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RPI’s Murphy’s Law Season
Everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong
Murphy’s Law is well-known for being referred to when bad luck comes, seemingly at the worst possible time, or when a collective number of things all go wrong at the same time. This past season for RPI was the latter. We’ll get into that, but first, let’s go back and remember the expectations going into the season.
Heading Into The Season
Stephen: I’d say the vibes were pretty optimistic heading into the season. The main detractor that was the primary focus was the amount of scoring and key players that RPI was losing. They were losing the top line of Leppanen, Linden, and Lacka plus Dubinsky as the second line center. On the blue line, Johnson, Kjellberg, and Baxter were all gone, which was 3 of their top 4. Overall, the result was losing nearly 60% of the team’s points from the year prior.
Looking back, it makes sense that the team took a step back knowing all of this. But we knew this going into the season too, so why were we so optimistic? I think there are a few reasons.
First, the team had returned even less scoring the year prior, coming out of the COVID year, and that team ended up being okay and was a game away from Lake Placid.
Brendan: And to add to this point, if we exclude the playoffs, the 21/22 and 22/23 seasons really start to look a lot more similar:
Despite the tragic ending, the playoff run back in early 2022 was a lot of fun, and we absolutely should look back on it positively. But it did partially mask the fact that losing a big chunk of your team is hard, and what the significantly more random nature of the playoffs provides might not always be as representative as the much larger sample size of the regular season.
S: Second, I think we were a little overexcited about the team’s transition to have more speed and skill. We’ll get into why it didn’t produce immediate results later, but it was wrong to think the team could change its style and identity like flipping a switch.
B: This is a key one. A fundamental change to the way that the team wanted to play. Moving from a heavy, “wear teams down” approach to a: “we want to out-skill you and skate right past you.” Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but such a change does not happen overnight.
S: And the final piece was that the team returned a great goalie in Jack Watson after he had a great rookie season. He could be the backbone of the team even if it struggled with all of the inexperience out of the gate.
The Winning Streak
S: Our optimism seemingly was confirmed after RPI’s non-conference start to the season. They started 4-1, with the only loss being to Canisius in a game where RPI doubled them up in shot attempts. They scored 19 goals in these 5 games for an average of 3.8 per game. They looked fast and dynamic, created a lot of offense off of the rush and looked like a very good team.
Unfortunately, this was against a very weak schedule that they were able to “out-talent”. Talent can win games early on in the year as all the teams are getting their feet wet, but it doesn’t work for very long. The schedule also didn’t prepare the team for the tough ECAC opponents that were coming.
B: The non-conference games at the beginning of the year were no doubt on the less challenging side of things. But who knows - we also could have made the trek out to Boston or Minnesota, lost badly, and started the season on a very sour note instead of having the immense optimism and votes in the top-20 polls around last October.
That being said, there is a middle ground here. One in which you don’t play the best teams in the country to kickstart the season, but one in which you also don’t play the worst. (And we are very much on this path for the upcoming season!)
So, What Went Wrong?
S: If you could point to just one thing, I’d probably lean towards inexperience and the lack of returning key players. Even though the 21-22 team had less returning scoring than this year, they had more players who had played key roles coming back. Linden, Leppanen, and Dubinsky had all played in top 6 roles before and were back. Sellar and Addamo had played top 6 roles at their previous schools. Johnson and Kjellberg had been top 4 guys before, and Baxter brought in 116 games of experience and had been top 4 some of the time at Lowell. By contrast, this year’s team only had Mahshie and Walsh with experience in top 6 roles with Heidemann joining them from the portal. Only Agnew had top 4 experience on the blue line. That matters.
B: The numbers back this up too. Let’s take a little trip down memory lane and see how roster turnover affected previous RPI teams:
To start, I went back to each of the previous 5 seasons, and pulled out RPI’s scoring rate (goals/GP) in each.
Then, for each of the last 4 seasons (the 17/18 season scoring rate just gives context to the change between it and 18/19), I pulled the percentage of points scored that were retained from the previous season.
