Boston College men’s hockey hits the ice Saturday afternoon for exhibition play against the University of New Brunswick. The team is no doubt hungry to return to the ice after a season that managed to be both painfully disappointing and heartbreaking -- a long, painful slog through the regular season, followed by an electrifying playoff run that came up one goal short of giving BC a shot at at trophy.
BC enters the season with high hopes, being pinned as preseason favorites to win Hockey East by the league’s coaches. But they also have big questions. Let’s take a look at BC’s projected strengths, weaknesses, and areas of uncertainty heading into the new season.
-One of the best top lines in the league
No matter who BC ices alongside David Cotton, the Eagles are likely to roll out one of the best top lines in Hockey East. David Cotton led the league in goals scored in conference play last year with 15, despite BC’s persistent struggles. He’s also the leader among all returning players in shots on goal. As a senior playing for a potential free agent contract at the end of the season, Cotton is expected to be one of the nation’s best forwards.
BC could keep their top line from the past two years unified, with the slick Julius Mattila and the flashy playmaker Logan Hutsko working alongside Cotton. Or, the Eagles could try sliding one of their dynamic freshmen into a top line role, with players like Alex Newhook, Matt Boldy, and Mike Hardman all expected to be big contributors.
No matter how they set it up, BC should be expecting big things from their top line.
-Forward depth (presumably)
This might fall in to the ‘big questions’ category, because we were expecting to have forward depth last year and it never really panned out. But a combination of returning pieces, a deep freshman class with three projected big-time scorers, and potential continued development and bounce-back years by some players should give BC a forward roster deep enough to roll 3-4 lines that can score.
Cotton, Hutsko and Mattila have already been discussed, along with the three high-impact freshmen - two of whom were first round picks in the draft, and the other (Hardman) an older freshman at age 20 who comes in after putting up 72 points in 58 games in the BCHL last year.
Beyond those six forwards, BC should expect that Jack McBain, who showed flashes of brilliance last year, can develop into a legitimate threat; Patrick Giles can continue to progress toward being a solid middle-six forward; and Marc McLaughlin, who improved considerably over the course of the season and started to show some playmaking panache, can play some bigger minutes.
BC will also be hopeful that they can get bounceback seasons from Graham McPhee and Aapeli Rasanen. Rasanen struggled with injuries and may be banged up again to start this season, but he has NHL Draft and World Junior pedigree that suggest his production can go up. McPhee was one of BC’s top scoring forwards as a sophomore before falling off considerably last year. Can he find his scoring touch again?
While not all of these players are sure things, you have to think and hope enough of them will pan out to give BC a deep forward group that can score.
-Age balance (finally)
After the Great Exodus of 2016, it seems like BC finally has a pretty well-balanced roster again in terms of age and experience. You simply cannot rely solely on talented freshmen or sophomores to win at this level - you need experienced leaders who can lead by example on the ice. BC has that finally with Cotton, Hutsko, and Mattila expected to be top contributors.
You also need an injection of youthful talent, and BC has that too.
For once, it’s not just one or two classes carrying the load - there should be a balance.
There’s no two ways about it, the blue line has been a considerable problem for BC in many ways over the last few seasons. It’s difficult to project it getting much better this year. In recent years, BC has had many blown coverages, has struggled to clear out the puck and turn defense into offense, and has frequently looked shaky in their own end.
The Eagles haven’t had big, physical defensemen, with their blueline theoretically more full of players who were expected to be more in the puck-moving defenseman mold. But their struggles in moving the puck, combined with often being physically overpowered by heavy forechecks, has made team defense a weakness.
With Casey Fitzgerald and Michael Kim both lost to graduation, BC’s hopes of improvement on this year rely on the freshmen coming in and contributing right away - a dicey thing to count on with freshman blueliners, who often take longer to develop.
Marshall Warren and Drew Helleson are USNTDP products and 2019 draft picks who should provide an injection of two-way talent. Mitch Andres is a bigger and older freshman at 6-1, 201 and 21 years of age; hopefully he can come in and be a reliable defensive presence.
In order to keep pucks out of their own net, BC will need better team defense all around, including from their forwards. Despite having one of the top goalies in the league in Joe Woll, BC was 8th in Hockey East in goals allowed per game last year. If BC is going to be a serious contender this year, that will have to improve.
-Scoring from the blue line
In the modern game, you need to get offense from your defensemen. Last year, BC was particularly abysmal in this category.
BC’s blueliners combined for a total of 58 points in 39 games. Ben Finkelstein, who only played half of the season, ended up with the third-most points among all BC D - behind the now-departed Kim and Fitzgerald.
