2023-24 Season in Review

The most recent edition of the Northeastern Huskies saw their season come to an end in the Hockey East Quarterfinal over the weekend, as Boston University avenged their Beanpot Final loss and evened the season series at two wins apiece by bouncing the seventh-seeded Huskies from the Hockey East tournament. As disappointing as the loss is, and the end of every season is, ultimately this is probably about as far as anyone could have expected them to go in a season that was set to be marked by rebuilding from the Levi era and by two of the most dominating rosters that have enrolled on Comm Ave in recent memory. The reality didn’t quite match that expectation though.

The first half doesn’t need to be mentioned again, but for worse or for worse, it happened. The season started with Hunter McDonald, the reigning Hockey East Best Defensive Defenseman as a freshman, getting injured in a meaningless exhibition game and missing half of the season. The injuries kept piling up – nearly every one of the Huskies’ top nine forwards in the season finale against BU missed at least one game injured in the first half, as did the likes of Vinny Borgesi, Jackson Dorrington, and Matt Choupani. Justin Hryckowian, their heart and soul, both missed some games and played another handful while clearly injured and pushing through because of his importance to the team.

Injuries themselves don’t account for the entire Hockey East start, but whether it be injuries, bounces, bad play, or just running into some teams at the peak of their seasons, Northeastern couldn’t buy a win and entered December 0-7 in Hockey East play. The losing record would be extended to 1-10 by early January, disaster of nearly unseen proportions. Of course, we are not on the team or in the locker room, but speaking from an outsider’s point of view, the perspective at the time was truly “well, this has to turn around at some point.” Maybe not turn all the way around, it was far too late for that or for postseason aspirations; but turn around. There was never a point in December or January where it looked like Northeastern was actually the worst team in Hockey East. Eventually, pucks had to start going their way a little bit, enough to at least get them to recover to eighth or ninth place.

And starting in January it did turn around, with the Huskies taking a Beanpot title, wins in 7 out of 8 games from mid-January into February, three overtime contests with the top ranked Terriers (two of them wins), and another pair of wins over top-ten Maine. Northeastern was the only team in the country to beat both BC and BU this year, much less beat BC, BU, and the Black Bears. They picked up 9 wins in their last 17 Hockey East games and a 7-3-1 record in their last 11. They got all the way up to 7th in Hockey East after holding one single conference win on January 14th. It was too little too late, and they still had some infuriating losses in games dropped to Vermont, Lowell, and UConn, but they showed who they should have been all along.

And while the second half of the season was marked by much better health, it was also marked by dominance. Dylan Hryckowian was added to the first line with his older brother and Alex Campbell. And they were dominant.

From the start of February to the end of the season, the elder Hryckowian had at least 2 points in nearly every game, going scoreless only twice in those 12 games. He was more likely in that stretch to score 3 points (three times) than he was to score below 2 on a given night. He ended the season with 23 points in his final 12 games, a pace that over 36 games would have made him the runaway NCAA scoring leader this year, despite playing powerhouses BU (twice) and Maine (thrice) in 5 of those 12 games.

In the Beanpot, Justin contributed to all 3 goals in game 1 and to 2 goals in the final, including the primary assist on both overtime winners. Campbell scored two hat tricks after December 1st and added a two goal game at the Alfond to cement his argument as the best transfer in Northeastern history, and someone I truly wish I got to see play for more than one year. Dylan Hryckowian looked like he got shot out of a cannon from day 1 and worked his way up from the bottom six to the top six to the first line, all the while putting together the best scoring season from a Northeastern freshman since Mike Szmatula in 2013-14, as well as becoming the first point-per-game freshman Husky since Szmatula. For my money, this group may have ended the season as the best line I’ve seen at Northeastern led by the best centerman I have seen at Northeastern, and those of you who were around in 2017 and 2018 know that those are both high bars to clear.

