There are plenty of good combinations in the world; duos that, together, are so much better than the sum of their respective parts. Ivy Leaguers and Sperry Top-Siders. Ebony and ivory. Foie gras and Sauternes. (Who am I kidding? Sauternes would be great with Raisin Bran.)
And so it is in hockey, too. Gretzky and Kurri. Gretzky and Messier. Gretzky and just about anything with a pulse. Unfortunately, the Great One doesn’t play in ECAC Hockey, but nonetheless there are a few especially dynamic duos that have really paced their teams thus far: Chase Polacek and Tyler Helfrich at RPI, Jeremy Welsh and Daniel Carr at Union, and Yale’s Broc Little and Denny Kearney.
So what does it take to be a hot item on the rink? Surprisingly, perhaps, it’s less about camaraderie than it is about cohesion.
“I think sometimes it matters more than others,” said RPI coach Seth Appert. “I’ve coached and been around guys that weren’t great friends… but had great chemistry on the ice. I think it really depends on the twosome. I do think playing together for an extended period of time helps, because you gain trust and you gain a comfort level with what the other’s going to do… but more than anything is the style of play, and do they complement each other? Some people might be great players, but if they do nothing to complement the other, then they’re just two great individual players, playing separate from each other.”
Yale head coach Keith Allain agreed, putting a bit of a different angle on the nature of the beast.
“I think it’s about that they read the game the same way. A lot of players see the game in different ways, and you’ve got to find guys that see the game the same way and put ’em together.”
These tandems are clearly reading from the same pages, and writing their own record books. They’ve each combined for eight goals, which is to say that one player was a first assist on the other’s goal, or vice-versa. (Yes, there are such things as second assists, but those are far less indicative of a player’s role in a score, and are notoriously inaccurate to boot.)
Let’s get in close for the poke-check on these potent prospects.
Capital District connection
The Engineers haven’t bullied their way through their six ECAC games just yet, but their 9-4-3 record has them ranked 14th in the nation after a big-time bashing of former leaguemate BU. A big source of RPI’s offensive production has come from seniors Polacek and Helfrich, as the former (and perhaps again?) Hobey Baker candidate Polacek has put up eight goals and 15 helpers, while Helfrich has nine goals with eight assists. Together, the pair has combined for the direct assist on half of its 17 combined goals, and is averaging one goal-connection every two games.
“They’ve had great chemistry together, no question about it,” said Appert. “They played together for most of their first two years, and then last year they didn’t play together that much. Those two have always had a good amount of chemistry together, and an ability to find each other.”
Great teammates and clearly gifted icers, this pair has matured together, learning and adjusting with each other’s strengths and weaknesses to become one of the most fearsome duos in the league.
“I would say earlier in their career, it was Tyler carrying the puck and holding the puck, and then finding Chase somewhere for a back-side one-time goal because of how good Chase shoots the puck,” recalled Appert. “But as they’ve matured, that’s changed a little bit: Chase’s assists are up dramatically this year in comparison to goals, and certainly part of that is because of the attention that’s been put on him by opponents, and I think that now this year it’s as often that Tyler is getting a pass from Chase – like against BU down by the side of the net – or Tyler’s going to the net to get a rebound goal or a chip-goal off a Chase attack. So it’s really evolved over its four years. Although Chase is a shoot-first player, and Tyler is a pass-first player, they’ve both added other dimensions to their game which have continued to complement each other.”
With so much attention on Polacek – and rightly so, he’s been the team’s top scorer three years running – it’s easy to lose Helfrich in the mix. All for the best, as far as the Engineers are concerned: Helfrich, for those of us who didn’t remember it off the bat, led ‘Tute in points as a frosh, while Polacek was second.
“Chase is Chase, you know, he’s our best player, and he’s continued to be that this year. I think everybody kind of thought that, well, Pirri and D’Amigo are gone, and how’s he going to continue to score? And yet, I think he’s on the same pace – if not higher – than he was last year.
I think the big element to our offensive success, and also to the duo of them working together, is how well Tyler has done this year. Tyler had a great freshman year, he had some adversity the last two years… but Tyler has been very very good the first half of this year. He’s played hard, he’s won puck battles, and he’s always had a really good ability to see the ice and distribute the puck. His goal totals have increased this year, and I think that’s because of his willingness to pay the price to have the puck more, and to go to those hard areas.”
Up the road in Schenectady, Welsh and Carr are also connecting with each other at a rate of a goal every two games for the 12th-ranked Dutchmen. Unlike the other two tandems, however, these players are each underclassmen: Welsh, a sophomore, has already surpassed his 10-9-19 line from all of last year, scoring 11 goals with 12 assists in 16 games this fall. The rookie Carr is up to 19 points as well, by way of 10 goals and nine helpers. So far this year, they’ve fed each other four times apiece, accounting for 40 percent of their total production.
But full credit wouldn’t be due without also accounting for the third member of the line, freshman Josh Jooris. Jooris’ 13 assists lead Union, and the trio has made life very hairy for the Dutchmen’s 13 opponents.
