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Tuesday, March 5, 2024
The Observer

Talented freshmen give experienced Irish a boost heading into new season

Christina Sayut | The Observer

Notre Dame hockey begins a new season this weekend. Ranked No. 20 in the nation, the Irish will host Clarkson on Saturday (6 p.m.) and Sunday (5 p.m.). Seeking a return to the NCAA Tournament, head coach Jeff Jackson’s group joins a promising set of new faces with an experienced group of holdovers.

Leadership set to return

Notre Dame’s returning players have plenty of reason to enter this season with added motivation. Last year, the middling Irish made an improbable February run to secure home ice advantage for the Big Ten quarterfinals. But, after moving within a win of the semifinals, Notre Dame lost back-to-back games against Michigan State, missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time in eight years.

At the helm of a potential postseason return will be the captains, which the Irish named Monday afternoon. Senior forward Landon Slaggert will wear the “C,” while graduate student forward Trevor Janicke, graduate student goaltender Ryan Bischel and senior defenseman Jake Boltmann will serve as the alternate captains.

“Those guys are all mature, they all care and they’re good team guys,” Jackson said. “And that’s a good combination for veteran guys that are hopefully going to have great years for us.”

Up front, Notre Dame must replace three 15-point players in Chayse Primeau, Ryder Rolston and Jesse Lansdell. And from a personnel standpoint, the Irish lost their top two centermen.

The positionally flexible Janicke can fill both voids if needed. As Notre Dame’s top returning scorer, the Anaheim Ducks draft pick brings 143 games of experience and back-to-back 20-point seasons to the table. Trevor’s brother, junior Justin Janicke, gained top-line experience and tallied 14 points last year. Two third-liners, senior Grant Silianoff and junior Hunter Strand, also return and can pitch in.

But to avoid having the Big Ten’s worst offense for a second consecutive season, Notre Dame needs a bounce-back year from its leader. Slaggert, who amassed 48 points between his first two seasons, contributed only 13 last year. And though he flashed with a five-point February, the former third-round NHL draft pick fell silent in the postseason. As a preseason All-Big Ten honorable mention selection, Slaggert has a clear focus for 2023-24.

“Being around the net and trying to score more goals,” Slaggert said. “I had a lot of chances last year, and it was obviously a struggle for me to produce offensively. But I do think that the chances were there and it’s more of just finishing off those plays.”

The Irish defensive group lends itself to similar questions. Notre Dame graduated three of its eight blueliners last season, including captain and 19-point-scorer Nick Leivermann. Among the returners, Jackson mentioned a need for players like Boltmann and Zach Plucinski to step up in their senior seasons.

To help defensive matters, the two players that willed Notre Dame to home ice return. Senior defenseman Drew Bavaro scored two goals, including the clinching winner in overtime, at Michigan to end last season. As a preseason All-Big Ten second-teamer, Bavaro comes off a season in which he also posted 19 points.

And then there’s Bischel, the crown jewel of Notre Dame’s returning group. Unsurprisingly, the 2023 Big Ten Goaltender of the Year enters the year on the conference’s preseason first team. Prior to last season, Bischel’s first as the full-time Irish goalie, Jackson worked to instill “swagger” in him. Now, with opponents having plenty of film on him, Bischel must carry that swagger over from a brilliant senior campaign.

“He does things the right way. He’s very diligent in his approach to playing the game,” Jackson said. “He’s going to have to be at his very best for us to have success here in this first month until we get our system fully understood and get our special teams up to full speed.”

Finally, Notre Dame needs more from its special teams. Last year’s Irish power play held a sub-15% success rate into January, while the penalty kill ranked dead last in the Big Ten.

Newcomers add punch

The Irish added 10 newcomers to the program this season: eight freshmen and two graduate transfers. The freshman class, Notre Dame’s largest since the 2019-20 season, will play an especially important role in determining the team’s success this year.

Three NHL draft picks headline the new forwards, a group of dynamic skaters. After going undrafted in his first year of eligibility, Philadelphia Flyers fourth-round pick Cole Knuble struck for 30 goals and 66 points last season with the USHL’s Fargo Force. New York Islanders second-round selection Danny Nelson comes to South Bend after a successful career with the US National Team Development Program. Both will slot in at critical center roles this year.

“I think Cole Knuble is going to be a guy that’s going to contribute right away, and we’re going to need him to,” Jackson said. “Him and Nelson both are gonna have to step in and play key roles for us, and we’ll have to grow with them because they’re freshmen, and they’re going to make their mistakes occasionally.”

