Notre Dame joined Hockey East in the 2013-14 season, bringing a highly competitive program with a long history of tradition into the fold of an already elite conference. The geographical fit was questioned by many (northern Indiana is not exactly “east”), but no one could deny that Jeff Jackson’s program would be able to compete in its new league.
Fast forward to the current offseason, and Notre Dame is playing its final season in Hockey East, terminating its membership early to enter the Big Ten Hockey Conference. The move will have significant financial consequences for the Fighting Irish, but one has to wonder if the new conference will be a better fit – rather than having to fly to New England repeatedly for its games, Notre Dame will be free to travel shorter distances to tangle with the likes of Michigan, Ohio State, and Minnesota. The furthest they will need to travel is merely 500 miles to Minnesota, rather than the harrowing 1100-plus miles to Orono, Maine. The switch from Hockey East to the Big Ten not only has implications on travel plans, but also impacts opponents – the Big Ten only has six teams as of the 2016-17 season, half of which were under .500 a year ago. Given the program’s success in Hockey East, one expects that Notre Dame will be able to compete immediately in the Big Ten.
Notre Dame finished in third place during the Hockey East regular season, with a record of 15-5-2 in conference play, 19-11-7 overall. Their run in the Hockey East Tournament came to an abrupt end after getting swept by a surging Northeastern Huskies team on their home ice at Compton Family Ice Arena. Statistically speaking, Notre Dame was one of the better teams in Hockey East, averaging over three goals per game (3.11 in-conference, 3.18 overall), and allowing only 1.82 goals per game in Hockey East play (2.32 goals per game allowed overall). Their special teams were also above average, with a powerplay clocking in at 21.4% in-conference (20.9% overall, fifth-best in HEA), and a penalty kill that was the best in conference games at 88.8% (83.7% overall, fourth-best). Notre Dame will be returning 67 goals and 206 points overall, a sizable scoring output. When looking just at returning points in conference play, they still return 45 goals and 128 points, both respectable amounts.
Notre Dame returns a total of seventeen skaters and two goalies, including eleven forwards and six defensemen. Only seven of those forwards saw significant action last season, with one of them playing in only one game (Bo Brauer). The most important player returning to the Irish is goaltender Cal Petersen. The junior draft pick of the Buffalo Sabres will be the squad’s captain this season, making him the first goalie to captain a Fighting Irish hockey team, per a release on the Notre Dame website. Petersen returns to South Bend after posting a .927 save percentage and 2.20 goals against average while playing in all 37 Notre Dame games. Those numbers are the best for any returning goalie in the conference, and get even better when looking strictly at Hockey East games: a .937 save percentage and a minuscule 1.77 goals against average. Petersen’s sustained success will be the bedrock that Notre Dame builds its success upon this season, and another strong season should propel him straight into the Sabres farm system once the college season comes to an end.
Apart from their goaltender, Notre Dame returns their top two scorers at forward in Anders Bjork (35 points) and Jake Evans (33 points), as well as their top scoring defensemen in Jordan Gross (31 points) and Bobby Nardella (24 points). They also feature two more forwards and two more defensemen with double-digit points returning, making the Fighting Irish offense well-rounded and dynamic from multiple parts of the ice. Interestingly, Gross and Nardella are two of the top three returning producers of shots-on-goal, indicating that much of the Notre Dame offense was driven through them last season. We can expect that to continue this season. Very few teams seem to run their offense through their defensemen, yet Notre Dame has a history of doing just that (Robbie Russo led the team in SOG in 2014-15, with Gross among the leaders as well). The return of Gross and Nardella puts opposing coaches in the unenviable position of game-planning against Jeff Jackson’s team’s unique approach. The Fighting Irish also lost their top faceoff man in Thomas DiPauli, but return three players who won over 50% of draws last season in Evans (56.9%), Dawson Cook (53.4%), and Connor Hurley (50.4%).
Impressive recruiting classes should not come as a surprise to those looking at a Jeff Jackson-led squad, and his incoming class for 2016-17 looks to be as impressive as any he has brought into South Bend. Featuring six players, all of which arrive via the United States Hockey League, nearly every member of the class was a captain or alternate captain at some point in their junior hockey days. This impressive stable of skill and leadership will serve Notre Dame well as these players develop during Hockey East and eventually Big Ten play. Notable players in the recruiting class are:
- Cam Morrison – The crown jewel of this class, Morrison is the reigning USHL Rookie of the Year after tallying 34 goals and 32 assists in 60 games for the Youngstown Phantoms. A second round selection by the Colorado Avalanche in the 2016 NHL Draft, the Canadian-born Morrison is a seriously talented power forward with good vision and puck skills. He can score and play physical, and will be a force immediately for the Fighting Irish.
- Cal Burke – Coming from the Cedar Rapids Roughriders in the USHL, Burke produced back-to-back seasons of near-identical production, putting up 40 points during his first year in Cedar Rapids, followed by 39 points last season. A right handed forward who can play both center and wing, Burke is expected to be a major playmaker at Notre Dame.
- Andrew Peeke – Jeff Jackson is quite talented at drawing top-end blue-liners to his program, and Peeke continues that lineage this season. The USHL Scholar Athlete of the Year and member of the USHL All-Rookie team was a second round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2016 NHL Draft after a stellar season in Green Bay. Peeke tallied 4 goals and 26 assists for 30 points in 56 games, and is classified as a big, mobile defenseman with a great shot, reminding this writer of Robbie Russo’s days in the Irish defensive corps. Expect Peeke to join the stellar defensive lineup immediately and work with Russo and Nardella to generate plenty of scoring chances for the Fighting Irish.
- Tory Dello – Quieter on the scoresheet than his freshman counterparts, Dello scored 12 points in 50 games for Tri-City in the USHL, but his contributions to his teams cannot solely be measured by points produced. Dello was a three-year veteran of Tri-City, and was the captain this past season when they won the Clark Cup. Standing 6’1’’, Dello brings good size and skates well. He should also contribute immediately.
Notre Dame is a team that has made a lot of noise in Hockey East, but has very little to show for it in terms of hardware. However, I expect them to be in contention for this season’s regular season and postseason championship. They return the player who I predict will be the top goalie of the 2016-17 season in Cal Petersen, and return many key elements to their team from last season in Bjork, Evans, Russo, and Nardella. I also expect the freshmen, particularly Morrison, Peeke, and Burke, to make immediate contributions to the Irish both offensively and defensively. I predict Notre Dame will earn another first-round bye in the Hockey East playoffs and will finish in the top 4 of the standings.
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