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Thursday, May 23, 2024
The Observer

Irish hockey misses NCAA Tournament, turns focus toward 2023-24

Meghan Lange | The ObserverThe Notre Dame hockey team convenes at the bench during its game against Ohio State on Feb. 11 at Compton Family Ice Arena.Notre Dame hockey’s 2022-2023 season came to a crushing early end on March 5, when the team suffered a 4-2 loss to Michigan State in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. The loss eliminated the Irish from the postseason and left them on the outside of the NCAA Tournament for only the third time in the last decade.

It was a frustrating and disappointing end to a season marred by inconsistency. Playing against the most difficult schedule of opponents in the nation, the Irish were never able to build momentum towards a playoff push. The Irish found themselves fighting to stay above the .500 mark for most of the season and were in a dire situation after getting swept by Michigan State in East Lansing in early February.

Notre Dame rebounded, improbably picking up at least two points in each of their last four games of the season against No. 7 Ohio State and at No. 4 Michigan. Playing at home against the Spartans, Notre Dame won game one of the best-of-three Big Ten first round series but dropped the next two.  

In both of their final two losses, the Irish scored the first goal early but were unable to find any more scoring until Michigan State had built multi-goal leads. In the contest that ended their season, Notre Dame did not score a goal at 5-on-5. The game was a microcosm of the scoring troubles that had pained the Irish all season. Despite a power-play that scored at a steady 20.3% clip, Notre Dame averaged 2.3 goals per game, eighth-worst nationally.  

“You know, we basically dropped a goal a game, average wise, from last year,” said head coach Jeff Jackson, who completed his 18th season behind the Irish bench and 28th in college hockey this year. “We have to find a way to generate more scoring. And it's not just about scoring chances, it's about generating more scoring. And I think it applies to a lot of different areas in our game, it isn't just about, you know, offensive zone play or rush. I think it starts with our breakout and coming out of our zone, we have to generate more chances off transition. And we weren't as good of a cycle team as we've been in past years. So there are some specific areas that we have to address from a tactical perspective.”

Not all of the scoring issues are tactical, however. While the Irish have undeservedly been branded with the reputation for suffocating offense in favor of a defensive-minded style, Notre Dame has also had to deal with personnel losses. In each of the last two seasons, the Irish have lost their leading goal scorer prior to graduation. Last year, Max Ellis signed early with the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Alex Steeves did the same the year prior.

Next season, the Irish again face losing a key scorer early. Junior forward Ryder Rolston — who might have led the team in scoring had he not suffered a season ending upper body injury against Wisconsin in late January — will leave the team after three years, signing with the Chicago Blackhawks.

Junior forward Ryder Rolston forechecks during his final collegiate game against Wisconsin on Jan. 28 at Compton Family Ice Arena.

Leadership departs and returns

Joining Rolston in departing is a long list of seniors and graduate students who have formed the ethos of the team’s culture the last two seasons. Defenseman Ben Brinkman, forward Jackson Pierson and forward Chayse Primeau, who all spent one year with the Irish, will move on. As will two-year graduate transfers forward Jack Adams and defenseman Chase Blackmun.

Team captain and top defenseman Nick Leivermann departs after five seasons with the Irish, and hard-working forwards Solag Bakich and Jesse Lansdell leave after a full four years. Lansdell is the only one of the nine departing players who will remain in college hockey next season, as he plays out his eligibility with the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

The Irish will return 19 skaters from this season’s roster, including two key figures in starting goaltender Ryan Bischel and forward Trevor Janicke. Both will play their fifth year of eligibility for Notre Dame. Bischel was perhaps the brightest spot in Notre Dame’s season this year, starting every game in goal while posting a 2.39 goals-against-average and a phenomenal .931 save percentage. His 1,183 saves were the most of any goalie in the country.

Senior goaltender Ryan Bischel watches the puck closely during Notre Dame’s Big Ten Quarterfinal loss to Michigan State on March 5 at Compton Family Ice Arena.

“I think it's huge,” Jackson said of Bischel returning. “I mean, obviously, just based on what he did for us this past year, with his on-ice performance, but he has grown as a young man too. He definitely has the potential to be a better leader for us. This year, I think it was really important for him to get his confidence to be that number one guy. But to be honest with you, I think he's grown to where he'll be a candidate to be a captain for next year as well.”

Janicke, meanwhile, helped to pace the team in scoring, tying for the team lead with eight goals and adding 14 assists. He is capable of scoring even more, having netted 15 goals the year prior.

