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State of the program: Depth needed

After a whirlwind spring, Miami once again has a full complement of coaches and within a few weeks its 2018-19 roster will likely by finalized.

But several unanswered questions still surround the RedHawks heading into the season as they hope to halt their run of three consecutive sub-.500 campaigns.

BoB takes a look at some of those issues in the summer 2018 edition of State of the Program.

Q: So what’s up with the struggles the past few years?

Grant Hutton (photo by Cathy Lachmann/BoB).

A: I would say the biggest issue for Miami since 2015 has been depth. The Josh Melnicks and Grant Huttons are as talented as anyone to don the Red and White, but when the RedHawks were qualifying for the NCAAs annually and winning conference titles, they essentially had five lines, four defensive pairings and a suburb goaltending duo.

Let’s look at the forwards from 2007-08, arguably the best offensive Miami hockey team ever. Here are the point totals of the top 12 forwards:

49-41-40
37-35-30
29-18-17
16-14-10

By the way, the 17-point scorer was Nathan Davis, who was hurt for half of his junior season, and the guy with 14 was Andy Miele, who played just 18 games his freshman year, coming in mid-season.

Now 2017-18:

33-30-29
20-19-16
15-10-6
4-4-4

Yes, there is more to forward-ing than racking up points, and yes, that was against CCHA competition and not the NCHC, but the dropoff is still stark.

Defense is much more subjective, but I was a huge fan of the pairings the 2009-10 team rolled out. Here’s how that blueline stacked up:

Chris Wideman
Vincent LoVerde
Joe Hartman
Cameron Schilling
Will Weber
Steve Spinell
Matt Tomassoni (F/D)

Name one of those guys who was easy to play against.

Last season the top-end defensemen were fantastic but opponents’ Grade-A chances were at least double those faced eight years prior.

Every season Miami has fared well in the postseason it has had two strong goalies.

In that 2007-08 season, Jeff Zatkoff posted a .933 save percentage. His backup, Charlie Effinger, went 6-0, 2.16 and .912 and still played fewer than 400 minutes.

Ryan Larkin (photo by Cathy Lachmann/BoB).

It was Jeff and Eff, then Cody and Connor, then Jay and McKay. Competition is healthy, and those tandems motivated and fed off each other.

Junior-to-be Ryan Larkin thrived as a freshman but was at .886 in 2017-18 and his backups were well below that mark. The last time a goaltending leader had posted a goals-against average above three was 2001-02. Larkin’s was 3.12.

Again, depth. Miami has been so deep in net it has typically rotated the past decade-plus. A strong showing by a No. 2 could’ve pushed Larkin to more success.

Now, people may say comparing 2017-18 to some of the best Miami teams is unfair, but those teams made deep runs in the NCAAs, and isn’t that the ultimate goal moving forward?

Q: Assuming you’re right – and you rarely are – why has depth been a problem the past few years?

A: The athletic department and/or the hockey team obviously felt like recruiting was a primary reason, as both assistant coaches were moved out of those roles as soon as last season ended.

I definitely think that was a large part of it, which pains me to say because Coaches Brekke and Petraglia bleed Miami red and worked so hard to keep this program on a successful course.

But a key to their demise was the incoming 2016-17 class, when the RedHawks needed 12 freshmen to replenish talent after suffering major losses at forward, defense and in net. Only seven of those players will dress as juniors this fall.

Q: Are there any other reasons high-end players aren’t coming to Miami?

A: Unfortunately, when a team isn’t performing well, it’s tougher to persuade the next Austin Czarnik to come to Oxford.

A lot of the negativity surrounding those sub-par teams over the past few seasons may have also stained the culture’s image to a degree.

Especially in the social media era, the hockey world is a small one and extremely tight-knit. Picking a college is a huge decision for an elite player and he’s going to balk at one that has perceived internal problems.

That said, bringing in new coaches could have a cathartic effect.

And the good news is that Miami is still an excellent school in a beautiful town, playing in a state-of-the-art facility that is the envy of the Division I world. Those attributes of this program will always steer quality recruits to Oxford.

Coach Enrico Blasi (photo by Cathy Lachmann/BoB).

Q: What is Coach Blasi’s status?

A: There are more rumblings each off-season, but he still has five years left on a multi-million dollar contract. That deal doesn’t expire until 2023.

So for those who want him out, he’s not going anywhere. Maybe if this losing trend continues for a couple more seasons, Miami would eat the final couple years on his contract. Maybe.

Personally, I thought his in-game coaching was markedly better last season. The team just didn’t have the guns to make a much-needed postseason run.

Q: Are these new assistants any good?

A: We’ll find out soon enough, won’t we?

To be fair, they’re inheriting a team of players that didn’t recruit, so it’s going to be tough to evaluate them for a couple of years.

Still just 34, Peter Mannino moves into the more revered role of associate head coach, which was Brekke’s position. He is a former goalie that won a Division I title with Denver, played eight years in the pros including a cup of coffee with three NHL teams, and this will be his third season behind the bench.

Coming from an assistant’s role at Nebraska-Omaha and having played at DU, he should be extremely familiar with the teams in this league and the types of players he will need to recruit to help Miami win in the NCHC.

The other thing with Mannino is several players previously committed to UNO may now come to Miami as soon as this fall. That could make a huge impact on a team that currently has just 15 skaters on its roster.

Joel Beal has been a D-1 assistant for Union and Sacred Heart the past seven seasons, so he has much more coaching experience.

It will be interesting to see where Miami draws its next generation of players from with these coaches at the helm. The RedHawks had a long-running Chicago-area pipeline, but those connections may have dried up and recent rosters have featured more of a Michigan flare.

Q: So is this team going to be better this year?

A: It’s really hard to say, especially with so many still-unfilled holes on the roster.

Phil Knies (photo by Cathy Lachmann/BoB).

It was very encouraging to see how well Miami played down the stretch, taking St. Cloud State to overtime in Game 3 on the Huskies’ home ice.

There was also a lot to like among the freshman class. Phil Knies posted 11 goals, Casey Gilling tallied 19 points and was a stud on defense and in the faceoff circle, and Ben Lown dished for 11 assists and was also a solid penalty killer.

Alec Mahalak and Rourke Russell showed lots of promise on defense, with Mahalak running the power play at times later in the season.

But nine players are gone from that 2017-18 team. Graduated are Louie Belpedio, Scott Dornbrock and Conor Lemirande, Kiefer Sherwood turned pro, Carson Meyer transferred and the team is not bringing back Willie Knierim, Bryce Hatten or the Alger brothers.

Exactly who is coming in this fall is still a huge question mark with several players possibly following Mannino to Oxford, and internet speculation is running amuck, so we’ll leave that for the next post.

The point is: That’s a lot of players to replace when a year ago Miami thought it would only lose three guys this off-season.

When the full roster is posted it will be easier to assess the 2018-19 version of the RedHawks.

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