Monday, June 30, 2014

Draft Roulette

Michael Prapavessis is a rarity.

Oh, he may well end up being a very outstanding addition to the Engineers this coming fall. From all indications, he almost certainly will be an excellent defensive add, and a real quarterback for the RPI power play. But when I say "rarity," I'm not talking about his talent.

As a draft pick of the Dallas Stars, he's very much an oddity in the college hockey world. Why? Because Dallas just doesn't draft a lot of college-bound players. There were only two players last season who saw the ice in all of college hockey whose rights were owned by Dallas: Michigan's Alex Guptill (who signed with the Stars following the year, foregoing his senior season) and Maine's Devin Shore (who led the Black Bears in scoring last year by a country mile).

Every other team in the NHL, with the exception of Detroit (three), had at least twice the number of prospects playing in Division I last season, and most had six or more - Florida and Chicago led the way with a whopping 14 players each.

What does that mean for Prapavessis? To answer, we should first take a look at what the draft means.

The NHL draft is unique among professional sports drafts in North America in that a drafted player does not give up his amateur status in order to either be drafted or have their rights maintained. The two most followed drafts, put on by the NFL and NBA, require potential draftees with remaining collegiate eligibility to relinquish that eligibility before the draft even takes place. In baseball, drafted players may choose to sign with their team, relinquishing amateur status, or they can choose not to, in which case the drafting team loses rights to the player.

Hockey is different. As outlined very well by SB Nation last week, few pay attention to the NHL Entry Draft in part because most of the names called are years out from appearing even in the minor leagues. Teams can draft players and then allow them to continue their development in college or in major junior leagues until making a decision on signing them. When it comes to college players, they have 30 days after the player leaves school (past two years out from the draft) to sign them before losing their rights. That can, in some instances, give teams as many as five or six years to monitor a prospect's development before making a decision to offer a contract.

When it comes to draftee development, NHL teams certainly don't mind leaving a player in college or major junior for a few years. That's development that doesn't cost them a nickel. Frequently, they only come calling when they feel a player is ready for the pros, or that their development will be accelerated or enhanced in the minors.

From a college program's perspective, the NHL Draft has a number of edges. One benefit of having players drafted comes in simple prestige, but the draft, by its nature, limits a player's options. That's also potentially beneficial.

RPI fans can see this benefit illustrated in the early departures of Ryan Haggerty and Mike Zalewski. Neither player was drafted, and both players had solid seasons last year as free agents that impressed scouts enough to draw contract offers. With free agents, NHL teams have to jockey with each other in order to sign the ones they want to develop. Zalewski could have potentially had many offers on the table, or it's possible Vancouver was the first one, seeking to get in ahead of other teams to gain his services for the future.

In a world where Zalewski had been drafted, however, that dynamic doesn't exist. The only question becomes the needs and plans of the team holding his rights. If Columbus, for instance, held his rights, Vancouver wouldn't have been showing up with a contract, and the only concern is whether Columbus wants him to keep developing for free in college.

This is also well illustrated by the only drafted player on the RPI roster last season - Jason Kasdorf. There was more than a little speculation among RPI fans following Kasdorf's injury that Winnipeg could potentially sign him away, but in the bigger picture, this made little sense. Goaltending needs especially being easier to establish, one only had to look at the fact that Winnipeg had another goaltender in college hockey - UMass-Lowell's Connor Hellebuyck - who was putting up fantastic numbers.

If you were going to choose between signing a player with two outstanding seasons under his belt, including one in which he led his team to the Frozen Four (and was drafted in an earlier round), and signing one that had one outstanding season and then suffered a season-ending injury that snuffed out his second and is untested since the injury, which would you sign? You'd probably sign the same one Winnipeg signed, as Hellebuyck has left Lowell after two years, and you'd leave the other in college to see how he bounces back from his injury.

So in some ways, it's good to have NHL draft picks on your roster. It's honestly not a matter of simply having more talent and having a better team - yes, being drafted by the NHL means a player probably has more overall talent, but hockey's still a team sport. This year's national championship was won by a team with a total of one NHL draftee on their roster (beating a team with 14). A year earlier, it was a team with just four. Having few draftees isn't necessarily a hindrance, just as having many isn't a panacea.

