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Can defense continue to be a strength for the Engineers?
Breaking down what roles to expect from the defensemen and goaltenders heading into the season.
Stephen: The defense is really interesting this year because while it has plenty of talent, it is very young and inexperienced. Only Hallbauer has played more than a year of college hockey, and half the players projected to be in the top 6 here have zero experience.
I still expect the defense to be a strength for the Engineers despite those obstacles. Starting with Jack Agnew, RPI has a young defenseman who proved last season that he’s a capable top-pairing defender who can play in all situations. This season, he will have to be the #1 defenseman and improve his offense, but the talent is definitely there. His skating, puck moving, skill, and shot are all noticeable as quality tools when watching him play, and he just needs to get more involved in the offensive zone and on the rush. I think he’ll have no problems stepping into this new role and being RPI’s anchor on the blue line.
Nick Strom is a player that I disagree with Brendan on; I’d have him under Top 4 because I’m pretty high on Sertti, but we’ll get to that later. Strom missed all of his freshman year at Western Michigan due to having double shoulder surgery. He’s been healthy for a few months now though, and his play in the USHL a couple years ago was very promising. Strom is extremely good defensively due to his awareness/IQ, skating, and ability to breakout the puck. His positioning is always great, and he just always seems to make the right choices in his own end. His skating is really smooth in all directions even though he’s not explosive. He plays a very safe, mistake-free style, and despite his injury, I think his transition to the college game will be pretty smooth just because of that style. He’s very reminiscent of Brady Ferner, but he has more offensive ability than Ferner did. Strom should be able to play on any pairing and provide quality minutes even though he won’t put up big numbers offensively.
Brendan: Strom really encapsulates the “low-floor, high-ceiling” nature of the team this year – double shoulder surgery can’t be ignored, but if he can get back to his previous form and build off two legitimately strong seasons in the USHL, then there is a lot to be excited about here.
Stephen: Let’s start with Lauri Sertti since I alluded to him in the prior section. Sertti had a good first year at RPI on the third pairing with Kyle Hallbauer, but with the strength of RPI’s blue line, he was definitely more like a top 4 quality defenseman. I think he can take the jump up to top-pairing quality because of his well-rounded game. His size and strength allow him to be aggressive in his own end to stop attacks. His skating is absolutely elite; I think he has the best edges on the team. He is great at escaping pressure because of it. Sertti also has solid skill and great passing ability that combined with his skating allows him to breakout the puck really well. He is really strong at exiting the zone with control. The next step for him is to use those skills in the offensive zone and in offensive transition, like Agnew, while keeping his play in his own end at a high level.
Brendan: From a purely stylistic viewpoint, Sertti’s offensive potential makes him an ideal partner to a more defensive-minded Agnew on the top pair. That being said, I’m not convinced that he’s ready to jump into a top-pair role just yet. I tracked shot metrics in about two-thirds of RPI’s games last year, and Sertti posted a Corsi-For Percentage of 48.01%, meaning he got slightly outshot during his time on the ice. Compare that to what Johnson and Agnew recorded (54.62% and 51.33%, respectively) against tougher competition on the first pairing, and the difference in quality becomes clear. Given their success as a pairing towards the end of last season and into playoffs, I would keep Sertti and Hallbauer together to start the season, and give Strom the first pair duties.
Stephen: Hallbauer returns for his 5th year, and at this point everyone knows what to expect from him. He can play up-and-down the lineup and in all situations as a reliable top 4 quality defenseman. With an extremely young defense this year, his veteran presence and experience will be very valuable as well. On a blue line with a lot of talent but also a lot of youth, Hallbauer’s reliability will really help counter that youth.
That brings us to two very talented freshmen who both could be in the top 4 right away, in my opinion.
Smolinski is a well-rounded defenseman who can play all situations. He’s got pretty much everything you could want from a defenseman except for size. His skating is great, he has good skill, he’s strong at preventing zone entries against him, he is very smart and reliable in his own end. He’s got the explosive skating and skill that you look for from an offensive defenseman, but his defense is actually his strength due to his awareness and IQ. I’m really excited for Smolinski.
Ardanaz is an offensive defenseman in the mold of former Engineer Cory Babichuk. Ardanaz has great skating and skill and loves the puck on his stick because of it. He looks to join the rush frequently and get involved offensively. He can run a powerplay effectively as well. Defensively, he has improved a lot over the years to the point where he was a go-to penalty killer and would be used frequently in shut-down situations for West Kelowna last season. Ardanaz should make an immediate impact with his offense and power play abilities, while still being solid defensively.
Dylan Davies and Mason Klee will likely fill 3rd pairing/extra defenseman roles this season for the team.
Starting with Davies, I actually quite like his potential. He’s very big and has excellent skating ability. His length and strength allow him to break up plays frequently in his own end. His overall skill set gives him a high ceiling as a shutdown defenseman. Last year, he was pretty raw and jittery with the puck, which is why his playing time was low. If he can take a step forward this year, he could fill a higher role.
Klee had a rough season last year after a solid year as a freshman. He still is capable in his own end with his size, strength and length. Like Davies, he struggled with the puck on the stick and on the breakout. We’ve seen that Klee can play better like he did as a freshman, and look for him to bounce back this season with more reliable play that allows him to fill a key role as a stay-at-home depth defenseman.
Brendan: Watson ended last season with a save percentage of 0.922, ranked 18th overall and 4th among freshmen nationally. He earned the starting spot in the second half of last season, culminating in an stellar performance against Harvard, where he made 119 saves on 128 shots over the three games. Safe to say, it’ll likely be Watson’s net to start the year.
Goalie recruiting and development is something the coaching staff has really excelled at in recent years. It looks like that trend may continue with the late commitment from Carson Cherepak of the MJHL. The Manitoba Junior League doesn’t usually produce many high-level Division 1 players, but Cherepak could be an exception. Earlier this year, he led his team to the semifinals of the Centennial Cup, Canada’s national championship tournament for Junior A teams (notably excluding the BCHL), and by all accounts, was the star of the show. For a coaching staff that identified Owen Savory in a second-tier junior league and helped him on his way to eventually going pro, there’s legitimate reason for optimism here with Cherepak.
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