Jackson sees puck management and decision-making as early lessons for the Irish and their young centers but also knows that his recruits bring immense talent to the table.

“It’s easy to teach those types of [lessons],” he said. “You can’t teach some of the things they do have, like their hockey sense and compete level.”

Another draftee, Detroit Red Wings 2022 seventh-round pick Brennan Ali, will also challenge for ice time at center. Ali has spent time developing at the Avon Old Farms School and the USNTDP and spent last year with the USHL’s Lincoln Stars. Jackson sees Ali as someone who can help with the team’s speed.

Rochester, Minnesota, native Maddox Fleming also spent last season in the USHL, registering 47 points as an assistant captain with Sioux Falls. Rounding out the forwards are Green Bay Gamblers product Jayden Davis and familiar name Carter Slaggert, the third Slaggert brother to play for the Irish. Carter will suit up alongside older brother Landon this season.

The freshman class also features two defensemen who will contribute right away. River Forest, Illinois, native Paul Fischer was drafted in the fifth round by the St. Louis Blues this summer after starring with the NTDP the past two seasons. Henry Nelson, brother of fellow freshman Danny, spent the last two seasons with Lincoln, playing over 100 games.

With so much young blood on the roster, the Irish coaching staff prioritized adding a few more veterans to supplement its returners. Defenseman Ryan Siedem and forward Patrick Moynihan will provide a breadth of experience and fill key roles for the Irish this season, allowing young talent to develop.

Siedem spent three of the last four seasons on a talented Harvard team, playing in 99 games and registering 45 points from the back end. Last year, Siedem was a top-pair defenseman for the Crimson, playing alongside San Jose Sharks prospect Henry Thrun. 

“Siedem is going to have a lot of puck poise,” Jackson said. “He’s going to help us get out of our zone a little bit more consistently, which is one of the reasons we brought him in.”

Moynihan comes to Notre Dame after four seasons at Providence. A 2019 New Jersey Devils draft pick, Moynihan has shown goal-scoring ability throughout his career, topping out at 25 points two seasons ago. A reinvigoration of Moynihan’s scoring touch could go a long way for the Irish this year.

The new faces in the locker room have added to what captain Landon Slaggert called a “youthful energy” around the team to start the season.

“I think this is the closest that a team here at Notre Dame has been in a long time, I really do believe that,” Slaggert said. “I think we’ve got the right recipe of guys that really want to play for each other and really want to be around each other, so it definitely makes it easy to come to the rink, easy to play for one another, so I’m excited to see how that translates on the ice.”

Schedule will challenge

With the exception of the pandemic-affected 2020-21 season, Notre Dame has started every year since 2010 with an exhibition game. That won’t be the case this season as the Irish head straight into official gameplay with Clarkson.

Unlike last year’s even home-away split, the Irish will play nine of their 10 non-conference games at home. After visiting RIT next Saturday, Notre Dame welcomes preseason No. 1 Boston University to South Bend before finishing October against Mercyhurst.

“We’re gonna have our hands full in this first month even though they’re at home,” Jackson said. “It’s better to be at home to get acclimated to college hockey because we’re gonna have seven, potentially eight freshmen in the lineup.”

Black Friday brings No. 6 Boston College to South Bend, while the calendar year wraps up with Division I newcomer Augustana.

Then, of course, there’s the ever-daunting Big Ten slate. Recall that four different teams scored eight or more goals in an NCAA Tournament game last season. They all play in Notre Dame’s conference.

Including the Irish, six of the Big Ten’s seven teams are ranked in the USCHO preseason poll. The one that isn’t, Wisconsin, should take a sizable step forward under head coach Mike Hastings after a dismal 2022-23.

To start league play, the Irish will head east to face No. 16 Penn State on Nov. 4-5. A week later, No. 13 Ohio State brings Big Ten action to Compton Family Ice Arena for the first time.

The biggest names on the conference ledger, No. 3 Minnesota and No. 5 Michigan, will close out Notre Dame’s regular season. Those two powerhouses also bookend the Boston College game for the Irish earlier in the season.

“It’s been difficult since we’ve been in the [Big Ten], but it’s going to be worse,” Jackson said. “In this league, if a team’s down for a couple of years, they get a new coach, and all of a sudden they go back in the right direction. So the teams that have been at the bottom in recent years are climbing now.”

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