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Analyzing the Forward Group
Lots of returning contributors and great newcomers make this an exciting group
Stephen: Coming off a second straight season where the team’s forward group was ravaged by the transfer portal due to the school’s COVID response, the team finally has found stability in its forward group. They return 72.2% of its points and 66.7% of its goals with 10/12 lineup regulars back. Questions about how the team will utilize this depth and which players fill which roles still remain, however. Let’s break it down!
Stephen: To start with, there isn’t the most balance here when it comes to LW and RW, but I’m not too worried about that because the team is going for more of a top 9 with 3 strong lines. Players will probably move around those lines and with the extra RWs, I wouldn’t be surprised if one of them plays their off-wing at points.
Now onto the players. RPI’s center depth is looking to be a strength this year. Both Muzzatti and Lee had good years last year and showed themselves as capable of being top 6 centers. The great thing is that there’s now another year of improvement in there, and the two of them both have another level to hit in my opinion.
Lee is a great center who is reliable in all situations. The improvement I’m hoping to see from him is being more consistent and less streaky. His offense came in bunches last season with some crazy scoring outputs over 2 game stretches, but then, he would go quiet for stretches too. I think some of this probably had to do with injuries; he was in and out of the lineup a lot and was never fully healthy in the second half of the year. Hopefully, we can see him stay healthy this year and take that step.
Muzzatti has one of the highest ceilings in college hockey, and we got a taste of that last season. He started the year with 1 point in 13 games, and then exploded with 21 in his final 22 games. I’m hoping he can maintain that pace over a full year this coming season. What I’d really love to see though is an evolution in how he can play the game. Muzzatti frequently slows the game down, which makes sense; he wants to use his high-level ability to see the ice and process the game to make plays. If he can start making plays at high-speed, defenses will have a really tough time containing him.
Chris: There is certainly a lot to be excited about the 23-24 Engineers, and the conversation really needs to begin with the depth up front that Coach Smith has stockpiled. This year’s group retains the most scoring it has since the 19-20 team, which was without a doubt the strongest year of Smith’s tenure.
The storyline of Jakob Lee’s development into a prominent scoring option was a huge bright spot on last year’s team, and there is no reason to think that it won’t continue. A year of full health should do wonders for Lee, who has the potential to lead the team in points with a strong senior season. He did lead the team in PIMs, which will be important for him to cut down on to contribute the well-rounded game he is capable of.
Sutter Muzzatti was likely the headline of the Engineers’ summer, as the 20-year-old was selected in the 5th round to the Nashville Predators in the 2023 NHL Draft. In the transfer portal era, returning a young star like Muzzatti is a huge shot in the arm to this program, and he has potential to compete for All-League honors. Muzzatti’s net-front presence, combined with his size and skill set him up to be RPI’s most exciting piece for this upcoming season.
Stephen: Moving to RW, this is another deep area after the addition of Ryan Brushett in the transfer portal. Brushett should be a high-impact player in RPI’s top 6. He battled injuries last year at Lowell, so he only had 10 points in 24 games. The year before that though, he had 22 points, which was 4th on the team, and I think it’s more indicative of his abilities. Overall, Brushett has 57 points in 113 games over 4 years playing in the NCHC and Hockey East, 2 of the toughest conferences in the country. He should fit in seamlessly.
Austin Heidemann also returns after a pretty good year, and he can be counted on in the top 6. He’s a pretty well-rounded player with good skill and goal scoring, and I’d expect him to be among the team’s top point producers once again.
Jake Gagnon is what really makes the RW group such a strength. He broke out last season with 16 points in 31 games despite missing time with a shoulder injury that he also played through towards the end of the year. He is a top 6 quality player, but he will likely be playing the middle 6 simply due to the team having Brushett and Heidemann too. Gagnon will provide key secondary scoring on those lines.
Chris: On the right side, I’ll begin with Austin Heidemann, who started slow last season after arriving from Mercyhurst, but gained steam as the year went along. His 20-point season was 4th on the team, and I’d expect him to grow upon that given the added comfortability in year 2. He pairs well with both Muzzatti and Lee and should spend time on both of their wings in the top six this year. I think there is a high probability he will lead the team in goals this year and he should be a major focus of the powerplay.
RPI’s other top RW projects to be Ryan Brushett, who transfers in from UMass-Lowell. Brushett is a seasoned college hockey player who should be a great guy to have leadership wise. He is a solid playmaker with experience at wing and center, which will provide some lineup flexibility when needed. I think he fills a similar role to TJ Walsh as a pass-first player and is probably even a slight upgrade.
