The state of Indiana seems to be suffering from an identity crisis.
Ask just about anyone around the country what comes to mind when they think of Indiana, and you’ll get any number of answers: farming, auto parts, Eli Lilly, the Indy 500, Notre Dame football, Indiana basketball. Our state motto — The Crossroads of America — suggests we draw influences from all over the place but don’t have anything that is uniquely our own. Even our nickname “Hoosiers” is impossible to define with any certainty. Those of us who live here know what we’re all about, despite that we may prove difficult to explain to outsiders.
Our hockey is also mired in this same quagmire of ambiguity. Notre Dame’s rise to prominence has offered some credibility and notoriety to our game, but because of its history and widespread following, the Fighting Irish have always had a more global identity than one more closely associated with our fine state.
And then there's the Indiana Collegiate Hockey Conference. The ICHC not only embodies this diversity, it embraces it.
Now entering its fourth season, the ICHC has undergone an evolution of sorts in both surface and substance. Xavier University was forced to consolidate its ACHA D3 program due to a lack of available ice time. The Bulldogs’ departure opened the door for the Eastern Kentucky Colonels to fill the gap and keep the conference membership at six. Neither team is from Indiana, but Xavier’s reluctant withdrawal and the Colonels eagerness to join speaks to the young conference’s appeal.
Regardless of what brand of hockey you are drawn to, the ICHC has something to love. Enjoy a lot of speed and tons of transitions? Then you’ll appreciate the what the Indiana Hoosiers bring to the table. Balance more to your liking? Purdue is right up your alley. Like to see a team grind it out in the corners? The Bulldogs’ bite is far worse than their bark.
The Purdue Boilersmakers took home the inaugural Crossroads Cup in 2015, but the past two seasons have been all Hoosiers. Indiana nipped Xavier in 2016, but steamrolled through the conference last season on their way to repeat as ICHC Champions.
The boys from Bloomington had no problems putting the puck in the net, averaging over 7.7 goals per game (including two forfeit wins) in an undefeated conference season. Their puck prowess was front and center in the title game, routing IPFW 9-3. Offensively, the Mastadons were no slouch themselves, racking up an average of 6+ goals per game. Defensively though, they were no match for the high-powered Hoosiers.
Changes: 2015-16 was a struggle for the Cardinals, who were forced to forfeit several games toward the end of the season. Gone is the team points leader in Brock Frazer with 13 points in 7 games, as are Mark Grainda (4G, 4A) and Josh Wilkinson (5 points in 8 games). Both were significant contributors in the shortened season. Netminder Patrick Lawson is also a key departure for the Cards. Lawson played fewer games (4) than returning goalie Macklan Hayes, but recorded the team’s only shutout and possessed better stats (3.14 GAA / .849 SV%) in his brief stint between the pipes.
The Ball State lineup underwent some significant renovations this past off-season. Nick Ramsey (29G, 26A) from last year’s 4A state runner-up Carroll High School will add some scoring punch to the front lines. Former Adams/Marian star Sean Bird (41G, 27A), another state runner-up (2A), will also be counted on contribute significantly to the offense. Coach Hebert has also brought in Zach Betz from his South Stars high school club to shore up his goalie crew. Betz helped guide the South Stars to the Hoosier League’s Commissioner’s Cup last season and looks to be a solid backup between the pipes.
Strength: The addition of Bird and Ramsey will provide some depth to the forwards group and give Hebert some options on his top two lines. Riley Miller was first on the squad with eight assists, and he will be counted on to duplicate his point per game output from last season. Look for Matt Potter, whose seven goals were tied with Frazer for the team lead, to also play a significant role on offense.
Can the 'Cards short bench survive a season's worth of wear and tear?
Lawson and Maklin wound up third and fifth respectively amongst the league’s goaltenders, and Betz should prove to be a reliable safety net should their be need for relief. Still, the Ball State net saw an average of 35 shots a game as they were outscored nearly 2-1 last season. The Cardinals will need to do a better job of clearing the zone and keeping traffic away from crease if they want to improve on their 2-14 record. With Aidan Wilkinson, Jacob Burke, Kennet Hoberg, and Jacob Smulevitch all returning on defense, they should show some strides in this regard.
Weakness: Numbers could still prove to be an issue, and if the bench is thin again this season, look for Ball State to struggle. Hebert has brought in some young guns that are highly capable of putting the puck in the net, and an experienced blue line should give Malkin and Beta a fighting chance. Based on the Cardinals first game against Bradley, we know there’s at least a couple more bodies than the current roster reflects, but it’s difficult to know for sure.
