1. A quick intro
Last weekend I had the opportunity to see Providence College play one of the better teams in the NCAA on two consecutive nights, and this is, I think, a unique opportunity that few college teams afford a person covering a single NHL team.
The Friars, as you well know, have three Flames prospects of varying levels of notoriety: Jon Gillies, Mark Jankowski, and John Gilmour. Providence has been a very interesting team this season, one that seems more prone to ups and downs than most others in the country. They started the year 1-3-1, then won 13 of their next 16, then lost two straight heading into this weekend. The fifth-ranked UMass Lowell River Hawks were their opponents for this particular home-and-home, and seemed as though they would prove a tough test for the No. 18 Friars.
It didn’t work out that way. Providence scored three goals on Friday night before host Lowell could muster one, and cruised to a 7-3 win. The next night, with Lowell on the road and desperate (having at that point lost three of their previous four games), the visitors grabbed the 1-0 lead in the first but Providence mounted a four-goal second and held that way. Aggregate on the two-win weekend for the Friars: 11 goals scored, four conceded.
What was interesting about the series, though, was that it was — safe to say — colored by penalties. There were six power plays on Friday and 17 on Saturday, but the Friars struck five times on their 12 opportunities, while Lowell went 0-fer on 11. By this measure, you’d have to say that Providence finishing the weekend outscoring Lowell 5-4 at even-strength (the other tally was a shortie into an empty net) probably paints a more accurate picture of the weekend, but in any regard, Providence certainly had the better of things.
For the bulk of the season, Providence has been a good team, though. The goaltending is always going to be solid, and given the system Nate Leaman’s club plays (to near-perfection most nights) and the general quality of player on the roster, it should come as no surprise that this is a positive possession team overall. Their average for the season is about 52.9 percent, and that’s after a somewhat slow start to the year. (I should note, by the way, that all the data for the following charts comes from the “Metrics” pages for every game on CollegeHockeyNews.com.)
So why the long winning streak? Well, the middle of it was just about the only time Providence really shot the lights out at even strength (9.5 percent in five of seven games in December), and that actually coincided with some of the best goaltending in the country (no goals allowed at ES in 9 of 13 from November to December).
Things have been a little rockier in terms of both shooting and goaltending of late, however, as you can see. For the year, the team’s only shooting 7.34 percent at ES, which I’d say is still a little below their talent level. And the .944 at even strength is probably right around where it should be given Gillies’ abilities.
So let’s, then, get into the how and why of it, especially as it relates to the Flames’ prospects.
2. Jon Gillies
Obviously Gillies is Their Guy, and probably the best goaltender in college hockey. He’s athletic, he’s mobile, he’s huge, and he is super-talented. Frankly, he makes saves that no one else currently at this level really would. That’s why he’s appeared in all but two of the Friars’ games this season.
And look, he’s been excellent. He has allowed just 29 goals on 523 shots at even strength this year, good for a .945 save percentage. That’s right where it ought to be, really, given what we know of him. And much of that is dragged down by a couple stinker performances, the only two times he’s allowed three or more goals at evens this year in 24 appearances.
“Jonny’s solid,” said Leaman following Saturday’s 4-1 win. “Y’know, the Brown game, where he let up four [two on the PK] and got pulled, he didn’t have any help. Those guys were alone. I didn’t really fault any of those goals on Jon. He’s been a rock for us. We feel great about our goaltending situation here with both Jon and Nick Ellis. Jon had a great weekend for sure, and he’s our guy. The stakes get higher game by game, and it’s just good to see him playing well.”
I’ve gotten a lot of questions about whether I think he’s going to go pro when this college hockey season is over, and given that this is his third season of four in which he has eligibility, I’d say that it’s not an entirely done deal, but I would certainly imagine so. He has demonstrated time and again that he’s probably a little too good to continue playing at this level and not have a pretty easy time of it most nights.
He actually finished the Lowell series having allowed four goals on 48 shots (.917), which is obviously not up to his standard, but 1) Lowell’s a really good team that’s one of the highest-scoring in the country, and 2) none were really his fault. Deflections, screens, that sort of thing. He certainly played exceptionally on Saturday when Lowell was pressing. And as has occasionally been the case for him in his career, he was actually battling a little bit even before the weekend started.
“I think it was a great weekend for him because he missed two days of practice with the flu, and he was a little bit of a question mark whether he was going to play this weekend or not,” Leaman said. “He dropped a couple of pounds and fortunately he came back, he practiced Thursday, and put together a good weekend.”
Expect more of those to come, especially if he doesn’t have the flu. Providence is charging hard up the standings these days, and Gillies is probably the biggest reason why.
3. Mark Jankowski
And as much as I’ve praised Gillies over the last two and a half seasons or so, I’ve been just as critical (maybe a little more so, in fact) of Jankowski, the Flames’ first-rounder who’s never really impressed me much.