Jake Gagnon returns for his senior season as a key supplemental scoring option who should compete for top-six minutes. Stephen really covered what you can expect out of Gagnon, and I believe he will be a solid forward who contributes all season for the Engineers.
Stephen: Finally onto LW. This is weaker on paper than the other 2 spots, but I think that’s more because of uncertainty around some of the players.
Hotson was a top player in the USHL last season and should be able to slide right into the top 6 based on his ability. The question with him is the same as every freshman: how ready is he? The USHL is the best junior league in the world, so I think he’ll be ready.
Chris: The left side lacks experience compared to the rights, but it certainly makes up for it with talent and potential. It is probably the position group that is the biggest x-factor for this team. Beginning with highly touted freshman Tyler Hotson, who enters as the top recruit of the Smith era. He was 17th in scoring in the USHL and has terrific hands and playmaking ability. He signed his NLI in the fall of 2021 but returned to juniors for another year of development. It is significant for RPI to bring in a player of this caliber, and I expect him to compete for All-ECAC Rookie honors.
Stephen: Beaton rounds out the top 9 center group, and I think he could have a breakout year. Zone entries and transition play are often an indicator of potential breakout forwards in terms of point production because they indicate skating ability and skill. Beaton was the leader in zone entries for the Engineers last season, and I also believe he was owed more points than he got. For starters, his xG was significantly higher than the number of goals he scored. He also had zero secondary assists. Secondary assists have been proven to be mostly luck in statistical studies, so you would have expected him to pick up a few somewhere along the way. Lastly, he had really good play driving metrics in terms of both corsi and on-ice xG. All these factors point to him being owed more points last year. If he takes a step, he could honestly give RPI 3 top 6 quality centers, but even as it is right now, he’s a luxury as a 3rd line center who can play in all situations.
Chris: I think Stephen is spot-on with his analysis of John Beaton, who steps into a major leadership role in his senior season. It is fair to say that Beaton was a bit snake bitten last year, as his scoring didn’t nearly match his impact night in and night out. Beaton is a versatile center who contributes in all three zones and has the capability to drive play off the rush. He has also shown his ability to be a real scoring option for the Engineers, specifically his game-winning goal against Harvard in the 2022 playoffs. Some more puck luck, and stronger forward depth to play on his wings should set John up for a strong bounce back this year.
Stephen: John Evans had a solid freshman year where he was consistently on the 3rd line, and he played well in that role. He will have to really battle to get into the top 9 this season with not just the addition of Brushett but also Hotson and Tinling. He showed he’s clearly capable in the middle 6, but the team is deeper this year. It’s a great problem to have because if Evans is on your 4th line or out of the lineup, you have a very deep forward group. Ideally, Evans can take a step forward to show that he belongs in the top 9 as a complementary scorer.
Chris: I agree about Evans, there is clearly a wealth of talent slated for the top-nine and at least to start I think he may be the odd-man out. That is not to say one of the Right Wings won’t move to the left, but at least for now it is hard to argue with the experience of the guys above him. However, John is an extremely capable player who had a solid freshman year showing his knack for finding the net. A little bit of added size would go a long way, but I do expect him to carve out a scoring role for this team as the year goes on.
Stephen: Tinling was productive in his half-season in the USHL after leaving UVM and was a top player in the BCHL last season. The answer to “How ready is he?” for him is a bit more complicated as he’s had 1.5 seasons of college and 1.5 seasons of junior hockey. Hopefully, that will make him more ready than your typical newcomer, especially since he’s coming in as a junior (albeit with 3 years of eligibility).
It’s possible we have him listed incorrectly here since he played center all last season and is a natural center. I really don’t see him being used as a 4th line center (and I’d say the same for Beaton), so I think one of them moves to the wing. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tinling is at center and Beaton is at wing, but I think Tinling’s play style is more suited for the wing than Beaton’s. Either way, I expect Tinling to be impactful in the middle 6 and create a lot of chances for his teammates with his vision and playmaking.
Budy is another guy in the middle 6 with some uncertainty around him. He had pretty high expectations last season coming over from North Dakota after an excellent junior career. The idea was his game could be revitalized here. That didn’t happen, but I think he more than deserves a pass. I still believe he is capable of making the offensive impact that we were hoping for last season. He’s speedy, skilled and smart, and those abilities tend to lead to scoring.
Chris: Brendan Budy is next on the depth chart for me and in my opinion, the year he turns in will go a long way towards how successful this season is. Budy struggled to hit the ground running here last year, and he never really saw his offense take off. He failed to find the back of the net last season, but I expect him to take a huge step with another year of comfortability. His talent has never quite translated to results in college, but if Budy can turn in the bounce back year he’s capable of, the Engineers will be deep offensively this year.
