Men's Hockey Season Review

As the past hockey season moves further into the rear view mirror I had a chance to wrap up the past season with the PC men's hockey coach Tim Army. Ever the optimist he is already planning for the future and still believes a national title is not only a goal, but is very attainable.

One thing from the conversation was very clear despite the disappointing year he has found many positives which he can build on. Some of them were on the ice, but some were off, that will indirectly benefit the play on the ice in the future.

In the last regard he took the time to make special note of the academic work of his team. Academically the team will have done better then they have in the past few seasons. He pointed to a .12 jump in the team's GPA, noted that sophomore Kyle Laughlin, last year's team academic award winner, has the highest GPA of any sophomore athlete at PC, and that his freshmen class adapted well to the academic side of PC.

A second area Coach Army seemed to be proud of was the character of the team. He felt that despite getting a slow start and a rough slump from Thanksgiving through most of January, that as a team the players persevered and rebounded to play their best hockey as the season was coming to an end. They successfully secured a playoffs spot and made a late rush at a higher position in the standings.

He noted one reason for being able to overcome these early problems was a step he took during his first season. At that time Coach Army felt in the interest of the team he found it necessary to move several players he had inherited off the team It appears that in a lot of ways Coach Army is following a tradition to benefit the long term that was a hallmark of one of PC's coaching legends, Lou Lamoriello.

In reviewing some of the past history of PC hockey you can not help but notice that in many of his early seasons Lamoriello too had to overcome disappointing years. Like Coach Army now Lou Lamoriello always had his eyes on the long term goal of winning a national championship. However in charting that course he seemed equally determined despite the obstacles to do it the right way.

During our discussion the coach took great pains to explain that the team he envisions harkens back to the teams he watched growing up. Namely the old Bruins of the early 70's. He enjoyed and believes the best hockey was personified by their up and down run and gun style. He cited pro examples of the current San Jose Sharks (coached of course by his mentor and another PC legend Ron Wilson) and the type of player Joe Thorton has developed into during his time in San Jose. He also noted the play of the Pittsburgh Penguins, with a blend of veteran talent and their second year sensation Sidney Crosby as being similar. He did not mention it, but that style was also reminiscent of the style the early 1980's Friar hockey teams played Relying on the stylish play of players like Gates Orlando, Paul Guay, Steve O'Neil, and of course Tim Army. They also blended in another element being backboned by a dependable goalie who would make the critical stop. For PC in that era, it was goalies like Mario Proulx and Chris Terreri.

The coach was quick to point out that while this season's results certainly weren't what he had hoped for, the team did better reflect the style he enjoys. While it might seem like an oversimplification, but the downfall of this past season was the failure of the team to get either the critical or big stop on defense or the critical or big goal on offense.

What the team did was to stay the course. An example the coach pointed to was they lost two of three games to Boston College, yet they won the first meeting, while handily out shooting the Eagles in the two close losses. He also pointed out that the Friars generated more shots per game then any other team in Hockey East while limiting the opposition to one of the lowest totals, thus giving the team the greatest difference of any team in the league. The element he felt was missing was the ability to seize control of the game.

Overall he was pleased with the style of hockey the Friars played. The coach felt that the team successfully added elements to the system he espoused from his first season. He felt they worked hard to get aggressive and continually sort to press the attack.

At this point the key to rectifying that problem will be in the recruiting process where he needs to get better players and to build the team's depth. Actually part of his point was that he was seeking players whose talents blended naturally with his style and not for instance to bring in a group of defensive stalwarts, who while solid hockey players, would not make his style of play work.

At several points in the conversation he noted the contributions of this past freshmen class. He also talked about how blending them in with the incoming group should have a major impact on the program. While the Friars might have struggled to get that key goal this past season he firmly believes with the infusion of new talent his team will have their important skills sets improved. In watching the team play next year you should see a faster team as everyone coming in has speed, there will be better puck possession and passing, and you will see the players displaying a better nose for the net. He also noted that the incoming class in general all play a physical game with an edge. That edge should give the team more consistent offense.

Coach Army also seemed to make a point to point out how many of the players he did inherit worked very hard to fit into the new culture he is bringing into the program. While many were brought in to play a very defensive style he was pleased that every player who has graduated in his two seasons had their career year playing his face pace style.

