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Ohio State hockey preview: Who to watch and season projection

The preseason No. 19 ranked Buckeyes lost some top players and all their goalies, but look poised to stay competitive in 2017.

Ohio State hockey

Ohio State’s 2017-18 hockey team lost two of its top three scorers, its top scoring defenseman and both of its top two goalies to graduation. And yet the team is still ranked in the preseason top 25 with a chance at having similar success as last year’s team. Based on last year’s shooting percentages, the talent leaving and whatever is going on in net, that may be, let’s say, optimistic. But there is still talent here.

The 2013-14 team lost Max McCormick and Ryan Dzingel and promptly fell to 13-18-3. That team lost a lot, but not significantly more than last year’s NCAA tournament appearing team did. Nick Schilkey, David Gust, Josh Healey and both goalies, Christian Frey and Matt Tomkins, have moved on to the professional ranks. And yet this team is still in the preseason top 25.

That speaks to the job Steve Rohlik has done bucking the Big Ten’s preferred recruiting method; bringing in only top one-(or two-)and-done kids, like Kyle Connor and Zach Werenski, for example. Rohlik has brought in unheralded but older recruits like Schilkey and Mason Jobst, the current leading scorer and captain. Schilkey wasn’t drafted and is now in the AHL while Jobst stands at 5’7, 170lbs. Not exactly a high draft pick’s pedigree you’d see at Minnesota or Michigan.

College hockey is a different beast with no age limit, really, on kids you bring in — 20 year olds, even if marginally less talented, can dominate younger studs. That’s how someone like Jobst can come in as a 21-year-old freshman and have ten more points last year than Clayton Keller (top NHL prospect) as a freshman for BU. Physical maturity, even if you’re not that big, just matters a lot in hockey and greatly evens the playing field between teams that can get the Kellers and Eichels of the world and the teams that have to find other ways to compete.

Look at the players on OSU’s roster now who have been drafted. Tanner Laczynski is a star and will probably be in the professional ranks next year. Dakota Joshua is one of the team’s best players and probable No. 2 center this year, but beyond them, it’s not too inspiring. Miguel Fidler has gained playing time but has 17 points in two years. And the rest have washed out.

And yet the roster is as talented as it’s ever been. Over the last two years, the team hasn’t even had a threat of anyone getting drafted besides Laczynski, who only blew up after getting picked and finding his way to the World Juniors.

The Forwards

It’s a team built on four-year players and they still have a majority of the ones they’ve brought in over the last few years. Jobst is somehow only a junior (at 23) and could easily reach 60 points this year even though he’s probably not going to get any more physically mature.

Matt Weis was a point per game player last season, with 31 in 32 games. Matt Miller could see a breakout this year as he came on toward the end of last year and only shot 7.4%. Laczynski could see a big increase in scoring if he can remain healthy throughout the year, as he only shot 10% last year, a lower number than you’d expect.

Joshua and Fidler will be expected to contribute more, with Schilkey and Gust departing, and they certainly have the talent to fill in that gap. John Wiitala could be a candidate to fill in for some of the lost scoring as he potted 10 without big minutes last year. Kevin Miller could be a similar candidate.

Honestly, the biggest thing this team is going to miss upfront is the puck luck that Schilkey and Gust had last season. Schilkey shot a beyond unsustainable 28.4% (!!!!) and Gust was still at a high 14.5%. Jobst was at 16.5% and Kevin Miller, at low volume, was at 21.2%.

OSU is a team that was outshot last season overall and the only reason they went 21-12-6 was because they shot at a higher percentage than their opponents. In order to keep that up, the players stepping into Schilkey and Gust’s shoes have to be more talented than their opponents, because you can’t bank on that much luck turning your way.

Maybe young players like Sam McCormick can fill that gap or help turn possession more in OSU’s favor. Turning possession would be the most effective and repeatable way to do this, but with OSU facing off with big talent teams in conference and Penn State joining them, it might not be so easy.

The point here is that even if Schilkey and Gust were back, the team probably wouldn’t do as well offensively as they did last season. The shooting percentage of at least Schilkey would come down appreciably because he’s not Alex Ovechkin out there.

All in all, while a lot of the firepower is coming back upfront, don’t expect another offensive juggernaut even if everyone meets expectations. The circumstances of the team being outshot and still scoring as much as they did, without their leading goal scorer returning, are not exactly repeatable.

Maybe freshmen Austin Pooley and Eric Garland’s worst nightmare Eugene Fadyayev (a Ukranian who played his USHL hockey in Wisconsin. Paid by Putin to fix the voting machines? I can’t say for sure) can make up for the loss of Schilkey and Gust and provide a similar impact to Laczynski last year, but neither was a big scorer, as both struggled to average over half a point per game last year in the USHL, despite both being overage (Pooley is 21 and Fadyayev is 19). I wouldn’t expect a big impact from them.

