On a wall in the Northeastern team space, three words sit high above all else: Culture. Development. Championships.
More than mere words, these are the ethos that form the core tenants of the Northeastern University Men’s Hockey program. After a 2020-21 season that saw the Huskies finish with a 9-9-3 record and limp into and out of the Hockey East playoffs, the message for the 2021-22 season was clear to everyone in the locker room. “I think we took a little bit of a step backwards last year and we all knew that,” said junior forward Aidan McDonough. “We wanted to make sure that we got the culture back on track.”
McDonough spoke these words after the Huskies narrowly lost to Western Michigan in overtime in the NCAA Tournament, but his summary of the program’s goals this season could not have been more accurate to what transpired. Picked in the preseason to finish fourth in the conference, Northeastern coupled unprecedented individual success with a team-centric mindset and approach, yielding one of the most successful seasons in program history. In the same way that teams of years past have done, the 2021-22 Northeastern Huskies continued to raise the standard by which the program will be measured going forward, setting the bar sky-high for the 2022-23 season.
Culture. The tone of a program is set by chain of command, and Northeastern first-year head coach Jerry Keefe has been a part of the fabric of Husky hockey for over a decade now. Arriving in 2011 to assist Jim Madigan, Keefe was promoted to the Head Coach position when Madigan took on the role of Athletic Director at NU. Keefe retained Mike McLaughlin as one assistant, and brought in both Mike Levine and Mike Condon as assistant coaches to complete his staff. Between the four coaches, they have a unique blend of college hockey coaching experience, professional hockey experience, player development (at multiple levels), special teams success, and overlap in their hockey philosophies, leading this Huskies team to 25 wins, the most all-time for a first year head coach, and tied for the second most by any Northeastern team ever. For his success behind the bench, Keefe was named Hockey East Coach of the Year and is a finalist for the Spencer Penrose National Coach of the Year Award.
As much as the coaching staff dictates culture, the players have to embody it for success to be had. A recurring theme from the coaches this year was praising the work the senior class did as a leadership unit. Defensemen Jordan Harris and Julian Kislin have grown up in the program for four years. Transfers Tommy Miller, Jakov Novak, and Marco Bozzo only spent a short time on Huntington Avenue, but their impact cannot be understated.
All season, Keefe heaped praise onto this group, even in his last press conference. On Jordan Harris: “When you have your captain working that hard, everyone else falls in line…All of our seniors are like that, they put in the extra time and what I like is we have younger guys that look up to them, and they will pull those guys aside and they’ll talk to them about what it took to be a player and what it took to win at this level.” Keefe has talked multiple times about how Novak, a transfer from Bentley and Ottawa Senators draft pick, has taken Jack Hughes, a projected top pick in 2022 and the youngest player in college hockey this season, under his wing. Keefe called Miller, a former captain at Michigan State, “a warrior.” He lauded Kislin for his focus and ability to play through injuries to help the team. Bozzo was seem as the ultimate teammate, helping both on and off the ice. “Our program is a lot better because of all of them,” Keefe added.
Leadership. Selflessness. Preparation. Focus. Sacrifice. Success. All traits embodied by those entrusted to build Northeastern hockey culture back up. Without a doubt, a roaring success.
Development. Any discussion about the success Northeastern this year starts with the year sophomore Devon Levi had between the pipes. In his first year of Hockey East action, Levi had one of the greatest goaltending seasons in college hockey history, rewriting the Northeastern record books in the process. Levi played in 32 games, leading the Huskies to 21 wins (tied for 3rd-most in a season), while shattering the single-season record for shutouts with 10. He enters next season only 2 shutouts off the program record set by Chris Rawlings, who took four seasons to set the record of 12. Levi finished the season with a .952 save percentage, far and away the best in program history, and tied for the second-best mark in college hockey history- and he did this while playing in more games and facing over 300 more shots than the two goalies around him in the recordbook (NHL mainstays Conor Hellebuyck and Jimmy Howard) did in their historic seasons. Levi’s 1.54 goals-against-average also is the new program mark, surpassing Cayden Primeau’s 1.92 GAA record just 4 years after Primeau set it. He won Hockey East Goaltender of the Year and Rookie of the Year, the first Northeastern rookie to do so; was an unanimous choice for the All-Rookie Team; was named a finalist for both the Hobey Baker Award and the Mike Richter Award; and was named to Team Canada for the 2022 Olympics, the first Olympian from the Men’s Hockey program. Levi is seen as the frontrunner for the Richter, awarded to the best goaltender in college hockey, and if would become the second NU winner in the award’s history after Cayden Primeau if it is awarded to him.
Devon Levi is not the only player who led the Huskies to success this season, of course. Jordan Harris proved once again to be one of the top defensemen in Hockey East, both in the offensive zone where he chipped in 20 points and in the defensive zone, for which he was won the Hockey East Best Defensive Defenseman Award. After the season, Harris signed his entry-level contract with the Montreal Canadiens, and his NHL debut is imminent. Aidan McDonough was the ‘straw that stirred the drink’ in the Huskies’ offense, leading the team in scoring (39 points in 38 games). His 25 goals were the most by a Husky since Adam Gaudette’s Hobey Baker-winning season in 2017-18, and was second-best in the nation. For his success, McDonough was courted heavily by the Vancouver Canucks in an effort to sign him to an NHL contract early, however it was reported that McDonough plans to return for his senior season, where he will be expected to once again be one of the top scorers in the nation and is the logical pick to succeed Harris as captain.
