February 20, 2006 PRINT Bookmark and Share

No Fanfare for Emerging Ricci

While Merrimack Struggles, Warriors Freshman Shines Under the Radar

by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor

When your team has two wins, the likelihood of your name gaining "buzz" is minimal. But that doesn't make Rob Ricci's talent any less impressive for those who see him on a regular basis.

The Merrimack freshman impressed first-year coach Mark Denehy from the moment he saw him, at a USHL game last season, when Dennehy was still an assistant at Massachusetts.

"He's flat out a player," said Dennehy. "The first time I saw him ... the overriding thought was 'Merrimack got themselves a pretty good player.' But I didn't know how good."

Of course, while the lack of team success means Ricci plays in relative obscurity right now, the Warriors' lack of depth means that Ricci is getting a ton of ice time — something he would not get on more talented teams.

The issue is making sure that helps a player, instead of hurting him by throwing him into situations he's not ready for.

"(It) definitely helps kids' progress," said Dennehy. "(Well) it depends on who they are. Some freshmen in our program, it can hurt your progress. There are games you should sit out that you don't, and the only weeapon a coach really has as a teaching tool is ice time. I can tell you to do something all you want, but the only thing that will motivate you is sitting next to me or in the stands.

"But Ricci understands so many nuances of the game that are so difficult to teach."

Ricci has seven goals and 20 points, which leads the team. It's second in Hockey East among freshmen, behind Boston University's Brandon Yip. And he's had a penchant for big goals, too.

Dennehy pointed to senior Matt Johnson's 11 power-play goals, many of which Ricci had a hand in.

"Probably eight were backdoor passes from Ricci to Johnson," he said. "It wasn't anything we designed, it was just a feel for both players. Ricci makes plays — you see it developing; guys on the ice think he can't make that pass, then holy smokes, he just made that pass."

Ricci's linemates have shifted. He's no longer playing 5-on-5 with Johnson, but has been teamed with fellow freshman Mickey Rego and sophomore Jordan Fox, as Dennehy tries to find something that will spark his young team to a decent finish.

If there are deficiencies for the 5-foot-9, 170-pounder from Brampton, Ontario, it's his skating. But he makes up for it in other ways.

"He's a great face off guy, he has good hockey strength," Dennehy said. "He reminds me of (former ECAC rookie of the year from Cornell) Kyle Knopp. He might be better than Kyle because he might be a better power-play player. He really understands the power play. He has great vision, a little nastiness, and he sees everything.

"He'll get stronger. He'll get thicker. But he doesn't need to. He's strong enough now for our level. He might need a couple more pounds to withstand the day-in, day-out rigors of a college schedule. But it hasn't worn him out."

With a bright future seemingly ahead of him, Dennehy said the job for him and the coaching staff now is, make sure they don't mess Ricci up — and help ensure that he realizes his full potential by getting better each season.

"Our staff recognized early that we had a pretty special player," Dennehy said. "We owe it to him to coach him. This isn't about a free pass.

"There isn't a freshman in the league I would trade him for."

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