Boston College men’s hockey drops the puck unofficially for the first time in just a few days (!), with exhibition action coming up on Saturday night at Holy Cross. The Eagles then take the ice in anger on Friday, October 7 vs. Quinnipiac, and it’ll be the first time in decades that someone other than Jerry York will be at the helm of the BC program.
When setting expectations for Greg Brown’s first year as head coach, there are a lot of “yes, buts” to consider...
The starting point, obviously, is that the team wasn’t very successful last year, finishing 15-18-5, 8th in the Hockey East standings, and well out of contention for the NCAA tournament.
So expectations should start from around that point - as evidenced by BC being picked 7th in the Hockey East Writers and Broadcasters Association preseason media poll.
Yes, but: Despite their overall struggles last year, Eagles looked like a pretty solid team at the beginning and end of last season. They truly fell in to a downward spiral (an 0-10-2 stretch) after a combination of injuries and unexpected departures from the Olympics from which they couldn’t seem to recover.
They were 15-8-3 when healthy and outside of that spiral, and their end of season run included a sweep of UMass and a Hockey East quarterfinal loss against Northeastern that was frankly a little unlucky, with BC outshooting NU 48-36.
Yes, but: The players they were missing during that 0-10-2 stretch? The guys who aren’t coming back: Jack McBain, Marc McLaughlin, Drew Helleson. Without those players they looked pretty lost, and they’ll have to overcome those departures this season, both in terms of leadership and on-ice production.
Yes, but: The players who will be expected to lead the line this year up front - like Nikita Nesterenko, Colby Ambrosio, and Trevor Kuntar - come in with an additional year of training and experience and the knowledge that they’re expected to lead the way, unlike last year when they were sort of thrust in to it unexpectedly.
Additionally, Cutter Gauthier comes in as a much more highly touted freshman forward than anyone who’s arrived on the Heights since Alex Newhook and Matt Boldy, and is expected to be a contributor right away.
Yes, but: The team’s achilles heel in its most difficult seasons (‘18-’19, ‘21-’22) has been defense, with the Eagles posting the 2nd-worst goals against in Hockey East last year, and 4th-worst in 2019.
With Drew Helleson and Jack St. Ivany leaving, that’s a big hole in a unit that already struggled even with those talented players as part of it.
Yes, but: One of the great areas of optimism around Greg Brown’s arrival is that the team really seemed to miss out on his presence since his departure when it comes to both the way the team played defensively, and the team’s performance on special teams.
Even when doing well, the Eagles had some issues in recent years with discipline in their own end, clean breakouts, and defensive structure, relying often on brilliant goaltending to keep pucks out of the net.
The ‘18-’19 season was BC’s first post-Brown, and it was a huge struggle defensively. Things got better in ‘19-20 but regressed again afterward.
This past season, the Eagles allowed the second-most shots at even strength of any Hockey East team, at 1025 in 38 games. Even in BC’s strong 2021 season, they were tied with UConn for allowing the most even strength shots against.
Can Brown continue BC’s generally strong offensive performance, while also firming up weaknesses in the defensive end and on special teams? If so, the season could be a little better than preseason prognosticators think.
How can they get there? What might it look like?
With 2.79 goals per game last year, BC was 5th in the league in offense, and not far off 2nd place UConn (83). Even with their struggles, they were a pretty good team offensively.
The optimistic take here would be that Ambrosio, Kuntar and Nesterenko can step up their production, Gautheir comes in with a Newhook-like freshman year, other freshmen like Oskar Jellvik add some depth, and grad transfers Cam Burke and Christian O’Neill chip in a little as well.
If all of this happens you could potentially see BC roughly match or slightly improve on being an upper-middle pack team in the league offensively. I wouldn’t expect a high flying team, but they should be able to score.
BC allowed 3.2 goals per game in Hockey East play - 2nd-worst in the league. How can this number improve?
To start with. BC had a team save percentage of .893 in league play - worst in the conference.
Even if that number could improve to midpack - .913, where UConn sat last year at #6 out of 11 teams - it would mean 14 fewer goals allowed even while allowing the same number of shots. That save percentage would have put the Eagles squarely in the middle of the pack.
Mitch Benson, the transfer goalie who looks likely to be BC’s opening day starter between the pipes, posted save percentages of .925 and .922 in his final two season at Colgate.
Of course, BC’s high rate of goals allowed last year can’t just be pegged on goaltending. BC allowed too many quality chances as well and you can’t put that on the goalies.
But if that can be cleaned up, and with slightly better goaltending, BC could go from being a very bad team in terms of goals allowed to one that’s more middle-of-the-road - which would be enough to make the team much better and more competitive overall, even if the level of talent on the blue line isn’t as high as it was last year.
BC had the third-worst penalty kill in Hockey East last year, at 77%, yielding 29 power play goals. Again, this is an area where if BC could be closer to league-average, it would mean giving up 9 or 10 fewer goals over the course of the year- enough to flip a few games. The Eagles were also pretty mediocre on the power play, scoring 22 goals and converting at 19.3%. With McBain and McLaughlin leaving, it’s hard to expect this to improve, but the Eagles on paper have enough high-end players that they should have a very good first power play unit if they’re able to execute.
The bottom line:
Maybe I’m being a little too optimistic, but it’s honestly not that crazy to imagine this scenario coming together:
The Eagles cobble together enough offense with improved play from more experienced players + new freshmen to produce at a similar level as last year, even with the departures. Marshall Warren and Cutter Gauthier are the centerpieces of an improved power play that puts up big numbers and helps keep BC a top-third team in terms of goalscoring.
The defense improves just a tiny bit - goaltending is more along the lines of league average rather than at the bottom, as is the penalty kill; this takes BC from one of the worst defenses in the league to one that’s more middle of the road.
If those things come together, that would take a 15-18-5 team and make it more like a, say, 19-15-4 team - not setting the world on fire, but enough to be a little more competitive and push for a decent finish in Hockey East.
This is probably at the high end of expectations, but is not unreasonable to shoot for and think of a s a possibility.
On the low end of course would be BC looking basically like they did without McLaughlin, McBain and Helleson last year - down at the very bottom of the league.
The truth usually falls somewhere in the middle of course of the high and and the low end.
Somewhere in the middle of the expectations matrix would probably mean a similar finish to last year, keeping the Eagles a little below .500 and scrapping for middle of the standings positioning in Hockey East.
If BC can improve even a little bit on their record from last year, show some progression on defense and special teams, and most importantly, show growth over the course of the season - to me, that would be a pretty good year one of the Greg Brown era.
What do you think is a realistic target for Greg Brown’s first year?