Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Know Thyself: RPI

Well, the time is here. We've seen the exhibition, we've analyzed the opposition, and now it's time to cast a critical eye on our own side. Last year the Engineers overcame an institutional hurdle by winning a home playoff series for the first time in over a decade. That shouldn't be a thing, and now it's not. And the way they did it, coming from 3-0 down in Game 2 to ensure that there would be no Game 3 was crucial. It showed guts from a team that played well for each other all season. If that same kind of attitude can prevail this season, perhaps there are a few more long-term problems that can be overcome.

Nickname: Engineers
Location: Troy, NY
Founded: 1824
Conference: ECAC
National Championships: 2 (1954, 1985)
Last NCAA Appearance: 2011
Last Frozen Four: 1985
Coach: Seth Appert (11th season)
2015-16 Record: 18-15-7 (8-7-7 ECAC, 5th place)
All-Time Record: 1042-938-135 (1017-865-129 in the modern era)
First Game: January 25, 1902 (Cohoes, NY)
First Win: February 26, 1904 (Albany, NY)
First Modern Era game: January 7, 1950 (Clinton, NY)
First Modern Era win: February 3, 1950 (Plattsburgh, NY)

Key players: F Riley Bourbonnais, sr.; F Jimmy DeVito, sr.; D Parker Reno, sr.; F Jake Wood, sr.; F Viktor Liljegren, jr.; F Drew Melanson, jr.; F Lou Nanne, jr.; D Mike Prapavessis, jr.; D Jared Wilson, jr.; D Tommy Grant, so.; G Cam Hackett, so.; D Meirs Moore, so.; F Jesper Ohrvall, so.; G Chase Perry, so.; F Brady Wiffen, so.; F Jacob Hayhurst, fr.; F Evan Tironese, fr.

Key losses: G Jason Kasdorf, D Chris Bradley, F Milos Bubela, F Zach Schroeder, D Phil Hampton, F Mark Miller, F Travis Fulton

(I know, I know, I'm missing this potential impact freshman or that upperclassman primed to break out... I only assembled it the way I assembled the KYE teams, just to be fair. I'm sure I've left out some of the same for other teams.)

Of the teams who lost their all-star goaltenders this offseason in the ECAC, the Engineers might be in the best position. Yale and Quinnipiac both have at least some questions as to how they're going to fare in net, but RPI basically doesn't have a wrong answer. Hackett was the ECAC's All-Rookie selection last season, and he's now joined by Perry, who may be one of the best incoming netminders in the country (and one with NCAA experience already to boot, as he's a transfer from Colorado College). What will be interesting here is seeing exactly how the goaltending duties are meted out in Troy - how often each of them will get playing time - but there's little doubt that it should continue to be a strength for the Engineers, even with the departure of Kasdorf.

It's easy to look at the situation and shrug your shoulders if you want to. When last we saw Hackett, he gave up 8 goals against Harvard, and he was being named as the ECAC All-Rookie goaltender, but almost by default as there were pretty much no other decent candidates. But that overlooks the reason why he was a legitimate All-Rookie selection, given that he was unbeaten in his first seven decisions (one relief, six starts) with an overall 2.88 GAA certainly skewed by the lopsided finale. One can look at Perry and see a 3.97 GAA at CC two years ago and an .892 save percentage in the BCHL last year - except CC was beyond bad two years ago and the BCHL is a goal-happy league. The bottom line is that the Engineers have two excellent options to choose from. Word out of the exhibition game is that Perry is more or less the starter at the moment, but that Hackett certainly has the ability and capacity to displace him. Regardless, Perry looked outstanding in net against McGill.

Defense should be a strong point in front of Perry and/or Hackett as well. Reno last season really grew into the starring role he was long expected to play at RPI, while Prapavessis and Wilson have turned in two very solid years already halfway through their collegiate eligibility. Moore was a mainstay in the back last season, and saw good development in his defensive skills to compliment his offensive capacity, and Grant was a revelation last year when he started getting regular playing time when Reno came out of the lineup late in the season. All five should dress regularly, with four options for the role Hampton played well last year as the reliable if not overwhelming sixth d-man.

Injuries and other issues keeping players off the ice played a significant role in the struggles that the Engineers had from time to time last season. Kasdorf, Bourbonnais, Reno, Melanson, and Bubela were crucial parts of this team's success last year, and they missed a combined 47 games, practically never as healthy scratches. Tironese looked on pace to have a phenomenal freshman season, leading the team in scoring six games in with seven points, but a season ending shoulder injury meant he was out of the lineup for 34 starts (he will be a redshirt freshman this year), and DeVito proved to be a crucial element of the team's second semester makeup - he missed 20 games early in the year with academic concerns. Wiffen's designation as a partial qualifier by the NCAA kept him on the sidelines for the entire season.