But there are certainly drawbacks as well. The biggest of them have to do with team needs. If an NHL team is lacking at a position where your team has one of their draftees, they might be leaving sooner rather than later. More concerning can often be the preferences of front offices when it comes to development. There are some that are more likely than others to tell a prospect that they'd prefer to see them playing in major junior rather than staying in (or going to) school. Non-draftees don't have a team hovering over them giving their opinions.

That brings us back to Prapavessis. Why does Dallas have so few prospects playing college hockey? Are they shuffling players away from the NCAA?

Prapavessis is Dallas' first college-linked draft selection since 2012, when they drafted Shore in the 2nd round and Lowell defenseman Dmitry Sinitsyn in the seventh round. Shore is still with Maine after two years, Sinitsyn left Lowell after one season and played last year in the WHL.

In 2011, Dallas drafted defenseman Jamie Oleksiak of Northeastern in the first round, and he never played another game in college as he was off to the OHL the following season. In 2010, their one and only collegiate selection was Guptill, who just left Michigan after three years. They also drafted goaltender Jack Campbell in the first round, who had de-committed from Michigan the previous November and chose to play in the OHL instead.

Seeing a pattern?

(As a complete aside to the main topic of this article, Prapavessis' OHL rights are held by London, which has a reputation for being the most ruthless team in major junior when it comes to pursuing college players.)

So what about Los Angeles, you say? They drafted Alec Dillon, slated to be on campus in 2015. We've outlined here that he's a target for Edmonton in the WHL, considering that they traded for his rights. The good news is that the Kings just won their second Stanley Cup in three years with the same goaltender who came up through college (Jonathan Quick, who spent two years at UMass).

However, one of the Kings' scouts is already indicating that their "development guys" are going to be the ultimate arbiters of whether he ends up in Troy or Edmonton. We'll probably know the answer relatively soon, as he'll probably be in Edmonton for the 2014-15 season if that's the route he's going to take.

The NHL draft, as it pertains to college hockey, is a definite crap shoot on many levels. We'll have to see if this year's results ultimately carry positives or negatives for the Engineers.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Know Your Enemy: Michigan

This week's Know Your Enemy features a program that has been one of the monsters of college hockey pretty much since the beginning of college hockey. One of the more polarizing teams in the western reaches of the sport due in part to their "big school" status, Michigan has traditionally been one of the strongest teams in the nation regardless of how often they've won it all - which, to be honest, hasn't been a whole lot recently compared to some other top programs. While they've claimed more national championships than any other school, many of them are from an era when they were by far the biggest fish in a rather small pond. But make no mistake about it: the Wolverines are still college hockey royalty.

Nickname: Wolverines
Location: Ann Arbor, MI
Founded: 1817
Conference: Big Ten
National Championships: 9 (1948, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1955, 1956, 1964, 1996, 1998)
Last NCAA Appearance: 2012
Last Frozen Four: 2011
Coach: Red Berenson (31st season)
2013-14 Record: 18-13-4 (10-8-2-1 Big Ten, 3rd place)
Series: RPI leads, 7-3-1
First Game: March 12, 1954 (Colorado Springs, CO)
Last RPI win: December 29, 2009 (Detroit, MI)
Last Michigan win: January 18, 1986 (Ann Arbor, MI)

2014-15 games: November 28-29, 2014 (Ann Arbor, MI)

Key players: F Zach Hyman, sr.; D Brennan Serville, sr.; F Andrew Copp, jr.; F Cristoval Nieves, jr.; F J.T. Compher, so.; D Nolan De Jong, so.; D Michael Downing, so.; F Alex Kile, so.; F Tyler Motte, so.; G Zach Nagelvoort, so.; F Tony Calderone, fr.; F Dylan Larkin, fr.; D Sam Piazza, fr.; D Zach Werenski, fr.

This season marks the first of a three-year deal for games between Michigan and the teams from the Capital District. RPI makes its first visit to one of the hallowed halls of college hockey, Yost Ice Arena, since the 1985-86 season. That series was a wild affair, which was split while the teams managed to combine for a mind-blowing 34 goals in two games (defense, anyone?). The Engineers earned a 7-6 victory on the first night, followed by an 11-10 overtime win for the Wolverines the next night - the only time in school history (probably in most schools' histories) that RPI scored double digits in goals and lost.

