All opinions are my own.
I’ve said it since the start of the season: 2021 is a great year to have a great year. Celebrating 100 years of BU hockey, playing in front of fans, and the Frozen Four in Boston, the Terriers could have written the perfect story. Halfway through the season though, where do they really stand?
I’d like to preface this by saying that I’m a forever optimist. I love this team and I love this school, as I’m sure our commenters do, so I’ll start with some of the positives but without ignoring the 33 in the PairWise and the slightly-depressing 6-9-3 record to start. I do think that overall the second half will be more like what we saw during the 2019-20 season where the team strings together some wins and maybe we have a good Hockey East Tournament run, but I don’t see too much happening past that.
Last year, it felt like BU relied on their top line of Robert Mastrosimone, Wilmer Skoog, and Jay O’Brien, and early in this season it felt like much of the same. While it’s unfortunate that those guys seem to have slowed down a little, it is nice to see some second and third line guys step up more recently. With Case McCarthy, Dylan Peterson, and Domenick Fensore really starting to hit their strides, there’s some room for optimism as the Terriers get their other lines rolling. With that being said, we all know that this team has depth, now we just need consistency from all lines, instead of relying on some guys some days and other guys other days.
Another caveat head coach Albie O’Connell has mentioned in recent media calls is the actual, physical state of the team. “We’ve got a lot of guys playing hurt. We’ve had a lot of injuries throughout the semester, and guys have really given it a pretty good push,” O’Connell said after the shootout loss to Boston College.
“The break will be good, for sure. To get ready, and you know, rest up and get ready for a good push in the second half.” With some time off between the USA U18 exhibition game and the game against Brown, hopefully the team can step away for a minute to regroup, get better, and realign their focus as a team.
Overall, it’s exciting to see some promise from the younger players. Ty Gallagher seems to be the gift that keeps on giving, and his summer switch from Notre Dame to BU has been huge for the team, leading the freshman class with seven points so far.
If I had to pick three standout players for the first half of the season, I’d go with Gallagher, McCarthy, and Fensore. McCarthy has earned Hockey East Defenseman of the Month accolades and continues to pick up awards, making big plays on big stages – including against Cornell at Madison Square Garden and the OT winner against UMass – for 11 points on five goals and six assists.
Most noteworthy though, in my opinion at least, has to be Domenick Fensore. Fensore has shown enormous growth compared to his last two seasons, almost doubling his point totals from last year. While I do think he’s occasionally selfish with the puck, he’s fast, small, and produces consistently. I don’t know if anyone can fill Farrance’s spot on the blue line, but if half of our top six point leaders are defensemen, maybe we’re not in as big of a rut as we think we are.
Now I said I was optimistic, but I also said that I’m not blind. Reporting on a sub-average BU hockey team has been the same as reporting on a winning BU team, but with a few less jokes in the post-game press conference. Now being a fan of a sub-average BU hockey team is completely different, and frustrating beyond belief.
First, our leadership has had an unbelievably slow start. I don’t think that your captains have to be your best or your most skilled players, but their attitude and leadership capabilities are what make them captains. And that’s all good and fine, but they still have to be reliable players who can produce and set an expectation for the rest of the team. Alex Vlasic, Max Kaufman, and Logan Cockerill combined for a total of 26 points last year in a 16-game season. So far this season, now including Ty Amonte, they’ve reached 14 points in 18 games between the four of them. Of course there were Vlasic’s disallowed goals, Amonte’s re-emerging injury, and just the nature of hockey to blame, but if your leadership is meant to be reliable, it’s been hard to see. Again, I called it a “slow start” because we’ve seen them all ramp up recently, Kaufman especially, so I’m hoping that that’s all it is, and we’ll see a 180 come January.
My next point is towards Commesso. Last year he was arguably one of the top goalies in Hockey East, and among the best rookies in the country. He continues to keep us in games and sometimes carries this team on his back (by himself, I might add), but compared to where he was last year, he has been a little disappointing to watch. I won’t put the blame on him because it’s probably more of a reflection of our defense and less so of Commesso himself, but letting in six goals in more than one game isn’t just one fluke– hopefully it is just two flukes, and something that we don’t see again. I’m also optimistic that some non-BU play with Team USA in World Juniors could be good for him morale-wise and hopefully get him back to Boston focused.
On the theme of morale, it has to be brutal for the team. O’Connell often says during his press conferences “if we play like that, we’ll win some hockey games.” And to be fair, the Terriers have put together some very impressive periods of hockey against teams like UMass, Northeastern, and BC. They’ve shown resiliency with late goals and seem to stay in the game most of the time, so to keep finishing games with overtime losses, ties, and shootout losses has to hurt. Taking down teams like Sacred Heart, Merrimack, and New Hampshire should be a given though, not some exceptional, underdog victory.
