The next season after your two leading scorers leave probably isn't going to be as easy or successful. The 2013-14 Buckeyes hockey team got to the Big Ten Men's Ice Hockey Tournament championship game behind First Team All-American, Hobey Baker Award Finalist, and team leading scorer Ryan Dzingel, fellow Ottawa Senators draft pick Max McCormick and Christian Frey playing out of his mind...but came up just short.
Dzingel and McCormick are now playing for the Ottawa Senators' AHL affiliate while Frey couldn't capture the same magic again. But the Buckeyes did still give Minnesota a run for their money in the conference tournament and got Frey back on track toward the end of the season.
But when you look at the season as a whole, divorced from just the team's six wins in eight games at the end of the year, things get a little cloudier. While the team looked like a less talented overachiever once again at the end, and the team was giving more highly ranked teams like Providence and Miami all they could handle in the beginning, the middle of the season was absolutely miserable and cemented the Bucks' fifth place conference finish.
In the team's first two games versus Michigan, they allowed a combined 18 goals. Michigan State, a team notorious for low scoring games, put up three or more goals on Ohio State twice and allowed a combined one goal in the teams' other two matchups. Minnesota won their first series versus Ohio State in a sweep with a combined score of 10-4. Wisconsin, who was absolutely miserable after their Big Ten Championship season of 2013-14, earned a split versus OSU in February. Things seemed to have changed specifically after that series, as OSU earned a split with Michigan the next weekend, but the fifth place finish, at best, was pretty much guaranteed by then.
The goaltending was absolutely miserable over that stretch. Matt Tomkins and Christian Frey were splitting games at that point and both were struggling. Frey would only finish with a .909 save percentage, which is ok but nowhere near his .929 number that helped propel the Bucks to the title game the year before. Tomkins turned in a horrendous season by absolutely any measure as he put up a .876 save percentage this year after his respectable .911 number the year before. This is a player with a higher pedigree who was drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks, but should not have seen the ice in 2015. Frey's number was relatively close to his overall number in conference with a .902, but Tomkins put up only a .847 number in conference. If he takes a single start that's not a spell from Frey next season, Coach Steve Rohlik should have his head checked.
The forwards were the biggest question coming into the season, as the two leading scorers in Dzingel and McCormick left for Ottawa. Anthony Greco looked like the best candidate to break out, as he posted only a 5.6 shot percentage in 2013-14 and boy did he. Greco led the team in goals with 15 and was an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten team member. But besides Greco, there weren't any breakouts on offense. Tanner Fritz's points dropped from 32 to 27 with his shooting percentage only dropping by .001. He didn't have the same quality of wingers, so that could explain that.
Nick Schilkey was probably the biggest victim of not having any finishers on his line as Greco played primarily with Fritz. Schilkey often looked like the best player on the ice for the Buckeyes, but still only finished with 12 assists as the team's second best playmaker. He only put up one less assist than the year before, but he made an ascension to the team's best puck carrier. There just wasn't anyone to put it in. Matt Weis scored eight goals with a probably unsustainable 13.6% shooting percentage, but Schilkey deserves someone better than that. Matt Johnson scored 13 but won't be around next season. If Schilkey had someone like Dzingel on his wing, just having watched him maneuver, I think he could have easily outpaced Fritz in scoring. He probably should have been playing with Greco as he clearly was the superior player when watching him.
Nick Oddo was the primary unlucky option on offense. His points dropped from 30 to 13 and a role on the fourth line in the conference tournament. His shooting percentage dropped from 12.5% to 6.7%. Unfortunately, he's a senior and won't get the chance to rebound as Greco did this season. Darik Angeli's goal total dropped from 9 to 5 as his shooting percentage dropped from 10.8% to 8.5%, but he too is a senior and won't be back next year. Chad Niddery was another senior with a particularly low shooting percentage at 4.4% after an 8.9% number the year before. Christian Lampasso, the energetic freshman walk-on, looks like he could break out as he only had a 4.8% shooting percentage but did have 12 assists, but with him you have to wonder, as he was just a walk-on. He may not have the finishing ability though he did look like he got much stronger on the puck as the season wore on. If he can progress a little more and get a little stronger in front of the net, the goals could come.
But there should be reinforcements. David Gust, if he can keep playing as well as he did toward the end of the season, could be the team's secret weapon. He jumped on the scene in the conference tournament and blew in out of nowhere to the front of the net with ease. If you consistently pair him up with Schilkey again, it could be magic, as Gust can get to the hard parts of the ice and Schilkey can get the puck there. He had a low shooting percentage as 6.2% and did average 1.92 shots on goal per game, so his numbers could jump. Miguel Fidler and Dakota Joshua headline the forwards coming in for the 2015-16 recruiting class.
Fidler, a Florida Panthers draft pick, put up 25 points in 53 games in his first season in the USHL while Joshua, the Maple Leafs draft pick, put up 39 points in 47 games in his second season in the USHL after putting up 38 in 55 games the year before, so he looks on the upswing and ready to put up some numbers in Columbus next year. Fidler looks like more of a project but did demonstrate a quality shot in high school. Freddy Gerard put up 33 points in 53 games in the USHL this year so he could contribute. Michael Gillespie put up 30 in 52 games. Mason Jobst was a captain in the USHL and almost a point per game player in 2013-14. Jason Dhooghe was a member of the U.S. National U18 team. Sam McCormick put up 30 points in 53 USHL games. Tyler Busch improved his points per game in the AJHL from .58 in 2013-14 to .72 this year.
On defense, they probably don't need any help if players like Drew Brevig can rebound. He was the biggest disappointment in 2014-15 as he led the defense in scoring in 2013-14 with 17 points but was a healthy scratch toward the end of the season this year. Sam Jardine, not exactly the most offensively talented defenseman, led the backend in scoring this year with 12 points and Josh Healey was second with nine. Jardine may be back next year, provided he isn't signed by the Blackhawks, but seniors Justin DaSilva, Al McLean and Clark Cristofoli, all of whom played in the loss to Minnesota, are graduating. Returning should be Brevig, Jardine, Healey, Craig Dalrymple, Blake Doerring, Victor Bjorkung and Janik Moser. That should make for a healthy back line as the first four all played significant roles this season Moser and Bjorkung played a combined 40 games.
The headliner coming in on defense is Tyler Nanne, the Minnesota native and New York Rangers draft pick. He put up 16 points in 45 games in the USHL this season after starring at Edina High School with Fidler prior to that. He could bring an offensive dimension the primarily stay-at-home OSU defense lacked this year as Brevig regressed. The defense may start six players who were on the team this year so there shouldn't be much of a change back there for the second consecutive year even if seniors who took on bigger roles toward the end of the year, like Cristofoli, are moving on.
All in all, the team did about as well as you'd think they could do with the losses they sustained. Weis was a big surprise and Nick Jones could step up as well on offense. Nick Schilkey should blossom into a star. David Gust is a dynamo when he's on. Anthony Greco could be one of the fastest players in the country. The defense regressed unexpectedly but could easily bounce back with Nanne's addition and the maturation of Moser and Bjorkung as well as the addition of Matt Joyaux. Christian Frey should be the unquestioned starter in goal after Matt Tomkins' implosion and Frey's strong play.
The team should be better next year and could easily challenge for third in the conference if everything goes right. It will probably take a few years to reach that height, but if Rohlik's recruiting keeps improving, that could easily be reachable.