Sam Colangelo broke out in his second collegiate season, putting up 27 points (12 goals) in 29 games, showing to fans the skillset that made him such a coveted recruit and high NHL Draft selection. Colangelo, with his 6’2″ frame, showed elite ability to keep the puck on his stick and get off an NHL-caliber shot. Assuming Colangelo returns for his junior season, he will pair with McDonough to form one of the best high-end scoring combinations in the entire NCAA. McDonough and Colangelo will be joined on the wings by returnees like speedy sniper Gunnarwolfe Fontaine, who improved both his goal scoring and overall point production over the season.
Northeastern featured freshmen in multiple high-pressure roles all season, and in the Northeastern system, they thrived, particularly down the middle of the ice. Justin Hryckowian proved himself to be one of the top young centers in the entire nation, playing at nearly a point-per-game pace while also winning over 62% of his faceoffs, the best mark out of regular centers in Hockey East. Jack Hughes played at nearly half a point-per-game pace despite starting the season at just 17 years of age, showing off his high-end skill, creativity, and defensive responsibility that will make him a top pick in the NHL Draft this July. Both centers were named to the Hockey East All-Rookie Team for their efforts. Fellow freshman Matt Choupani saw time on all four lines, showing his versatility as well as a scoring touch that I expect to blossom over the next three years.
On the blue line, Jayden Struble continued on his path towards the NHL as he set a new career-high in points, tied his career-high in goals, and worked as a physical menace every game. He also shot the puck more than he ever has and finished with a +15 rating, third-best on the team, showing the offensive upside that was so tantalizing when Montreal selected him in the second round in 2020. Jeremie Bucheler led the team with a +21 mark, far and away his best of his career, and Tyler Spott has been developing in the shutdown defenseman role embodied by Kislin for four years.
In the crease, when Levi was at the Olympics, freshman TJ Semptimphelter took the college hockey world by storm and showed Devon Levi is not the only quality goaltender on Huntington Avenue. In his 8 games, Semptimphelter saved 93.2% of the shots he faced, won massive conference games at Lowell and Boston College, and composed his magnum opus against Boston College in the Beanpot semifinals en route to winning the Beanpot’s Eberly Award.
Development as a core tenant for Northeastern hockey is the heartbeat of success; individual success often begets team success, and vice-versa. From top to bottom, the 2021-22 roster is filled with those successes. Players emerged as stars, others grew to fill the role that was perfect for them in the system, and all together, these players put Northeastern back on the right track. While the seniors graduate to move onto the next step in their careers, they leave the program in a better place and set up for continued success. There’s no doubt the returnees have taken to heart where the bar is set for them and have the ability to surpass it next year.
Championships. Underneath the stands at Matthews Arena, in the tunnel leading from the locker room to the ice, there is a mural depicting the four trophies the team can win every year: The Beanpot. The Hockey East regular season championship. The Hockey East tournament championship. And the NCAA Championship. We had seen the Beanpot return to Huntington Avenue in a historic three-peat. We had seen the Lou Lamoriello Trophy return twice since 2016. Two trophies had eluded the Huskies, acting as reminders of work still yet to be done. This year, that list was finally cut in half.
For the first time in program history, Northeastern won Hockey East’s regular season championship. In the grind of the regular season, Northeastern came out on top as the conference’s top seed, winning the title outright in dramatic fashion on the last shot taken in Hockey East this season, with McDonough scoring from Hughes in the last ten seconds of the last game of the regular season while Levi completed his tenth shutout on the other end of the ice. A championship like this is a true team effort- abundant scoring coupled with timely scoring when needed, elite season-long goaltending, potent special teams, support for each other, overcoming adversity and injuries- and it was Northeastern that rose to the occasion.
In doing so, the Huskies also paved a path to the NCAA Tournament, which they got into as an at-large bid and as a 4-seed. They were paired with the Western Michigan Broncos, and took WMU to the brink in their game. While the Huskies fell in overtime, they held WMU’s offense, previously a top-5 offense nationally, out of the vaunted NCHC, in check all game. They had one of their best offensive outputs in terms of shots, shot quality, and offensive zone possession. They had WMU on the ropes for just about 50 minutes of regulation play. Although the game ended in a loss, it was a defiant declaration: Northeastern hockey is back, and Northeastern hockey belongs on that national stage.
Now, with 3 trophies checked off, one more remains. And that becomes the new target for the Huskies going forward. The standard has been set, raised, and set again continuously over the last decade of Northeastern teams, so the expectations are there: Compete for and win the Beanpot. Compete for and win the top seed in Hockey East. Compete for and win the Hockey East Tournament. Make the NCAA Tournament. That’s the curve now for Northeastern hockey that the future will be graded on. In the ever-present drive to raise the bar, the next step is to advance in the NCAA Tournament and eventually win the ultimate prize in the sport.
And folks, they can do it. The Huskies are expected to return one of the best full units in the NCAA next season, backboned by players like Levi, McDonough, and Colangelo. They have a pipeline full of NHL-caliber talent thanks to the tireless work by the staff recruiting them. They have the developmental model in place to bring a player in as a freshman and improve their game year after year, cultivating individual success that culminates in team success. They have a culture of success engrained in every player, with each generation passing it to the next.
Northeastern hockey is back where it belongs. And there’s still another level for it to reach. And the players, coaches, and program are in position to achieve it. Culture. Development. Championships.
I can’t wait for the 2022-23 season. Make sure to follow us all offseason as we cover Northeastern-related news all spring and summer, including the NHL Draft, transfers in and out of Northeastern, NHL-signees, and all other news related to the program.
As always, go Huskies!