You may have recently heard that Ohio State was picked by the Big Ten hockey coaches to finish second in the conference this season. You also may have heard that the Buckeyes received votes in the preseason USCHO Top 25 for the upcoming season. But didn’t Ohio State only finish 8-8-4-1 in conference last season and only 14-18-4 overall? Why are the Bucks being picked to jump up the Big Ten standings above traditional behemoths?
The answer lies in the same reasoning that led Ohio State's world beater football team to be underranked going into the current season: experience, or in the football team's case, a lack thereof. The Buckeyes return nearly all significant contributors from last season's squad aside from forwards Tyler Lundey and Anthony Greco as well as defenseman Craig Dalrymple and are bringing in new contributors, one of whom has done nothing but shine so much that Smash Mouth would call him an All Star.
But let’s start with who’s coming back and why they give Buckeye hockey fans out there the biggest reason to believe since the team nearly upset Wisconsin to win the Big Ten hockey tournament in 2014.
Upfront, it starts and ends with Nick Schilkey. The man with the beautiful flowing locks that are on point in literally every picture or video I’ve seen of him led the team in scoring last season with 41 points and 19 goals while shooting a very repeatable 13.9%. He's the son of a hockey coach (yay for clichés) and has shown a proclivity for getting teammates involved and making them better. He's a captain for a reason.
David Gust is the Triple H to Schilkey's Steve Austin in Ohio State's Two Man Power Trip. He broke out last season after exploding in the 2015 Big Ten tournament to the tune of 11 goals and 25 assists with a, once again, repeatable 11.3% shooting percentage.
Greco will be missed, as he generated a significant amount of shots despite only putting home 12 last year (he shot only 7.6%). OSU will rely on Mason Jobst and Matt Weis to shoot more and hopefully score more while maintaining their slightly elevated shooting percentages. Jobst burst on the scene last year with 30 points in his freshman season while Weis broke out in his sophomore campaign with 32 points. Neither broke 12 goals, however.
The Buckeyes have to be hoping that goal scoring will come from the improving and ridiculously talented Dakota Joshua. He may be the most supremely talented player on the team. The Maple Leafs draft pick scored a hat trick on Sunday in the Bucks’ preseason exhibition against Wilfrid Laurier, whoever that is. He only scored five goals last year, but shot under 10%, so with more ice time and more chances, his scoring could bloom as Gust's did last season.
Tanner Laczynski is the other name to really look out for here. He was the only Buckeye drafted in the 2016 NHL Draft (by Philadelphia) and looks to be a possible add to the U20 United States World Junior Championship team this season. That’d take him away from the Buckeyes for at least a little while, but that valuable experience with the world’s best U20 players probably can’t be replicated in Columbus.
Look for breakouts from Miguel Fidler and Freddy Gerard as well. If Christian Lampasso can generate assists similarly to his freshman rate, he could play a middle six playmaking role as well. Hopefully two years in Columbus has made him stronger on the puck.
The defense is probably more of a question mark than the offense. Ohio State scored 128 goals last season, good for third in the conference, but also conceded 125 themselves. That’s not great. It was the second most in the conference, only ahead of middling Wisconsin. They fired their coach after last season. Those two events are not unrelated.
And it certainly doesn’t help that Ohio State lost its big captain back there, Dalrymple. But with hockey becoming more of a possession game and Ohio State clearly not lacking talent upfront, maybe smaller, more mobile defensemen can help Ohio State become the 2010 Washington Capitals of the Big Ten.
Drew Brevig returns, having put up 19 points last season on defense, with only a 6.1% shooting percentage, so hopefully he can generate more goals this season. He’s gone from a late scratch a couple of seasons ago to probably the second most dependable defenseman this team has.
The first would be first team All-Big Ten selection Josh Healey. He led the defense with 21 points and had five goals himself. He also led the team in penalty minutes with 66 (Brevig only had 20) so hopefully he can keep that down since they don't have the big space eater Dalrymple on D anymore to clog up the powerplay lanes.
