Hockey East Tournament: 2-1 (Lost Semifinals in 3OT)
NCAA Tournament: 0-1 (Lost in 2OT)
The Providence Friars won the 2015 NCAA Championship despite being the final at-large team to make the field. In the title game itself, they trailed BU after both the first and second intermissions before coming away with the win in the third. The Friars had the experience to come back from anything.
In 2015-16, they made another late-season run, this time for the Hockey East crown.
After a blazing hot fall, the Friars had a relatively slow start to calendar year 2016, which saw Providence drop 7 Hockey East points in the month of January. For the first time in nearly a year, the Friars looked vulnerable. With only a month left in the season, they found themselves fighting just to get a first round bye in the conference tournament. But for the second consecutive year the team responded, going 8-0-0 in Hockey East play in February, including a sweep of then-conference leader Notre Dame, to capture the Hockey East regular season championship. Their success came to an end there though, as All-American defenseman Jake Walman went down with a season-ending shoulder injury during the Notre Dame series. The Friars were able to top UMass and Merrimack without Walman, but ultimately failed to score in three overtimes against UMass-Lowell in the Hockey East semifinals then fell again in the NCAA tournament, where Minnesota-Duluth heavily outshot the defending champions and ended their dreams of winning back-to-back titles.
Unfortunately for Providence, the end of last season is the least of their problems now. This year’s team is going to look unrecognizable at best. The Friars return Jake Walman, who is an offensive force from the blue line when healthy, and not a whole lot of proven talent behind him. Their top four scorers from last season are gone. Five of their top six scorers in Hockey East play are gone, including every one of their top five goal scorers. Starting goalie Nick Ellis jumped ship for the NHL, too.
Unlike Boston College, which loses a lot of talent but arguably returns even more, the Friars don’t have such luxury. Of the remaining members of the team:
Zero forwards scored ten goals over the 38-game season.
Zero Friars scored more than six goals in Hockey East play.
Two forwards scored more than two goals in Hockey East play.
Let me reiterate that. The Providence Friars return TWO forwards who scored more than two goals in Hockey East play. That’s absolutely unfathomable. And we’re not talking about two scorers who dominated either, Brian Pinho and Erik Foley combined for 11 conference goals. There’s simply not a whole lot of proven talent left. The Friars return 24 Hockey East goals, a mark that ranks last in the conference. Noted Hockey East cellar dwellers UMass and Merrimack both return over 30. Even Maine, noted for their inability to score goals, manages to return 24. The defending Hockey East regular season champions return the same quantity of goals as the Maine Black Bears.
There are some potential bright spots on the Friars’ roster. Nate Leaman is among the best coaches in the country with one National Championship to his name and another won by a Union team that he built. Aforementioned sophomore Erik Foley scored 7 goals as a freshman last season and could be poised to break out. Goaltender Hayden Hawkey is a renowned prospect, but played just over 110 minutes against Hockey East competition last year. Over 88 of those minutes were against UConn and UMass. This is a team which is going to find some success. But to say they’re living on the edge is an understatement.
The Friars’ will bring in 9 freshmen in 2016, per Chris Heisenberg. Six forwards, two defensemen, and one goaltender, whch matches what they lost. A few notable players are:
Kasper Bjorkqvist, a Finnish talent, brings his talents from Europe to Providence on the heels of his 61st overall selection in the 2016 NHL draft. He scored 66 points in Finnish junior hockey last season while serving as his team’s assistant captain. Bjorkqvist is already listed at 6’1″ and 198 pounds, which should be an advantage on the smaller ice and in a more physical game if he knows how to use it. He is undoubtedly the star of the Friars’ incoming class, but expectations will be extremely high for the 19 year old in his first year. Bjorkqvist may have to immediately carry the team instead of taking his time growing and learning the North American game, which would limit his immediate contributions.
Brandon Duhaime is a winger out of the USHL, where he played for both the Chicago Steel and the Tri-City Storm last year. He was a fourth round pick of the Minnesota Wild in June’s NHL Draft. Duhaime is a defense-first player who came into prominence relatively late, and his numbers reflect that, with middling junior numbers and just 25 points in his 56 game BCHL career before posting a much improved 42 points in 52 USHL games last season. If he continues his upwards offensive trajectory Duhaime could be a big steal for the Friars, but even if he doesn’t, Duhaime could serve as a valuable member of the penalty kill immediately and perform in a shutdown role on a lower line.
The most interesting newcomer for the Friars, however, is forward Scott Conway. If that name sounds familiar to you, it should. Conway, a former first round pick in the USHL draft, was a star for Penn State in the young program’s breakout 2014-15 season, with 26 points and All-Big Ten freshman honors. Despite being the Nittany Lions’ leading freshman scorer, Conway was dismissed from the team for a number of unspecified rules violations before the end of the spring semester. After spending a year in the BCHL, where he posted 116 points and led the league in scoring, Conway returns to college hockey with three years of eligibility remaining. There’s not much doubting Conway’s talent, but he was never picked in the NHL draft in spite of it, and in his sole season at Penn State he led the team in penalty minutes and received a suspension before being kicked off the team. If Conway has matured, he’ll be a force for the Friars. If he hasn’t, there could be a real question mark skating for them this season.
Overall, Providence loses a lot of proven talent and returns a lot of potential and possibility. Their incoming class represents much of the same, with some real talent entering the mix but not without question marks. Ultimately, the floor isn’t that low for the Friars, as long as Hawkey and Walman can stay on the ice. The duo alone is likely enough to propel Providence past the lower teams and into the top 8 in Hockey East, as long as the rest of the team isn’t a total disaster. Unfortunately for Providence, their sheer lack of experience is likely to keep them from rising too high either. They can’t compete with the returning talent elsewhere in Hockey East and it would take a pretty big collapse from anybody at the top of the conference for the Friars to finish in the top five.
That said, Nate Leaman is a proven coach. It won’t be surprising in the least if he works his magic yet again and takes the Friars further than they should realistically be able to go. But he’s no miracle worker and this group isn’t contending for a title even with him behind the bench. Look for Providence to make some noise this season and take home ice in the first round of the Hockey East playoffs, but ultimately, their ceiling is lower than it has been in quite a few years.