2017-18 Outlook: The Cardinals might not quite be contenders just yet, but they have some talent and should show a marked improvement over last year’s club. Provided they have enough depth in the lineup to survive the season, Ball State will make teams have to work hard for wins.
Prediction: The revamped offense can light the lamp and the blue liners should show some growth as well, but depth could prove to be their undoing late in the season. (5th)
Changes: The Bulldogs headed into the offseason facing a major rebuilding process, particularly on the front lines. Riley Rentz, Kyle Kortebein, and Joey Gurgone have all departed, taking nearly half of the team points with them. The next remaining scoring leader is defenseman Hunter Byram, and all his points last season came via helpers. Compounding the situation is the loss of two of the three rostered goaltenders in Sean O’Reilly and Nicholas Kowalczyk.
One might think that with the loss of his top scorers, Coach Gasior might look to load up on forwards in his recruiting class. Yet after being outscored more than 2-1 last season, Gasior wisely looked to bolster his defensive corps by adding Austin Dusak, John Wallrich, and Will Huyler.
Yet the other positions were not neglected either. Speedy forward Will Reichart joins fellow freshman Brady Murphy and Ben Otto to add some scoring punch to the front lines, while Ryan Dyball was picked up to add depth between the pipes.
Strength: While Butler brings in a solid class of skaters, the strength of this Bulldogs group just might be the goaltenders. Jack Sigman is the lone returning netminder, but he also had the best stats of the bunch ((3.86 GAA; .887 SV%). Dyball brings a 1.78 GAA with him from high school, and should prove to be an outstanding goaltender. If he adjusts to the speed of the college game relatively quickly, Gasior’s biggest challenge might be finding enough minutes for them both.
The Bulldogs added some scoring depth that should help them be more competitive
Weakness: The Bulldogs lost a huge chunk of their scoring, and the top returning forward averaged less than half a point per game last season. Murphy, Otto, and Reichart should all be significant contributors on the scoresheet, but they won’t be able to carry the club by themselves. Butler will need Noah Brayton, Ryan Barrett, and Jack Becker to continue to show growth in their game.
2017-18 Outlook: The Bulldogs took some big steps with this year’s recruiting class, and if they can keep it going on the ice, they should be greatly improved over last season’s 5-12 record. Being a .500 club is a reasonable expectation, and perhaps slightly better if they get a few lucky bounces. They’re still a season or two away from threatening to dethrone the Hoosiers, but these ‘Dawgs won’t go down without a fight.
Prediction: Look for Butler to get into some serious dogfights this season, particularly against the Mastadons. A solid, mid-level program headed in the right direction. (4th)
Changes: The biggest change for the Colonels this year is the conference. With Xavier forced to consolidate their program due to a lack of available ice, the ICHC was more than willing to welcome Eastern Kentucky into the fold to keep membership steady at six teams.
EKU lost nine players from last year’s club, but few of any consequence. The Colonels saw the departure of Teofe Ziemnicki (21G, 11A) and Eric Jones (9G,15A), but return the lion’s share of their scoring. Gone also are goaltenders Samuel Jones - who’s stats were eerily similar to returning netminder Krishan Renfrow - and Will Whitehead (DNP).
More disturbing, are the low numbers to start the season. Coach Joel Cormier welcomes five newcomers (two forwards, two defensemen, one goaltender) but will have to cope with a substantially short bench for a time. “We fell short with a few players at the last minute but luckily have a few coming in after the Christmas break,” stated Cormier. “The ones we did add are very talented.”
Michael Poe and Alex Anderson will help replace some of the lost depth on the front lines, while Eli Schweitzer and Cameron Baker shore up the back end. Johnathan Johnson will serve as the other half of the goaltending tandem.
Strength: With leading scorer Corey Jenks (24G, 27A) and five of the top eight point earners coming back, the rink staff in Lexington might want to stock up on bulbs for the goal lamps. Cristian Purdom (10G, 19A) tops a defense that proved to be solid contributors in the offensive end.
Can the Colonels survive until reinforcements arrive?
Among the returning forwards, Timothy Muhsman and Ryan Gustafson both topped double digits in goals, while Cameron Angus pitched in 11 helpers on the season. But what has Cormier really excited is how quick his team looks to be. “We actually have more team speed than other seasons,” he claims.
Weakness: The Colonels will need to use all that speed and scoring to get out front early, as their low numbers are going to make for some very long third periods. The defense will contribute to the scoring as well as provide some leadership in the locker room, but with only five bodies manning the blue line, rookies Schweitzer and Baker will need to grow up quickly.
