On Saturday night, the #1 Boston College Eagles will take the ice for the first time this season in an exhibition game versus the University of New Brunswick Varsity Reds, commencing the 94th season in the history of the program. Instead of doing one massive season preview, I am going to break it into a couple different parts, one about the defense and one about the forwards. Let's take a look at this year's blue line.
A season ago, the Eagles boasted one of the best defensive cores in college hockey but after the departures of Michael Matheson and Noah Hanifin, the staff will be relying on juniors Ian McCoshen and Steve Santini to log big minutes. I expected the Eagles to be the top team in the conference in terms of goals against last year but instead, they finished with a 2.39 goals against average, good for 4th in Hockey East. Of course, many around the league are raising questions about BC's blue line because they will be breaking in two freshmen, Casey Fitzgerald and Josh Couturier. Unlike Hanifin or other recent rookies, these two are not highly drafted NHL prospects but they will be asked to come in and contribute right off the bat. I expect that McCoshen, Santini, Savage, and Doherty will get the majority of the minutes when it comes to penalty kills but I could certainly see a scenario in which one of those two rookies gets a look on the second power play unit. Going back to the questions about BC's D, I certainly see why people would have their doubts but let's remember that the best BC teams are built from the forward position on out. They tried to play a slower, more defensive style last year and it just didn't click for them. The reason I am optimistic about this back end is because I think they will be given ample opportunities to grow as the season goes on. In fact, Boston College plays just one NCAA tournament team from last season before Christmas break (Denver). The lack of depth on the back end is a bit of cause for concern but I think we will see the staff drastically cut back on McCoshen and Santini's minutes in games that are out of hand. I wonder if they would even consider dressing just 11 forwards and 7 defensemen because they have all the depth they need up front, why not add another guy to the back end to play every couple shifts in order to keep guys fresh?
Here is a bit on the expectations for each of BC's defensemen.
Ian McCoshen- I don't know if there is a guy I would rather want on my blue line than Ian McCoshen. He is tough, contributes offensively, shuts down other teams' top guys, and has the best shot I've ever seen at BC. This season, he will undoubtedly play the most minutes on the team, maybe even the league. I expect that he will anchor BC's top power play unit along with the first penalty killing squad, two things he also did a year ago. The only worry I have this year when it comes to #3 is his ability to stay fresh because he is going to play a ton.
Steve Santini- Like McCoshen, junior alternate captain Steve Santini will garner huge minutes throughout the year, especially vs the top players on the other end of the ice. Since his freshman season, Santini has been thrown right into the fire and has often succeeded. He doesn't have much of an offensive side to his game but he will join forces with McCoshen on BC's top penalty killing unit and will also be on the ice any time the Eagles are in need of a late game defensive stand. Of course, there was a big hole in BC's defensive core when "The Sheriff" missed 16 games a season ago due to injury. Hopefully he can stay healthy this year and become the driving force behind a BC defense that will certainly be relived of the pressure they faced last year.
Scott Savage- First off, I want to say that I'm a big fan of Scott Savage. I think he showed a ton of upside both offensively and defensively freshman year. However, he took a bit of a step back a season ago as he recorded 0 goals and a -7 rating, lowest out of any BC defenseman. Despite the ups and downs of last winter, I think a renewed offense will allow Scott to take more shots at the blue line and spend less time in his own end, an obvious formula for success. I thought the pace at which the team played at a season ago really affected #2 because he didn't have time to make any plays in the offensive zone and since the forwards had such a tough time moving the puck up ice, he often got stuck in his own end. It is my hope that the staff gives him another chance on the power play because he has an absolute rocket of a shot that found the net 4 times in 2014 to go along with 14 helpers. Look for a bounce back year from the junior out of California.
Teddy Doherty- The senior captain epitomizes everything you want in a BC Hockey player. He plays his heart out every game, has improved drastically from year to year due to his hard work, and possesses all the tools necessary to led this team both on and off the ice. The Hopkinton native was second amongst defensemen in points last year with 6 goals and 17 assists to go along with a +15 rating. I would certainly say he was BC's most consistent blue liner a year ago and I think that will carry over to this year. Doherty is an exceptional puck mover, especially on the man advantage. I'm not sure how they will sort out the blue line on the power play but I think #4 should be on the first unit along with McCoshen. With the skill up front, you have to wonder if the staff will go back to a four or five forward first unit. Anyways, I'm thinking big things are ahead for BC's senior leader.
Casey Fitzgerald- Now we get into the unknowns. The younger brother of Ryan comes to Chestnut Hill a bit under the radar after failing to get drafted in June. I've only watched him a few times but I think he will fit in just fine at BC with his smooth stride and offensive instinct. Again, I think there is a chance Casey gets some minutes on the power play early on as the staff plays around with different combinations. I would be surprised if #5 isn't paired with a seasoned vet like McCoshen or Santini in the early going to help offset any miscues in the defensive end. In talking with some people inside the program, there is feeling that if either Fitzgerald or Couturier can play at a high level for a large chunk of the season, it will make this team that much better because let's be honest, playing four guys every night will be tough. The staff doesn't need the newcomers to be the next Bobby Orr or Nick Lidstrom but they have got to find a way to play mistake free hockey this year.
Josh Couturier- The former Northeastern commit is the biggest question mark for me simply because I have only seen him play two or three times. Coach York described the Newburyport native as a "sleeper for us. He's a little older and he will bring good size to our defense. We believe he will be a contributor throughout the season." I think Coach hit the nail on the head, like usual. No one really knows how Couturier is going to adjust from playing in the USPHL to Hockey East but the good news is that he is physically on par with everybody else, he just has to get used to the speed of the game.
Travis Jeke- The senior defenseman out of Pittsburgh will provide some depth for the Eagles this season. I think he will certainly play between 7-15 games, depending on what happens with injuries and the performance of the the two freshmen. Like I said in the first paragraph, I think Jeke is a perfectly reliable 6th guy in the rotation who, believe it or not, has some skill to work with.
Hey, if you're worried about the defense don't get too anxious. Coach Brown will get them going in no time and even if they struggle at times, having the best forward group of the Coach York era won't hurt at all.