Tyler Nanne could have really helped if the Bucks were moving to a more offensive oriented defensive system, but his heart issue that caused Ohio State to hold him out for all of last season caused him to transfer home to Minnesota. So Sasha Larocque and Tommy Parran look to carry on that offensive place.
Parran, the 5’11 defenseman, registered 10 points last year while Larocque put up 10 himself. Larocque has never been a huge point getter, so a little improvement is probably more than we can ask from him, while Parran has never put up over 18 points at any level. So we’ll probably be lucky if he matches his 10.
Matt Miller, a freshman Ohio native, may be the best bet to replace Dalrymple, in some way. He has size at 6’1 and has put up similar offensive numbers to Parran and Larocque at other levels. Watch out for fellow Ohio native Gordi Myer back there to steal some minutes as OSU only has nine defensemen on the roster this year total.
This is about as cut and dry as any position’s going to be on this team. Christian Frey is the starting goalie. He should be the starting goalie. He has to be the starting goalie. Matt Tomkins, disappointing Chicago Blackhawks 7th round draft pick, is still around, but has shown time and time again that he just isn’t NCAA starting quality.
Frey had a relatively disappointing season last year, with just a .910 save percentage, but Tomkins only put up a beautiful .888 number himself. If Steve Rohlik wants to get fired, he should play Tomkins.
Frey’s goals against average was 2.91 to Tomkins’ 3.87. Frey has to play and play a lot.
Sean Romeo, a transfer goalie from the University of Maine, is the wild card here. He put up a .902 save percentage as a freshman in Hockey East, the toughest top to bottom hockey conference going away, and in two games before leaving the program last year, had a .933 mark. If he can steal time from Frey or Tomkins, great, because the team's goaltending has to be better than last year.
Frey is by far the surest thing on the roster now, but if Frey falters, watch out for Romeo.
The Advanced Stats
If you’ve made it this far down in this article, you’re probably interested, more than superficially, in this team. Here’s where the real predictors are that tell what they did last year and how likely they are to improve in the coming year. And boy do they not look good!
According to College Hockey News, in terms of even strength Corsi percentage (percentage of shot attempts for, including blocked attempts, OSU was only at 47.6%. That ranked fifth in the Big Ten last year. That's right: they were behind lowly Wisconsin. In terms of Coris when the score was "close", the Buckeyes checked in at 47.5%. That ranked fifth as well.
So if you put two and two together, you’ll notice a not-very-good pattern here for the Buckeyes. They give up more shot attempts than they taken, don’t have astronomically high shooting percentages from their forwards (there weren’t any super high outliers there) and don’t have fantastic goaltender save percentages. So it looks like they’ll perform how their statistics say they should, for the most part, and I think their record last year showed that.
The problem is that other teams have better goalies and can survive lower Corsis because of it. Shooting percentages tend to be more likely to come back to the norm, but good goalies save a higher percentage of overall shots than bad ones. Unless Ohio State gets really good goaltending this season or somehow has a bunch of shooting outlier seasons, it’s hard to see them greatly outperforming their statistical indicators this year.
I’m certainly not qualified to be a Big Ten hockey coach and probably not to even vote in the USCHO national poll, but I think both have it waaay off here. I don’t think the Buckeyes will be appreciably better than last year. They’ll be better in some capacity just because of how many good players they return, but there are question marks on defense past the top two and the team may be two years away from pulling one of those Hockey East years where they have older players and can take down the more talented teams with experience and filled out size.
So I think the Buckeyes will finish fourth in the conference once again, in front of only Wisconsin and Michigan State, in that order. In two years, even with Schilkey and others gone, I think the Bucks stand a much better chance of rising in the conference. The blue chip talent isn’t there, but as schools like Quinnipiac and Union have shown, if you get older, bigger and still talented players, you can take down the Minnesotas and North Dakotas of the world.
Ohio State just isn’t there yet. Their advanced stats are underwhelming. They're young and without that blue chip talent, it’s not a great combination. A fluke Big Ten title game appearance isn’t out of the question, but I don’t think this team’s going anywhere special. Yet.