Catching Up With ... Ricky DiPietro
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Normally, you don't need to catch up with someone until they've been away for a while. But with Ricky DiPietro, out of college hockey less than a year, you better keep up, or you'll fall too far behind.
DiPietro, whose college career consisted of one stellar season at Boston University last year, made history last summer when the New York Islanders made him the first goalie taken No. 1 overall in the NHL draft. At the same time, he became just the second college player to be so chosen, and one of just a handful of Americans.
Some called Islanders general manager Mike Milbury crazy, among other things, for taking DiPietro so high. And, for all we know, the naysayers may turn out to be right — Milbury's history with goalies is not exactly rosy. But, just three games into his NHL career, DiPietro is making Milbury look good.
After starting the season in the minors, with the Chicago Wolves of the IHL, the 19-year old phenom was called up to the struggling Islanders just before the NHL All-Star break. In two games, DiPietro allowed a fluke goal and a 5-on-3 goal during a 2-1 loss to Buffalo, then a 75-footer at the hands of Flyers All-Star Eric Desjardins in a 2-0 loss (including an empty netter) last Thursday. He added another 2-1 loss, in overtime, meaning his team has scored two goals for him in three games. So far, he has more career assists (1) than wins.
The Philadelphia game was his first on the road, and came in a nearly-full 20,000-seat hostile arena. He had played in front of a few crowds with 18,000-plus in Chicago, but none on the opponent's turf.
"It's a madhouse at Boston University, but this is a great crowd, a great hockey atmosphere [in Philadelphia]," DiPietro says. "We played well, well enough to win, and it made the crowd not much of a factor at times. If you're on your game, it's something that doesn't play a factor. Fortunately for me, I was pretty focused on the game."
One of the major reasons Milbury said he decided to go for broke and select DiPietro was that focus, and the teenager's unprecedented ability to play the puck. Unfortunately, that mindset got DiPietro into trouble against the Flyers, when he failed to glove down that long shot.
"It was a pretty hard shot. It kept rising," says DiPietro. "It's a save you gotta make, a rookie mistake I guess. Hopefully one that is never gonna happen again. I was a little upset with that because guys worked so hard the whole game.
"You just have to be aware of everything. You have to play it like a scoring chance. I was thinking about handling it and moving it up the ice."
Nonetheless, DiPietro was pretty happy with his first week in the "show." He also saw what could be a sign of things to come, as the Islanders, with the worst record in the NHL, didn't give him much support.
"I was pretty happy with the way I played," DiPietro says about his road debut. "The team did a great job of shutting down the [Mark] Recchi line. We played with them stride for stride."
Part of the learning curve for DiPietro involves interaction with his teammates. His ability to play the puck is so advanced, that most defensemen aren't used to it, especially a young defense like the Islanders have.
"We communicated a lot more [against the Flyers]," DiPietro says. "With time, it will get better and better, with learning the defensemen and them getting to know me, to know each other's game.
"This is the NHL. It's the greatest league on Earth. You've got the best players in the world here. I'm still getting to know all the players."
DiPietro is the type of kid you figure to be undaunted by whatever challenges the NHL might bring. It's part of what makes him special. Team struggling? He believes he should stop every shot. Tough loss? He shakes it off with an boundless confidence many call cockiness.
Former Maine assistant coach Greg Cronin, now an assistant with the Islanders, remembers DiPietro from the time they were both part of the U.S. Developmental Program in Ann Arbor, Mich.
"I knew him as a kid," Cronin says. "He was always lively, colorful, animated and confident. Not in an abrasive way, but in a humorous way. He was only 5-foot-8 at the time. His confidence in the net and ability to come out were special."
DiPietro was with the younger group, while Cronin helped coach the 17- and 18-year olds. That group had Adam Hauser, now at Minnesota, as it entered the playoffs of the NAHL, the junior league in which the developmental team participates.
"Ricky came up and played with us in the playoffs," Cronin says. "We were playing Sault Ste. Marie, who I think was second in the league. He said, 'Just play me, I'll get the win.' We lost the first one, and won the next two.
"Then we went to Springfield, which had the best record, and the same thing: 'Hey, coach, play me, we'll win.' And he stood on his head and we won the games.
"What you really start to appreciate about the guy is his focus. Some people are very serious and quiet, other guys are loud and animated. And I always worry about the loud, animated guys because they get themselves too jacked up, and when the puck's dropped, he's got no energy. [But DiPietro is] fairly loud and animated, and when the puck's dropped, he's ready to go.
"It's a shame he didn't catch that puck [against Philadelphia], but he played a brilliant game."
DiPietro had one last taste of college hockey, sorta, when he played with a collection of college and soon-to-be college stars at this year's World Junior Championships, where he turned in a stellar performance for the second straight year.
"Those guys are like my brothers. It's one of the closest knit teams I played for. It's unfortunate I didn't have the ability to stay. Four days ... it was unfortunate."
Ricky DiPietro, on opting into the NHL draft and losing his college eligibility by being four days too young.
For as far as DiPietro has advanced already, he says he probably would have remained at Boston University were it not for an archaic NCAA regulation. The NHL draft age is 19, unless players "opt-in" at age 18. Most junior players opt-in, without penalty. However, the NCAA says, if you opt-in, you renounce your remaining collegiate eligibility.
DiPietro was a true freshman, and a young one at that, with a September birthday that fell four days after the age cutoff. Had he been considered 19, he could've been drafted and stayed in school, like Wisconsin's Dany Heatley, the No. 2 pick in last year's draft, did.
DiPietro's decision to opt-in came right down to the final minutes before the deadline. He certainly cannot be blamed for testing the waters considering he was taken No. 1 in the draft. An opportunity like that may not come again.
But it says a lot about college hockey, DiPietro, or both that the top pick in the NHL draft probably would have stayed in school, if given the option.
"Most likely, I would've stayed. I don't think I would've [left] if I would've had that option," DiPietro says. "I miss BU a lot. Those guys ... I got to see them play BC [recently], and those guys are like my brothers. It's one of the closest knit teams I played for. It's unfortunate I didn't have the ability to stay ...
"Four days ... it was unfortunate."
On the other hand, Cronin says there was no use in staying.
"He's ready to play [in the NHL]," he says. "You've seen the last two games."
With the Islanders, DiPietro plays for Islander legend Butch Goring, considered a player's coach and a member of four Stanley Cup champions. He should also benefit from having another mentor with the Islanders, 37-year old veteran goalie John Vanbiesbrouck, who has decided to stay and tutor DiPietro rather than request a trade. But, he still misses BU coach Jack Parker, and speaks about him with the tone of an old pal.
"We were real good friends," DiPietro says. "Always jabbing each other and having a good time. He was a great influence on my career and one of the best coaches I've gotten to play for."
The highlight of DiPietro's college career may have been a loss, a 77-save effort in a four-overtime defeat at the hands of St. Lawrence in last year's NCAA Regionals. He went mano-a-mano in that game with another freshman goaltender that left school early, Derek Gustafson, who has put up solid numbers in the IHL this year.
He may have a while to wait, but DiPietro hopes for a somewhat more positive highlight to his NHL career.
"The highlight would be winning the Stanley Cup, obviously," he said. "We have a good young team here, and we can grow."
With so much still to look forward to, DiPietro wastes little time looking back and taking pride in his accomplishments: being the first goalie drafted No. 1, and representing college hockey so prominently.
"I think I was more worried about spilling food at my breakfast [on draft day] than that stuff," DiPietro says. "After the draft and after I had time to think about it, you go down the list of Americans drafted first, there aren't too many of them."
Now there's one more.