For example, between the 18/19 and 19/20 seasons, there was not much roster turnover. The players who left only accounted for 25.9% of all scoring.
Therefore, 100% - 25.9% = 74.1% of the scoring was retained going into 19/20. That 19/20 team scored nearly a goal per game more than the 18/19 team.
The key point here is: year-over-year roster stability correlates with year-over-year team improvement, and vice versa.
The Forward Group Mostly Met Expectations
S: On paper, I liked (and still like) the forward group going into the season. I liked the move to go to more speed and skill. I liked the recruit and transfer portal additions and thought that a lot of the returning players could take steps forward. Here’s what Brendan and I had as the general makeup in our season preview:
Based on what we knew going into the season, I was comfortable with that roster. Retroactively, you would move Brackett and Schreifels to bottom 6, swap Budy and Muzzatti, swap Lee and Beaton, and swap Evans and Gagnon.
With that retroactive look, there’s not a whole lot of guys that you feel were not talented or not good enough at their spot.
At center, Lee and Muzzatti were very good and clearly top 6 quality, Beaton was good on the 3rd line, and Ciccarello was good defensively and on the PK on the 4th line.
At left wing, Mahshie and Walsh were definitely both good in their roles in the top 6. Brackett drove play well on the 3rd and 4th lines, and while he didn’t have many points, that’s fine for the bottom 6. Nykanen was also a pleasant surprise in the bottom 6 with his ability to generate scoring chances and be a complementary player.
Lastly at right wing, Heidemann and Gagnon were two of the better goal scorers on the team and had good seasons. Both were what you would expect out of a top 6 wing. Evans was good with Beaton on the 3rd line, and McIsaac added physicality and forechecking to the 4th line.
B: I’ll try to back this up with some numbers, in particular for the guys who returned, since comparing year-over-year production is not as useful for transfers, especially when they are coming from different conferences.
Here is how the returning forwards produced compared to the season prior:
Nearly everyone increased their scoring (some even with substantial leaps). And for the few who didn’t, it’s not like their scoring fell off a cliff either!
The main point here is that it would be difficult to make the argument that any of the forwards really performed way below expectations. Sure, some guys merely matched their output from the previous season, and you’d hope for a little better than that.
But there were also guys who blew expectations out of the water. Sutter Muzzatti had one of the best seasons from a freshman that we have seen in recent years; he had the most points as a freshman since Brandon Pirri and Jerry D’Amigo had their crazy freshmen years in 2009-10. Jake Lee went on a tear at the beginning and end of the season. Ryan Mahshie had 15 goals.
The simple reality is that if you graduate a top line of Ottoville, Ture and Jakub, your offensive production is probably going to take a hit.
And the Defensemen?
S: It’s a similar story. Here was our projected lineup:
Going into the season, I didn’t have any issues with rolling these defensemen.
Looking back, you would switch Strom and Sertti, Klee and Ardanaz, and Agnew and Smolinski. Once again, there’s no one that was really playing a role that you would be uncomfortable with.
Sertti had his breakout year and played in all situations as a true #1 defenseman.
I thought Smolinski could play in the top 4 right away, but he surpassed that and looked like the team’s 2nd best defenseman after Sertti.
Strom and Klee were good in top 4 roles as more defensively minded options. For the 3rd pairing and extra d-men, they all had ups and downs, but you’re okay with that for players in depth roles.
Agnew had a down year after a great first year at RPI, but he’s still someone you’re fine with on the 3rd pairing.
Hallbauer played in all situations and was solid both offensively and defensively.
Davies actually really improved in the 2nd half of the year and looked good defensively.
Ardanaz wasn’t quite ready to play big minutes as a freshman because he struggled in his own end, but his offense can be dynamic. He showed some really great flashes.
B: One of the most stark differences between the 21/22 season and the 22/23 seasons was the number of goals conceded per game:
Obviously the big losses to the likes of Union and Quinnipiac drag the number up quite a bit, but even without those, it is still a significant increase from the previous season.