RPI and Michigan don't dance too frequently, but the Engineers seem to have had the Wolverines' number when they do - RPI joins only Cornell, Denver, Minnesota, Penn State, and UMass-Lowell as current teams with a winning all-time record against Michigan. In fact, the first time RPI and Michigan met, it was in a game that would alter the course of college hockey history.

The University of Michigan has had a hockey program continuously since 1923, when they played their first four games in a home-and-home Friday-Saturday set against familiar rivals Wisconsin, winning first three of those four games. Unlike many schools, which saw hockey fall to the wayside during the Great Depression and World War II, Michigan kept its program active during the 1930s and 1940s. In fact, it was during the 1930s that the Wolverines first developed their reputation as a strong hockey program, producing nine winning seasons during the decade while regularly playing games against Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The team's fortunes dipped in the early part of the 1940s during World War II, but this was more a function of who was playing and who they were playing against. Most able bodied men of college age were off fighting the war, and those that weren't had few schools still playing the sport to compete against. Therefore, the Wolverines played most of its games against Army teams and sides put together by local factories, most of which had older and bigger men than the varsity squad could manage.

In 1945, as the war reached its conclusion, Michigan and NHL alum Vic Heyliger became the squad's third head coach, replacing the man who had helmed the program since 1928, Ed Lowrey. Heyliger was in the right place at the right time with the war ending, and his hockey acumen combined with an influx of returning veterans that burgeoned schools around the country to create the first powerhouse of the NCAA era.

Heyliger began matching his team up with junior teams from Canada in December of 1945, and his Wolverine teams immediately began finding great success not only against those squads but against American colleges as well. Following the conclusion of the war, Heyliger's teams never finished a season with a winning percentage below .600, a stretch of 12 consecutive years. In fact, once the NCAA championship was established in 1948, Michigan went five straight campaigns without a winning percentage below .800.

During the years that the NCAA Tournament was held exclusively in Colorado Springs, there was one other constant: Michigan. From 1948 through 1957, the four-team tournament stayed in one place, and the Wolverines were there every single season. Back then, there was a certain hierarchy in college hockey. Western teams, it was thought, were generally better than eastern teams, and among western teams, few could approach the strength and power of Michigan. They won the very first NCAA championship in 1948 with an 8-4 win over Dartmouth. They were kept from the national title game the next year by the Big Green, but eventually won their second, third, and fourth titles in 1951 (over Brown), 1952 (over Colorado College) and 1953 (over Minnesota), giving Michgan four championships in the first six years of the tournament.

1954 was supposed to be more of the same. After a season which rarely saw Michigan even challenged by the best American teams in the west, the Wolverines headed to Colorado Springs to do battle with an upstart little engineering school from the weaker east, ready to roll into an expected showdown with their rivals from Minnesota in what would have been the first ever NCAA championship rematch game. Things didn't go to script that year, as the unknown RPI Engineers produced one of the biggest upsets in college hockey history to that time by dethroning the three-time champions, 6-4. Michigan would come back the next night to pound Boston College 7-2, but their reign was over.

The loss to RPI kept the Michigan dynasty from establishing a reign that would have been practically unbreakable by today's standards. Though their stretch of three straight crowns from 1951 to 1953 has never been duplicated, the Wolverines ended up tacking on two more in 1955 and 1956, making for five titles in six years and six in the first nine.

Heyliger retired from Michigan in 1957 after the Wolverines fell to Colorado College in the national championship game, failing to repeat the three-peat. Taking his place was a man who had previously played for the Wolverines under Heyliger - his brother-in-law, Al Renfrew. While Renfrew wasn't able to duplicate Heyliger's massive success due in part to growth in college hockey providing more competition, Michigan was hardly a slouch during his 16 years in the driver's seat in Ann Arbor. While the first few seasons under Renfrew were Michigan's first losing years in the NCAA era, the school would quickly be back in the Frozen Four by 1962, and throughout the 1960s, Renfrew was producing top-level performances, winning a national championship in 1964 with a 24-win season, then the most in school history.