On the contrary, Poe and Anderson won’t be counted on to contribute so early and will have more time to find their way. But the Colonels will need Jenks to duplicate his 50+ points from last season, while Muhsman, Gustafson, and Brodie McCaughn will need to take a step or two further.
2017-18 Outlook: It’s hard to see anything coming easily to the Colonels in the first half. Cormier’s top two lines are going to see a lot of ice time early on, and everyone is going to need to stay healthy for EKU to survive until the New Year.
Prediction: The Colonels find themselves in a big hole because of their short bench, especially when compared to the improved Bulldogs and Cardinals. Things will get better when the calendar changes, but it may be too late to salvage the season at that point. (6th)
Changes: In contrast to the Colonels, the Hoosiers might need to expand their locker room as they find themselves with an obscene number of players on their roster. Indiana lost only a small handful from last year’s championship club that contributed in any meaningful way, which looks to be bad news for the rest of the league. The Hoosiers swept through the conference schedule en route to their second straight Crossroads Cup title.
Coach Jack Manard welcomes six new forwards to a team already loaded with firepower. “We only lost one player from last years successful team, and we are carrying a few more young players this season to support the continued growth of our program.” This includes possibly the best name in college hockey - Connor Bonecutter. Ironically, at 5’6” his name might be the most intimidating thing about him… until you see his game. Bonecutter tallied 29 goals to go along with 26 assists for the Leo Lions last season. Small, slashing forwards have been known to give defenses fits, and Bonecutter fits that mold. Sam Huetti, a former Indiana Jr. Ice, is the lone newcomer on defense.
Strength: The Hoosiers look to be solid again in all phases of the game. The defense loses only two players from a squad that surrendered a league-low 2.92 goals per game last season. IU’s goaltending trio of Ben Seinfeld, Matthew Turner, and Connor Minnick were far and away the best in the ICHC and should only get better with another year under their belts. But it’s hard to overlook the arsenal of forwards that Manard has at his disposal. The Hoosiers return seven 20+ point earners, plus junior-to-be Christian French, who chipped in twelve goals and six assists.
Four players tied for the team lead in goals with 16 each - Sam Markwood, Brendon Block, Devan Mackellar, and Ryan Ward - while defenseman Kody Wagner was a close second with 14. Joseph Bolger led the club with 22 assists and pitched in eleven goals of his own for second place on the team scoring list, and Bryan Mooney’s 25 points (9G, 16A) was good for fifth.
Indiana has the skill and depth to three-peat, but can they go further?
Weakness: Although every team can improve in some capacity, it’s difficult to find any real flaws here. The most obvious answer would be ice time. With 25 skaters and 3 goaltenders, Manard has his work cut out for him in trying to get everyone enough reps to keep them sharp. Still, last year’s club was fairly good at spreading the wealth, and this year’s squad should be no different.
Discipline could be the biggest question mark as the Hoosiers took 430 minutes in penalties last year. They may be able to shoot the lights out, but no one scores from the sin bin. Yet Manard likes how this year’s club is put together. “The players have great chemistry together. They’ll deal with adversity any adversity in a positive fashion.” All the pieces are there to make a legitimate run in the post-season, and if Manard is right about his team, they may have the mentality to get things done.
2017-18 Outlook: If the added year of experience translates into a more mature lineup, there’s no telling how far the Hoosiers can go. Last season’s 19 wins, along with close losses to D2 Missouri and D3 powerhouse Grand Valley State, shows they are capable of competing on the big stage.
Prediction: Despite the improvements by some of their conference foes, Indiana is still the odds-on favorite. Look for the Hoosiers to three-peat as Crossroads Cup champions, with their eyes on a bigger prize. (1st)
Changes: Unlike the Hoosiers, the Mastadons should have plenty of room to spread out with only 15 listed on the active roster. The ‘Dons lost a few role players from last year, but return the bulk of the lineup that averaged a whopping 6.14 goals per game, sixth best in all of Division 3. Tyler Trembczynski, who missed last season, returns to add some depth up front along with newcomer Ben Edwards from Bishop Dwenger HS.
The biggest losses, though, were found in the defensive zone. IPFW saw four blueliners depart this summer, along with both goaltenders. Taylor Amborn, who played for the ‘Dons during the 14-15 and 15-16 campaigns, is back in net after a year away. Coach Ron Leef picked up Kevin Baum to bolster the back end, but its likely not enough with only five defensemen on the roster. The ‘Dons will also need to find another netminder to give Amborn some relief during the long season.