“You know, he's a good player for us: he plays in all situations, he was a captain this past year,” Jackson said. “I think with him and Ryan, some of the core guys that we have coming back — Landon Slaggert is going to be a senior, Zach Plucinski hopefully can take another step with that junior class, Jake Boltmann on defense — you know, we need those guys to take another step as players. And in some ways, hopefully, we'll get a little bit more production out of each and every one of them as well.”

Irish senior forward Trevor Janicke (27) takes a face off during Notre Dame’s Big Ten Quarterfinal win against Michigan State on March 3 at Compton Family Ice Arena.

Nine new skaters next season

The Irish will bring in a recruiting class of two defensemen and seven forwards next season. They also added two veteran players out of the transfer portal to supplement some of those key departures. In mid-April, Notre Dame added forward Patrick Moynihan, a New Jersey Devils prospect, from Providence. Then in early May, defenseman Ryan Siedem of Harvard announced that he would be joining the Irish. Moynihan and Siedem both have one year of eligibility remaining.

Moynihan will bring some experience to a group of forwards that will be largely young next year, and he may be especially important in light of Rolston’s departure. Over his four seasons with the Friars, Moynihan tallied 37 goals, including seven last season. 

Siedem, meanwhile, will provide a veteran presence that may help to fill the hole left behind by the graduation of Leivermann. Siedem played mainly on Harvard’s top pair last season, on the right side of San Jose prospect Henry Thrun. 

Both players are examples of an astute use of the transfer portal by a Notre Dame coaching staff that does not want to rely upon the it, but still recognizes its importance.

“I think it’s good for emergency basis, when you lose a kid to pro hockey that you're not expecting to lose, [because] you're not going to replace that player with an incoming freshman that's going to have any type of an impact, because they're just not out there, and plus you got to get them through Notre Dame admissions, so that's another part of it,” Jackson said. “For us, it's easier to bring in one or two kids maybe on an emergency type basis. We've currently done that, you know, to replace Ryder Rolston. Because we're not going to find a player of his caliber out there, that's an incoming freshman.”

The incoming freshmen, though, will certainly be asked to provide some punch for the Irish. The seven members in the class of 2027 joining the squad form the largest freshman group the Irish have had since the 2019-20 season.

“This will be the first real solid freshman class we've had in a few years just because of the transfer portal and [we] tried to replace kids that we weren't expecting to lose,” Jackson said. “A lot of things came into play there, but we have a freshman and sophomore class that are very small right now. We haven't had a real solid, you know, recruiting class, and probably the last one would be probably our junior class.”

Four of the new Notre Dame skaters come to South Bend from the top flight of juniors, the United States Hockey League (USHL): forwards Brennan Ali, Maddox Fleming, Cole Knuble and defenseman Henry Nelson. Ali is a 2022 seventh round draft choice of the Detroit Red Wings. 

The remaining three — forwards Danny Nelson and Carter Slaggert, and defenseman Paul Fischer — come from the National Team Development Program. Danny Nelson is the younger brother of the aforementioned Henry. Carter Slaggert is the younger brother of current Irish forward Landon, former Irish forward Graham, and son of assistant coach Andy.

All three won a gold medal for the United States national team at the Men’s IIHF Under-18 World Championships last month in Switzerland, and Danny Nelson especially stood out. Nelson scored four goals in seven games and was named player of the game in the team’s gold medal game victory over Sweden and its quarterfinal win over Czechia.

“We're excited about this class, I think that this class is going to hopefully get us back on an upward trend with our recruiting, to where we can bring in similar classes every year,” Jackson said. “Obviously, the numbers change based on the number of scholarships available, and the number of seniors graduating, but I really like this class. And I think that they're going to help us in the areas where we need the most help.”

BC, BU headline 2023-24 non-conference play

Looking ahead to next season, Notre Dame will again have to face the challenge of an overpowered Big Ten conference. The conference was a large part of the reason why the Irish ended the season with the best strength of schedule in the nation. Notre Dame also had a non-conference schedule that was no easier, something that ultimately wore the team down as the season grew old. 

Next year’s non-conference schedule sees the Irish match up at home against Boston University for two games, against Boston College over Thanksgiving, and against Division I newcomer Augustana over New Year’s. The Irish will only have one road non-conference series, at RIT. Playing much of the non-conference slate at Compton Family Ice Arena may lighten the burden in comparison to last year. 

“Our fans will be excited,” Jackson said. “It is a pretty decent non-conference schedule for home weekends. Obviously the Big Ten is our biggest challenge to deal with on a regular basis, but all in all, I think we will have a little bit more manageable non-conference schedule, because most of it’s at home. But the other part of it is we've got some good teams also coming in to play, so it should be a good schedule for our fans.”

The official non-conference schedule for the 2023-24 season will likely release some time in late August. The full slate of conference games will come out in mid-September.