Michigan was one of the top teams in the newly-formed WCHA throughout the 1960s, but a rough stretch of three losing seasons to start the 1970s marred Renfrew's final years behind the bench. He retired in 1973 to take over the school's ticket office, just ahead of the opening of Yost Ice Arena. Dan Farrell, a Michigan Tech grad, would lead the Wolverines for the remainder of the decade, leading the team to four 20-win seasons in seven years, as well as the 1977 national championship game, where they fell to Wisconsin.

If ever there could be said to have been seriously difficult times in Michigan's post-World War II history, the early 1980s might qualify. After departing the WCHA for the less well-established CCHA in 1981, the Wolverines suffered the first of five straight 20-loss seasons in 1983, continually finishing near the bottom of the conference. It was during this stretch, however, that the third coach that could legitimately earn the title of "legendary" at Michigan took the reins. Like Heyliger and Renfrew before him, he was a former captain of the Wolverines as a player, and like Heyliger, he had enjoyed a career in the NHL: Gordon "Red" Berenson.

Berenson's first three seasons as head coach in Ann Arbor were the last three of the 20-loss season stretch from 1985 to 1987, but once it ended, the Wolverines embarked upon a streak of dominance rivaled only by its early NCAA dynasty years, topping it in length but falling short of its benchmark for top honors. The 1987-88 season was Michigan's first winning year in the last six, and it started a remarkable streak: it was the first of 25 straight seasons in which the Wolverines won at least 20 games.

The 1990s especially evoked memories of the late 40s and 50s by the numbers. Eight straight 30-win seasons, a practically untouchable streak, were rattled off from 1991 to 1998, a stretch that included four CCHA regular season titles, three CCHA championships, and six Frozen Four appearances, including national championships in 1996 and 1998. Again, the three-peat was interrupted by an upset in the Frozen Four in 1997, this time by Boston University, ending Michigan's title hopes despite a final record of 35-4-4. Brendan Morrison, who a year earlier had scored the overtime goal to deliver Michigan's first national championship in 32 years, earned Michigan's first Hobey Baker Award that season.

1999 brought an end to the 30-win streak, but the success rolled on in Ann Arbor. Six more CCHA crowns, six more CCHA regular season titles, and five more Frozen Four appearances were in the offing over the next 14 seasons. In every year from 1991 to 2012, the Michigan Wolverines were in the NCAA tournament, a record streak broken only in the team's final season in the CCHA - a streak that nearly continued as a struggling Michigan team in 2013 very nearly completed an odd Cinderella run through the CCHA tournament, falling to Notre Dame for the final CCHA championship. The loss to Notre Dame sealed Michigan into its first losing season since 1987 - at 18-19-3.

So, now, perhaps more than at any time in the recent past, Michigan is a team in a bit of flux. Red Berenson's incomparable streaks of success snapped, the Wolverines again missed out on the NCAA tournament last season in the first year of the Big Ten. They got back to the usual ways of a winning season, but missed 20 wins for the second straight time, in part due to the overall strength of their new conference (struggling against the clear minnows of the Big Ten, Penn State, didn't help).

Part of Michigan's uncharacteristically mediocre season last year can be chalked up to the youth of last year's squad as well as the strength of the Big Ten. Compher last year became the first freshman in recent memory to lead Michigan in scoring, and Nagelvoort, despite some pretty solid numbers in net for the Wolverines, was also in just his first collegiate season.

Nieves, after a sparkling freshman campaign, endured a sophomore slump, but Michigan still got 22 points out of him. They return three of seven 20-point scorers from last season, including two of five who notched at least 10 goals and 10 assists with Compher and Copp. It could have been more, as two of Michigan's top scorers left with eligibility remaining. Larkin, coming in off the US Under-18 team and a possible first round selection in the upcoming NHL Draft, is a solid bet to be an important contributor as well.