The thing that’s often frustrating about watching him is that he is clearly skilled in a way that a lot of guys aren’t. His natural talent is evident when he’s on the puck and has a little bit of space. But often, he loses physical battles or doesn’t make great decisions on or off the puck, and that’s why I think he doesn’t produce very much. Talk to people who watch this league a lot and the word “soft” gets thrown around liberally.
That was certainly the case on Friday night, when his on-ice CF% was — by my reckoning — 4-11 (26.7 percent) and he didn’t attempt a shot either on the power play or at 5-on-5. This despite five offensive zone starts to just two in his own end. Overall, Jankowski’s off-ice CF% still saw Providence outpossessed by a trailing-all-game Lowell team 35-37 (48.6 percent).
The next night things went a little better for Jankowski: he was still outpossessed 8-12 at evens (33.3 percent) but added the physical element to his game that’s often lacking. He ended up with two assists on Saturday, both rather nice.
“I thought Janko made two big-time plays for us in the second period there,” Leaman said. “One, finding Florentino cross-ice, and the other one, kind of winning the battle on the wall and finding Jake [Walman, a Blues prospect]. Those were both big plays, so it’s nice to see our good players have good games.”
That’s something Jankowski says he’s focusing on, regardless of whether he’s actually aware of the “soft” label he’s gained. The issue of his size — 6-foot-3 and listed at 175 pounds — is a major one, but he’s still filling out physically. The good thing about NCAA hockey for this type of player is that they get to be in the weight room and at practice almost every day, and games are played only twice a week for the most part.
“I know with my size and getting bigger and stronger, with working out here in our gym, that’s been one thing I’ve been really focusing on,” Jankowski said. “Using my size now that I’m getting stronger, winning battles along the wall, and making plays from there.”
As to the possession issues, well, that’s obviously a work in progress as well. In the three games I’ve seen him play live, he’s only 30.6 percent CF at evens (19 for, 43 against), and he was personally credited with seven attempts at ES. When he’s off the ice, Providence went 47.9 percent (79 for, 86 against).
But, he says, he’s working on it.
“It’s all about the two-way game,” Jankowski said. “Good defense translates to good offense, so if we’re not getting scored on in our zone, we’re breaking up plays so we can get good offense and get rushes. Then we can get hard on the forecheck and get pucks toward the net. I think a good two-way game is what we’re really focusing on.”
So far this season, he also has a 57.2 percent faceoff efficiency, and takes the second-most draws on his team. But despite that, the other thing to note is that at least some of his less-than-mediocre attempts numbers — only 47 in 21 games at evens — is that he’s only getting third-line minutes (almost exactly 17 a night in the three I’ve seen, which to be fair have been against very good possession teams). That’s thanks in large part to Providence’s solid center depth.
Now, it’s probably not what you want a third-year first-round pick to be doing if you’re Calgary, but such is life. He is playing on both the power play and PK, which I guess is all you can throw at him as he develops.
4. John Gilmour
I really don’t have a lot of thoughts about Gilmour except to say that he’s a very solid college defenseman despite his relatively young age. I didn’t keep CF numbers or TOI for him this weekend (tracking two players at the same time isn’t very easy) but by the eye test I’d say he more than broke even in terms of pushing play in the right direction, especially when these two games were close.
He doesn’t put up a ton of points (3-6-9 in 22 games overall, and only 2-1-3 at evens) but he puts a lot of shots toward the net (55 this season at evens, 87 overall). But he is a solid presence who mostly does the right things on the ice. He plays top-pairing minutes as a third-year player.
He’s just a good, solid, mobile, slightly undersized defenseman who can skate and is tilting the ice in his team’s favor. Maybe you do want to see more offensive production, but Providence isn’t exactly a juggernaut in this regard — mostly due to bad luck this year — so things could turn around for them. Let’s put it this way: The next time Providence scores 11 goals in two games, I’d expect Hickey to have more than one primary assist out of the deal.
5. Brandon Hickey
Finally we come to the non-Friar I’ve seen play more than a few times this season: BU’s Brandon Hickey. Last time I gave you an update on him he’d just scored his first goal and looked good doing it. His production has dropped off a little bit in that time, though, as he has 1-1-2 in his last eight after starting the year 1-7-8 in his first 15.
But even as the offense has dried up, I thought his game improved. He’s really good for a first-year player and he can get the puck to the net in a way that few defensemen do at his age: he has two goals, sure, but it’s on 64 shots on net. He’s mobile and solid as well, but he’s size-y at 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds already. His shot is great, and given that BU generates a lot of offense from its blue line, he’s probably going to be a big driver for years to come.
Unfortunately, he’s another guy I don’t actually track in terms of CF and TOI when I watch him play, because he’s on the same team as this kid called Jack Eichel who I’m basically fascinated with in what I can assure you is a completely healthy way. To wit: In the seven games I’ve seen this year, Eichel’s on-ice CF is 65.7 percent, and I’ve seen him play teams in the top-10 in the nation almost exclusively. I mean, just forget it with this kid. So anyway I apologize for being distracted.
I’m seeing Hickey (and Eichel. Mostly Eichel) four more times in the next week and a half or so.