Season Preview: Providence College Friars

Photo via Jeff Cox and Ian Bethune, SB Nation

In the coming weeks, NU Hockey Blog will be counting down to the start of the 2017-18 Hockey East season with a look at the upcoming year for each of the returning clubs (Note: get lost Notre Dame). Today, we continue with our projected 2nd place finisher, the Providence College Friars

Providence College Friars 2016-17 Results:

Overall: 22-12-5

Hockey East: 12-7-3 (5th place)

Hockey East Tournament: Swept by Notre Dame in Hockey East Quarterfinals

NCAA Tournament: Lost in first round to Harvard 3-0

Departures: Jake Walman (D), Anthony Florentino (D), Kyle McKenzie (D), Josh Monk (D), Conor MacPhee (F), Niko Rufo (F), Garrett Gamez (F)

Additions: Jason O’Neill (F), Bailey Conger (F), Jeff Baum (D), Jake Ryczek (D), Ben Mirageas (D), Gabe Mollot-Hill (G)

Consistency has been the name of the game for Providence since Nate Leaman took over in 2011. Since Leaman assumed the head coaching position, his team’s worst finish was 7th place (out of 10) in 2011-12, followed by top 5 finishes in every year since, 2012-13 through 2016-17. In addition, Leaman has led Providence to four straight NCAA tournaments, including winning the national championship in 2014-15, defeating BU in thrilling fashion. Once again, the Friars are well-positioned heading into the season, with most of their scoring and their goaltender returning, and we are expecting big things from them in 2017-18.

Season In Review: “Underwhelming” would probably be the best word to use when describing Providence’s 2016-17 season. A team that featured a high-caliber returning goalie, arguably the best offensive defenseman in Hockey East (Jake Walman), and scoring depth across the lineup sputtered initially, winning only three of their first nine games (two ties). In the 2016 half of the season, they went 8-6-4; an unspectacular record at best. There were bright spots during that stretch, such as winning three of their final four games, including a victory and a tie over eventual national champion Denver. But the first half was marred by poor losses as well, including to Holy Cross (2-1 in overtime), Northeastern (5-4), and Merrimack (5-2).

In the second half of the season, the Friars surged ahead, powering their way to a 12-3-1 record in the regular season before sweeping UMass in the Hockey East Octofinals and ultimately losing to Notre Dame in the Quarterfinals. Among those 12 wins were two victories over UMass-Lowell and a victory over Yale. The second half also saw the re-emergence of Hayden Hawkey as a premiere goaltending talent in the nation. Hawkey’s save percentage bottomed out at 88.4% after the 2-1 loss against Boston University. After that game, his save percentage steadily rose as he elevated his game. He only had five individual games where his save percentage that game was below 90%, and he ultimately ended the season sitting at 91.3%, which finished sixth-best in the conference.

Last season Providence was led in scoring by rising senior and Washington draft pick Brian Pinho, who was more of a playmaker than a goalscorer, finishing with 12 goals and 28 assists for 40 points in 39 games. Last season also saw the emergence of Erik Foley, a 2015 third round pick by Winnipeg. Foley was the leading goal scorer for the Friars last season (15 goals), and was a force to be reakoned with whenever he was on the ice. He also made the USA U20 team for the World Junior Championships. Jake Walman was the top defenseman for the Friars, driving the offense with his team-leading 146 shots on goal. He converted 7 of those shots into goals, and chipped in 18 assists as well. After the season, Walman signed an entry-level contract with St. Louis, who drafted Walman in the third round in 2014.

Incoming Recruits: This season, Providence brings in six players for their recruiting class. The headlining forward is Jason O’Neill, who played for Sioux Falls and Chicago in the USHL last season. In 60 games, O’Neill put up 20 goals and 16 assists for 36 points. The focus of the class is defense, as Providence graduates four defensemen who played regularly last season, and they will look to the freshmen to fill in those gaps immediately.

Two defensemen entering this season have already been drafted- Jake Ryczek was drafted by Chicago in the 7th round in 2016, and Ben Mirageas was drafted by the Islanders in the 3rd round in 2017. Ryczek is an offensive defenseman who models his game after Duncan Keith, putting up 29 points in 50 games last season with Waterloo in the USHL, and the season prior put up 34 points in only 47 games with both Waterloo and Sioux City.

Mirageas won the Clark Cup with Chicago in 2017, having been traded to Chicago from Bloomington. Quieter on the offensive end (19 points in 59 games), he is a defensive defenseman that will be looked at to deliver good outlet passes and transition from zone to zone, holding the fort down on the back end of the defense rather than pushing the play himself. His profile reminds me of recently graduated PC defenseman Kyle McKenzie.

The final defenseman is Jeff Baum, undrafted out of the USHL after two seasons in the NAHL. Baum is seen as a puck-moving defenseman.

The PC class is rounded out by forward Bailey Conger, who posted 42 points in 59 USHL games last season, and goaltender Gabe Mollot-Hill out of the USHL.

Season Outlook: As stated at the top of this post, we expect Providence to finish at the top of Hockey East, and at the very least be competitive for the regular season title. The return of Hayden Hawkey, assuming he performs the way he did in the second half of last season, is a major factor in our ranking. They also return the majority of their offensive output- Pinho, Foley, Scott Conway, and Josh Wilkins, their top four scorers from last season, all return, and Penguins second-round pick Kasper Bjorkqvist will be expected to bounce back after a very underwhelming freshman campaign. However, it must be acknowledged that Providence is losing four defenseman from last season who had years of experience, including Jake Walman. My personal ranking of Providence #1 is out of faith that Nate Leaman, like Norm Bazin at UMass-Lowell, will coach up his team and get the most out of what he has on his roster, including the raw talent his freshmen possess. It would not shock me to see Providence not finish first, but Ive learned that better against Nate Leaman is not a smart bet to make.