A number of sources describe Michigan's blue line last year as "a mess" and "disastrous," and they have graduated the best of the bunch, leading to a troubling situation in the back. But there's some serious help on the way in the person of a very young but very talented addition in Werenski. Only making his commitment to the Wolverines this month, Werenski doesn't turn 17 until mid-July, but he accelerated his high school courses and graduated this year, making him eligible for college. He projects to be a first-round selection in the 2015 draft, but chances are good he'll have his freshman year done by then, and despite his youth he should add some stability to a rough defensive situation.

Regardless of the state of the blue line, RPI can expect to be in for a pair of difficult games despite the history of success the Engineers have had against Michigan. Even in a tough year as the Wolverines had last season, they had an overall record of 10-3-3 at Yost, a place that just doesn't see visiting teams finding a great deal of success in practically any year. If you've never been, you owe it to yourself to try and get out to the Great Lake State for this series, as Yost is certainly a bucket list destination for a fan of college hockey. To be successful, RPI will need to take advantage of any defensive disarray and the offense simply has to follow through on opportunities, because in a place like Ann Arbor, you aren't going to win unless you can pounce on windows of opportunity.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Know Your Enemy: New Hampshire

By all rights, UNH had a pretty decent season last year, one which would be considered mostly successful for most programs - a top-half finish in the conference, a decent run in the playoffs, and a 20-win campaign usually spells a pretty fair outing. For New Hampshire, it was a bit more disappointing, especially considering the way their season ended. A 4-0 loss in the Hockey East championship game and no NCAA appearance is certainly enough for this program to be unhappy with how things turned out, especially considering the senior-laden status the Wildcats had last season.

New Hampshire
Nickname: Wildcats
Location: Durham, NH
Founded: 1866
Conference: Hockey East
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 2013
Last Frozen Four: 2003
Coach: Dick Umile (25th season)
2013-14 Record: 22-18-1 (11-9-0 Hockey East, 4th place)
Series: UNH leads, 25-21-0
First Game: February 7, 1964 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: October 26, 2013 (Troy, NY)
Last UNH win: January 6, 2013 (Durham, NH)

2014-15 game: November 25, 2014 (Durham, NH)

Key players: G Casey DeSmith, sr.; F Grayson Downing, sr.; F Casey Thrush, sr.; F Matt Willows, sr.; F Dan Correale, jr.; F Maxim Gaudreault, jr.; D Brett Pesce, jr.; D Harry Quast, jr.; F Kyle Smith, jr.; D Matias Cleland, so.; F Tyler Kelleher, so.; F Shane Eiserman, fr.; F Warren Foegele, fr.; F Mike McNicholas, fr.; F Andrew Poturalski, fr.

Previous KYE installments:
For a team accustomed to going to the NCAA tournament, two seasons out of the last three ending before Selection Sunday is unheard of - in fact, the last three seasons is the first time that's happened since the early 1990s, during Dick Umile's first three seasons behind the bench. To be fair, the Wildcats last year were hard-luck losers when it came to missing the NCAAs, finishing 60 minutes away from an automatic bid and 17th in the Pairwise as the 3rd team out. Close, but not close enough.

In the meantime, UNH loses five of its top six scorers from last season, returning only Willows, who had an eye-opening 39-point breakout season as a junior. That total more than doubled his total offensive output from his freshman and sophomore outings. Downing and Pesce are the only two other 20-point scorers returning for the Wildcats.

Along the blue line, the Wildcats will be young, as their only senior defenseman has just one game to his resume in three seasons. Pesce and Quast will qualify as the elder statesmen in the back. Whatever weakness the defense has will at least be bolstered by a proven quantity in net as DeSmith enters his senior season with over 5,500 minutes in goal for the Wildcats and a respectable 2.32 GAA for his career. His numbers were not as strong last year as they had been in the past, but they were still strong enough to regularly keep UNH in games.

He may need to be stronger this year as the Wildcats bring a younger core of skaters back. They'll need to rely on bigger output from their junior and sophomore classes than they did last season, and that doesn't always lead to success. Incoming freshman Foegele, who is likely to join UNH as an NHL draftee (Pesce is currently the only one on the team), should add a bit of punch. Still, with a team that brings in enough raw talent the way UNH does, they're more likely than most programs to find a way to make it work.

