BOSTON — It’s been an unusually eventful Christmas break for the Boston University men’s hockey program.
First, rumors swirled that senior Ahti Oksanen — the team’s leading scorer with nine goals — might be out of action indefinitely after suffering a shoulder injury in the team’s 4-1 win over previously undefeated and top-ranked Quinnipiac on Dec. 12. At that point, the team had already been without captain Matt Grzelcyk and sophomore Nikolas Olsson for significant chunks of the first semester due to injuries.
Then, apparently dissatisfied with his lack of a top-six forward role despite limited production over a season and a half with the Terriers, sophomore forward A.J. Greer left the team just before Christmas to play for Rouyn-Noranda in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
“He was a guy who was a good player who wanted a little bit more,” BU coach David Quinn said. “It’s unfortunate that it didn’t work out, but we wish him well. We think he’s a good player, and he thinks he’s a good player, but we may differ a bit as what we define as a good player.”
Shortly afterward, the team announced that junior forward Nick Roberto — who had been mysteriously sitting out all season — had in fact been suspended for the year for gambling on sports (though not on hockey).
But as the No. 11 Terriers get ready to kick off the second half at No. 5 Harvard on Thursday, Quinn said he sees plenty of reasons why the glass is mostly full and rising quickly. And that’s not just because the team is poised to bring in what may prove to be its best recruiting class ever next September, as at least three probable first-round NHL draft picks will be arriving. Quinn said the future is now.
For one thing, five current Terriers players and one future BU player competed in the World Junior Championship in Finland over the break, gaining valuable international experience. Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson played for Sweden, Brandon Hickey suited up for Canada, and defensemen Brandon Fortunato, Charlie McAvoy and recruit Chad Krys all played for the United States.
The other big news is that the program is bringing in two January freshman forwards, and both impressed at their first practice on Sunday. Shortly after Greer left, the program announced that 6-foot-1 Swedish native Oskar Andren would join the team after averaging almost a point per game for the Lone Star Brahmas in the NAHL over the last season and a half.
Then, over the weekend, BU officially added the 5-foot-7 Erik Udahl to the team’s roster. Udahl hails from nearby East Walpole, Mass., but had been playing for the Coquitlam Express in the BCHL, scoring 11 points in 33 games.
Although Jake Moscatel joined the team as a January transfer a few years back, you’d have to go back to Tommi Degerman in 1997 and Freddy Meyer in 2000 to find the last couple of freshmen to arrive in January for BU. If these two work out anywhere near as well as those two did, Terriers fans will be happy indeed.
The new arrivals had been in the works for a while.
“We’d been talking about bringing a guy in all semester, and then when A.J. left, it became more of a priority,” Quinn said. “We feel good about our team, and we want to give our team a chance to have success this season. We had a chance to bring in two good players, and we couldn’t pass it up.”
Quinn said he expects both players to play wing. “Udahl’s got great speed. He’s got good skill, too. He’s going to bring energy and a guy you can play at a pace.
“Oskar’s a strong, smart, skilled forward. We think that both of these guys can only help us this year, and obviously we think that there’s upside to both of them. They’ll have every opportunity to play.”
But will they be in the lineup Thursday? “We’ll see,” Quinn said. “[Sunday] was their first day of practice, so we’ll see how they do.”
There are also happy new year tidings on the injury front. Asked about Oksanen, Grzelcyk and Olsson, Quinn said all three might play against Harvard on Thursday.
“We’re inching toward getting healthier,” he said. “We’re not sure yet, but we’ll know more by Wednesday.”
That’s a far cry from the speculation about Oksanen being out for months and Olsson potentially missing much more time.
All of that said, there are still plenty of questions about who will be playing Thursday night — and how the World Junior players will be feeling after playing anywhere from five to seven games in about a week and a half. On top of that, all of them except Hickey will be playing two intense games on Monday and Tuesday before flying back Wednesday and trying to be ready to go Thursday.
“It’s going to be funny because none of these guys at the World Juniors are going to have a practice before we play on Thursday,” Quinn said. “We can’t practice our power play, and all those guys kill penalties, so it’s going to be throwing them into the fire on Thursday against a great Harvard team that just won a tournament and has had a great season so far.”
But that’s just the short-term impact of the World Juniors. “I fully expect that all of those guys are going to come back as better players,” Quinn said.
Then there is the question of goaltending. Sophomore Connor LaCouvee held the job for much of the first semester but had a mix of strong games and weaker showings, while senior Sean Maguire looked shaky earlier in the season but ended the first term in stellar fashion by backstopping the Terriers to the big win that closed out the first half. So who will be between the pipes Thursday?
“We haven’t talked about that yet,” Quinn said. “Obviously, Maguire played great against Quinnipiac. We think that they’re both good goalies, and the thing that people forget is that one guy played about six games last year, and the other guy played zero. So we knew that there was going to be a little bit of a patience level with our goaltender.
“It was unrealistic to think that Sean Maguire was going to miss a whole season and come back where he left off. And Connor was a freshman last year, and we see a lot of good things in him. We think our goaltending is going to be better in the second half.”
But how good will the Terriers turn out to be in the second half? The team has tantalized its coach and fans by looking like a Frozen Four team on some nights — tying Providence twice, beating Quinnipiac and pulling out several comeback wins — while looking average at best on other nights. A 5-2 loss at Connecticut on Oct. 27 marked the low point of the season thus far. “As bad of a game as we’ve played since my first year here,” Quinn said.
The team is among the youngest in college hockey, but Quinn has wondered aloud more about maturity than youth as a theme this season.
“Last year we were a young-but-mature team,” he said. “This year we’re more immature. It’s tough. Kids change. A guy who was accepting his situation last year comes back this year and isn’t accepting of his situation. That happens all across the country in a lot of sports, and a perfect point is A.J. Greer. He leaves.”
If maturity has been in question, though, there also has been some silver lining to that cloud. Inconsistent performances in the defensive corps and in the net have led to the Terriers falling behind all too often this season, but the team has showed resilience when it comes to not letting a bad game lead to a string of them.
“The thing I like about our team is that when you look back at the games where we stunk, we really came back and played well,” Quinn said. “So there’s a lot of things I’m optimistic about for the second half.”
BU does have a challenging schedule the rest of the way, as two games apiece await against Boston College and UMass-Lowell, and a pair of road games at Notre Dame. But Quinn insisted that while the situation with Roberto may have created some swirl outside of the program, they have not been significant issues within the program.
“It’s funny,” Quinn said. “There are questions from the outside — people who don’t know. This thing happened five months ago. It’s been over from our end of it for a long time. As crazy as it may sound to people, it hasn’t affected anybody because we know the truth, we know what happened, and it’s done and over with.
“It’s been unreal how people have reacted to the hockey-rink gossip, you know? It’s done and over with, and our guys are excited for the second half. It was distracting for two or three days because you sit around and see all the reaction to it, and it’s just, ‘What are people talking about?'”
If all goes according to the Terriers’ plans, people will be talking a lot more about what happens on the ice than off the ice for the rest of the season.