March 9, 2010 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Le Magnifique

Merrimack’s Da Costa Could Be the Best the Program Has seen

by Mike McMahon/Staff Writer

NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — The best ever? That’s a heavy statement to make about any player. But for Merrimack, a shifty Paris-born center named Stephane Da Costa might be the best player that has ever suited up for the 53-year-old program.

Before him came legends. Jim Vesey sits atop the program’s scoring list with an eye-popping 244 points in 140 games. Mike Reynolds potted an amazing 113 goals. Jim Hrivnak, Bob Magnuson, Tom Lawler, Rejean Stringer and seven others have been named All Americans.

And believe it or not, 13 players from Merrimack have signed NHL contracts.

Then there’s Da Costa; a 20-year-old undrafted center. As far as the NHL is concerned, he’s a free agent.

But Da Costa has the nation buzzing. He finished the regular season third in the nation with 1.42 points per game, which also led all rookies. He’s won Hockey East’s Rookie of the Month award all five months this season and should be a lock for not only the league’s Rookie of the Year, but national Rookie of the Year as well.

Simply put, he could be the best thing to happen to this program since it went Division 1.

“He’s probably the best player I’ve ever coached,” said Merrimack head coach Mark Dennehy after Da Costa sliced through three defenders to score the game winner in a 3-2 win over Vermont in February.

He’s bringing attention to North Andover. His five goals against Army in just his second collegiate game brought national headlines to publications like The Hockey News.

Not to mention the Warriors clinched their first playoff berth since 2004 with the second-highest finish (sixth) in school history, all while putting together a program-best 12 wins in Hockey East play.

“I wanted to come here and help the team win,” Da Costa said. “I liked that it was small. Hockey is not big (in France) so to come here and get to play and go to college is a dream.”

His mere presence on the ice forces opponents into a frenzy.

“He is a pretty talented player,” Northeastern head coach Greg Cronin said. “If he has the puck, he’s going to do something with it.”

But the best ever?

He might just be. Since the start of the season, Dennehy says he has never seen as many NHL scouts talk to one player as they have Da Costa. After his five-goal outburst against Army, it was as if a scouting convention took place at Lawler Arena. A normally empty corner of the rink was suddenly filled with men wearing suit pants, dress shirts, and jackets embroidered with logos of NHL teams.

And the thing is, they all believe he’s legit.

“Can he play in the NHL? Absolutely,” said one scout who asked to remain anonymous. “He needs to get stronger – and by that I mean upper body strength – but you just look at the skill, what he has now, he could play in the NHL if he adds some strength. I’m based East so I see a lot of these teams he’s playing (in Hockey East) and some have big, strong defenseman but even in (the AHL) it’s another level when it comes to strength and conditioning. I’m not sure his body is ready for that type of physicality yet, but if he gets it there, he’ll be an NHL talent for sure.”

Da Costa has been the biggest diamond in an impressive track record that Dennehy and has his staff have been able to recruit. Matt Jones and Joe Loprieno both left school to sign NHL deals with the San Jose Sharks and Joe Cannata and Kyle Bigos became Merrimack’s first NHL draft picks since 2002 this past summer.

Karl Stollery was named to the Hockey East All Rookie team and Chris Barton is among the scoring leaders in the league with 19 goals as a junior.

Suddenly, things are looking up.

On top of that, Dennehy may have recruited one of the biggest “diamonds in the rough” to ever play college hockey. Da Costa was on nobody’s radar.

But the best ever? It’s probably unfair to compare him with the greats like Vesey, Stringer and Reynolds – it was a different era and Da Costa hasn’t played nearly the amount of games – but it’s possible. The first record, of what could be many, was broken with his goal at Vermont, becoming the highest-scoring rookie in Merrimack’s history (Division 1).

There were just six games all year in which he didn't record a point and just four Hockey East games. The Warriors went 1-3 in league games where he didn't score - the only win was Friday's 5-0 victory over Providence - and the Warriors' power play finished the season third in the country at 22.9% after finishing with a 13.6% power play last season, which included an increase of 13 goals, all with Da Costa playing a major role.

The Warriors scored almost a point-per-game higher than last year (3.06 to 2.12) and for the first time in six years, the Warriors were not last in Hockey East in goals.

Of course, there are other factors as well. Barton's rise as a goal-scorer and emergence of scorers to fill out the top-three lines — Joe Cucci, Brandon Brodhag, Jesse Todd and Jeff Velleca, just to name a few — have also contributed to the rise in scoring.

But Da Costa had 14 multi-point games and finished with more points (43) this season than Merrimack had goals in its 2006-07 season (37).

If he stays the course, he could leave a legacy that few will ever come close to touching.

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