One advantage that New Hampshire will always have when playing against RPI at home is the rink size - Durham has one of the few Olympic-sized sheets in the east, and considering that the Engineers play nearly all of their games on NHL-sized rinks (the ECAC is exclusively made up of the less-wide playing surfaces), the home ice advantage is slightly more pronounced for the Wildcats.

UNH pretty much always presents a solid challenge for RPI, but the series in the last 10 years or so has just as frequently created a fairly decent back-and-forth contest no matter where the game is played. Two years ago in New Hampshire the Engineers played a strong road game against a blistering-hot Wildcats team and just couldn't overcome a better performance from the other side. Last year, RPI jumped on UNH quickly and then held on to claim a victory. Either scenario could again play itself out in Durham without too much surprise this coming season - but this has all the makings of a really outstanding game, especially since this year it arrives two months into the season, at a point where both sides should know their strengths and weaknesses well.

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.

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.

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.

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...

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.

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.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Know Your Enemy: UConn

Once upon a time, RPI was considered by multiple outlets to be a good candidate to become the 12th team in Hockey East following Notre Dame's accession as the 11th. The rationale against UConn becoming that team was simple - although every other New England state school sponsoring college hockey was part of the league, UConn simply didn't have the facilities, the scholarships, or the coach to allow them to be even remotely competitive, and the school didn't seem to have the interest. Once the interest was there, the scholarships promised, and the coach upgraded (and the facilities promised soon), it was a no-brainer. UConn, long far less important in the hockey scene as compared to basketball (and football, to an extent), is about to become far more relevant.

Nickname: Huskies
Location: Storrs, CT
Founded: 1881
Conference: Hockey East
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: None
Coach: Mike Cavanaugh (2nd season)
2013-14 Record: 18-14-4 (15-9-3 AHA, 3rd place)
Series: RPI leads, 3-0-2
First Game: January 18, 1930 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: November 26, 2010 (Troy, NY)
Last UConn win: Never

2014-15 game: November 18, 2014 (Storrs, CT)

Key players: F Trevor Gerling, sr.; D Jacob Poe, sr.; F Ryan Tyson, sr.; D Tyler Cooke, jr.; F Joe Ferriss, jr.; D Kyle Huson, jr.; F Patrick Kirtland, jr.; F Shawn Pauly, jr.; D Joona Kunnas, so.; G Robby Nichols, so.; F Brent Norris, so.; D Ryan Segalla, so.; D David Drake, fr.; F Kasperi Ojantakanen, fr.; F Corey Ronan, fr.; F Jesse Schwartz, fr.; 

Previous KYE installments:
This is a big season for UConn, as their move to Hockey East gives the program a legitimate opportunity to raise its profile. With the Huskies' new regimen of scholarships and their more competitive conference, recruiting has certainly picked up. While it'll be difficult to peg them as contenders in Hockey East for another couple of seasons at least, the youth movement is definitely on in Storrs.

The announcement of the pending move came a few months after the 2011-12 season ended, and it had immediate impact on UConn's fortunes. Where the Huskies had been a weak to middling team for years in advance of the major news, they rebounded to a 4th place finish in Atlantic Hockey in 2013 and a tie for third in 2014. This didn't translate to postseason success, as UConn was ousted by Mercyhurst in the semifinals in 2013 and by eventual champions Robert Morris in 2014, but the trajectory is clearly moving in the right direction for the Huskies.

It's difficult to get a solid grasp on this team, however, in part because the increase in fortunes in Atlantic Hockey is relatively inconsequential to how competitive they'll be in Hockey East, and in part because the Huskies lose their top three scorers from last season and their top choice goaltender.

Defensively, UConn was quite strong last season, allowing just 2.39 goals per game. Nichols, the presumed new backstop, had even better individual numbers in the action that he saw last season, which was not an insignificant amount as he got the start in 11 of the Huskies' 36 outings and made two other appearances.

Offensively, the team left something to be desired last season, but again, this is a program with much of its talent in its sophomore and freshman classes, so something like that is to be expected. While the team's top three scorers were all seniors, they return all of the remainder of their offensive output from last season, including Pauly and Gerling, who were both 20 point scorers.