One key area that hurt PC on many occasions this past season was the failure of the power play. As PC put together their stretch run they did regain some potency from this special team unit. From discussing this aspect of the team's play it is clear that the coach believes that he has a very special player in John Cavanagh. Coach Army pointed out PC more then held their own on the power play during the first semester despite having several (Mark Fayne being another) freshman playing a key role. The team also regained some punch when Cavanagh returned from injury during the season's final weeks. Even in the playoffs where the team did not score they still managed to show good puck control and applied significant pressure. One of the keys to making the power play better was working through finding the proper roles for the players. If all goes according to plan the first unit is already pretty much intact. Jon Rheault being moved into a position where the team could take advantage of his shooting ability as opposed to using him as a set up player was one example. Letting freshman Mark Fayne assume the quarterback duties on the point and freeing up Cody Wild to find an open spot was another. Most likely joining that group will be Nick Mazzolini whose size should add another element to the unit. The second units will be one of those areas where the coach's "show me you want it" philosophy might very well decide who plays. He mentioned several veterans whose skills fit this units needs, such as Matt Taormina, Greg Collins, and Kyle Laughlin. The rest of the unit will be sorted out once the freshmen prove what they can do. However PC has another in the line of mobile offensive minded defensemen who should fit the bill very nicely, Joey Lavin.

In reviewing the season from his own perspective he felt the best long term way to move forward was to stick to his aggressive attacking style. He freely acknowledged that he could have won several more games if he had let the team fall back and play the tight checking defensive style. Ultimately though if the long term goal is a national championship the path there is to continually get better, faster and more intelligent players with an ability to score goals.

While he felt it necessary to stick to the long term goal he said that in being able to rebound in the later part of the season required an element of being flexible and making subtle adjustments. He also felt that some early losses to teams like Merrimack combined with the fact there were both high expectations for this team and it had many young players caused this team to tighten up. This required him to try to get the team back to making playing hockey fun and something they enjoyed being a part of.

Coach Army noted he gave more time off after the season before getting his players back onto their off season training program, making them the last winter sport to begin. He did so because he wants to give his players a chance to enjoy being college students. Yet at the same time he has served notice to the team that there are no guaranteed jobs on next year's squad. There will be 3 goalies who have all gained experience, there are 17 forwards vying for 12 spots, and he has 8 defensemen, with the possibility of finding one more looking to fill the 6 defense roles.

One of the cultural elements he has had to overturn has been a feeling that with being an upperclassman comes the inherent right to playing time. He was pretty clear those days are gone. For example Ryan Simpson, despite missing most of last season due to injury will have every chance to unseat a three year starter. With only 12 forwards dressing in any given game, if you fall behind or fall out of the top twelve and someone else grabs the opportunity it might be a long wait till ice time is again available. While he wants to make playing fun, it is also a lot of hard work every day and the players are expected to get it done or the consequence is they will not play.

While it is hard to gauge how much players will improve from one season to the next one player to keep an eye on next year will be the one freshmen who struggled this past season. Chris Eppich, the lone Canadian on this past season's squad, might very well be primed to come back strong next season. There were many times that Eppich struggled on the ice, but many times you could see the skills the coach valued and that it seems only a matter of time before things begin to click. The coach said that without a doubt Eppich's best year's are ahead of him.

Finally we talked about Hockey East in general, which this past season was the strongest league in the country, putting 5 teams in the 16 team NCAA field and 2 teams in the Frozen Four. While it can be looked to be a daunting task to move up on the pack with four teams many observers feel are annually among the best in the nation and with several other hungry teams Coach Army took it in a positive way. PC might have only won 2 of 6 games against the final four teams, but in the four games PC lost the Friars battled both Maine and BC and successfully established that PC was going to play their game. To the coach it was a measure that Providence College hockey is not that far away. However he also noted you quickly realize how hard you have to work when you realize you are the 8th place team.

In summing it up the coach brought up that he hears from many people, both regular fans of PC hockey and from the NHL scouts who come by to watch games that he is on the right track. He is instilling a system that showcases hockey as it is suppose to be played and that it makes the game more enjoyable for those watching and for those playing. He seems very confident when he gets the pieces of the puzzle in place that the result will bring back an enjoyable brand of hockey to Schneider Arena. To those follow PC hockey closely, that means as it was played during like it was played during the coach's playing days here.

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