Providence Needs Defense to Compete
BOSTON When Nate Leaman looked at last year's Providence team, he wanted to be at .500 when the Friars broke for Christmas. After graduating the bulk of the team's forwards — many of whom helped the program win its first national title in 2015 — Leaman expected there to be a learning curve.
Thanks to a five-game unbeaten streak to close out the calendar year, which included a win and a tie against Denver, Providence entered the break 8-6-4. The Friars then finished the season going 14-6-3 in their final 23 games.
"We had 10 freshmen last year and that was a big part of it," Leaman said. "Then our goaltender, Hayden Hawkey, he was a sophomore but he essentially had never played to that point because he backed up Nick Ellis his freshman year. When you're young at key positions like that, you know you're going to struggle. Our goal was to get through Christmas above .500 and we did that the last weekend of the year. Then the guys went home, refreshed, and we came back and had a great second half."
The Friars enter this season with new faces on defense — Anthony Florentino, Kyle McKenzie and Josh Monk all graduated. Early-signee Jake Walman combined with them as the cornerstones for the program last fall, when the new forwards and goaltender grew accustomed to college hockey. Those four defensemen were the stalwarts, and the Friars depended on them.
With Hawkey and all but two forwards returning, that group will now have to shoulder the load for a younger defensive corps that Leaman hopes will find their stride early.
Junior Vincent Desharnais and sophomores Spenser Young and Jacob Bryson will be the cornerstones now, while newcomers Jeff Baum, Ben Mirageas and Jake Ryczek look to find consistent roles in the lineup.
Mirageas comes to Providence after being selected in the third round of this past summer's NHL Draft by the New York Islanders.
"The goal this year is pretty simple," Leaman said. "We turned over four defensemen and we have to make sure we bring those new guys along. A big chunk of our young guys last year were our forwards, and now we have a similar situation with our defense. We need to make sure that we can bring those guys along. I really believe the success of our team will depend on whether or not those guys come along.
"We obviously can't have guys like Bryson, Desharnais or Young get injured, because they're also going to have to shoulder a lot of the load, especially at the beginning. We're fortunate to get a transfer in Tommy Davis, who has some college experience. That will help us also. Then we need to bring Ben, Jeff and Jake along as quickly as we can. They all have good ability but there is so much learning at this level, especially for that position."
Perhaps the most important thing new college players need to learn is compete level. It's not that these players aren't competing in junior hockey, but for many Division I-caliber players, skill is something they have always been able to lean on.
Leaman mentioned a game last season against Merrimack that he thought taught his team some necessary lessons.
The Friars led 1-0 after two periods before Merrimack scored five goals in the third, en route to a 5-2 win.
"We're up 1-0 with about five minutes to go in the second period, and then we just turned it off," Leaman said. "I don't think we had a scoring chance until we pulled the goalie. We got into a defensive mode, we stopped attacking, and we were tired. That's what had me frustrated. We were a young team and we didn't know how to compete yet, and in a big-time league, you can't have that. I thought we were a lot better with that in the second half. That Merrimack game, we learned a lot from that Merrimack game. Especially a team like that. Mark (Dennehy) has those guys competing so hard for 60 minutes, if you turn it off against a team like that, you're in trouble, and we were.
"You need to learn how to compete consistently every shift. You need to learn that one or two shifts make a big difference in these games. You can't take shifts off or take breaks like maybe you could in juniors. You need to learn to battle for a puck. If you aren't willing to make second or third efforts battling on a puck, you aren't going to be very successful."