Of all the freshman who could provide an offensive impact, the biggest may come from defenseman Grant Gabriele, who put up 20 points in 34 games on the backend last year. He stands at 6’2 as well, and could be the mini-Healey replacement, sans the headhunting.

The Defense

The team’s best chance to turn possession and actually come out even is based on the experience on the backend.

Junior Sasha Larocque is the steadying presence and seems like his best will be as the stay at home partner for a more mobile defenseman.

Fifth year senior Matt Joyaux is the one to really watch out for, however. Joyaux put up 11 points last season and will presumably get bigger powerplay minutes with Healey graduated.

Ohio native Tommy Parran played a bigger role as the season went on last year, gaining more minutes and putting up four goals and ten points. Fellow Ohio native Gordi Myer, the sophomore out of Toledo, returns as well and looks to improve on his ten points in only 22 games.

Aside from Joyaux and the senior Janik Moser, the defense is young and with room to improve, especially offensively during powerplay time.

Michael Rounds joins Gabriele as a freshman defenseman, though he’s less flashy than his counterpart. He had 12 points in 57 games for the Des Moines Buccaneers (Iowa was infested with pirates somehow I guess).

If they can improve defensively as well, shot suppression could improve too. It’s a mobile, small unit, with only two players over 6’ tall. Mobile defensemen tend to get the puck up the ice and put more pressure on opposing teams, tilting the shot totals more in their favor. That should work in Ohio State’s favor since it’s going to have a shooting percentage dropoff this year. The mobile defense will hopefully keep the puck on the other end and cause a higher percentage of chances to be on the opposing net.

Which may be even more important than I’ve let on because...there are no returning goalies who have played a minute for Ohio State!

The Goalies

This isn’t as dire as I just made it out to be in that previous line. Please forgive me.

New presumed starter Sean Romeo played a year plus with Maine in the deepest conference in America, Hockey East, and put up decent stats as a freshman. He played in 27 games with a mediocre .902 save percentage. You’d hope that’d go up a little with experience and playing in a weaker conference and if it does, both Tomkins and Frey were held at .910 or below last season, so there wouldn’t be a huge dropoff if any at all.

Although, he did allow seven goals on 33 shots to whatever a “Ryerson” is during the preseason this year, so maybe panic. You probably don’t have to worry, but maybe keep this in mind if he comes out flat against Wisconsin.

The Buckeyes are also bringing in two freshman goalies, and you hope one can surprise like Christian Frey did four years ago.

Tommy Nappier comes to OSU from the Omaha Lancers of the USHL where he put up a positively Cam Ward-esque .893 save percentage over 33 games. Not great! He may not be ready for primetime yet, though the system or talent could have played a role as he had a .929 save percentage with the Chicago Steel in ten games before going to Omaha.

The other freshman is Evan Moyse, from Olmsted Falls, Ohio. The 20 year old put up a .910 save percentage for the Wichita Falls Wildcats of the NAHL last year, and was below .900 in the year before that.

Pencil in Romeo, the only one with any experience, to start for now. But if he plays like he did against Ryerson — and you have to go to one of these freshmen who weren’t exactly Dominik Hasek in lower level hockey — the offense could shoot 45% and you’d still have a bad year.

Season outlook

There’s no question the team lost a lot of offensive talent in Schilkey, Gust and Healey. But with Jobst, Weis and Laczynski, among others, returning, there’s no reason this still can’t be an exceptional offensive team.

The defense brings in a possible big talent in Gabriele to go along with a steady, young mobile group.

The biggest question is in goal. Romeo comes in with a pedigree but sure didn’t look good during his preseason game. Neither Nappier and Moyse were spectacular during their lower league careers, either.

But the goalies will probably have to be better than they were last year for the team to make a return appearance to the NCAA Tournament. The team was outshot last year, but you can get away with that if you have veteran scorers shooting high percentages and veteran goalies giving a steadying presence. This OSU team has less of the former and who knows what of the latter.

A slightly less lucky offense and a problematic goal crease could spell trouble. If the offense falls more than expected or the goaltenders end up worse than anticipated, it could be a long season in Columbus.

Things could just as easily turn out the other way, though. The goalies could be steady and a healthy Tanner Laczynski and growing youngsters could keep the offense firing at will.

If I had any idea what would happen, I’d head to Vegas...if betting on college hockey was legal. But right now, I’ll play it safe and slot OSU in for fourth in the conference behind Minnesota, Penn State and conference newcomer Notre Dame in some order.