Jeremy Welsh started the weekend as a junior forward for the Union Dutchmen, competing in the school's first-ever Frozen Four appearance. But dreams of a national title were shattered Thursday night in a 3-1 loss to eventual runners-up, Ferris State.
This season, Welsh led his team in scoring with 27 goals and 44 points in 40 games, and was a monster for his team in the NCAA tournament. He almost single-handedly helped Union edge Michigan State with a goal and an assist, scored again against UMass Lowell, then set up his team's only strike against Ferris.
And for all that, he was very justifiably rewarded with a fat free agent contract from the Carolina Hurricanes, signed just hours after his team was eliminated. The deal will pay him $832,500 at the NHL level and a hefty a signing bonus of $92,500, the team reported.
Welsh is a player who projects very, very well as an NHLer. He's 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, for one thing, and he's more than just a boatload of goals and points — he ended his career at Union with a tidy 53-47-100 in 119 games — as he's also dominant at the dot and a big reason Union had one of the best PKs in the nation this year.
Just how well does Welsh project? Well, so eager to sign the big forward were these Hurricanes that they not only had the deal ready to go the second he was off the ice, they also got him down to Fort Lauderdale to hook up with the team so that he could get into the final game of the regular season.
And how much does the organization like him? He got 16:32 in his NHL debut, playing between Jeff Skinner and Tuomo Ruutu. Which isn't a bad way to get your start in the league.
Welsh said he was approached not only by guys you might expect, like director of hockey ops Ron Francis and assistant GM Jason Karmanos, but also coaches Kirk Muller and Rod Brind'Amour, who made it clear that he'd get a very legitimate shot in the organization.
"(Francis) is one of the best centermen to ever play the game," Welsh said. "When a guy like that tells you he wants you, I can go learn from those guys and soak up their knowledge. I get to drive four hours in a car today with Brind'Amour and Francis. For a young centerman trying to figure it out at the next level, there's no better opportunity than that."
In all, six teams were in the hunt for Welsh's services, including the Bruins and Blackhawks, but because those organizations have a habit of drafting well and are generally pretty stocked with young talent, Welsh was probably better served going somewhere like Carolina where he can have a legitimate shot at cracking the NHL lineup again next season.
Welsh will not, however, be playing for the Charlotte Checkers in the AHL this season. After last night's game, he planned to go back to Union to finish his school year, then take classes over the summer to complete his degree.
Still, don't be surprised to see him back in the big time next season.
Connolly a Consummate Collegian
Minnesota-Duluth forward Jack Connolly won the Hobey Baker award as college hockey's most outstanding player on the Friday between Frozen Four games, and for the second year in a row, the voters got it absolutely right.
How good was Connolly this year? After leading his school to its first ever national title with 18-41-59 in 42 games, the undrafted free agent returned for his senior year, probably spurning a few solid pro contracts. This season, he went 20-40-60 in 41 games, ending his 166-game career with 197 points, numbers nearly unheard of in today's game, where putting up 40-plus in a season usually gets you signed in a hurry.
As a reward for coming back for his fourth season at Duluth and playing at an absurdly high level yet again, Connolly — who plays at about 5-foot-8 plays a Marty St. Louis-esque game to perfection — was also given the Lowe's Senior CLASS Award, which rewards his service in the community, classroom, dressing room and on the ice.
You're probably not going to see a player like Jack Connolly again any time soon, which is bad news for fans, but great news for his opponents.
More on the BC Dynasty
It's really tough to put into words just how good Boston College is at this point.
Again, this is their second title in three years, third in five, fourth in 11, fifth overall. Of the last 16 national title games, BC has played in eight of them. I don't know exactly what qualifies you as a dynasty, but if that's not it, it's time to tear up the dictionary.
Let's just look at these last three years, though, because BC's graduating seniors and current junior class — more about them in a minute — have now won two titles in their careers. The seniors have lost exactly two playoff games either in Hockey East or the NCAAs since they arrived at campus. The juniors, just one. In the last three seasons, BC has gone a combined 92-28-5. They've won the Hockey East title all three of those seasons. In fact, they've won four of the last five.
This is just a mind-boggling series of accomplishments. As noted last night, BC ended the season with a 19-game winning streak stretching back to Jan. 27, and allowed just 21 goals in that run. The weekend before the streak started, BC conceded 11 in two games at Maine. How do you explain such a turnaround? What possible explanation can there be for the Eagles becoming unstoppable once it turns February?
The only logical answer is that, much like Nicklas Lidstrom, the Eagles have been turned into unflinching robots designed to play the terribly attractive, punishing brand of hockey espoused by mad scientist/coach Jerry York, who now not only second among college hockey coaches in all-time wins, but also is tied for second all-time with five national titles to his name (he also won with Bowling Green in 1984).