Similar to Hotson, Dovar Tinling enters the program with exciting talent and an ability to make an impact on day 1. He centered the Nadeau brothers on the BCHL champion Penticton Vees last year, and I expect his return to the NCAA to go much better than it did at UVM. He should slot into the middle six either on the wing or at center and grow into a major point producing role in his 3 years here.
Stephen: The last centers are Danny Ciccarello and Brad McNeil. Ciccarello showed he can be a reliable faceoff man and defensive 4th line center last season. He will have to hold off McNeil though. McNeil was a 2 way force last season in the NAHL. He is extremely smart, reliable defensively, and has some skill and offense to go with it. I expect the two of them to be battling it out for that 4th line, defensive, penalty killing center. It’s nice that there are 2 capable options to fill that role.
Chris: Danny Ciccarello is the definition of what Coach Smith calls a “blood and guts guy” and his tenacity as a player is where he provides the most value. Ciccarello doesn’t profile as a player that will progress significantly in the offensive end, but he will likely be a regular on the 4th line and on the penalty kill.
Brad McNeil rounds out the projected center group, and he comes in as a highly experienced junior player who should compete for a jersey early. McNeil has a higher ceiling than Ciccarello, producing at nearly a point-per-game in the NAHL last year, and I expect him to be a player who can play in all situations throughout his career.
Stephen: That brings me to Finn Brown who showed a lot of potential last season due to his size and skating but struggled to adjust to the college game from juniors. In our Q&A session with Coach Smith, he was really high on Brown and the abilities that he brings to the table. He thought that Brown should have played more last season than he did. He will have the opportunity to earn more ice time this year on the 4th line, and it’ll be up to him to show he belongs.
Chris: Finn Brown brings a lot of size and skill to the table, but he was unable to really display it in a game setting last year. Coach Smith has spoken very highly of him this summer, but his path to playing time may be challenging since several of the incoming freshman are expected to contribute immediately.
Stephen: That brings us to the final 4 guys. Brackett is someone that a lot of you would probably put in the middle 6. I think his outstanding speed, ability to kill penalties, and forechecking makes him a bottom 6 player though since that is exactly what Coach Smith is looking for there.
Nykanen was a pleasant surprise last year with his ability to drive play and create chances. He has the chance to be higher up here if he takes another step forward, but it was hard to choose him over the natural talent of Hotson, Budy and Tinling.
Payant is nearly a Brackett clone with his dynamic speed. The differences between them are that Brackett is a little stronger and maybe a tiny bit faster (although it’s extremely close there), while Payant has better hands and more scoring ability. Payant can definitely be an impactful bottom 6 player right away as a freshman, so I think he will push Brackett and Nykanen for that type of role. One interesting note is that he played center all of last season. I think his game translates as more of a wing at the college level though.
Lastly, we have Nathan Sullivan, a big, power forward. Sullivan is the youngest player on the team this season, and he’s got the potential to be an impactful player down the road. This season, I see him as a guy who is competing for a bottom 6 role though because I think it will take him time to adjust to the college game.
Chris: With the influx of talent into the top-9, Jack Brackett should be an ideal fit for a 4th-line role with his speed and tenacity. I think we all know his game at this point, and I wouldn’t expect a huge change in his offensive production but the value he provides with his speed and PK ability makes him well worth a lineup spot each night.
Nykanen is another one who will be in a battle for minutes in the bottom-6 due to the strength of the freshman class. He has had solid growth the last few seasons and his experience and size should help him chip in some production in his senior year.
Jeremie Payant enters from Nanaimo out of the BCHL as a guy who should immediately provide speed and skill on day 1. He scored 28 times last year including the playoffs, so there is reason to believe that there is some goal-scoring projectability in his future. I expect him to spend time at Left Wing and at Center and he should compete for minutes early on.
Finally, Nathan Sullivan comes in from the AJHL with perhaps the most untapped potential on the roster. Coach Smith spoke very highly of him and believed it was necessary to pull him in now to begin his collegiate development. He put up solid numbers last year and his size and skill are the type of things coaches search for in a player. I don’t see him cracking the lineup much early on, but he is the type of player who could have a meteoric rise up during his time here.
I think there is a lot to get excited about looking at this forward group, the blend of experience and young talent gives this unit a lot of potential. Guys like Muzzatti, Budy, and Beaton really have the chance to take a big step forward, and their development can help to carry this group forward. Brushett, Hotson, and Tinling are all exciting newcomers who will help replace scoring from Ryan Mahshie and TJ Walsh. This team retains more scoring than it has in several years, and if they hit the ground running, they have potential to score at a significant clip.
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