“The chemistry on that line is between all three players,” stated coach Nate Leaman. “Josh has tremendous vision, Dan and Jeremy both can make plays and they both have real good releases on their shots. They’re a dynamic line and they work hard too, so that’s a good combination. They work extremely hard.”
Like Appert and Allain before him, Leaman dismissed the idea that off-ice cohesion factors into on-ice results. Heck, these players barely knew each other’s names as the red lights flashed.
“Dan and Jeremy and Josh didn’t meet until they got on campus this year, until that first practice where they played together, so I think it’s an on-ice thing,” observed the coach. “I think it’s more about complementing each other’s style, but it’s also about working hard enough. I just know in our case, those three guys all work extremely hard to get the puck back, they’re kinda puck-hounds. That’s what makes their skill and their talent level come out, and what makes them productive: It’s more about how they work to get the puck, how they work when they have the puck, and it enables their talent and their skill levels and their playmaking ability to come out.”
Through genius or luck, Leaman found a good thing from Day 1 in assembling this lethal line.
“They were together the first game of the year. I think I might’ve broken them up for one game… but I went right back to it,” he said.
“I feel they can produce on the rush, or from offensive-zone play. I think they’re a good line in transition off turnovers as well. They have the ability to find one another, they move the puck well, and that creates even more speed. Dan and Welshy, they have pretty good releases, so they have the ability to score goals from maybe a little bit further out than other guys.”
The finishing ability was never clearer than on October 8… and December 10… and December 11. Those are the three dates in which Jooris, Welsh, and Carr, respectively, buried hat tricks.
“All three of them have had hat tricks at different times, so that’s pretty extraordinary. I don’t think I’ve ever had a line at Union where every player’s had a hat trick at different points in the season,” Leaman mused.
“I think it’s a three-person thing; it really is. Especially when you watch us play our last four or five games, those three guys can find one another so well on the ice, and they can deliver the puck to one another right on the tape in tight areas and make tight-area plays. I think that’s what makes them a little bit unique: They can do things quickly, they all think the game quickly, and they work to get the puck back.”
Leaman focuses on the unit’s ability to play as a singularity, but he admits that there are, of course, some individual differences between its components.
“Welshy is a little bit more of a physical presence at 6’3″, but Josh and Dan are really good at hounding the puck and forcing teams out of their comfort zone,” he assessed. “Because of that, I think think Welshy might be more of a physical presence, but it’s really all three of them that can create a turnover or make a play when we get in [the offensive zone].”
Yale is blessed with the Little-to-Kearney connection, but it must be said, there is more in the Bulldogs bullpen than that explosive pair. Sophomore Andrew Miller has built quite a rapport with not one, but two teammates in junior Brian O’Neill and senior Chris Cahill.
“I think one of the things that makes us good as a team is that we get production from more than one place,” said the head coach of the nation’s No. 1 team – as well as its national World Junior team – Keith Allain. “Broc and Denny have played together since they came in the door, I think they played a little bit in midget hockey together too, so I think there is a definite chemistry there. Andrew Miller’s such a great playmaker, he and Brian played together last year, so I’m not surprised at that; Chris is learning more and more how to read off of Andrew, so you’re seeing some production there as well.”
As for Yale’s spotlight subjects, Little and Kearney have 16 goals and 37 points between them, including eight goals scored in tandem. To be more specific, Little has scored on five direct feeds from Kearney, and three the other way around.
“They are dangerous in a couple of ways. They’re dangerous in the transition from our zone to neutral-ice, I think Broc reads when Denny’s about to recover the puck, Denny knows where Broc is so he starts to jump to space, but they also make some nice plays in the offensive zone together,” Allain described. “I think Broc’s real good at jumping into space, and Denny’s real good at finding him. Whether it’s back-door or net-front or low in the offensive corner or in the neutral zone, I think that’s what makes them good, is it’s not one thing.”
The top offense in the country, with 4.92 goals a game (and let it be said, second-best D with 2.08 goals against), is a bottomless well of production. Miller-to-O’Neill and/or Cahill is just one (or two?) more example, but considering the numbers, these are examples worth noting: Miller/O’Neill have paired up for five goals, while Miller/Cahill boast four.
“Andrew’s really good at controlling the pace of the game when he has the puck, so if he needs to play a quick game, he can; if he needs to slow things down and wait for his linemates to get open, he has that ability as well, so that makes him dangerous,” praise Allain of his developing star.
“One of the things I really like about our team is that I think we do play a good team game. We work at it on a daily basis, and we get some results as a result of that.”
Clearly: They’re running away with No. 1 for a reason.
The other dangerous duos
Brown: Jack Maclellan-Dennis Robertson – five goals
Clarkson: Brandon DeFazio-Louke Oakley – four goals
Colgate: Robbie Bourdon-Corbin McPherson – four goals
Cornell: John Esposito-Joe Devin – two goals
Dartmouth: Nick Walsh-Eric Robinson – four goals
Harvard: Michael Biega-Alex Killorn – three goals
Princeton: Mike Kramer-Taylor Fedun – four goals
Quinnipiac: Yuri Bouharevich-Spencer Heichman – four goals
St. Lawrence: Kyle Flanagan-Greg Carey – three goals