to contend.

That said, while the seeds of committee are clearly being sown, there's a lot more that needs to be seen from the first and second lines in terms of attack. Even Liljegren's third line will need to be improved in the coming weeks. When RPI had the puck in the attacking zone, there was an increased feeling that the team wasn't relying specifically on one line, but at times they didn't exactly look dangerous. The first line still needs to lead the way, and the production needs to pick up below it.

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