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Friday, June 14, 2024
The Observer

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Irish hockey enters summer after missing NCAA Tournament for second straight year

Jackson promotes sense of urgency as Irish seek postseason return

Notre Dame hockey finds itself in unfamiliar territory this offseason.

For the first time in veteran head coach Jeff Jackson’s 19-year tenure, the Irish are staring down the barrel of a two-year NCAA Tournament drought. Notre Dame’s drive to make it back to the national tournament sputtered out in the Big Ten quarterfinal round for the second straight season, leaving an air of disappointment and urgency at Compton Family Ice Arena this spring. 

“I was really pleased with the chemistry of the team and the kids that we have. They all came to work every day, had a good attitude — everything was positive in that regard,” Jackson told The Observer in late April. “I feel good about the group but disappointed in the end result. I just felt like we should have still been playing when we got to the NCAA Tournament. I mean, I really felt that this team was capable of that.”

After a string of four consecutive victories over Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State to end January, the Irish did indeed seem poised for a run. With a 14-11-2 record on February 2, Notre Dame was in the mix for home ice in the Big Ten Tournament and potentially an NCAA bid. But the Irish struggled down the stretch, losing eight of their last nine, and they ended their season in the Big Ten first round, swept by Michigan. 

Scoring, discipline hinder Irish

Some of the late-season difficulties can be attributed to trouble scoring goals. In six of those final nine games — and in 16 of their 19 total losses— the Irish were held to two goals or fewer. They finished the season averaging 2.81 goals per game, a slight improvement on last year’s 2.3 goals per game.

“It's been a pretty consistent thing over the last three or four years, where we're just not scoring enough goals,” Jackson said.

Some of that is personnel. Jackson admitted that the Irish have lost a number of high-profile recruits in recent years, and that has contributed to their scoring woes. But the coach also offered a number of on-ice points that he would like to see his team improve upon going forward, including puck possession.

“I don't think we possessed the puck as much as we should have,” Jackson said. “I don't think that we had enough presence in the offensive zone, and especially net-front presence, in winning that area of the ice where goals are scored.”

Notre Dame was also hampered by discipline issues, again especially late in the season. The Irish were whistled for an average of 12.6 penalty minutes per game, 13th-most nationally. They also took six 5-minute major penalties and six 10-minute game misconducts over their last 10 games.

“I just think discipline as a whole was not as good as it should have been,” Jackson said. “It's not like we were having issues with the guys off the ice or in the classroom. There were no discipline issues, except for [that] they just didn't quite grasp the importance of us playing with discipline, because discipline comes in a number of different areas.”

Those areas, according to Jackson, stretch far beyond just penalty minutes. They also include line changes, and yes, puck management too. 

“It's our discipline with puck management and our discipline with the type of penalties we've taken, and I think our [line] changes fall into that as well — I think those three things probably were significant in our struggles when we couldn't score and in winning hockey games.”

Seniors skaters pass the torch

This season does leave the Irish with plenty of positives, though, and a blueprint for the way forward. Under the leadership of graduate transfer defenseman Ryan Siedem and senior defenseman Drew Bavaro, the Irish improved in their breakouts and neutral zone play. Senior captain Landon Slaggert enjoyed a breakout year, scoring 20 goals to earn a contract with the Chicago Blackhawks at the conclusion of the season. 

Perhaps most importantly, the Irish successfully integrated an eight-member freshman class that had an immediate impact. By the regular season’s end, all eight were in the lineup almost every night.

That group was headlined by centers Cole Knuble and Danny Nelson, who stepped into the team’s number one and two center roles right from the opening puck drop. Nelson, a New York Islanders second-rounder, found his scoring touch especially quickly, tallying nine goals and 23 points. The sharp-shooting Knuble, a Philadelphia Flyers draftee, took some time to heat up but still finished with nine goals and 20 points. Both will be cornerstones at center as Notre Dame moves forward.

“You definitely want to be strong up the middle, and those two guys give us real strength,” Jackson said.

Notre Dame hopes that its strength up the middle will provide some stability from the get-go next year, especially considering that it will have some production to replace. The Irish graduated 10 players from this year’s roster, including Slaggert, Siedem and Bavaro, as well as key forwards Trevor Janicke and Patrick Moynihan. Of the 10 departing players, only one will remain in college hockey. Defenseman Jake Boltmann plans to transfer to Northeastern University for his final season of eligibility. 