This is certainly a game that should provide a bit of a test for the RPI offense. The UConn defense is certainly competent, and while the Engineers will have seen more difficult defenses ahead of this game, it'll provide a good benchmark for discovering RPI's true potential when they have the puck going forward. Expect the Engineers to be slight favorites for this contest, with the difference coming in UConn holding home ice advantage for the first time. The Huskies may have never beaten RPI, but the time is coming soon where they'll be able to put up a very strong challenge.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Know Your Enemy: Bentley

With a non-conference schedule as difficult as the one the Engineers have put together for the upcoming season, it's usually important to have at least a few games that are comparatively breathers for the team to get some confidence going forward. In this year's schedule, Bentley probably falls into that category better than any other - they're the only Atlantic Hockey team on the docket for the entire year, after all. But even Bentley presents RPI with at least a decent challenge, as the Falcons produced nationally relevant numbers on offense last season and established themselves as one of the AHA's top teams.

Nickname: Falcons
Location: Waltham, MA
Founded: 1917
Conference: Atlantic Hockey
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: None
Coach: Ryan Soderquist (13th season)
2013-14 Record: 19-14-4 (16-7-4 AHA, 2nd place)
Series: RPI leads, 3-1-0
First Game: October 9, 2007 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: October 16, 2010 (Troy, NY)
Last Bentley win: October 18, 2008 (Troy, NY)

2014-15 games: October 24-25, 2014 (Troy, NY)

Key players: F Alex Grieve, sr.; F Alex Kubiak, sr.; D Matt Maher, sr.; F Brett Switzer, sr.; D Steve Weinstein, sr.; F Derek Bacon, jr.; D Matt Blomquist, jr.; F Andrew Gladiuk, jr.; D Mike Berry, so.; F Tyler Deresky, so.; D Charlie Donners, so.; F Max French, so.; G Jayson Argue, fr.; F Vincent Russo, fr.; F Matt Sieckhaus, fr.

Previous KYE installment:
A 3-0 victory for RPI in Troy was the last time these teams faced each other, and both sides are now feature 100% different personnel from that encounter, but it's fair to say that the Engineers, especially at home, should be favored against the Falcons.

Since the last KYE, Bentley has endured three middling seasons before breaking out last year with one of the best years the program has ever seen. They finished second in Atlantic Hockey on the back of a superior offensive attack, but had their potential run through the league tournament to what would have been their first NCAA appearance squelched by the defending league champions, Canisius. The Falcons fell in a three-game series that saw Bentley taking Game 1 in overtime, followed by a 2 OT loss in Game 2 and a blown lead in Game 3.

Sure, Bentley plays some of the weakest teams in the nation during their Atlantic Hockey schedule, and yes, the 2nd place AHA team had a record of just 3-7-0 in non-conference games last season, which somewhat diminishes the luster behind the 3.43 goals per game that the Falcons scored. Nonetheless, a team that knows how to score is a team that knows how to score, and Bentley returns much of the core of that offense in the coming season.

The top five spots in goals per game in the nation last year were held by juniors, and with the early departures of BC's Johnny Gaudreau, RPI's Ryan Haggerty, and Nebraska-Omaha's Josh Archibald, Grieve returns for his senior season with the second-highest goal scoring rate from last season, and Gladiuk is tied for third. Weinstein, meanwhile, led the entire nation among defensemen in points per game, the only blueliner in the country last season who managed more than a point per contest, keyed by 37 assists in as many outings.

Bentley's defense was fair last season, allowing 2.68 goals per game, but that is an area that will see distinct changes coming into 2014. The Falcons' goaltender last year was a senior, and the amount of time his two backups saw last year combines for just over 60 minutes. Those two backups, now a senior and junior, have played a combined 9 games in their career for under 350 total minutes. Whether one of them, or incoming BCHL freshman Argue gets the lion's share of the playing time, Bentley is very raw between the pipes. Two graduating defensemen who played regularly doesn't help that much.

Teams always need to be wary on defense when playing against a team that has shown they are able to put the puck in the net, but Bentley's testable defense provides an opportunity for the Engineers to gain a bit of confidence heading into the ECAC schedule when they meet the Falcons. Even if Bentley is able to repeat their accomplishments from last season, this is still a team that RPI compares better against.