Strength: Without question, offense is what makes the Mastadons go. Standout Brendan Lewis (48G, 32A) was fifth in Division 3 in points, while Derek Moss was 15th in the nation as a member of the 30-30 club. Tyler Grunden fell one goal and one assist shy of a 20-20 season. Grant Isenbarger led the team with 35 assists and added 17 goals of his own, his 52 points making for third-best on the club. The ‘Dons also return seven other players who tallied double-digit points last year. Leef didn’t add any firepower this offseason, but then again he didn’t really need to.
Last year, the 'Dons were near the top in the nation in scoring and penalties
Weakness: Here’s where things get interesting. IPFW plagued with issues in the Three D’s - depth, defense, and discipline. Last year, the Mastodons surrendered nearly as many goals as they scored. As one might suspect, their record reflected it. To climb into the upper tier and challenge Indiana for the cup, they need to put some serious effort into building up the defense in both quantity and quality. With only 5 guys, it won’t matter how good they are if they wear down or get banged up.
Offense wasn’t the only category in which the ‘Dons were among the Division 3 leaders. They also ranked fourth in the nation in penalty minutes. With as short a bench as IPFW has to work with, spending a significant amount of time on the PK would further tax the razor-thin defense and add even more pressure on the offense to put up points. If they want to make some noise in the ICHC, they’ll have to be way more disciplined than last year.
2017-18 Outlook: If you enjoy high-scoring games, the Mastodons are your team. I can’t imagine Coach Leef being too excited about having a lot of 7-5 or 8-7 scores, but at least his club has the weapons to be on the higher side more often than not.
Prediction: IPFW will likely challenge the Hoosiers for the scoring title, but they lack the depth to make a serious run at the Crossroads Cup. (3rd)
Changes: The Boilermakers’ roster underwent the most drastic overhaul of any team in the conference. Half of the 26 players listed are new this season. Still, that’s not to say it won’t work in their favor. Four of the top five scorers are back, along with the top two defensemen and both goaltenders. Gone are Nicholas Schneider’s sixteen points, and ten each from Russell Ferro and Michael Donato. The defense will feel the loss of Joel Giradin, but the remaining departures were role players who contributed little to the stat sheet.
Coach Joey Giradin is encouraged by the changes. “Several rookies/freshman have added to our depth, and our returning guys have all improved.”
Dominick Cappadonna, Wesley Oliver, and Anthony Simuro all averaged better than a point per game in high school and should prove to complement the returning scorers very well. The defensive group gained some reinforcements as well in Patrick Lee, Alex Markovich, Matthew McNeal, and Justin Heskamp. Adam Gottwald becomes the third goaltender and could earn some situational minutes if he adapts to the college game fast enough.
Strength: Purdue’s biggest assets are it’s depth and chemistry. The aren’t flashy on offense, but top returning scorers John Vanvliet, Nathan Smith, and Andy Pietraniec are more than capable of putting the puck in the net. Should Oliver, Simuro, or Cappadonna - or all three - settle in quickly, the Boilermakers should improve on their 4-goal-per-game average.
Between the bolstered defense and a more seasoned goaltender group, Purdue should be able to cut down on their goals against as well. Again, the defense isn’t showy, but they bring a solid work ethic to the rink day in and day out. Jack Gibson and James Hickey provide consistent leadership on the back end and even chip in on offense from time to time. Gottwald will make a nice addition to the tandem of Matthew Eagon and Mike Donovan, both of whom should show growth from last season.
The Boilermakers aren't flashy, but they're not "Vanilla Ice" either
Weakness: While the Boilermakers are solid up and down the roster, they currently lack that ‘go-to’ forward or ‘lockdown’ defenseman that can take control of a game when they have to. Not to say that that they couldn’t - Vanvliet and Smith definitely possess the necessary skill set, while Gilson is solid defenseman who stays out of trouble and can pitch in on offense. Last season, no one has assumed that role.
This year’s Purdue club looks to be the Clark Kent to Indiana’s Superman: mild-mannered, unassuming, and dependable to the core. This is in no way a slight to the Boilermakers. Consistency will almost always get the job done. But in order to take that next step, they need a hero to swoop in and save the day when things get out of control… or at least some Kryptonite to take down Superman once and for all.
2017-18 Outlook: The Boilermakers took some solid strides to improve on their 8-8-1 record and they have what they need to make a run at the Crossroads Cup. But they’ll need that consistency - especially in the defensive end - to pull them through.
Prediction: Purdue provides the biggest threat to end the Hoosier’s two-year string of titles, but Indiana just has too many weapons to overcome. (2nd)