© 2023 BSN LIVE, INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Sun Devils men’s hockey coach Greg Powers is a victim of his own expectations.
When ASU entered the 2022–23 season, it boasted a strong core of returning players including captain and Coyotes‘ second-round draft pick Josh Doan, and Philadelphia Flyers draft pick Ty Murchison.
Powers also landed an impressive list of transfers that included forwards Robert Mastrosimone, Lukas Sillinger, Ty and Dylan Jackson, and goaltender TJ Semptimphelter.
The Sun Devils were slated to play a program-record 24 home games at sparkling new Mullett Arena, with not only the eyes of the college hockey world focused upon them, but also the marketing-magnifying eyes of the NHL because the Coyotes are calling the venue home.
Powers believed that the stage was set for a return to the NCAA tournament after a two-year odyssey that was unusual, even by the standards of college hockey‘s most nomadic program. As ASU flew north this week – way north – to Fairbanks for a two-game series against Alaska, however, it did so with a 13-16 record and its hopes for its first postseason since 2019 dead. To outsiders, the season feels like a disappointment.
Make no mistake, Powers and the Sun Devils players are disappointed, too. They genuinely believed that they were poised for a big season. Had calls not gone against them in one-goal losses at Minnesota Duluth, Bemidji State and Denver, they might still be in the hunt on the strength of seminal wins against North Dakota and No. 1 Minnesota. But a deeper look at the program is necessary to gain a true perspective on where things stand.
“I think you have to put perspective into it, and sometimes it’s hard to do,” Powers said. “We like that there’s expectations. We have high expectations for ourselves where we don’t think it’s fool’s gold that we expect to be in NCAA tournaments because we’ve qualified technically for two.
“We had so much momentum heading into COVID – and everybody can use COVID as an excuse, but nobody went through what we went through [with the entire 2019-20 season played on the road). We had a really good team with more home games scheduled that year than ever. We lost a kid to an NHL contract that summer that we weren’t supposed to in Josh Maniscalco, [where] he didn’t know if we were going to play [during COVID] so he signed. There’s a lot of things that happened that just set our program back a little bit.”
Powers discovered recently that the Sun Devils are the fifth youngest team in the nation. Youth played a role in some of those narrow, defining losses early in the season. And then injuries played a major role in the team’s now-concluded 4-6 homestand that represented its greatest hope for climbing back into postseason contention.
At times, ASU was without eight regular players; many of them key players such as forwards Matthew Kopperud, Jack Jensen, defenseman Tim Lovell and swingman Jackson Niedermayer.
“When you lose those guys to injuries, you’re not just missing bodies, you lose a strong group of kids that are good kids to have around in the room,” Doan said. “They keep the room so positive 24/7 and they play a big part in our core.”
An honest assessment of the program will also reveal a talent deficit. While the Sun Devils rallied to beat the Gophers on Nov. 26, marking a high point of the season, they had no answer for Minnesota’s top line of Logan Cooley, Matthew Knies and Jimmy Snuggerud. If ASU hopes to contend for national championships and not just NCAA Tournament berths, that is the type of talent that they will need to attract to the desert.
Before Mullett Arena was built, that simply was not possible.
“The coaches do a great job with recruiting but I know a lot of it comes down to guys’ connections because all of us have connections with former teammates or top players,” Murchison said. “When we were in Oceanside, guys didn’t love the idea of playing in that place so it was hard to get a lot of those guys to come here, but with this arena and the facilities we have, guys are texting me all the time about how it is. People are definitely very interested; high-end draft picks. I think we’re going to continue to get really good guys to come here now that the arena is in place.”
Powers said he is already noticing a difference in the caliber of recruits whom he is talking to, but the top recruits for the 2023-24 season have already committed to other programs, as draft and prospect analyst Chris Peters told PHNX Sports on a recent show. ASU may land some top talent via the transfer portal this summer, but the first genuine returns from Mullett Arena probably won’t be felt until the 2024-25 freshman class.
There is also the matter of ASU’s independent status. Earlier in the season, program administrators were floating the possibility of ASU remaining independent because of the flexibility that it creates in scheduling. Right now, ASU can play all over the country and expose more recruits to its brand instead of being confined to one conference.
But as his team gets healthy and he watches numerous other teams prepare for postseason conference tournaments, Powers can’t help but wonder what it would be like to have something to play for other than pride.
“To have a conference playoff, it’d be huge right now; it’d be a completely different feel,” he said. “Every team except five still has a chance to make an NCAA tournament so it’s the right thing to do for our program when it happens. I’m not saying it’s going to happen next year because it won’t. We have too many home games. We’re owed those back from all the travel we’ve done over seven years so we’re not going to give that up. But over the course of this season, it’s become clear to us that it’s a huge priority.
“We’ve had serious conversations with multiple conferences in the last month. It’s the last step and our administration knows how important it is to me and our team that we get into a league. We love the flexibility of the independent schedule. I think it’s served our program very well as an emerging program and a new program to get out and expose ourselves to everyone in college hockey, but now we have a good team and we’re getting healthier. We’ve had some huge wins. We would love to have the opportunity to play in a conference tournament. One of the hardest parts of our job as a staff last year and this year is finding ways to keep kids really engaged when they don’t have a postseason to play for.”
The immediate goals are simple. When the Sun Devils lost their fourth straight game to essentially kill their postseason hopes, Powers told his players to treat the remainder of the schedule as a 12-game season. ASU started it off with a sweep of St. Thomas and Powers would really like to see the Sun Devils reach the 20-win mark.
It is hard to carry momentum from one season to the next, but there are elements of that idea that carry weight.
“Right now, we’re looking forward to ending the season off right for the guys that are leaving,” Murchison said. “We want to end strong for guys that are trying to sign or move on to another level after this.”
The Sun Devils could lose as many as six players off this season’s roster – forwards Demetrios Koumontzis, Chris Grando, defensemen Jacob Semik, Jack Judson, Tanner Hickey, and goalie Ben Kraws – but the core of the team will return so there is meaning to these final 10 games.
“When you have that many guys that have the potential to come back, as a group, we’ve got to focus on hitting the end of the year hard,” Doan said. “There’s a lot of growth to be done by the guys that are coming back. We’ve got to make sure that every single guy in that room is getting better for next year so that they can help produce next year and help next year’s team win.”
The Fairbanks weather should help keep ASU in a business state of mind. The expected highs on Friday and Saturday were 8° and 6° respectively. Powers said that the team had no sightseeing plans. He planned to go outside only to walk to the bus – “20 feet max” – and the Devils were only taking 12 forwards and six defensemen because they were that banged up.
“You have no choice but to stay positive,” he said. “We still have an opportunity to have a very positive outcome on the season as a young program so it’s just understanding and continuing to convey the message to a young group.
“We can do one of two things. We can finish strong and ride momentum into the offseason, which is what the plan is. Or you can mail it in, and that’s not an option.”
Top photo of Sun Devils hockey celebrating a goal via Getty Images