Last year was a good year that turned into a great one late for Notre Dame hockey, as they caught fire in the postseason and reached the Frozen Four in dramatic fashion before running into the Denver freight train in the semifinals.
That was their last year in Hockey East, as the Irish officially began an athletic alignment with the Big Ten Conference for the first time in school history on July 1. I’m already on record as hating the idea of that B1G logo on Notre Dame uniforms for any number of reasons, but since there’s nothing I can do about that now, we will cast that grievance aside for the time being as we preview the 2017-18 season, which starts tonight when the Irish face Alabama-Huntsville.
At first glance, the roster is crazy young for this team. Only 13 upperclassmen on the whole roster, easily less than half the players. That being said, the bulk of last year’s offensive contributors are back. Last year’s leading scorer Anders Bjork is off to the Boston Bruins (where expectations are high for him), but the next seven players on ND’s scoring leaderboard return, paced by 40-point men Jake Evans and Andrew Oglevie, who join Jordan Gross on the B1G preseason watch list. Defenseman Dennis Gilbert, who didn’t score a goal but had 22 assists and led the team in plus-minus with a whopping +27, is also back.
The real question comes in goal. There have been few better in school history than Cal Petersen. He posted a 2.21 career goals-against average, and his 2.22 was 18th in the country last year. More to the point, he played all but 19 minutes of last season between the pipes, more than any other Division I netminder but one. And he’s gone, off to play for the L.A. Kings. The ‘incumbent’ goalie, as it were, is Cale Morris, who played those other 19 minutes and allowed one goal in that time.
Morris, though, may not end up the starter as highly-sought freshman Dylan St. Cyr joined the program this year. (St. Cyr is the son of former goaltender Manon Rheaume, who made headlines in the early 1990s by playing in a couple of preseason games with the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning, the first woman to get an NHL look. She also won silver in women’s hockey for Canada in the 1998 Olympics.) Morris and St. Cyr split time in ND’s exhibition game against the USNTDP U18 team last week, which the Irish won 4-3. It seems unlikely either will come close to monopolizing the position like Petersen did.
I don’t know if this says more about ND’s strength among its skaters or the overall weakness of the B1G (after all, there is a reason they allowed the Irish to join as an affiliate member), but the league preseason poll betrayed less concern about the Irish’s goaltending than I have. ND ranked behind only league power Minnesota in the poll.
Notre Dame will play the bulk of its schedule against foes in the Big Ten, as you’d expect. In fact, they only have five non-conference foes all year: Alabama-Huntsville, Denver, Sacred Heart, Nebraska-Omaha (those 4 are consecutive and all at home), and RPI on the road. By the wayside goes the Irish’s usual weekend home-and-home with Western Michigan, which for me was always a highlight. Unlike the larger Hockey East, the B1G, with only seven schools, can go double round-robin, so you’ll see a lot of conference games. There are even league games set for October, though ND doesn’t start conference play until facing Ohio State the first weekend of November.
I do find two particular facets of this slate interesting. One is that there is not a single member of Notre Dame’s former conference on it. We have no idea if one side was more excited than the other one was for ND to leave Hockey East, and we probably never will, but I find it interesting that ND plays several non-league teams farther away than the Easterners are, without playing anyone in their former league.
The second thing I found interesting about the schedule, and I concede I probably should have already known this, is that ND kept their TV agreement with NBC when they joined the Big Ten. BTN will air several ND hockey games this year, but they’re all road games for the Irish as the home games are still under NBC’s purview. Many of those home games will stream on the NBC Sports app and a handful will air on NBCSN. I confess that the fact that ND convinced the B1G to let them keep their NBC deal softens me a bit on joining the conference in hockey. It gives the Irish a slight but still noticeable advantage in national exposure over the rest of the league, which should be a good thing for recruiting and is certainly a good thing for fans.
While our attention will justifiably be on the football team the next couple of months, don’t forget to take a peek at the ice in that time and see how the Irish measure up with a veteran offense, a new goalie and a new conference.