On the defense side, Jackson Dorrington and Vinny Borgesi took huge steps forward in their sophomore years, both on their own and in the absence of McDonald. Borgesi’s 28 points this season as he came into his own as an offensive defenseman were the most by an NU defenseman since Ryan Shea’s 31 in 2019-20, although Jordan Harris needs to be noted for his 21 points in 21 Hockey East games in 2020-21. Dorrington added six goals to the back of the net for Huskies, developed into a very good gap defenseman, and posted what you would assume was a team best +15 rating, except that pesky Justin Hryckowian managed a +24.

The Huskies’ biggest flaw down the stretch though, was just how much that top-heaviness was evident. When that line and one of those two defensemen weren’t on the ice, there was not any consistent scoring for the Huskies. The last 9 Northeastern goals of the season were all scored by the first line, either by one of the forwards personally or the forwards providing an assist to either Borgesi or Princeton transfer Pito Walton at the point. In the five games in March, the Huskies scored 16 goals, but only 2 came from a player not on the first line or an aforementioned defenseman.

On the second line, Jack Williams was the star of the winter, scoring an NCAA-leading 27 points between Thanksgiving and the start of the Beanpot amidest a breakout 17 goal sophomore season, but took a back seat to the first line down the stretch. There were rumors of NHL interest in signing him during the year, but if he comes back we would not be remotely surprised if he were the next captain of the Huskies. Williams has been thought of as a future NU captain since he was a recruit.

Cam Lund scored another hat trick against BC in the signature win of the year as the Huskies took down the unbeatable Eagles in front of their home fans at Conte Forum to break the long conference winless streak, but those three goals and 8 of his 11 were scored in the same stretch where Williams did his scoring, with Lund only finding the back of the net once after the start of February. It was not for lack of chances, as his 172 shot attempts on the season were second among Husky forwards. He will presumably see a third year on Huntington Ave, as assuredly one of the most gifted offensive players in the conference, and will need to find the scoring consistency to take his game to the next level.

Gunnarwolfe Fontaine is, first and foremost, a three-time Beanpot hero, future Hall of Famer, and one of the most storied Huskies in school history. Move over, Wayne Turner, there’s a new top dog in the Huskies’ Beanpot lore. (Jim Madigan may have something to say about that ranking after he oversaw his ninth Beanpot title this year.) Regardless, there’s no doubt that when the wolf scored goals, they were big ones. Beyond that framework though was assuredly a frustrating season for the senior winger. He spent much of the first half snakebitten and unable to find the back of the net on good scoring chances, and ended the season with just three goals scored in 5v5 play. His special teams goals were his signatures, but despite his heroics, Fontaine surely wanted a better overall season for his end on Huntington Ave, assuming this was his end.

And beyond the top six, well, there was not much to be found for the Huskies at forward. Brett Edwards, brought in as a bottom six and depth forward transfer, did his job, parlaying 17 shots on net into 5 goals with another overturned on review. Liam Walsh, brought in 2 off-seasons ago as an impact center and proven Hockey East scorer, was the Huskies’ only center who dressed 36 times, but scored a career-low 4 goals and 7 points to cap off his collegiate career.

Matt DeMelis and Matt Choupani were a pair of forwards who Coach Keefe proclaimed would be impact players in the Northeastern lineup this season, a claim that was met with some skepticism at the time. Keefe had Choupani open the season on the top line with Justin Hryckowian and Campbell, while DeMelis was in his third line role starting on the wing in an attempt to unlock his offensive game, but eventually settled back into center. He got some time on the powerplay as well, but DeMelis battled injuries en route to a 2 goal season, while Choupani barely topped him with 3 goals and ended the season as a healthy scratch for the Huskies. Choupani is someone whose game I have actually liked in prior seasons and who I’d like to see bounce back and have a good senior year for NU, but it’s hard to tell from the outside whether or not his positioning down the stretch was just a momentary lineup decision.

For the rest of the bottom six, well, if you’re looking for a goal, keep looking.

