A tier-based breakdown of RPI’s new-look forward group
Analyzing who will step up as the Engineers look to reload for a second straight season
Brendan: Let’s rewind back to last summer briefly. The team was losing over two-thirds of its scoring from the 2019-20 season, which led to some serious questions around who would step up to fill the void left at the top of the lineup. Sure, there were a couple players penciled into that top-six, but the rest of the spots were largely up for grabs.
In response, Ture Linden produced one of the best seasons from an RPI player in the last decade cementing himself as an elite first-line center in the league. Jakub Lacka and Ottoville Leppanen both scored at career-high rates with 17 goals and 55 points between the two. And Ryan Mahshie had a breakout year, with 20 points in 38 games after a freshman season plagued by injury.
Now, the three returning players on this list (Mahshie, Walsh, and Beaton) don’t all need to have some sort of dramatic breakout season. All three had strong 2021-22 campaigns after all. But whether or not they can each take a step forward going into next season will be key to the team’s success.
Mahshie showed high goal-scoring upside in juniors, especially on the powerplay. He scored 39 goals in 71 games in his final year with the Brooks Bandits. Now maybe he won’t become the goal-every-other-game player he was in the AJHL, but in the past couple of years, RPI has had a really good track record of players blossoming into goal-scorers their senior year. Linden last year and Burgess in 2019-20 are prime examples. It’s far from a longshot to hope for a 10+ goals from Mahshie next season.
Walsh is one of the most exciting names on the roster. His combination of speed, puck skills, and vision make him a serious playmaking threat. If he can continue to improve his strength and get better at protecting the puck, then he has one of the highest ceilings on the team. Beaton, on the other hand, has shown those great defensive instincts and has excelled in carrying the puck, especially through the neutral zone. If he can elevate his offensive game, he could emerge as a top two-way center in the league.
Heidemann and Budy, the two transfers of the group, should both quickly step up into large roles for this RPI team. Heidemann established himself as a top player in Atlantic Hockey in only his sophomore season with Mercyhurst, scoring 27 points in 38 games. Of those, 22 came at even strength. Self-described as a “skilled power-forward,” Heidemann should be the perfect fit for a team wanting to add speed and skill while not deviating too far from the “heavier” style of play that has brought them success the past two seasons.
Bringing Budy in as a transfer out of North Dakota wrapped a bow around what I would consider a largely successful offseason for the Engineers. He’s a top-six caliber centerman with high speed who will expect to play heavy minutes for this team. Now, he hasn’t had a “breakout” season in his 3 years at the college level, but recently RPI has had a lot of success in getting transfers to flourish in a new environment (just take a look at TJ Walsh last season). With the upside that Budy showed in the USHL and BCHL, don’t be surprised to see Budy’s name near the top of the stat sheets by the end of the season.
That brings us to John Evans, the one name on this list without a game played at the NCAA level. Evans is another player who will add speed to the lineup, but he has some legit goal-scoring upside to go along with it. His wrist shot was lethal at times in the BCHL especially towards the end of last season and into the playoffs. Paired with a good playmaker in Budy or Walsh, Evans has the potential for a strong freshman season.
Stephen: There certainly is a lot that is exciting about this top six forward group. I agree with almost all of this.
First starting with Mahshie, I agree that he can be a real goal scoring threat this year after what he showed in junior hockey. I'm hoping for more than just 10 goals though; I think he can get in the 15 to 20 range if he truly hits his ceiling. I think double-digit goals should be the expectation for Mahshie going into the season.
Like you said, Walsh's skill and speed should allow him to drive a lot of offense and create a lot of chances like last year. He’s definitely capable of scoring more goals too as he only had four. Even though he's mainly a playmaker, I think he's talented enough to be scoring more than that. We know after last year what Walsh brings to the table, and I'm excited to see him do more of the same this year.
Everyone should be excited about Beaton in my opinion. Beaton is a player with a great combination of size, speed, and skill. He also brings some valuable defensive ability as a two-way center, and he can play in all situations on the ice. Last year, he did well as the Engineer's third-line center, and I think he'll step up and be a very reliable top-six center this season. I'm really looking forward to seeing his improvement this year as he has the potential to be one of the best centers in the ECAC by the end of his career.
Heidemann was a top player for Mercyhurst his freshmen and sophomore year, and I think he’ll be a very reliable right wing this season. I totally agree that his grit and skill combo fits RPI’s system very well, and I think he will fit in right away and contribute.
For Budy, I'm going to go even further than you did to really try to show how big of an addition he could be. When he was first draft eligible, he was listed as a potential draft pick by many scouting outlets. They were all very high on his skill, compete, skating, vision, and hockey IQ. He showed good ability at both ends of the ice. I think he will fit right into what Coach Smith is trying to bring into RPI this year with an upgrade on skill and speed while still providing the compete and grit that they always look for. And when I say upgrade, I truly mean it. He is definitely going to be an upgrade on Zach Dubinsky; he just simply is a more talented player.
Lastly, while I do like Evans and his skill-set a lot, I personally think he will be more of a middle 6 player this season. He has speed, quickness and skill, but I’m honestly terrified about how his game will translate to college and the ECAC. He's 150 LBs and in a physical league like the ECAC that's really not good.
Brendan: The middle-six group consists of four returning players who I expect will play nearly every game for the team (barring injury), but who probably won’t get as much usage as the guys in the first group. Let’s start by looking at the player from this group who is closest to breaking into the top-six: Jakob Lee.