All in all, the Irish will need to replace three of their top six defensemen, a goaltender in Ryan Bischel who started each of their last 73 games, and over half of their 101 goals from last season. 

Among the 11 returning forwards, the Irish will look to rising seniors Tyler Carpenter, Hunter Strand and Justin Janicke to set the tone next season. Grant Silianoff will also return for a graduate season, adding some sandpaper to the lineup. But by and large, it will be the rising sophomores — Nelson, Knuble and their classmates Brennan Ali, Carter Slaggert, Maddox Fleming and Jayden Davis — who will form the team’s core up front. 

“We just brought in maybe one of the best freshman classes in the country this past year,” Jackson said. “We have a number of guys there in that younger group that hopefully can start building us back to where we need to get to.” 

As for newcomers, Jackson says Notre Dame’s recruiting class is still in flux. Forward Jack Larrigan is likely to join the team this summer, as are defensemen Jaedon Kerr and Jimmy Jurcev. All three played this season in the USHL. 

Notre Dame also added three skaters out of the transfer portal who they hope will have an impact. Two are graduate student forwards, Blake Biondi and Ian Murphy. A former Montreal Canadiens draft pick, Biondi arrives after four years at Minnesota-Duluth, where he topped out at 17 goals his sophomore year. Murphy earned first and second-team All-Ivy honors in his final two years at Princeton. 

“With a few transfers that we have coming in and the returning guys we have, we're pretty solid up front, and then we just have to hope that some of those guys have good years,” Jackson said.

The Irish also added rising junior defenseman Axel Kumlin from Miami. The Swede will help shore up the right side of Notre Dame’s defense. Kumlin joins a defense corps that will undergo a similar passing of the torch as the forward group. Rising sophomores Paul Fischer, Henry Nelson and rising junior Michael Mastrodomenico can all expect to play larger roles next to upcoming seniors Zach Plucinski and Ryan Helliwell. Mastrodomenico in particular enjoyed a breakout late in the year, while Fischer factored into nearly every situation as a freshman.  

The future in goal

The biggest question Notre Dame faces, though, is undoubtedly in goal. It’s hard to underestimate the impact that netminder Bischel had for the Irish over the last two seasons, twice named a Richter Award semifinalist. 

“He'll go down as one of the best goalies we ever had here,” Jackson said.

He also leaves a gaping hole in net. With his eligibility up after this season, Bischel signed with the AHL’s Providence Bruins in March. With no other netminder on the roster that has a start to his name, the Irish will seek to fill the void through all possible means, bringing in a freshman and a transfer to supplement returning backup Jack Williams, a rising junior. 

Freshman Nick Kempf will join the Irish from the US National Team Development Program, where he started 26 games with an .897 save percentage. Draft-eligible in 2024, Kempf was ranked fourth among North American goalies by NHL Central Scouting. 

“Nick is going to be a great goalie, but he is going to be a true freshman goalie — a little bit challenging sometimes,” Jackson said. ”It's not that way all the time, but I think he's got a chance to be exceptional.”

The Irish also added rising junior Owen Say out of the transfer portal. Say comes to South Bend from Mercyhurst, where he started 31 games as a sophomore and posted a .913 save percentage. When he started against Notre Dame in late October, Say made no less than 50 saves on 54 shots and singlehandedly kept Mercyhurst in the game until overtime.

The two newcomers, along with Williams, will all compete for the number one position. In fact, the competition in goal will be representative of increased internal competition up and down the Irish roster.

“Having been out of the NCAA Tournament for two years, one of the things to get discipline back is to create more competition for jobs,” Jackson said. “I see competition at every position. Guys are going to be competing for opportunities for the lineup, for special teams. We intentionally wanted more competition.”

With more competition, Notre Dame hopes to create a sense of urgency indicative of where it feels the program falls. For Jackson, his staff, the players and all involved with the team, building on this season toward success next year is paramount. 

“We have to make sure that we're moving in a positive direction going into next year, there's no question about that,” Jackson said. "Because it's not acceptable for us to be out of the NCAA Tournament two years in a row.”