But just as it was for the forwards, there weren’t many, if any, defensemen who you could say performed way below expectation. And there were certainly a couple who exceeded expectations. Mason Klee stepped up into a much bigger role than he had ever had previously and had a lot of success. Smolinski looked comfortable almost right away.
As a brief tangent, take a look at Quinnipiac’s defensive core from this past season. It’s largely made up of seniors and grad students. Guys who have been playing and gaining experience at the college level for years.
This stuff really matters, for defensemen especially. You can see it in guys like Will Reilly and Jake Johnson. Their progression through 4/5 years in college is massive. And when you don’t have the luxury of keeping guys for their last year or two, it’s noticeable.
Just imagine how different that 2019-20 season would have been if Will Reilly had decided to go pro. But he didn’t - he chose to stay and continue to develop at this level, and it paid off. Not only for the team, but also for him personally.
It just takes some time for a team to get back to that point after going through such a big rebuild.
Injuries, Goaltending, and Everything Else
S: So what was the problem when they had enough individual talent, but the collective just didn’t click? We have already mentioned inexperience in depth, but that’s only part of the story. It just feels like the team didn’t really click this season. On offense, they frequently looked out of sync during the year. Defensively, there were some breakdowns where they also looked out of sync. As a whole, the chemistry just was not there unfortunately, and as a result, it felt like this was the first year in a few that the team did not hit its ceiling based on its talent. In 19-20 and 21-22, it definitely seemed like the team was at its ceiling and clicking at the end.
It’s possible one contributing factor for that lack of chemistry was injuries. The team just straight up was never fully healthy from November through the end of the year. Even when some players were in and out of the lineup, they were playing through injuries. It’s tough when you never seem to have a full complement of your best players in the lineup, and that also prevents those players from developing chemistry. A valid counterpoint to this is that in those situations you need your depth to step up. This year, the team just didn’t have the same depth it has had in the past.
B: Injuries will affect a team every season, but it did feel like they hit RPI harder this year, especially to key players. Like Stephen said, when you lack good depth, injuries put players higher up in the lineup, into tougher matchups, where they don’t have as much success.
S: I think the last main point that was an issue for the team was actually that transition to speed and skill. Last year, the team was big, strong, and heavy. It could grind teams down and wear them out. They produced their offense mostly off the cycle and defended hard. Most importantly, they played to that identity, which is why they looked so good in the playoffs and were really clicking. The transition to speed and skill is the right choice and a good move long-term. Short-term though, I think it was a reason for the step-back. It felt like the team was in no mans land. They had more speed and skill but not enough to truly make that their identity and be a good team. They no longer had the size and heaviness to play that style either. They just ended up lacking an identity and play style to stick to, and I think that’s a reason why they never lived up to their ceiling of individual talent.
Lastly, you simply cannot ignore the goaltending. Jack Watson was supposed to be the team’s rock. He was picking up NHL interest for a reason after a stellar freshman year. The sophomore slump with an 0.895 SV% after a 0.922 his freshman year was a really big reason the team struggled. You just can’t win with that level of goaltending. Carson Cherepak has good potential and could be a starter down the road, but he wasn’t ready to take that mantle as a freshman. He performed about the same as Watson. Brett Miller also was not any different.
B: For me, this is the most important factor after the roster turnover. The team goaltending save percentage was 0.887, which was among the worst in the country.
I’ve talked a lot about meeting expectations, but goaltending was definitely an area where the team underperformed, and when you underperform in that area, it is very noticeable. You really just can’t win a lot of games with a save percentage that low.
Not all of this falls on the single person - the team gave up its fair share of high-quality scoring chances and injuries played a factor too, but if you combine this with the amount of roster turnover coming into this year, you have a big chunk of the explanation why things felt mediocre this year.
Reasons for Optimism
The positive side of this is there is reason to believe these two things can be fixed. For one, there will not be nearly as much roster turnover going into next year as there has been in the past two seasons (a trend which will hopefully continue!).
And two, goaltending has been a strength of this team for the past couple of years, and almost all of our recent goaltenders have gone on to play professionally. There is good reason to have hope that Watson and Co. can turn things around going into next season.
Just over 100 days to go…
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