Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Know Your Enemy: Arizona State

The new kids on the block are new no longer, and they more than paid their dues in their first season as a varsity program. College hockey's southwestern outpost is poised for another rough campaign or two, but there's no question that they've got the groundwork laid out very nicely for supporting a much brighter future in the Valley of the Sun.

Arizona State
Nickname: Sun Devils
Location: Tempe, AZ
Founded: 1885
Conference: Independent (Pac-12)
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: None
Coach: Greg Powers (7th season)
2015-16 Record: 5-22-2
Series: RPI leads, 2-0-0
First game: December 11, 2015 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: December 12, 2015 (Troy, NY)
Last ASU win: Never

2016-17 games: November 25-26, 2016 (Tempe, AZ)

Key players: F Robbie Baillargeon, sr.; F Ryan Belonger, sr.; F Sean Murphy, sr.; F Wade Murphy, sr.; D Brock Krygier, sr.; G Robert Levin, sr.; D David Norris, sr.; F Dylan Hollman, jr.; D Ed McGovern, jr.; D Jake Montgomery, jr.; F Anthony Croston, so.; F Cody Gylling. so.; D Nicholas Gushue, so.; F Matt Kennedy, so.; F Joe Lappin, so.; F Jordan Masters, so.; G Ryland Pashovitz, so.; D Joey Raats, so.; F Ryan Stevens, so.; D Brinson Pasichnuk, fr.

Previous KYE installments:
It was actually colder in Tempe than it was in Troy when the Sun Devils were in town, as bizarre as that seems, especially in December. That seems unlikely to happen again this season, when the Engineers stop by after Thanksgiving for another pair with ASU.

Expectations certainly were not high last season, but the Sun Devils cleared the low bar that was more or less set for them. They crushed their archrivals from Tucson (still playing club hockey) by 8-1 and 6-0 margins at opposite ends of the season, somewhat proving their advancement from club level. Against club teams as a whole, they went 5-0-0 and outscored opponents 35-3.

Against D-III competition, ASU was also undefeated, sweeping Southern New Hampshire at home in October by a combined 16-3 score, and tying UW-Eau Claire twice in February. Also a positive sign.

Against D-I teams? A much different story. Just three wins all season against 22 losses, 17 of which were by three or more goals. But even here, there's a silver lining. In their very first D-I matchup, the Sun Devils took Alaska-Anchorage to overtime before losing, and in their second, they defeated Alaska (Fairbanks) for their first ever Division I victory. They also swept an admittedly bad Lake Superior State team on the road in November.

Scoring was anemic against D-I teams, and this was ASU's biggest problem all year. They never scored three in a D-I game, and only reached two on four occasions (both Alaska games, a game against Clarkson, and a home game against UConn). At their worst offensive stretch between mid-December and mid-January, the Sun Devils scored just six goals in 11 games. The D-I season came to a brutal end in late January (as basically all teams are focused on conference play in February) with three games in three days against UMass-Lowell and Merrimack, which they lost at a combined 22-2, including a 10-0 loss to the Warriors to conclude the D-I portion of their first D-I season.

So there is still a gap, and that was always to be expected. But that gap should start closing sooner rather than later. ASU's 1.59 goals per game was worst in the country, but that's not some new benchmark for goal-scoring futility - Princeton a year earlier was at 1.30. Ultimately, Arizona State last year was about where they wanted to be, and where one would expect - better than club or D-III programs, but not quite ready to be steadily competitive in D-I.

They should be better this coming season, but it would have to be by absolute leaps and bounds for them to improve significantly over last year's D-I results.

Baillargeon is a graduate transfer from BU, where he led the Terriers in scoring as a freshman, although he hasn't been able to duplicate his numbers from that season he should still add a shot in the arm for the Sun Devils on experience alone. Masters had a decent freshman year as the pace-setter in scoring, as we mentioned last season he had some bonafides as a very strong player on his way into school and we can certainly expect him to continue to be a focal point for the ASU attack.

One of the bigger items on Arizona State's bucket list right now is defining the conference that they'll be joining in the near future - hopefully as soon as 2017. For a short time they were thought to be contestants for the Big Ten's eighth spot, that was shot down in late April. About the same time, they were rumored to be joining the NCHC, the conference that would probably make the most sense for them. That still has yet to happen, and the NCHC specifically shot down that rumor. The Sun Devils do need to finalize a conference sooner rather than later, if only to remove one of the remaining question marks on the program's long-term viability. With travel costs already weighing heavily on the WCHA, it seems like they may not be able to find a home there either if the NCHC balks.

Everything else, however, seems to be trending in the right direction. Greg Powers is doing a good job sectioning out the classes early on in order to avoid what is frequently a decade-long struggle for new programs to balance recruiting classes due to a usually abnormal-sized freshman class in the first season. With any luck, the Sun Devils are probably only a season or two from looking like a normal program in terms of class sizes. When that happens, expect the type of talent the program is already attracting to make the team far more formidable.

This season, for the third and fourth games in the nascent RPI-ASU series, even in the desert, it's almost certainly still a pair of games that the Engineers should be able to win, but the improved team and the change in venue will make for two games that will be more difficult than the two they fairly easily won in Troy - so there's going to be a natural let-down alert here. If RPI allows the Sun Devils to stick around, they'll be leaving things open for a serious upset.

By the way, if you are interested in attending either of these games, the recommendation is going to be to get tickets absolutely as soon as possible. Both will be played at ASU's super-small rink in Tempe that seats fewer than 1,000 people - and with the number of RPI alums that have likely retired to Arizona along with the likelihood of more than a few fans taking this unique trip, the tickets are likely to be in high demand. Two sold-out games are almost certainly going to happen here, so if you want to go, find out when tickets go on sale and get them quick.

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