2016-17 was the second season for Arizona State as a Division I hockey program and while the team took a step forward improving from 5 to 10 wins, the story of this program took some lumps off the ice. The Sun Devils were spurred by the NCHC last season, with the lack of an on campus rink being an issue, and in June they withdrew from consideration to join the WCHA. The Arizona Coyotes backed out of a partnership deal to share a new arena with ASU and while former A.D. Ray Anderson said the goal is still to see the Sun Devils in their own arena by 2019-20 there has been no news to reassure college hockey fans that is a given.
Life as the only independent team in all of college hockey, while also being the lone team from the Pac-12 conference is not an ideal situation. The Sun Devils have found a way to recruit decent classes, and piece together strong schedules through the first few seasons of being a DI program, but there should be a focus on joining a conference. A conference is best for the long term viability of a program as unique as Arizona State, and the team on the ice can help make a conference opportunity viable through being a respected product on the ice.
Offense for the Sun Devils was respectable last season as they were in the middle of the country nationally, scoring 2.84 goals per game (32nd). As can be expected from a program in just their 3rd season as a varsity program, most of those goals will be back as 89% of the Sun Devils goals scored will be back in Tempe. Scoring for the Sun Devils was spread amongst their entire roster as only one player reached double digits in goals, and six players scored between seven and nine goals.
Digging a little deeper into the offense of last season does bring some concerns to Arizona State this season. They scored 15 goals (16.4%) in two games against the Division II team from Southern New Hampshire University. The Sun Devils were shutout three times and were held to a single goal six times. The Sun Devils were the 2nd worst team in the nation with a Corsi For of just 41.8% allowing close to 600 more shot attempts against than they attempted. The Sun Devils have once again loaded up a competitive schedule with series against Air Force, Penn State, Providence, UMass-Lowell, Michigan, Michigan Tech, Boston University and Quinnipiac. If the Sun Devils can’t find more offense this season they will struggle to reach double digit wins again, especially with no contests against lower tier teams.
While the Sun Devils had a series against SNHU to inflate their place in the national standings, the same was not able to happen for their defense. The Sun Devils were 58th nationally surrendering 4.06 goals against per game. ASU shuffled three goaltenders into play last season and will return 67% of their saves from last season, a season which saw none of the goaltenders post above a .900 save percentage. Rising sophomore Joel Daccord was a sought after goaltender before arriving in Arizona who struggled his freshman season after a strong career with the Muskegon Lumberjacks and Cushing Academy. Daccord, a 2015 Ottawa Senators 7th round draft pick, is a goaltender who with better play in front of him has the talent to hopefully keep the Sun Devils in games where they will be overmatched.
On defense the Sun Devils should be led by another rising sophomore, Brinson Pasichnuk, who posted a 7-7-14 scoring line in 31 games last season. Pasichnuk was an NHL draft possibility last season and was a 20 goal scorer his last season in the Alberta Junior League. Nicholas Gushue is a defensemen I expect to take a step forward this season after seeing his +/- improve by nine last season.
Player to Watch- Pasichnuk is likely the most important player for the Sun Devils this season. A mix of offense and defense on a team that needs both, improved play from this defensemen could be vital to ASU.
Breakout Player to Watch– Brett Gruber was a top goal scorer in Wisconsin high school play, scored 35 goals in the BCHL and came to Arizona State last season after a +20 performance with the Green Bay Gamblers. Gruber, a sophomore this season, could be crucial depth scoring for the Sun Devils looking to improve from a 5-9-14 scoring line last season.
Freshman to Watch– Johnny Walker was a physical presence on the blue line of the USHL Clark Cup Champion Chicago Steel. Walker contributed 16 goals in 41 regular season games. After news that Patrick Kudla may not be arriving to Arizona State due to academic issues, Walker becomes the best incoming defensemen on a team that desperately needs help in their own zone.
Previously: Atlantic Hockey