Minnesota, Wisconsin, Boston College, and Boston University - four of the most storied programs in college hockey - all qualified for the NCAA tournament this year, all with high hopes and rosters laden with NHL draft picks.
All four got pantsed in their regional - by Minnesota State, Bemidji State, and St. Cloud State (twice).
If all of those games looked like men against boys to you, it’s because they pretty much were.
As is regularly the case, Boston College (average age: 20 years, 4 months), Boston University (20 yr/10 mo), Minnesota (21 yr/2 mo), and Wisconsin (21 yr/5 mo) were four of the five youngest teams in college hockey this year. (The fifth was Michigan, who didn’t get a chance to play.)
St. Cloud State, in addition to being the 15th oldest team (average age: 22 years, 3 months) also had something just as valuable: experience. St. Cloud had 7 players on ice ice this weekend who had 100+ college games. BC had one player with such experience - Michael Karow.
Minnesota State (average age 22 years, 8 months - 3rd in the nation) was also deep in experience, with 16 juniors and seniors who worked through the sting of NCAA tournament disappointment in the past but were able to bear down, overcome an early scare against Quinnipiac, and then paste their in-state rivals to advance to the Frozen Four.
Age itself isn’t destiny - neither Minnesota-Duluth nor UMass are at the top of the age chart, though neither is nearly as young as BC - but experience is critical.
UMass’s three leading scorers are juniors and seniors, with leaders like Bobby Trivigno, Oliver Chau, Marc Del Gaizo and goalie Filip Lindberg having participated in the team’s previous tournament runs.
Minnesota Duluth is a young team in terms of age, not built on players coming in older the way a program like Minnesota State is, and is no slouch in terms of NHL talent, with 8 draft picks. But they are loaded with juniors and seniors, including their top six scorers.
There has been plenty of psychoanalyzing what happened to BC’s team in the Hockey East and NCAA tournament this year but it’s not like the star players on BC weren’t trying or didn’t have their hearts in the game - they clearly did, and the intensity on the BC bench was visible for the entire game. And it’s not like we haven’t seen these players perform in clutch situations - it’s just that it’s been against players in their age bracket at international competitions.
The same story is true at the other ‘blue chip’ programs, too. There was a period of time toward the end of BC’s run of Frozen Fours where the Eagles were still making it work with the youngest or 2nd-youngest team in college hockey, but it’s not a sustainable formula as additional programs have gotten better at identifying late bloomers and working them into their system.
To the credit of BC’s coaching staff, the Eagles clearly recognized this after the great departure debacle of 2016 and roster construction shifted accordingly.
The next few classes included a number of 3-to-4 year pieces - including guys like David Cotton, Logan Hutsko, the three Finns, plus dips into the transfer market, and a few freshmen who entered a little older with some junior experience.
Once those guys gained experience, and were then reinforced by a monster freshman class with Alex Newhook, Matt Boldy, Marshall Warren, Drew Helleson and Spencer Knight — plus a very good older freshman in Mike Hardman, who came in at 20 with BCHL experience — BC put together a team that was a force to be reckoned with.
Boldy and Newhook weren’t relied on to fully carry the team fresh out of years of playing against only fellow teenagers - they were co-stars with the first line of Julius Mattila, Logan Hutsko, and David Cotton.
That is the way. Unfortunately, COVID-19 denied us a chance to see how that BC team would have fared in tournament competition.
COVID-19 also may have led to the departure of a would-be senior depth piece this year in Aapeli Rasanen. Rasanen left after his junior year to play professional hockey in Finland, a decision that was probably made easier by the confusion surrounding whether there would be an NCAA season and whether it would make sense to come back across the ocean.
The loss of senior captain Logan Hutsko may have been a death knell for this team’s chances - not only because of his skill, but also because of the leadership provided when one of your best players is also one of your most experienced.
BC should have a decent slate of players who will stick with the program in the next few years and hopefully build up a core; players like Nikita Nesterenko, Colby Ambrosio, Trevor Kuntar and Eamon Powell are good, but obviously not close to being NHL-ready.
They will need those players to grow, develop, and improve into reliable top NCAA players. Then they will need talented freshmen to backfill - both of the NHL prospect variety, and of the older and more experienced variety. BC should also consider fishing in the grad transfer pool this summer depending on their available scholarship space.
That is the way. Rolling out a team with an average of ~20 - no matter how talented they are, no matter how talented the coaching staff is, and no matter how many of them are going to go on to play in the pros - isn’t going to get it done at the top level of college hockey anymore - not in Massachusetts, in Minnesota, or in Michigan. For proof of this, the big programs only need to look to the lesser-known teams right in their own states.