Providence Aims Higher
Friars Look to Build on Last Year's Foundation in Leaman's 2nd Year
by Scott McLaughlin/CHN Writer
They weren't just happy to be there. They had higher expectations. Providence coach Nate Leaman made that clear throughout last season's playoffs. Yes, the Friars made the Hockey East playoffs for the first time since 2008. And yes, they reached the conference semifinals for the first time since 2001. But those achievements are mere steppingstones on the path to the Friars' ultimate goal. They want to win a national championship.
"We all agree that one of our goals is to win a national championship," said freshman forward Mark Jankowski, who was picked 21st overall by Calgary in this summer's NHL Draft. "Providence struggled for a few years, not making the playoffs. But there was a great tradition of Providence College hockey before that, back when Lou Lamoriello was running the program and all that. We want to get it back to that, and we really believe that we can."
Just a couple years ago, winning a national title would have been a laughable goal at Providence. Now, it doesn't seem far-fetched at all. Not when you consider that Leaman already built Union into an ECAC champion and NCAA tournament team (and laid the foundation for last year's squad that made it to the Frozen Four). Not when you consider that Leaman's first full recruiting class at Providence includes NHL-caliber talent. And not when you consider that Schneider Arena is undergoing a $14-million renovation that includes the addition of a state-of-the-art training facility.
Leaman didn't have much to work with when he arrived at Providence in April 2011 to replace Tim Army. The Friars returned just five players who scored a goal during the 2010-11 season, one that ended with a ninth-place finish and no postseason. Worse, they only had four freshmen committed for the upcoming season.
In just a couple months, Leaman managed to find a few diamonds in the rough that not only contributed as freshmen, but wound up being significant factors. Ross Mauermann, who didn't commit until July, ended up leading the team in points. Drew Brown and Stefan Demopoulos, two more late additions, finished fifth and sixth in scoring with 18 and 17 points, respectively.
Leaman also convinced defenseman Alex Velischek, who left the program the year before after seeing his playing time decrease, to return for his junior season. Velischek went on to play 32 of 38 games and finish second on the team in plus/minus.
Along with the new coaches (assistants Jamie Russell and Ben Barr completed the staff overhaul) and new players came a new attitude. No longer were the Friars going to be pushed around by the big boys of Hockey East.
"They demand a lot, which is great," senior captain Myles Harvey said of the coaches. "That's what players need from their coaches. I think the biggest thing is the culture, just the change in culture and the mental attitude toward hockey. Inside the locker room, around the rink, even around campus, I think everything has just kind of changed as far as mindset goes. That's probably the biggest thing that I've noticed. Coach Army and his staff were great. Love them. They were doing things right, but the culture was just kind of blah I guess."
Still, a new mindset only gets you so far. As Leaman pointed out at last week's Hockey East Media Day, the Friars went just 1-6-0 against Boston College and Boston University last season. They scored one goal or fewer in five of those seven games. Matchups with those two teams — both loaded with NHL picks — exposed the fact that Providence still lacked in the talent department.
In the second half of season, injury and illness to leading goal-scorer Tim Schaller highlighted another weakness on the Providence roster - depth. Schaller, a captain for the 2012-13 season, missed 11 games, and the Friars failed to replace his production. They went 2-8-1 without him and averaged a paltry 1.33 goals per game. Players who needed to step up and take on bigger offensive roles struggled to do so.
Leaman and his staff hope they have addressed both of those deficiencies with this year's freshman class. Its sheer size should help with depth. The Friars add 13 freshmen, plus redshirt freshman Noel Acciari and Notre Dame transfer Kyle Murphy, a senior who practiced with the team last year and will serve as the third captain this season.
This isn't just a big freshman class, though. It's also an immensely talented one. Jankowski is the headliner, and the player with the most upside, but the talent goes well beyond him. Goalie Jon Gillies, who joined after decommitting from Northeastern in March, was one of the top goalies in the United States Hockey League and was also a Calgary draft pick in June.
Paul de Jersey led the British Columbia Hockey League in scoring and was named the league's MVP. Tom Parisi was an Eastern Junior Hockey League all-star last season. Nick Saracino led his USHL team in scoring, and Steven McParland did the same for his Ontario Junior Hockey League team. Ori Abramson is a former OJHL all-star. Gillies probably put it best when talking about this class — "I could keep going with all of the freshmen right down the line."
"It's definitely a class that we're excited about ourselves, and I think the school's excited about it," Gillies said. "Looking around the locker room at our team this year, I definitely feel that we'll be very competitive in Hockey East."
The school being excited is another important part of this revival. Schneider Arena has been the quietest rink in Hockey East for years now, and rarely features anything that would qualify as a student section. The players all know what they have to do to change that — win.
The more they win, the louder Schneider gets. If they need evidence, they just have to look at conference foe Merrimack. Once the Warriors started winning, Lawler Arena turned into one of the most raucous buildings in Hockey East, both despite and because of how small it is. It isn't hard to imagine Schneider (which currently seats 3,030) undergoing a similar transformation. Harvey said he can already tell that there is more excitement this year than at any point during his previous three years on campus.
"Especially with the freshmen we have, they've kind of created a lot of excitement around them and their class," Harvey said. "I've had a lot of kids in my classes telling me how excited they are and asking how the team's gonna do this year. We're trying to create a good atmosphere and make it exciting for the fans to come out and support us."
A better atmosphere won't be the only improvement to Schneider. A $14-million renovation project begins this month. It includes a 35,000 square foot addition that will feature a new locker room, a new weight room, a new training room, a new video room and a player lounge. Other upgrades will include a new lobby, new offices, new suites, a new press box and new sound and video systems.
All of these are steps on the road to becoming a national championship program. Obviously the Friars, like every other team, would love to win it all this season. But realistically, they're probably a couple years away from being serious contenders. As far as goals for this season go, Gillies said the feeling around the locker room is that they expect to at least get back to the TD Garden for the Hockey East semifinals.
Leaman said his only expectation is for everyone to work hard and get better every day. That's the only way they'll grow into a program that competes for championships.
"We have a lot of work to do to get among the elite in our league," Leaman said. "I thought last year, we took a little bit of a step, but we still have a lot of work to do to get up there. That's what we're focused on, is the process of continuing to get better every day, every week and every month to take steps to continue to improve the program."