Much of that can be tied to both his longevity — he got his first head coaching job at Clarkson in 1972, when he was just 27 years old — but also because he's forged this seemingly indomitable formula for crushing Boston College's enemies under an avalanche of convincing wins, Beanpots, league regular season and playoff titles and national championships. York now has 37 career NCAA tournament wins, more than anyone ever.
I know it comes off like I can only sing BC's praises, but with that type of success, that's pretty much all you can do unless you go to BU. At that point, your only option is to sulk and glower.
BC Likely to Suffer Departures
I don't know when you're reading this, but I'm just gonna go ahead and assume that BC junior and supersniper Chris Kreider has already signed with the New York Rangers.
The Blueshirts sent Scott Gorton to Tampa specifically to get Kreider's Herbie Hancock on a contract so they could get him onto the Rangers' roster for the postseason.
He will likely be joined in the pro ranks very shortly by Hurricanes draft pick Brian Dumoulin, also a junior. Dumoulin was the best defenseman I saw this year by any number of country miles, and any time he did have an off night, he was simply "really great" instead of "magnificent." Remember how much Hurricanes fans liked Justin Faulk this season? Dumoulin's better than he was, bigger and meaner too.
That will probably do it for early departures BC suffers this season, though they'll also lose important seniors like Barry Almeida, Bruins pick Tommy Cross, and Colorado draftee Paul Carey, among others. Not that "suffer" might be the right word.
One of the benefits of being a program as elite as BC is that you get to very much live the "reload, not rebuild" mantra. Every season, the Eagles lose important players to early signings — the necessary risk that comes with being that damn good at recruiting — and every year, their production is more or less replaced from within.
Consider: Cam Atkinson, who got 26 games with the Blue Jackets this season and had a hat trick on Thursday, was supposed to be a senior at BC for this title run. So was Chicago Blackhawks right wing Jimmy Hayes. Penguins AHL prospect Philip Samuelsson was supposed to have been a junior.
Losing Kreider and Dumoulin and Cross and Carey hurts. But it won't hurt as bad as everyone would lead you to believe.
To the above point about that kind of thing being important for developing programs: The national semifinal between Ferris and Union featured exactly zero players drafted by NHL teams.
The rosters BC and Minnesota featured 26 (nine for the Eagles, and 17(!) for the Gophers).
Such is life in college hockey, where national powerhouses hold sway for that very reason: the talent gap.
Union and Ferris, with very few exceptions, didn't have the kind of star players that BC and Minnesota and others of their ilk attract on the regular, and the only way to get that to change is to win in spite of the differential in skill, size and so forth.
There are a few ways to do this, but for the most part, it's very difficult. The thing about kids now wanting to come to Ferris is a very good one by Johnston, but these processes are gradual. These teams will be back in the NCAAs, but it'll be a few years before they can stop being characterized as squads full of well-drilled grinders.
Against the top teams in the nation, you see where that ultimately gets you.
Ferris, Union on the Main Stage Now
Both Ferris State and Union appeared in their schools' first-ever Frozen Four this weekend, and it was simultaneously pretty cool and pretty lame that they had to play each other in the first round.
On the one hand, their doing so guaranteed we would have a first-timer in the national title game. But on the other, it also meant that one was guaranteed to get bounced then. Not that it would have been smart to go putting the mortgage on either to sneak past Minnesota and BC in the semifinals if it had come to that, but I think you see my point. No team has won a national title in its first-ever title game since Maine did it in 1993. And as good as Ferris was this year, it sure wasn't that Maine team, which went 41-2-1 behind Paul Kariya et al.
But the reason these appearances are important is that it now appears as though we have two burgeoning national powers on our hand. This was Union's second straight 26-win season (in college hockey, 20 is considered a good year, and 22 is usually enough to get you into the tournament). In fact, Union has now won 92 games in the past four seasons. So it's unlikely that they lapse back into the perennial 12-to-16-win team they were five or six years ago.
The same is true of Ferris, though to a lesser extent. It too won 26 games — and its coach, Bob Daniels, snatched the Spencer Penrose award for national coach of the year as a result — after winning 18 last season and 21 the year before. It was the most successful three year run the program has seen since, well, ever. This is only the third time in program history it topped 25 wins, the other two coming in 1979-80 (26), its first year in Division 1, and 2002-03 (31).
Why is all this important to a program? Said the Bulldogs' Jordie Johnston after the game, "Kids are going to want to play for Ferris now. I'm proud of that."
He's Not Even Supposed To Be Here
Johnny Gaudreau's disgusting and unfair goal to cement BC's title must have been particularly galling to FSU fans, sure. But know who was even more gutted by it? Northeastern fans.
Gaudreau was supposed to have gone to Northeastern this season, but decided to change his commitment when then-coach Greg Cronin decided to become one of the Maple Leafs' army of assistant coaches. Crosstown rival BC welcomed him happily.
Northeastern's season ended with them finishing ninth out of 10 in Hockey East, one of only two teams in the country to not participate in any postseason games. BC's ended with Gaudreau lifting a national championship trophy.