Monday, May 23, 2016

Your 2016-17 RPI Engineers

Over the weekend, the Troy Record's Ed Weaver had a story on the Class of 2020, the incoming freshmen for next season. As with his story a few weeks ago that included the particulars of the schedule, this is out in advance of the official release, but as it includes quotes from Seth Appert regarding the incoming players, we may as well take it to the bank on its reliability.

The incoming class is about what we expected following the most recent recruiting news from last week, in which defenseman T.J. Samec, who turned 21 three weeks ago, announced his commitment. That meant he had to be part of this year's class, and it created a few questions as to what that commitment meant for the expected roster - and basically everything we guessed on Twitter came true.

So without further ado, here's what we're looking at for the upcoming season.

Gone: Milos Bubela, Travis Fulton, Mark Miller, Zach Schroeder.
Returning: Riley Bourbonnais, Lonnie Clary, Jimmy DeVito, Kenny Gillespie, Viktor Liljegren, Drew Melanson, Lou Nanne, Jesper Öhrvall, Alex Rodriguez, Evan Tironese, Jake Wood.
Arriving: Todd Burgess, Jacob Hayhurst, Patrick Polino, Brady Wiffen.

Among the guaranteed starters are Bourbonnais, DeVito, Liljegren, Melanson, Nanne, Öhrvall, Tironese, and Wood. When available, expect them in the lineup without fail, because that's pretty much what the case was for these eight forwards last season. Based on their play late last season, it's likely that Gillespie and Rodriguez have a higher likelihood of joining that group as well.

Wiffen we're listing as "arriving" even though he's been in Troy and training with the team (and going to class) over the past season. He is quite obviously an addition to the team since he has yet to officially skate even in an exhibition, and will be a sophomore next season. His designation as co-most improved on the team from last year (alongside Parker Reno) is impressive considering that he never got the opportunity to suit up in an official game, which heightens the likelihood that we'll see him more often than not on the ice.

Among the other new faces, it's hard not to see Burgess getting plenty of opportunities early in his collegiate career. As the NAHL's leading scorer - by a lot - who has earned glowing reviews for his play and could possibly hear his named called in the NHL Draft next month at the age of 20 (a rare occurrence), he seems more likely than not to have the capacity to step in and start contributing immediately.

There has been less banter in the last year on Hayhurst in part because he managed just 9 goals this year in 57 games for Cedar Rapids in the USHL, but it's worth bearing in mind that he only just turned 19 in January. There's still an upside to his game that we'll probably see as he continues to develop, and we'll probably see a good amount of him early in the Cherry and White.

It's hard to keep 12 players healthy for an entire season (as we've seen recently), so players that end up 13th and 14th on the depth chart are probably going to see a fair amount of ice time as well - good news for guys like Polino and Clary. The former may well see plenty of spot duty in the Fulton role of the undersized energy guy. The latter last season got a few looks at the ice in 11 games but will probably have to step things up to regularly crack the lineup this year.

As it stands, there are 15 forwards on the roster. This is probably enough, but we know Appert prefers to carry 16 and it's been a struggle to stay there. There was supposed to be 16 last season, but the late word on Wiffen that he was ineligible kept it at 15. Appert is quoted in Weaver's story that they "may add another forward," so we'll keep eyes peeled on that front.

Gone: Chris Bradley, Phil Hampton.
Returning: Bradley Bell, Tommy Grant, Meirs Moore, Mike Prapavessis, Parker Reno, Jared Wilson.
Arriving: Charles Manley, Will Reilly, T.J. Samec.

From the looks of things, five of the six regular spots in a healthy lineup are pretty much sewn-up. Prapavessis, Reno, and Wilson proved completely indispensable last year, Moore missed just one game during his freshman season, and Grant earned pretty much universal praise for his play late in the year in place of an injured Reno - and indeed, was named the team's Rookie of the Year. All five are likely to be regulars in the lineup when healthy.

That leaves a sixth spot open between Bell, Manley, Reilly, and Samec. There's a lot we don't know about all four of these players, but it's likely that we'll see a situation where the sixth spot will go to whoever earns the time in practice on a week-in, week-out basis.

With Bell, the question is on what the reason was for his lack of playing time last season - he appeared in just three games last year, and he was dressed as a forward in one of those games. In his first two years, he's seen the ice in just 22 games total. Manley we've known about for the last five seasons and all we really know for sure about him is that his arrival has been twice delayed - he's been described as a puck-mover but his junior stats haven't made that readily apparent. Reilly and Samec, meanwhile, were very recent additions (with Samec in particular committing only last week). Reilly brings additional offensive potential to the table, while Samec brings size and physical play.