Now for some truly miscellaneous, “big picture” opinions and thoughts.
Albie O’Connell is a great guy. He was a great four-year player at BU and a great captain. But just because you were a great captain doesn’t mean you’ll be a great coach. Sometimes I think about a Patrick Curry or a Logan Cockerill 20 years down the road being torn apart online for being a terrible coach when it would be so much nicer/easier/better to remember them as a great player and captain. Despite how much I like him as a person, O’Connell doesn’t seem to have control over his locker room. It’s the last year of O’Connell’s contract, and it seems unlikely that someone like Jay Pandolfo would leave the NHL to take a job as an assistant coach of his college team, so I imagine Pandolfo gets the promotion over the summer.
Again, I love O’Connell. Everyone talks about how David Quinn was great at developing young players, and O’Connell was the guy to recruit a lot of that young talent. It’s just unfortunate that once he got the talent to Agganis, he couldn’t develop those players himself, and that it cost BU some four years of history.
Some people have asked in the comments what it’s like from the student perspective, and I will say as someone who knows a lot about this team and this program, it drives me insane to see the lack of interest in BU Hockey from the student body. We don’t have football, so when you’re a high school senior committing to BU, you know that you’re setting yourself up to hop on the hockey bandwagon. And because of Covid, there are two classes who haven’t been able to see BU hockey in person, so now that fans are allowed again, it’s more important than ever to play solid games and convince people that this program really is as historic and elite as it is. The BU/BC game on December 10 was the most packed I’ve ever seen Agganis, and that’s because having mediocre season after mediocre season doesn’t really turn those borderline fans into diehard fans.
Lastly, I love BU Hockey history. It’s one of my favorite things about being a BU student. When a Northeastern student talks to me about their 3-peat in the Beanpot, my go-to response is “talk to me when you reach double digits.” And no matter how optimistic and hopeful I’ll be for this team, the BU program really hasn’t been a force in the college hockey world since 2015, and arguably even before that. I wouldn’t go as far as calling BU a UNH or a Maine because I do think we’ll always be relevant, but I also think that BU has become more of a stop on the way to the NHL because agents tell you that you need another year, and less of a place to come for a four-year education and four years of growth.
Earlier this year I spoke to Colby Cohen and he explained to me that his agent told him and Colin Wilson to stay at BU instead of turning pro because they’d get more attention and improvement at BU then they would in the NHL. And with that being said, it seems like there’s a disconnect between the more recent teams and the teams of the Jack Parker era. It’s cyclical in nature: the more BU wins, the more people want to play at BU, the better BU becomes, the more BU wins.
So how do we turn the season around? It starts at the top. Mike Schafer, the head coach of Cornell’s team, talked about the importance of Cornell Hockey and Cornell Athletics to their alumni and to their school after Red Hot Hockey. I think that BU higher-ups have a tendency to praise the hockey program when it does well and when it’s convenient, and to just ignore it during off years. If BC can invest in its hockey, football, and basketball programs, BU should be able to really invest in just the one (although our Basketball team is becoming more relevant).
Not only that, but BU is almost too nice. Northeastern fans were ruthless at Matthews Arena. So were the UMass fans, BC fans, and Cornell fans. We have one of the best programs in D1 Hockey history, and BU needs to start acting like it. Of course if we continue to have a sub .500 record we shouldn’t, but with the idea of setting a precedent and a new cycle, this team needs to string together some wins, keep their heads high, and play with the swagger this program deserves.
My last note goes back to coaching. I don’t think the players are the issue, and I don’t want to throw the blame entirely at O’Connell, but this team needs a coach who commands the room, maintains expectations, and demands respect. I want Jack Parker to go into the locker room and yell at the 2020-21 team, “scared-straight” style. Players need to be a little bit afraid of their coach, and I don’t think anyone is afraid of O’Connell.
This has been a long and wordy opinion piece that I’ve wanted to get out since early November, but needed to finish out the semester before writing. I love BU and I love its history. It’s so unfortunate that this dynamic and deep team is struggling so much, and that this is how the season has fared so far. I’ll remain optimistic that the break is what BU needs to regroup and I’m hopeful that we’ll see an unrecognizable team heading into the second half of the season. If it’s not our year, which of course would be brutal, maybe Pandolfo can get it under control and reinstate the tradition of excellence this program has developed, because we all know what the scarlet and white can really do.
With that, I hope everyone has a happy and healthy holiday season, and in other personal news, I’ll be going abroad next semester so I’m passing the torch on to Belle and James to take the reins of the blog. I’ve had an amazing time covering this team and the passion of the fan-base, i.e. all of the readers and commenters on this blog, is really something so special. We’ll see what the second half has to offer, and I’ll be sure to keep rooting for the Terriers from overseas. Thank you for following along, interacting, and never, never, being afraid to say what you want to say. As always, go BU!