Eli Sebastian did not quite find his footing at NU after a very successful junior career, getting no goals despite being credited with 46 shot attempts and being inches away more times than we can count. He is someone we certainly hope to see back and think can develop into a scorer for the Huskies, but this year, the puck just didn’t agree. He also showed an unexpected physical side. Fellow fourth liners Andy Moore and Billy Norcross evoked memories of the 2016 Northeastern fourth line, combining for zero goals (Mike Jamieson and Tanner Pond combined for 4, admittedly) but somehow becoming a forechecking force, with Moore holding one of the strangest stat lines I have ever seen in hockey, 31 games played, zero goals, one assist, and somehow, a +2 rating. Norcross also missed some time with injury, but found himself locked into the third line late in the season, ultimately picking up four assists but also not finding twine. In total, the freshman forward trio combined for 89 games played and are still looking for a goal.

It may well be that Moore and Norcross have a future as a four year checking line for the Huskies matching up with the best the other team has to offer, but it was the first line who were also the Huskies’ primary defensive line this year. Looking ahead to 2024-25, even players in that defense-first role need to pot the occasional goal next season to keep this team moving forward.

At defense, the Huskies never found six consistent players to throw out there. Dorrington and Borgesi were joined by Pito Walton, a graduate transfer from Princeton who provided a stabilizing force on the back end that the Huskies desperately needed after the revolving door on defense that hampered them in 2022, and in the second half by a returning McDonald, who each were mainstays out there and more than did their part. After the top four, Matt Staudacher did not pass many analytic tests, but inexplicably netted his only two Husky goals against BC and BU (shades of Dustin Darou) and seemed to grow more into his game and the Huskies’ system after coming back from winter break. He has a redshirt year available if he and the Huskies are so inclined and if he reprised his role as 3LD next year, he would be welcomed. Nolan Hayes was a pleasant surprise, we didn’t have expectations of him seeing much ice time last summer but he got that time and showed to be capable defensively and very willing to shoot the puck, though he seemed to fall out of favor down the stretch. Braden Doyle remains a mystery, showing decent offensive ability including a goal at BC but a propensity to find himself glued on the bench after moments of defensive implosion leading to pucks in the Northeastern net. He may even work better in a tryout as a forward at this stage, but the Huskies aren’t exactly flush with other left defensemen right now either.

Last but not least, we have Michael Fisher. Fisher was drafted in the third round straight from prep in 2022 and unfortunately, suffered a major injury in the USHL preseason the following fall. He eventually got into a few USHL lineups but was not playing down the stretch and got to NU having played barely any hockey above the prep level in the past 18 months. He has the physical gifts and even scored his first collegiate goal in the fall but was not someone the Huskies could rely on defensively, with the final blow for the coaching staff seeming to come in Lowell when the Huskies allowed an early goal after a rush towards Fisher turned into a quick goal after Fisher took himself out of the play. I’m not sure what the path forward there is, perhaps more summer practice time and growing confidence as more time passes since his injury is enough of an answer, but that kind of decision making is not in the purview of the free internet blog run by some guys who once ran a student section. Time will tell.

Last but not least, we’d be remiss to not mention Cameron Whitehead, who had some moments that worried us (particularly as the season went on, he became more and more likely to play a puck behind the net directly to an opponent) but on the balance of the season had some great days and, in our opinion, outplayed Michael Hrabal and stood toe to toe with Jacob Fowler in the Hockey East goaltending rankings, both overall and amongst the freshmen. He joined the long like of NU Eberly winners and if he had picked up an all-conference selection, it wouldn’t have been undeserved. Goalie U will be just fine in his hands.

And, well, that’s that. Looking forward, the Huskies have a few top USHL forwards coming in this next class as well as some help coming at defense to play on the right side of the ice alongside Borgesi, but they’re going to need some help in the transfer portal and from the players already on roster to replace the gargantuan hole this first line leaves in their wake, and we’ll need to see what the portal has to say going the other way. We’ll have more coverage of recruits and transfers as they come to light. It’s a long seven months to October and we’ll be sure to have lots to cover along the way, but for now, the ice is gone and the long offseason has arrived on Huntington Ave yet again.

As always, go Huskies.