BOSTON — Boston University coach David Quinn spent part of New Year’s Eve doing something that no college hockey coach has done before: watching seven of his players compete in the World Junior Championship.
The Terriers have six players representing the United States: forwards Clayton Keller, Jordan Greenway, Kieffer Bellows and Patrick Harper; defenseman Charlie McAvoy; and goaltender Jake Oettinger.
On top of that, freshmen defenseman Dante Fabbro is playing for Canada.
The New Year’s Eve game saw Team USA defeat Canada 3-1.
No program has ever had seven players compete in the prestigious tournament for players under 20, though Minnesota had six players on the U.S. squad way back in 1979.
“It’s such an honor for those players,” said Quinn. “For our team, our school — I’m really proud of them. It’s nice to watch those guys go off and represent their countries. They’ve all done well.”
For the most part, that’s an understatement.
Oettinger just turned 18 a couple of weeks ago and is basically in an apprentice role as the third-string netminder for the team, and Harper has scored one goal as a fourth-line forward, but all of the others have played key roles. Keller leads the USA in scoring with seven points in the four preliminary round games, and the NHL Network named Greenway the player of the game in Saturday’s crucial win over Canada, securing the top spot in Group B going into Monday’s quarterfinals.
BU fans have become accustomed to Greenway manhandling opponents on the ice season, often stiff-arming defenders with one arm while stickhandling to the net with the other. Those signature power forward moves have been even more common on the world stage.
“Greenway’s physical presence out there is even more magnified because it’s against players his own age,” Quinn said. “He looks even more dominant than he has here. Clayton after being hurt [for a month during the fall semester] has done a great job. He’s probably their most dynamic player. Charlie’s been arguably their best defenseman. Kiefer’s played his best hockey in this tournament; he’s really played well. Harper’s done his job, and Fabbro’s just been a very big player for Team Canada.”
That’s all well and good, but the Terriers have to face a very tough team in Union College this Thursday without these dynamic young players will be in the lineup. In fact, BU will need to suit up every remaining player on their roster and still will fall one short of having a full complement of 18 skaters.
Bear in mind, also, that freshman defenseman Chad Krys was the last player cut by the Americam team, so it easily could have been 16 skaters facing the No. 10 team in the country on Thursday, including the nation’s leading scorer, senior Mike Vecchione.
So isn’t that a considerable downside to having so many players selected for the World Juniors?
“Yeah, but it’s also an opportunity for guys that we know are good players who haven’t had a chance to get an opportunity,” Quinn said. “I think you saw that the other night when we played Yale — seems like two months ago — [Shane] Switzer and [Brien] Diffley played really good games. We knew that they were really good players. We’re just fortunate that we have depth, and it’s an opportunity for these guys to step up against a really good opponent, and we feel confident. It’s a hockey game where we feel if we come ready to play, we’ll have a chance.”
As for the World Juniors players, they’re in store for a whirlwind week. After hopefully collecting some hardware north of the border, they’ll catch a flight to Boston Friday morning and head directly for Fenway Park, where they will practice to get ready for a Frozen Fenway game against Massachusetts on Saturday.
That’s a lot of high-stakes hockey in the span of six days, but Quinn sees the upside to that.
“You find that when guys come back from this tournament they play better,” Quinn said. “There may be some fatigue, physically and mentally, but the fact that we’re playing in Fenway Park the first game back might minimize the drop in intensity or emotional drain.”
Going into the second half, BU is 10-5-2. In light of how this freshman class was ballyhooed as perhaps the best ever in the history of college hockey, expectations were absurdly high for this team. But Quinn definitely sees that won-loss record as more of a glass that’s two-thirds full rather than one-third empty.
“I’m really happy with where we’re at,” said Quinn. “We’re 10-5-2. We’re 4-2-2 in the league, tied for fourth in the PairWise. I think people assumed that we were going to be 17-0, and that just wasn’t going to be the case. I know that there was a lot of attention on our summer, but that doesn’t mean anything when October rolls around.”
The young team has played pairs of games on the road against ranked teams in difficult venues: Denver, Michigan and Vermont. Three of the team’s top forwards — Keller, Nikolas Olsson and Ryan Cloonan — each missed a good month this fall due to injury.
“We’ve got a lot of youth; we’ve played a tough schedule,” Quinn said. “There’s a lot of good college hockey teams. We can lose to anybody—there’s a lot of parity in college hockey. We went out to Denver and played a really good Denver team and lost two games. Could we have won one of them? Sure. But we think we’re a lot better hockey team today than we were back then. So we feel good about where we’re at.”
One prime candidate for a breakout second half is Fabbro, who quietly played through three strep throats this fall.
“I remember two trips we took to Michigan and Denver, the poor kid was going to a pharmacy the Thursday night before the game to get prescriptions and was just sick as a dog, but he’s a tough, competitive kid,” said Quinn.
Quinn is hoping that the strong showing of Bellows in the tournament will translate into more scoring in the second half, and there are high hopes for more production from Bobo Carpenter among others. Harper is leading the team in scoring after going under the radar as one of the freshmen who was not a first-round pick, and Oettinger has proven to be to unbelievably poised and solid for a very young freshman.
Perhaps the best news is that the team has not taken opponents for granted.
“Our concern as a staff over the summer was ‘Oh my God, do we think we’re going to be able to just how up and beat teams?'” said Quinn. “Our No. 1 concern was overconfidence and believing the hype, and that hasn’t been the case. That’s why we hold out so much hope going forward.
“I have never felt this great since I’ve been the head coach at BU. Not because I think we’re great, but just from a program perspective I really, really, feel good about moving forward.”
It all starts this week as the team’s young stars move from one world series to the site of many others at Fenway Park.