The Boston University Terriers did not have a good two-weeks-before-Christmas.
There was, of course, the gambling scandal.
To recap quickly: Third-line forward Nick Roberto is suspended for the year for his involvement with sports gambling, which is of course a big NCAA no-no, but this follows months of BU pretending this was a “minor violation of team rules.” It also allegedly involves other unnamed players that were no longer with the team as of the end of last season, so this is obviously getting a lot of traction.
But the thing with the Roberto news is that while one of the larger stories in college hockey over the last several years -- insofar as it really isn't unreasonable to wonder about the implications behind any player potentially getting in quite deep with sports betting -- it's probably the third-least impactful story as it to BU hockey's on-ice product and performance since the team went on winter break.
Let's start with the more recent news, which involves Colorado Avalanche second-round pick AJ Greer jumping from college hockey to Rouyn-Noranda of the QMJHL. This was, ostensibly, because Greer felt he has been underused at BU probably both this year and last. And indeed, in the 2014-15 season, you probably would have been able to argue against his broader use, because he was one of the youngest players in college hockey — being 17 years old for a decent chunk of the season — playing against grown men. He got into almost every game, but he didn't get much of a run-out because the Terriers were deep up front.
This year, they are not as deep, but nonetheless played what you'd have to call a supporting role, and was further passed over by a number of freshmen for higher-profile jobs. The relationship apparently wasn't working for Greer, who has yet to play a game for Rouyn-Noranda, so his college career came to an end with a line of 4-8-12 in 55 games.
“Unfortunately, A.J. felt that jumping to the QMJHL would be better for his development,” BU coach David Quinn told the Boston Globe. “After we finished up the first semester last week, I let Colorado know that it wasn’t working with A.J. because he couldn’t accept his role and that he had to change if he was going to come back for the second semester.”
That quote sounds a little more ominous than it perhaps ought to — Quinn further added it was an “amicable” split — but nonetheless that's another forward BU can't use this year.
And that's especially worrisome (not to mention curious) because of the big reason for people to be concerned about the Terriers going forward: The likely long-term injury to undrafted junior forward Ahti Oksanen.
Oksanen went into the boards in the Terriers' final game of the first half, at Quinnipiac, in one of those classic scary hits where you immediately know something bad has happened. The Terriers are calling it an upper-body injury but reports indicate it's a shoulder injury, and possibly a pretty bad one. If Oksanen is out for any serious period of time — and with the team bringing in a 20-year-old NAHL player for the second half, it seems like a distinct possibility — that's a major blow to the Terriers.
There is one thing Oksanen does extremely well: Shoot the puck. His release is high-level pro-quality, and his willingness to use it is unparalleled both on his team and in college hockey. He takes about 5.17 shots per game to lead the nation, and the next-closest guy on the team takes two fewer. He also leads BU in goals with nine, but that came after a stretch in which he didn't score at all on his first 25 or so shots of the year. In his last 13 games, he's 9-5-14, but more importantly had those nine goals on 70(!) shots.
There is, simply put, no way to replace that either with a single player or by committee. However, if Oksanen is out for an extended period, the Greer move is a bit odd because, hey, a top-line forward spot just opened up and that means everyone moves a step up the ladder. At least in theory.
But regardless, that means BU is down two forwards who were regular features in the lineup, one of whom was a major contributor and replaced them with just one who is very much an unknown quantity, to say the least.
The reason that's so impactful is that this is a team getting by on rather thin margins. The Terriers are 9-6-3 this season and have scored only eight more goals than their opponents. They've taken an extra 113 shots, 93(!!!) of which are off the stick of Oksanen alone. Again, this is in only 18 games. Losing a volume shooter like Oksanen therefore narrows the margins for success considerably, especially given that this is a team which trails rather more often than it would probably like (for about 40 percent of all its minutes). Without a shooter like Oksanen, it becomes harder to close those gaps.
And without someone like Greer who ostensibly has the skill to step into that role and reasonably replace at least a decent chunk of those shots with better linemates and more minutes — please note that college hockey doesn't publish or even officially compile TOI data, so I can't give you shots per 60, only per game, which obviously skews in favor of guys who get more ice time — that makes things more difficult.
While there has been some speculation that Oksanen could be back for the first games after break, other reports on his impending absence range from “a month” to “for the season.” If either of the latter timeframes end up being the case, BU is going to be in tough to pick up a lot of Ws, because it has games coming up against high-level teams like Harvard and BC in the next three weeks alone. If you're looking at a two-month period, that could also include dates with UMass Lowell.
In any case, the longer Oksanen is out, the worse off the Terriers are going to be, and potentially by a considerable margin. While it's entirely possible that the team successfully changes its approach, or that someone steps up and gets the bounces to go their way for a while (entirely possible with this many talented players on the team), this is likely a crippling loss for the Terriers.
And it's just heaping the misery on a team that's had plenty of it lately.
A somewhat arbitrary ranking of teams which are pretty good in my opinion only (and just for right now but maybe for a little longer too?)
1. Providence College (idle)
2. North Dakota (idle)
3. Quinnipiac (idle)
4. Boston College (idle)
5. St. Cloud (idle)
6. Nebraska Omaha (idle)
7. Harvard (idle)
8. Denver (idle)
9. UMass Lowell (idle)
10. Michigan (idle)
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