Men's Hockey, Column

Eagles’ Recent Progress Still Hasn’t Translated to the Win Column

Boston College men’s hockey has three weekends left before the Hockey East Tournament begins, and three of the remaining five games come against teams ahead of them in the conference table.

No matter the outcome of these matchups, though, head coach Jerry York and the Eagles have fallen woefully short of expectations.

When York’s contract extension was announced the afternoon of the Beanpot final against Northeastern, it was met with a mixed bag of emotions. York is the winningest coach in college hockey history, but BC is mired in its worst three-year run in quite some time, and optimism surrounding the program is slumping. Still, while the Eagles narrowly lost to Northeastern, the signs were there that the team was starting to come together. York even spoke glowingly of his team’s resilience, suggesting that maybe, just maybe, things were going to turn around. Instead, they’ve lost four straight, all games they conceivably could have won.

In terms of expectations entering this year, BC had high hopes to turn things around. On paper, all the signs were there for a strong year, with the Eagles returning 98 percent of their offensive production that ranked fifth in the conference in goals per game in 2017-18, a third-year starter in goal with Joseph Woll, and an incoming freshman class that featured the No. 11 overall draft pick in Oliver Wahlstrom, things seemed to be lining up for an impressive season. Even with a lengthy non-conference losing streak hanging over its head and back-to-back winless Beanpot showings to grapple with, BC entered with the second-most NHL Entry Draft picks on its roster—only trailing rival Boston University—and had plenty of experience up and down the roster.

The Eagles were picked as the preseason favorites to repeat and win the Hockey East in the coaches poll, narrowly edging out Providence by a point. They had a tough slate of non-conference games that had them poised to claim several marquee wins for their Pairwise ranking and dispel the notion that this powerhouse was sliding backwards.

Things have gone far from planned, as BC heads into this coming weekend in fifth place in the conference, having managed a lone non-conference win in nine tries. What’s most disappointing about the Eagles’ record, which is six games under .500 at 10-16-3, is the fact that the last three losses— to Northeastern and a pair to Massachusetts over this past weekend—have featured flashes of the talent that this group possesses but is unable to string together for a complete game, much less a few contests in a row.

York is the all-time winningest coach in college hockey, and it’s hard to doubt the tenured former BC alum, but the Eagles had all the pieces lined up for a successful season, and the fact that the last couple games have shown glimpses of a team that should be near the top of the league is all the more frustrating.

Against the Huskies, BC was without Logan Hutsko, who has generated his fair share of chances as the team’s assist leader, but it still looked the part of a dangerous team. A casual fan at TD Garden likely would’ve been surprised to know that the Eagles—even though they were down two entering the third period—entered the tournament the week prior having not won a non-conference game since Nov. 2016 and a Beanpot game since Feb. 2016.

Passes were crisp, opportunities on Northeastern goaltender Cayden Primeau were in abundance, and, while BC dug too big of a hole to get out of and eventually fell, 4-2, the Eagles decisively won the face off battle and were nearly even in the shots department. David Cotton, who has played well all year, looked phenomenal in the final period, and Woll was largely on his game with several strong saves despite good looks throughout for the Huskies. The defense had a strong forecheck at times, especially down the stretch when BC was looking for an equalizer—it was simply dominant in terms of the numbers of chances. Yes, the Eagles lost, but a good third period, even with Hutsko sidelined with an injury, seemed to bode well for the ensuing weekend series against the No. 3 Minutemen.

And, for much of those two games, BC looked the part of a team that could hold its own against the best of the best for once—as opposed to a 7-0 defeat to No. 1 St. Cloud State earlier this season. It held leads after the first period in each of the two games against UMass and nearly reached overtime in the first one in a resilient effort. Alas, as it has gone for much of the year, the Eagles fell in both games, dropping a heartbreaker on Friday night before struggling with penalties in the second. Just like that, BC found itself on a four-game skid, strong showings against good teams aside.

When the Eagles conceded with 2.3 seconds left on Friday night to watch any hope of a point—or multiple points—against the Minutemen slip through their hands, it was a fitting punctuation mark on what has been a tremendously disappointing season. Just consider the amount of talent BC has done nearly nothing with: 11 NHL Entry Draft picks, one of which is the third-highest draft pick playing in college, and a plethora of experience up and down the lines.

To make things worst, further consider what next year holds for York’s side. Per usual, the Eagles have a plethora of high-end talent expected as two of the incoming prospects—left wing Matthew Boldy and center Alex Newhook—were slotted in the top 10 of The Athletic’s midseason draft rankings, and goaltender Spencer Knight is the best in his class. This year, however, has proved that just because you can recruit some of the best players, youth isn’t always the answer.

Rival BU has 12 NHL Entry Draft picks and it falls a point behind the Eagles in the Hockey East table. This year, even, Wahlstrom has largely failed to live up to expectations and the other assorted freshmen—Marc McLaughlin, Jack McBain, and Patrick Giles—have been buried in the depth chart and have struggled to consistently contribute. While an influx of talent should help, who’s to say that a group that is losing the veteran leadership of captains Casey Fitzgerald, Michael Kim, and Christopher Brown will perform any better?

Ultimately, even with back-to-back missed NCAA Tournament’s, BC entered this season with very few question marks in terms of the players returning—it didn’t lose any players to graduation and the only departure was graduate transfer Kevin Lohan. It had an established goaltender, all of its returning talent plus more in the forward lines, and an above-average defensive unit that even added a midseason defenseman in Ben Finkelstein. All of these things, theoretically, could’ve translated to another Hockey East regular season crown and the potential to play for more in March.

Instead, those questions will remain unanswered and another season will likely slip by without an NCAA Tournament appearance. York was given a contract extension, and the same NHL talent will come through the Heights as it always has under the longtime coach, but the fact remains that the student section is dwindling as national relevance has taken a back seat.

Sure, that seems harsh for a team that was in the Frozen Four in 2015-16 and won a national title in 2011-12, but the reputation as a prominent hockey school has been tainted lately, and it’s a weird feeling under York. Regardless of the results of the final few regular season games and, barring some improbable conference tournament run, BC will head into the offseason early once again, further creating a cynical outlook on a program that is just a few years removed of its pinnacle.

Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Senior Staff

February 19, 2019