For ASU hockey, it's national championship or bust: Part II

Posted: Updated:

Be sure to catch Part I of this feature here

TEMPE, Ariz. -- No one said life on top was easy ... especially when dealing with college kids.

Now that the Arizona State hockey team has shown that their ascent to the elite of the ACHA is fact, not fad, the principle challenges facing Sun Devil head coach Greg Powers and his program have evolved to reflect that change in status.

“We absolutely have the target on our backs,” Powers said. “We can’t hide how talented we are. We can’t hide how deep we are. Everyone knows it. Everyone is out to get us. Every time we play someone, we’re going to get their best effort. Last season, that was our biggest challenge. It was a bit of a growing pain, as a coach, knowing that we were going to get everyone’s best effort. But you’re dealing with kids. To maintain that level of focus to win at a high level is tough to do."

ASU lost only six players from last year’s Final Four team. In addition to returning their top five scorers and better than 84% of 2012-2013's goal production, the also bring back key pieces on the blueline and starting goaltender Joe D’Elia.

Team captain Colin Hekle, Kale Dolinski and Danny McAuliffe form a devastating goal-scoring trio, Faiz Khan and Stephen Collins were explosive in their first seasons in Tempe, while sophomore Jordan Young—recently named an assistant captain—leads a skilled corps of defensemen. Powers is looking for these leaders to not only lead by example and produce on the stat sheet, but also to prepare the next generation of Sun Devils.

It’s all a part of his master plan.

“They all had a great year last year,” said Powers of his veterans. “Those guys are going to be leaned upon to do the same thing. They’re going to have a complemented cast around them. The kids we are bringing in are just dynamite. It’s a great transition year because we have so many great seniors on their way out, and we have such a great class coming in. My theory was to bring these kids in and have the seniors show them the ropes. That way, when these guys are sophomores, we have a seamless transition. I’ve had a firm belief that this is not a rebuild league, it’s a reload league.”

Based on the early returns from the 2013 recruiting class, Powers has assembled quite an arsenal to add to what many already consider the ACHA’s most talented roster. Whether it can match the success of the last few classes remains to be seen, but this current group is well positioned to fill in the team’s few holes.

“The last two years have been unbelievably good classes," Powers said. “I think that it’s hard to tell if this one is going to be better than last year’s. I think it has the potential to be. The thing I really like about this class is that we addressed need. We were able to fill each need with an excellent player.”

Up front, the team has brought in four highly-rated forwardsin Eric Rivard, Chris Burkemper, Chris Blessing and Patrick Yudez. While they all bring potent offensive skills to the lineup, they all possess one particular trait highly sought after by Powers: Physicality.

“We wanted to get bigger, meaner and tougher up front, but not give up our level of skill,” said Powers. “Adding kids like Burkemper, Eric Rivard, Yudez, Blessing are all incredible skilled, but when you look at their sizes, you see 6-foot-2, 6-foot-2, 6-foot-1, 6-foot. They’re all built like trucks.”

Of the team's six departed seniors, three of them were key players on the blueline in Brian Parson, Ryan Clark and Darcy “Wheaties on Ice” Charrois. Wasting no time, Powers has already secured two talented newcomers to fill the gap and is working hard on a third.

“On the backend, adding the (Alex) Temby kid and (Troy) Hoban are both dynamite defensemen who will really help us out. I’m still looking to add one more on D. I’m talking to a lot of kids and we’ll have that wrapped up in the next few weeks.”

But the most intriguing additions come between the pipes. D’Elia, already with a national title on his resume from his time at Davenport University, had a mostly successful season in his first full year in Tempe. Yet despite a 26-5 record and a 2.38 goals-against-average, D’Elia also suffered through lapses that allowed the opponents to score soft goals, and Powers has aggressively moved to remedy that situation with some good old fashioned competition.

“We’re also bringing in two goalies. I feel like we could have been better in net,” Powers said. “I thought that Joe did a good job as our starter, but there were times throughout the year that he got a little bit complacent and maybe didn’t feel too challenged. Every position and every practice needs to matter. Nobody can feel safe, and nobody can feel complacent that way. The only way to get that from every position is to get deeper.” 

That deeper talent pool will also enjoy new amenities afforded by the program’s success under Powers and General Manager Ken Lind. By this fall, the Sun Devils will have brand new facilities installed at their home rink at Oceanside Ice Arena. Powers sees this as a way to further the player’s physical training, as well as bring them closer as a unit.

“We’re adding a new pro-style locker room with a player lounge and a workout facility on location at the rink, which will be exponentially important for our team to have a professional environment to hang their hats,” boasts Powers. “It will be a lot easier because we have an off-campus facility where we play to mandate off-ice workouts. That is going to help prevent injury and keep guys in better shape. That whole setup gives us so much more than we ever had, and hopefully it will be something that helps put us over the top.”

This possible embarrassment of hockey talent riches, new facilities, along with an assured lofty preseason ranking, brings about the risk of 19 and 20-year olds becoming cocky and complacent. The forward-thinking Powers knows how to end that threat before it can derail what should be a special season.
“Before we could blink, we were ranked No. 1, then we beat Penn State, and that really put a target on our backs,” Powers remembers. “The best way to overcome complacency and not allow guys to get big heads is to build a deep roster, and that’s what we have. Every day is going to matter. Every action these guys take on and off the ice, it’s all going to matter. There’s going to be constant backside pressure at every position. That should prevent complacency, and that should spill over into games."
Also helping that cause is the lingering pain of last yer's failure. Last year's team was know for their on-ice swagger, a characteristic that was wounded by the loss to Lindenwood. This year, Powers knows that they want to reassert that dominant position they held for most of the season.
"I think that we have a group of kids that have a certain swagger to them and a certain moxie," Powers said. "They’re not going to want anything else but to be No. 1. They know what they have to accomplish, and that they fell short of a goal last year. I think it’s a group that is going to come back hungrier.”
Skilled veterans, top recruits, warranted confidence, and new facilities are great. A national championship is better. Ultimately, this game is about winning, and with every star seemingly aligned, does Powers think this season is a national championship or bust?
“I think it is. We’re still going to take it one game at a time. We know that we’re going to be at the national tournament. We know we’re going to be a favorite. It is what it is. Nobody was satisfied by our season. We we’re proud of what we accomplished having the best season the program has ever had. But no one was satisfied. No one was content."
There's only one way to fix that.
Be sure to catch Part I of this feature here