At this time last year, the ASU hockey team was considered a virtual lock for its second straight NCAA Tournament bid. We all know what happened.
As the summer went past, and they slowly started resuming sports, at least at the professional level. At the college level, it was not quite assured. However, with college sports being almost as big a business as professional sports, we all knew they would try to find a way. It would all really come down could they play football. Eventually peer pressure (and TV money) forced the schedule to happen. And once that did, schools decided to move schedules around and do whatever they could to play each season. Even if it was out of season.For example, the Pac-12 volleyball season is going on right now, instead the fall. The Ivy League schools decided to shut everything down. The most common strategy was for teams to play only conference games. That worked to various degrees. Unless you were an independent. There are not a lot of independent teams in college sports. Notre Dame & BYU are football independents, but they do basically play a set schedule every year. For the 20-21 season there were two schools that were independents in hockey, LIU (in their start-up year, no less) and Arizona State. Both schools were able to unofficially attach themselves to a conference to get their season in. And as of this weekend, both did, to varying degrees of success.
LIU play a combination of Atlantic Hockey & ECAC teams winning three of thirteen games. ASU playing an all Big Ten schedule finished with seven wins and three ties. With seven wins, there will not be another trip to the NCAA tournament for ASU this year. The Sun Devils, ended up the season playing 26 of 28 scheduled games…all 26 on the road, as most of you know.
The first half of the season saw a 36 day road trip, to which no matter how much credit they get, Jon Laughner & Andrew Melanson (equipment manager & hockey operations director) it will not be enough…ever. It also saw a few games get away from ASU for various reasons. Games that had they won, there might have been tournament discussion, but alas they did not. There was a four game stretch that saw a game lost with five seconds left at Notre Dame, two games lost in crushing style at Penn State in OT, And a tie at Ohio State, where ASU was the better team. With just those four games, the season might have been different. They weren’t.
There were a lot of expectations with this team, even with the way the schedule broke down. I certainly thought they would win more. I thought that going into the season they were a better team than at least three of the Big Ten teams. It did not play out that way though. That’s not to say that there were not some big things that came out of the season.
First of all, kudos to everyone involved at ASU…28 games scheduled, and not one of the games were missed because of issues that involved an ASU player. The only two that were missed were due to COVID issues with another school. ASU did have their share of injuries and illness, by the time they got to the second Minnesota series, they were down to eleven healthy bodies. Hard to beat anyone that shorthanded, let alone Minnesota. Johnny Walker missed ten games after being injured early in the season. Cole Brady, dealt with mono for a chunk of the first half of the season. Willie Knierim missed a half dozen games or so. Matthew Kopperud, who led the country in goal scoring or was near the top for the first half of the season missed four or five games. Sean Dhoogie missed the last two weeks of the season and so on. Now the coaches and players are not making excuses, but you still have to keep things in perspective.
In the long run, the 20-21 season will be a success, if for no other reason than there are shovels in the ground. And while we are still dealing with the tail end of the pandemic (hopefully) by the time the 21-22 season starts, there should be clear visible progress on the construction site. A season, by the way, which has ASU playing 18 home games. And scheduled to play more home games in a season than road games for the first time ever.
In 20-21, once he was fully healthy freshmen Cole Brady showed why the New Jersey Devils made him a fourth-round pick. With some of the goaltending issues that they had early in the season, that could have made a difference, too. Maybe not getting into the tournament different, but 11-12-3 is still a lot better than 7-16-3. It certainly sounds better.
I think you will see a much different Ryan O’Reilly next year with a full normal off season behind him. I don’t think he realizes, yet, just how big and strong he is. Same goes for all of the freshmen. A relatively normal off season will vastly (or should) improve their games.
Next season, unless some even more bizarre than this season occurs, the team will never again have to deal with as much adversity.
Having dealt with that adversity, every member of this team should walk out of the end of this season with its head held high. The amount of focus and discipline it to get through this season was phenomenal. And did while being among the least penalized teams in the country. Something you have not always been able to say about an ASU team.
There will likely be a lot of change on this roster next season. Despite the fact that all of the seniors can come back, we already know two will not be. We know that four players, at least are coming in and likely one or two more. There will be transfers. Heck, there will transfers all over college hockey, not just at ASU. I think it will be a crazy off season in college hockey. And I am sure that there will be one or two blog posts just on those.
For now, this post sees the end of another ASU hockey season. The end of the fifth full season of ASU hockey at the NCAA level. Was it what we all wanted? No. Not even close, but you know what it was? It was another season of ASU hockey. I still get that giddy Christmas morning feeling, every time I type that phrase. And I don’t see it changing anytime soon. As they used to say in Brooklyn every year until 1955 (when the Dodgers finally beat the Yankees):
WAIT ‘TIL NEXT YEAR!