This year hasn't even started yet, and there are more issues that have cropped up. Freshman Todd Burgess picked up a knee injury in Ottawa's development camp after being drafted in the 4th round of this year's NHL Draft, and he'll be redshirting. Kenny Gillespie, who developed into a team leader and a reliable grinder, is on a leave of absence from the Institute - word is he could return in January, but it's not a given.

The biggest question mark, as it has been for the last several seasons, is offense. And as it has been for the last several seasons, there are a number of potential answers - unfortunately for that same stretch, those answers haven't really cropped up.

We've said it for years that college hockey is frequently "first to three." Therefore, it stands to reason that averaging three or more goals per game is a good thing. And as we mentioned in May, the Engineers haven't accomplished that bar since 2002 - perhaps not coincidentally, the last year they went to Lake Placid. In the ECAC, every other team has accomplished this in the last 10 years, and only Brown and Clarkson haven't done it since 2010. In fact, discounting Arizona State, 54 out of 58 other teams have done it since RPI last accomplished the task. Army also last did it in 2002, and only Alaska-Anchorage, Lake Superior State, and American International are on a longer drought of failing to reach three goals per game.

That needs to change. It's said that defense wins championships, but you still can't win games without putting the puck in the net a little more often than RPI has for many years now. As with Cornell in last week's capsule, the options are there, it's simply a matter of getting those options to click. If this team can reach that three goals per game bar, there's no telling what they can accomplish.

* Melanson and Nanne have been linemates for two years, but it's always seemed like one or the other was out of the lineup too often to get into a rhythm (word is they'll be starting the season with Alex Rodriguez).

* Bourbonnais was an offensive juggernaut for RPI last year - until he got hurt.

* Wiffen was an offensive powerhouse in the OJHL in 2015, and was the "most improved player" last season without being able to play a shift.

* As mentioned above, Tironese displayed serious offensive capacity before being lost for the season at the end of October.

* Liljegren had a displayed goal-scoring touch as a freshman, but had a downturn last season. Countryman Ohrvall did everything but score in game after game after game as a freshman - and he found his finishing touch late in the season.

* Wilson and Prapavessis have offensive prowess from the blue line, and both became increasingly vital as last season progressed. Reno's set-up potential also increased dramatically.

* Hayhurst produced over a point per game in the OJHL at the age of 18 two years ago (he turns 20 in January).

* And in the realm of what might have been for this season, Burgess tied the NAHL record for points in a season before becoming a rare 20-year-old NHL draftee in June.

These are all great options, and the Engineers really only need two or three of them to be the real engine, especially if the others can simply be threats to score on an even basis, the way St. Lawrence and Yale have been able to boast a balanced attack in their second and third lines for a few years now.

(For the sake of the future, bear in mind that everyone above except for Bourbonnais and Reno will have eligibility in 2018 - when the team will add to the mix Burgess, Ohrvall's brother Emil, who last year led Shattuck-St. Mary's in scoring, and Bailey Conger, who last year potted nearly two points per game for Cushing Academy.)

So here's the call on RPI this year - let's look at this in the context of the rest of the ECAC. There's always three kinds of teams at the end of the regular season: the top four with byes, the middle four at home in the first round, and the bottom four on the road.

Looking at the two preseason polls and our (mostly secret) ballot that was part of the media poll, it's fair to call Quinnipiac and St. Lawrence really strong favorites for the much-desired top four. We're on record picking SLU as our top selection.

The next tier has to be Harvard, Yale, and Clarkson - none of these teams finishing in the top four should shock anyone.

After that, Cornell, RPI, and Union. The Dutchmen would be at least mildly shocking as they don't seem to be quite as well-rounded, but they have one or two pieces that could power a solid run. We don't think anyone should be shocked if Cornell or RPI manage to nab a top four finish, both have longer odds for anything outside the middle four, where they should be solid favorites.

The bottom four, according to both preseason polls, were Dartmouth, Colgate, Brown, and Princeton (and we'll admit to agreeing with at least three of those calls), all look pretty hard-pressed to make a run at the top, but the ECAC being what it is, there's no team that can start the season with a bad projection that can't potentially find a way to finish at least in the middle four.

That said, RPI may be the most unpredictable team in the ECAC this season. Of that third tier, Cornell finishing in the bottom four would probably be as unlikely as we described Union in the top, but RPI finishing in either the top or bottom... doesn't seem impossible given what they bring back, what they add, and what they've accomplished (or failed to accomplish) in recent years.

We'll see what the coaching staff can coax from this group. It has the potential to be very, very good, but we've seen the potential to be great translate into "OK" or "not so great" recently - that's why the Engineers are perhaps the most enigmatic team in the entire conference for 2017.

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