As we've seen in recent years, that sixth defenseman spot is sometimes taken regularly (as it was last year with Hampton, who was arguably well higher than sixth on the depth chart by the end of the year), and sometimes it's a game-to-game concern. A betting man would probably lean closer to the latter for this coming season, but having those top five spots pretty much locked down already is a great place to be.

Gone: Sam Goodman, Jason Kasdorf.
Returning: Cam Hackett.
Arriving: Chase Perry.

The situation in net will get interesting as the Engineers will have a returning ECAC All-Rookie selection in Hackett and a transfer NHL draft pick in Perry to choose from, both sophomores but both with very strong bonafides. We're likely to see both Hackett and Perry earn a solid amount of ice-time. This will be the first time that the Engineers have had both of its top two netminders in the same class since 2004.

There will be a third goaltender added to the list at some point, however this is mostly function over form in terms of how it will impact the team. The new practice goaltender will replace Goodman, who played the final 46 seconds of the season for his first and only experience in net - this is traditionally the norm among third-string goalies. Once we know who that is, the situation in net is likely to be stable for at least the next two, if not three seasons.

Overall outlook

The bottom line on this team, as it has been the last two seasons, is going to be a need to get some offense. The pundits will probably question the defense because of Kasdorf's graduation, but that shouldn't be an area of major concern, not with what returns on the blue line and the displayed abilities of both Hackett and Perry.

The good news is that there are plenty of avenues for new offense that wasn't there last season, far more than this team has had in recent years. Tironese and Wiffen are in many ways new additions over last season. Tironese will be a redshirt freshman after missing nearly the entire year to an injury picked up in the Union weekend. At the time of his injury, he was leading the team in scoring with 7 points in his first 6 games. Wiffen led the OJHL in scoring in 2015, and Burgess did the same in the NAHL in 2016. Those three additions, especially if they can contribute out of the gate the way Tironese did last year, could be a huge shot in the arm offensively.

Then you have other cases. Melanson had a hard time staying healthy last season after a very promising freshman campaign. Bourbonnais led the team in scoring, but was on a more torrid pace before he got injured and wasn't quite the same when he got back. Liljegren seemed to do everything but score on occasion, as did Öhrvall, his countryman. Nanne became a serious redirect threat and one of the more dangerous scorers in the league in the second half of the season.

That's eight players with the demonstrated potential to do great things on offense. The key will be for them to tap that full potential in the coming season. If they can do that, great things could be in the offing.

The Engineers last averaged 3 goals scored per game in 2002. Perhaps not coincidentally, that is also the last year they made it to Lake Placid. There are only four teams that have gone longer without registering 3.00 GPG in a season - American International, Army, Alaska-Anchorage, and Lake Superior State. Literally every other team in the ECAC has done it. Even Alabama-Huntsville has done it. And since 2002, the Engineers have exceeded the national median GPG only twice - in 2004 (21st out of 58) and 2013 (26th out of 59). Five times since, they've been in the bottom 10 nationally on offense (2003, 2008, 2009, 2012, 2015). It's been far too long since this was a goal-scoring team.

Maybe it's time for that to change - and maybe this might be the year that it does.

Taking a quick peek at upcoming classes of recruits...

Out: Bourbonnais, DeVito, Wood, Reno
In: Emil Öhrvall, Cory Babichuk (?), Austin Cho.

Certainly the blue line has been firmed up to some extent for 2017. With only Parker Reno graduating, the likelihood is that Cho will be his replacement, with Babichuk ready to come in if Mike Prapavessis signs with the Dallas Stars after this coming season. Cho had initially been set for 2016, but had a tough start to his season in the BCHL. Babichuk might be best moved to 2018 given his own rough 2015-16 campaign, but he should at least have a year of AJHL hockey under his belt by the end of next season.

Meanwhile, it's forwards that are needed to fill out the smaller-than-usual Class of 2021. Öhrvall is a tremendous first entry here, but two more forwards are likely needed at a minimum, depending on whether a 16th forward is added for 2016.

Out: Gillespie, Liljegren, Nanne, Melanson, Bell, Prapavessis, Wilson
In: Jon Bendorf, Jacob Modry, Babichuk (?)

If Babichuk is indeed coming in 2018, this class is certainly out of the gate well in terms of assembly. There's still a need for at least three more forwards and probably one more defenseman, but there is certainly time to put those pieces in place. We should learn more about this class in the coming months.

We're also likely to land the first RPI recruit born in the year 2000 sometime in the next year. This is probably the first possible class where we'd see such a recruit playing for the Institute.

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