Lee had his 2021-22 season cut short due to injury, so he missed both playoff series, but up until that point, he had become a lineup regular for the Engineers after only featuring in 13 games for Merrimack. He was strong defensively, a go-to for Smith on the penalty kill, and he did show glimpses of high-end offensive ability (ex: his shorthanded goal against Army), but just not consistently. I’m expecting to see him slot into the 3C behind Budy and Beaton to start next season, but if his offensive production can take a big step forward, he could easily move up in the lineup.
Jack Brackett and Jake Gagnon both fall into the speedy-winger mold and excel at forcing turnovers and creating chances out of them, whether that be on the forecheck or by using their speed to quickly transition up ice. I’d expect both to contribute more in point production heading into their junior year as the continue to get more ice-time and develop the offensive side of their game. Gagnon, in particular, has considerable goal-scoring upside (31 goals in 50 games in his last year of juniors). His shooting percentage was only at 4.3% last season, and with the league average being closer to 10%, you would expect his scoring rate to increase.
That leaves Henri Schreifels as the last name of the middle-six group. And while placing him in this group after 0 points in 18 games last season may seem odd, his strong play in the BCHL just a year and a half ago suggests that he still has potential to be a good player at the college level. With a year of college experience under his belt, I think there’s a good chance we see a breakout season from Henri this year.
Stephen: These guys in the middle-six did not have much production last season, but with their upside and talent, the hope is that they can step up into those roles this season.
I totally agree with everything that Brendan said about Jake Lee. I only want to add that he was also a very high-level play driver last season even if it didn't turn into points. His corsi was among the best on the team which shows that he has the potential to tap into more offensive production to go along with the skills that Brendan already mentioned.
Jake Gagnon is someone who hopefully can step up into a secondary goal-scorer role this season. Brendan talked about his goal-scoring upside based on junior hockey, but also watching him play, you can see how much he can truly rip his shot. His shot has the ability to be a real weapon, and hopefully he's able to find his space and use it more this year.
Jack Brackett is someone I actually disagree on for the middle-six. I have him in the bottom-six. His speed is incredibly dynamic as one of the fastest players in college hockey. However, he doesn't show the same offensive upside as the others here, which is why I would have him lower. Brackett’s speed and grit make him a perfect fit in the bottom-six, in my opinion, and I expect him to have a really good season there.
Schreifels is someone who I have always vocalized my support for on the Talkin’ Neers podcast. He is one of the most skilled players on the team with outstanding hands, he has great size and strength that allows him to hang onto the puck and absorb contact, and his shot is accurate and hard. His skillset is one of the best ones on the team, offensively. His potential is sky-high if he can tap into his natural gifts.
Brendan: The bottom-six group largely consists of players whose skillset is still raw and guys who thrive on the third and fourth line, playing a heavier, grind-it-out style game. Nykanen and Leibold will likely see more game-time this season, but I think both need more time to develop to become lineup regulars. Herrman is the quintessential bottom-six center with a high floor. McIsaac falls into the Brackett/Gagnon mold, but who I view as having slightly less offensive upside.
Two players on this list who I find intriguing are Muzzatti and Brown – both guys have good size (Sutter is listed at 6’6” and Finn at 6’3”). Muzzatti just finished an excellent season in the NAHL, leading the Austin Bruins in scoring with 46 points in 50 games. His size and strength should help him adjust quickly to the college game, and if his offensive ability translates well, he could quickly move up in the lineup. Finn Brown also falls into that heavy, power forward category and is especially dangerous right in front of the net (where he frequently scored in the OJHL and BCHL).
That leaves Danny Ciccarello, who plays a similar game to Muzzatti and Brown, but hasn’t shown as much offensive-upside as those two have. He’s a little smaller and quicker than both, and he can really shoot the puck well, but he may need some time to develop before really making a big impact at the college level.
Stephen: I don’t have anything to add here for the returning guys in this category. I think Brendan did a good job summarizing Hermann, Nykanen, Leibold and McIsaac.
Muzzatti is a unicorn. His hands are going to be among the best on the team from day 1. A 6’6” power forward should not be able to dangle defenders the way he does. He’ll without a doubt become a very good playmaking center for the Engineers over the course of his career, which will pair well with his heavy game. To start out though, I agree he’s a bottom-six player.
Brown has lowest floor on this list, and I think he is the least-likely to make an impact this season. However, he has the highest ceiling as well. He has a lot of goal scoring upside as his shot is a true weapon to go along with the net-front skills that Brendan mentioned. He’s a solid skater for his size with good hands and a lot of strength. If he can put it all together, he has NHL upside after his RPI career.
Ciccarello is underrated due to a lack of offensive production in juniors, but he is much better than the stats show. The coaching staff in Salmon Arm really used him improperly. He’s very strong and built like a tank at 6’0” and 200 LBs. His shot is immediately one of the best on the team; he can absolutely wire the puck. And he’s got speed to go along with his strength and shot.
I don’t agree with Brendan about his game being similar to Muzzatti and Brown. I think all 3 are pretty different players even if all are strong and could fill power forward roles. Muzzatti is more of a playmaker with his passing ability and hands. Brown is kind of a hybrid sniper/power forward, and he plays both roles well. He just needs to put all his raw talent together. Ciccarello is more of a pure sniper due to his speed, shot and strength combo even though he definitely has some power forward qualities in his game.
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