Talented BU Seeks Consistency in the Face of Expectations
by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer
Expectations are dangerous.
They come from potential and past performance. A few high-end players, a storied program and a smooth-talking coach are precisely the formula to ratchet up expectations. Mix in even more talent and a lingering sense of heartbreak from a national championship almost won, and it's easy to understand the situation Boston University coach Dave Quinn faced when the 2016-17 season began.
There are four players on BU's roster drafted in the first round of either the 2015 or 2016 NHL drafts. Four more Terriers were selected in the second round. And freshman goaltender Jake Oettinger is likely to go early in next summer's selection.
This is what Quinn has done since taking over at BU ahead of the 2013-14 season. Kids want to play for him. Whether they're from Minnesota or Massachusetts, New York or British Columbia, if there's a talented teenager with an eye on the NHL, he'll probably spend some time picturing himself in scarlet and white.
Through their first 17 games of the season, the Terriers are 10-5-2 and sit sixth in both the Pairwise and Hockey East standings. They've played two fewer league games than first-place Boston College and second-place UMass-Lowell. BU's performance in the first half, while mostly impressive, has led to some questions about the reality of those expectations.
"You look at the first half. We're 10-5-2. We're (playing well) in the league, and we just moved up to four in the Pairwise," Quinn said following BU's 5-2 win over Yale. "It's been a really good first half for us. We feel our best hockey is ahead of us. It's a great group. They love coming to the rink every day with them. They work hard. They care for each other. They're forming some of those characteristics you need to win important games in late March and April. We feel really good about where we're at.
"It's a maturation process. People expected us to be 17-0. We didn't. We understood what was in front of us, and we have too much respect for all of these other teams and college hockey in general. … I like the direction we're going. I feel good. …
Internally, Quinn knows what he truly believes this team can accomplish this season. Externally, he's focused on the short term and helping his team get better every week. Some injury problems, most notably the seven-game absence of Clayton Keller (the seventh overall pick in the 2016 draft), have shortened BU's bench. Some inconsistency, the kind you expect from the second youngest team in the country, has led to some poor efforts.
Despite it all, BU will soon embark upon the second half in position to accomplish everything it hoped for as the season began.
"We haven't thought about (championships)," Quinn said. "Every team wants to win every championship. As you're going through it, I think you're just focused on winning your next game. That's what I think we've done a better job of in the first half. That's all we need to do. We just want to win our next game. Our next one is going to be Union here. We're probably going to be a bit shorthanded, but we feel good."
Statistically, the Terriers excel in shot generation, accounting for 53.1 percent of the shots attempted in their games. Neither their team shooting percentage (10.6 percent) or team save percentage (.927) are unsustainably high, either.
More often than not, BU has earned the result it received. On more than one occasion, the Terriers carried play and largely outclassed their opponent and still fell short. Just the same, Oettinger and junior goaltender Connor LaCouvee have earned BU a few important wins in games it probably didn't deserve. Championship teams have goalies who can do that.
"I thought (Oettinger) was going to be really good, but his consistency has surprised me a little bit," Quinn said. "I knew he was going to have great nights. I wasn't how many he was going to have as a freshman."
The biggest question as the season advances is whether or not Quinn and his coaching staff have the ability to break some of the young team's bad habits. Being a great recruiter and creating a culture that appeals to young players are as important any other aspects of coaching in Division I hockey. The tactical side of things matter just the same, though.
Great college hockey coaches create systems and cultures that force even the best players to buy into their roles and positions within a team. With the talent level BU has, Quinn wants his players to be creative and take chances when they can. There's room for more direct, simple play, though, and there have already been consequences for some mental mistakes borne of youth more than anything.
"When there are no plays to be made, I think we can stand to get more mature in that regard," Quinn said. "We need to play more of a north-south game. You don't have to make a play every time you have the puck. You just have to get it in the next zone or keep it in the offensive zone. We need just to be more consistent. If we can do that, we're going to be successful."
Kieffer Bellows, a 2016 first-round pick, sat for BU's final two games of the first half (wins over Vermont and Yale) because of carelessness and a penchant for taking penalties after being benched for a third period against Providence on December 3. Jordan Greenway sat for the first period of a game against Northeastern on November 5 after earning a 10-minute misconduct for taunting the Huskies' bench the night before.
"It's youth," Quinn said. "It's understanding dangerous areas and making hard, smart plays. Sometimes you have pay the price to learn a lesson. We can say something over and over again, but there's no better teacher than experience. … You have to minimizes your mistakes. Every player does."
Currently, seven BU players are representing the United States at the IIHF World Junior Ice Hockey Championship and one is playing for his native Canada. The only game these players could miss is a January 4 matchup with Union at Agganis Arena. It's not a coincidence either. Quinn knows his teams will be well represented at World Juniors for years to come.
The expectations are high, because Quinn wants them like that. As the steward of his alma mater's program, he elevated BU's recruiting almost instantly. Games are decided on the ice, and championships are all that matter. BU's season will be a disappointment if it doesn't end in a title. Sure, only one team gets to win Hockey East. Only one team gets to win a national championship. Both distinctions come down to one game, and a bad bounce can undo it all. No one needs to remind anyone at BU of that fact.
The Terriers are position to be that one team, though. And Quinn knows where the fingers will point if they fall short.