Of the 89 players to suit up as defensemen in the league last year, BC’s cohort ranked T-76th, T-62nd, T-62nd, 46th, T-31st, T-27th, T-16th, and 15th in points. Not good.
This failure to produce successful shots or passes from the blueline no doubt contributed to BC’s mediocre power play, which clicked at just a 19% rate.
BC’s hopes for improvement in this area stem from getting a full season of Finkelstein; hopefully getting a healthier Connor Moore, who’s shown some puck-moving ability; and in Warren and Helleson.
Special teams can vary year over year pretty wildly in college hockey, but it’s hard to look past what’s been a trend for this program in recent years - middling to poor results on special teams.
BC on the power play -
2017 - 16.3%, 39th in the nation
2018 - 18.2%, 33rd in the nation
2019 - 19%, 27th in the nation
BC on the PK -
2017 - 83.3%, 22nd in the nation
2018 - 81.1%, 30th in the nation
2019 - 81.9%, 25th in the nation
Until proven otherwise, it’s hard to see special teams being a strength for this team. Getting better puck movement from the defensemen will certainly be key to improving this.
-How good will the goaltending be?
Spencer Knight’s talent is undeniable - a top NHL draft pick, he’s widely considered to be one of the best American goaltending prospects ever. His ceiling might be even higher than Thatcher Demko and Joe Woll, both of whom were outstanding at BC.
But... he’s still just 18. Demko and Woll both required some seasoning before blossoming in to statistically dominant forces. Most goalies don’t come in and put up huge numbers as freshmen, though the now-departed Cayden Primeau of Northeastern was an exception to this, powering the Huskies right away.
Just how good will Knight be? Even if he’s really, REALLY good, it’s going to be tough to be better than Joe Woll, who was excellent between the pipes last year (though his .926 save percentage in league games was only good for 5th in the league, BC gave up a LOT of grade A chances).
That being said, if Knight does come out and give you top-3 in Hockey East goaltending, that does automatically brighten the outlook quite a bit.
-Finkelstein’s impact over a full season?
A recurring theme in this preview has been BC’s struggles in recent years to get the puck out of their end cleanly, turn defense in to offense, and have their blueliners jump into the play in the attacking zone and score points.
The epitome of a player who’s expected to do all of those things is Ben Finkelstein. In half a season last year, Finkelstein put up pretty good numbers, at 1-9--10 in 22 games. But the hope is that over a full season, he can do something more along the lines of what he did at Waterloo in the USHL, putting up over a point per game (8-26--34 in 23 games).
The difference between maintaining his clip from last season vs. really becoming a force could mean a lot for how far BC goes this year.
-Will players make the jump?
We are among many prognosticators who are going in to the season with a rosy outlook for BC, but these predictions are very much reliant on players making jumps in production over last year. Logan Hutsko had a down year in terms of goals scored, but is expected to start filling the back of the net again this year. McBain, McLaughlin and Giles came on toward the end of last year and we expect them to improve further. The hope is that another player, like a McPhee or a Rasanen, also steps up, and that another year of seasoning makes defensemen like Michael Karow or Connor Moore a bigger presence.
These are somewhat fair assumptions, but they’re still assumptions. Will players progress and develop as hoped?
-What will the team’s mentality be? Can they handle adversity?
It’s lazy and too easy sometimes to blame losses on mentality, but it was hard to watch BC last season and not think that a big part of their problem was mental for much of the season. They struggled mightily to bounce back after falling behind early in games.
They also had a few occasions - two games against UMass in February, and two trophy games against Northeastern come to mind - where they gave a top team a good fight, but just couldn’t quite finish the job.
The out-of-conference bugaboo definitely started to get in the team’s head as well. At Arizona State last year was another example of a game where BC played well, but started gripping their sticks too tight when it got hairy and ended up suffering a heartbreaking loss.
A number of players demonstrated some gun-shyness around the net throughout the season, seeking the perfect play rather than putting the puck on net and generating a scoring chance. As BC shifted away from their struggle-filled regular season and in to their impressive playoff run, Logan Hutsko started getting more confident in front of the net and shooting more. Marc McLaughlin did the same. Both had key goals for BC in their series win at Providence.
The Eagles will need to show that mentality from day one and rack up some nonconference wins early if they’re going to contend for a spot in the NCAA tournament.
The exhibition game will start to give us answers to these questions, but we start finding out for real next Friday night against Wisconsin.
Here’s to a big year!