Column, Men's Hockey, Featured Column

Just Like Krzyzewski, Men’s Hockey Will Bounce Back

Spring is finally here.

Yes, it’s official. All the signs of spring have arrived—the temperature climbing into the 50s, the snow melting, sunlight until later in the evening, and some damn good postseason sports to watch.

I’m not one for making a bracket, but I enjoy watching March Madness just as much as the next sports fan. I mean, it’s a pretty sweet gig for the fans—nonstop good basketball and, if you’re so inclined, the perfect opportunity to try to earn a few extra dollars through gambling. (For the record, I am not so inclined.)

If basketball just isn’t your thing, no worries there—you’ve still got hockey. Just don’t expect to see any players clad in maroon and gold hoisting up any trophies this year.

While Boston College women’s hockey lost in the Frozen Four, men’s hockey didn’t even qualify for the NCAA Tournament this year. It’s the first time since 2008-09 that the Eagles didn’t make the big dance, the third time since 2000, and only the sixth time in head coach Jerry York’s tenure on the Heights.

What does it mean for the Eagles moving forward? To make a basketball comparison, are the Eagles more like Duke or Syracuse—a temporary setback or a sign of things to come?

Duke men’s basketball entered the 2016-17 season highly lauded as one of the country’s most dangerous teams. It wasn’t totally smooth sailing for the Blue Devils, but they entered the NCAA Tournament as the ACC champs with a No. 2 seed and dreams of another national championship. That dream was abruptly ended by the University of South Carolina in the Round of 32.

Even when considering this season’s outcome, it’s unlikely that Duke will see a major drop-off in talent and production in the coming years. This was a momentary setback—sure, it’s disappointing for Blue Devils fans, but next season Duke will be just as good as it was this year. (And, as an added bonus, next year the Blue Devils won’t have to deal with the great tripping wonder, Grayson Allen.) And Duke has talent ready to light up Cameron Indoor Stadium next year—two of its three recruits, Wendell Carter and Gary Trent, Jr., are five-stars, while Alex O’Connell is a four-star recruit.

Syracuse, though, is a different story. The Orange has been to 38 NCAA Tournaments, six Final Fours, and three national championship games, winning just one. But recently the team has dealt with its fair share of adversity—an NCAA investigation, a self-imposed postseason ban, and a Final Four loss last year. This year, the Orange didn’t even earn a tournament bid. Instead, Syracuse played in the worst consolation prize ever, the NIT. Adding insult to injury, the Orange lost to Ole Miss in the second round. And just this past weekend, Mike Hopkins—Syracuse assistant coach, recruiter, and, supposedly, heir apparent to Jim Boeheim—announced he is taking the head coaching gig at Washington next year.

Unlike Duke, it’s fair to wonder whether this season represents the start of a down period for Syracuse. Sure, Boeheim is a fantastic coach—bringing his 10th-seeded Orange to the Final Four last year was impressive, to say the least—and just got extended with the news that Hopkins is leaving. But that move can be seen as reassurance to recruits who may have been alarmed at Hopkins’ departure. And with all of the adversity of the past couple years, Syracuse not making the tournament, an embarrassingly early loss to Ole Miss, and the loss of Hopkins, potential new recruits may not be as invested in the Orange as they might have been several years ago. If I were a recruit right now, I’d head someplace like Duke or North Carolina with the expectation that I’d have a crack at a national championship over my time there. I see no such guarantee at Syracuse right now.

The good news for BC is that it should be a Duke, not a Syracuse, in terms of its outlooking moving forward. That’s not to say it’s a guarantee—getting complacent would be disastrous. But York is more reminiscent of Krzyzewski than Boeheim. Krzyzewski and York both win championships—their resumes speak for themselves, with four each. Boeheim can make the tournament, but only has one national title, proving that he routinely fails when it matters the most. Winning is a part of BC’s culture just like it is a part of Duke’s culture.

BC must continue to aggressively recruit the top hockey talent, however. There’s no saying what the organization might look like in a couple of years, but associate head coach Greg Brown and assistant coach Mike Ayers have been phenomenal recruiters thus far, and will continue to play a crucial role on the team moving forward. That is especially true after the loss of Mike Cavanaugh, who many thought would be York’s eventual replacement before he accepted the head coaching job at Connecticut. If the Eagles can continue to recruit top talent and keep the organization stable, there’s no reason why this year won’t ever be looked at as anything except a temporary setback.

Frankly, given the amount of talent that departed after last season and the youth of this year’s squad (the Eagles were the youngest team in the country), it isn’t even really surprising that the Eagles didn’t make the cut this year. After the season-ending loss to Lowell, York himself called preseason projections that BC would finish at the middle of the pack in Hockey East “accurate” and praised his team for exceeding expectations. Whether or not you believe York really thought his team wouldn’t make the tournament is up to you, but either way, he publicly said it.

Next year, the team will still be young, but the roster will have a season of experience with tough hockey under its belt. The loss of seniors Scott Savage, Chris Calnan, Austin Cangelosi, Matthew Gaudreau, and Ryan Fitzgerald—plus the likely loss of sophomore Colin White—will be tough, but this roster is deep. This young talent will want to step up to the plate and fill in the shoes left behind by their departed teammates.

J.D. Dudek, Michael Kim, Christopher Brown, and Casey Fitzgerald will all be juniors next year. Each of these players has the potential to step up as leaders for the team, especially given that, barring a transfer, the Eagles won’t have a single senior on the squad. Dudek and Brown, both forwards, may take on more goal-scoring responsibilities, while Kim and Fitzgerald will look to tighten the Eagles’ defense. Brown, notably, missed weeks of this season with mono. Having him healthy for a full season will only help the Eagles.

Current freshmen will also step up and play a huge role for the team next year. Joseph Woll has had quite a season as BC’s netminder—at times outstanding, at times patchy—but with a full season of experience will be, well, a wall between the pipes next year for the Eagles. David Cotton, already an established threat for the team, will only improve with more experience and age. Graham McPhee has the skill and potential to emerge as a dangerous threat to opposing netminders.

And that’s just looking at the current roster. BC has an impressive lineup of recruits set to arrive next fall, ranging from Shattuck-St. Mary’s product Logan Hutsko to Canada native Mitch Martan. BC’s top recruit from that class, Finland’s Eeli Tolvanen, is pegged as a high NHL draft pick and eagerly anticipated as one of the country’s best rookies. Each of the recruits is a forward, bringing more dangerous goal-scoring ability to Kelley Rink. Down the line, BC has recruits TJ Walsh, Patrick Giles, and Adam Samuelsson lined up. Walsh and Giles are both forwards, while Samuelsson, whose older brother Philip won a national championship with the Eagles in 2010, is an imposing defenseman. The recruits set to arrive in the next couple of years are as elite as always, proving that BC’s hockey future is still bright.

So allow yourself to be disappointed that the Eagles’ season ended early—but not for long. Like Jack in LOST, let the emotion in, but only for five seconds—then, feel free to push it away.

After all, this is BC men’s hockey, and winning is part of the culture. Like Duke men’s basketball, BC has a record of success both in the regular season and postseason, one of the greatest coaches ever to grace the sport, and world-class talent clamoring for the opportunity to play in maroon and gold.

A few years down the road, the 2016-17 season will be seen as nothing more than a momentary setback.  

Featured Image by Zoe Fanning / Heights Editor

March 22, 2017