Boston College men’s hockey finished the season with a loss in the second round of the Hockey East tournament, exiting the postseason without qualifying for the NCAA tournament. The Eagles’ record was 15-18-5, with a .461 win percentage—a dramatic downturn from last season’s 17-6-1 season. A four-game win streak was the team’s longest all season and it came at the end of the season. Meanwhile, from Jan. 8 to Feb. 11, the team went winless for 11 games, before tying Harvard in the Beanpot tournament and then finally beating Northeastern on Feb. 18.
So, what happened to create such a universally acknowledged bad season? And what’s the silver lining?
DEPARTURES and RECRUITS
After the worst season since 2018-19, it would be easy to blame everything on the departures of Matt Boldy, Alex Newhook, and Spencer Knight. Losing your top line and your starting goaltender obviously impacts the next season, as players are forced to step up into new positions and pick up the slack of a 66-point top line. And there aren’t many goalies who can post a .923 save percentage in Hockey East. Replacing those players requires the entire team to step up—finding production in all four lines instead of relying solely on the top one, the defense stepping up and protecting the crease, and a new goalie making some of Knight’s miraculous saves that looked so easy.
Head coach Jerry York knows this, and he knows how to build a team. York recruited four graduate students, including goaltender Eric Dop, to plug some of the gaps this year and deepen the bench. Unfortunately for the Eagles, the transfers never quite panned out, with only Brandon Kruse contributing significantly to the scoreboard. Justin Wells certainly brought size to the blue-line, but wasn’t the answer the Eagles were looking for as the defense struggled throughout the season. The graduate transfers were recruited for their experience and size after the Eagles’ loss in the NCAA tournament for a lack of those two things (according to traditional wisdom). The transfers filled gaps on the roster, but weren’t enough to fill the score column with wins.
Despite the lackluster season, next year’s recruits look promising, and York has proven he’s not afraid to dip into the transfer portal. With captain Marc McLaughlin and assistant captain Jack McBain departing to play professionally, once again the Eagles will need to find new players to produce points. The list of recruits for next season is filled with forwards, and so far Colby Ambrosio, Nikita Nesterenko, and Trevor Kuntar are returning for next season—this time as upperclassmen with something to prove. The Eagles have a core of fast-skating, elusive forwards looking for a breakout season. If the bottom six can increase their production even just a little, and the incoming freshmen can provide support from the beginning, the Eagles’ offense will challenge any team in Hockey East.
DEFENSE and GOALTENDING
There’s no way around this: the primary reason this season went the way it did is because, on most nights, the defense and goaltending could not compete with other Hockey East teams. Goaltender Dop struggled with confidence throughout the season, ending with an .898 save percentage. Not that Dop had a ton of help in front of the net—the defense repeatedly looked out of position and caught on one side of the ice all season. Even when they were in position, it wasn’t pretty and it rarely looked like a uniform effort—one was left with the feeling that whatever communication was happening needed to be increased dramatically. The defense overall was not put-together and it was nowhere near gritty. When you add in Dop’s hit or miss goaltending, you have the recipe for the Eagles’ volatile season.
Next season is a bit of a mixed bag. Drew Helleson signed a pro-contract, and Wells and Dop are out of eligibility, meaning the defense will be extremely young next year unless York dips into the transfer portal. Traditionally, defenders take longer to mature, which helps to explain why Helleson and Warren opted for another year of collegiate hockey instead of going pro last year. Warren, who led the team in blocks this year with 41, has yet to sign a professional contract as of the end of the NHL trade deadline, which means it’s likely, though not certain, he’ll return to BC for his senior year. Jack St. Ivany has another year of eligibility left as well and might choose to return for another year, adding experience to a young blue-line.
If one or both of those players leave (and even if both stay), York will likely turn to the transfer portal to recruit experienced defensemen. In addition to experience, York will likely be looking for size and puck-handling skills, as part of the Eagles’ defensive struggles came from an inability to break the puck out and move it up ice. Eamon Powell needs to step up as a leader after a strong season, balancing out what is likely to be an inexperienced defense (even transfers will need to learn BC’s systems). How the defense looks next year depends on who stays and who leaves, as well as the transfers who commit to BC.
On the surface, the penalty statistics don’t look that unequal. The Eagles took 144 on the season compared to 137 by their opponents. A margin of seven is negligible—until one looks at the type of penalties both teams took. The Eagles took nine major penalties on the season; their opponents took two. The difference between a major and a minor is that a major comes with a five-minute power play and a team can score multiple times during the penalty without the player being released from the box.
The Eagles routinely gave opponents the opportunity for power play goals on major penalties, while playing short, throughout the season. Even if the opponents don’t score—or only score once—playing shorthanded for five minutes means the bench is shortened and the defense especially plays the game on tired legs. Not to mention key playmakers like McLaughlin, McBain, and Nesterenko saw time on the penalty kill, extending their minutes and forcing them to expend more energy. Every team has to contend with discipline issues and killing off penalties, but the Eagles’ were oftentimes their own worst enemy—taking unnecessary major penalties, taking minor penalties back to back to back, and generally getting in their own way by handing the momentum to the opposing team.
An important note: last season was shortened due to the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning this year’s sophomores had yet to play a full season in Hockey East, further contributing to the newness this team displayed. Not that a lack of inexperience excuses unnecessary penalties, but it does mean that the Eagles had a significant player pool unaccustomed to the long grind of a college hockey season. With everyone having finally played a full season, the hope is that the lack of discipline due to inexperience and fatigue will become a thing of the past, and, of course, a season where the frustration isn’t quite so tangible likely translates into less penalties.
The easiest way to approach this season is to forget about it. The team has glaring weaknesses, but with players still deciding whether to stay or sign professional contracts, there’s no way to tell how those weaknesses will be mitigated. York’s recruitment history points in a positive direction, and the goaltender issues have solutions. The defense looks to be a bit trickier, but with a transfer portal still adjusting to players with an extra year of eligibility there should be plenty of options for the Eagles to rebuild. A down season that ended with a four-game win streak carries plenty of motivation into the next season.