The reinforcements are finally on their way for the Boston University men’s hockey team, as six recruits have signed their national letters of intent to join the squad in 2014-15.
The incoming freshmen include three forwards in Jack Eichel, J.J. Piccinich and Chase Phelps, as well as three defensemen in Brandon Hickey, Brien Diffley and Johnathan MacLeod. At least two more recruits are expected to join the team at a later date.
Eichel, a Chelmsford native, is expected to be the prize of the class. The 6-foot-1, 190 pound 17-year-old is a point-producing machine, as he dominated with the United States National Development Program this past year. He totaled 45 points in 24 games at the USHL level, 87 points in 53 games at the U-18 level and 10 points in seven games while leading that U-18 squad to a world championship on Sunday.
“I know Eichel is a guy who has elite talent,” said BU coach David Quinn. “You talk to anybody that watches him, he makes the game look easy. He has got incredible vision, he competes around the puck, he is a unique talent. He is incredibly strong, hockey strong. He is a great guy, he is a great kid and he makes everybody around him better.
“He might be the difference-maker in all of those one-goal games we lost last year.”
Quinn mentioned Eichel’s performance at the U-20 World Junior Championships – where he averaged a point per game on the same team as BU sophomore forward Danny O’Regan and sophomore defenseman Matt Grzelcyk – as an indicator of how well he will transition to college hockey. Eichel, who is eligible for the 2015 NHL draft, is projected to be selected in the top two picks alongside Connor McDavid of the Erie Otters in the OHL.
“I mean he certainly has that ability [to be taken No. 1 in the NHL draft],” Quinn said. “Our job is to make him the best player he can be while he is here and put him in the best position he can be in. If he does that, the draft situation will take care of itself.”
Eichel will be joined up front by Piccinich and Phelps, who have impressive scoring pedigrees of their own. Piccinich, a 6-foot, 185 pound winger, scored 27 goals and recorded 31 assists for the Youngstown Phantoms of the USHL last season and is expected to add some scoring ability as a freshman.
“J.J. Piccinich scores 27 goals in the USHL because he goes to the net and he beats people off walls,” Quinn said. “The thing he improved was his skating and his transition game this year. He made more plays on the initial rush. He is going to be a guy that we are going to look to produce offensively.”
Phelps comes from the prestigious Shattuck-St. Mary’s school in Faribault, Minn., where he recorded 66 points in 53 games. He is 6-foot, 190-pound winger who is should add some more skill to the offense.
“Chase may be a little bit more of an up and down winger than J.J., but he is a left-shot, he sticks his nose in there, he skates very well, good sized kid, he has got good hands and he will capitalize on his scoring opportunities,” Quinn said. “We just needed to improve our depth and to improve our size and strength and our grit and our offensive ability and these guys do it for us.”
Quinn was also excited for his additions at the defensive end, including another member of the U-18 World Championship team, Johnathan MacLeod. The Dracut native is more known more as a defensive presence than as a puck-mover, but he added 11 points in 51 games with the U-18 team this past season. He played 31 games at Kimball Union Academy in 2011-12, where he was paired with current Terrier defenseman Doyle Somerby.
The other two defensemen, Hickey and Diffley, both committed to BU this year. Hickey is a Leduc, Alberta native that had 16 points in 37 games with the Spruce Grove Saints of the Alberta Junior Hockey League last season. Diffley is more local, as the Burlington native added two goals and 15 assists for Buckingham Browne & Nichols in 2013-14.
The three defensemen will be key to a team that did not have much depth last season. When Grzelcyk went down with an injury, BU struggled to keep six defensemen in the lineup every game.
“We are adding Diffley who is a 6-foot-1, 185 pounder who can really skate,” Quinn said. “We are adding Hickey, who is 6-foot-1, 190 pounds who can really skate. And we are adding MacLeod who is 6-foot-1, 200-pounds who can skate and is tough as nails.
“Our depth is going to be dramatically better on the blue line and in turn your offense will be better. All of the forwards will be better because we have a deeper core of D.”
Quinn was sure to credit former BU assistant coach Mike Bavis for his recruits that are finally arriving this upcoming season.
“We have got a great class coming in and a lot of that is already attributed to Mike Bavis and Buddy Powers,” Quinn said. “I mean Piccinich and Eichel and MacLeod were already the foundation of this class. This class was set up to be a great one. I thought Buddy and [associate head coach] Steve [Greeley] did a great job surrounding them with more very good players.”
The introduction of several new players for the Terriers means BU will finally have some depth to its roster, which gives Quinn the option of sitting players when they play poorly. This option is something he is excited to have.
“I’ve told everybody, the good news is I am going to have the ability if you’re not playing well to bench you,” Quinn said. “Guys may not realize that that is a good thing because it may motivate them, it may be what you need to elevate your game, it may be what you need to breakthrough to be the player you want to be.
“That’s going to be the luxury we have as coaches. We didn’t have that luxury this year. They had us by the throat.”
It is this recruiting class, along with the departures of key players for teams like Boston College and University of Massachusetts-Lowell, that makes Quinn believe his team can start closing the gap between BU and last season’s top teams.
“Every year is different,” Quinn said. “I say this all the time is the great thing about college sports is that the name on the back of the jersey might be the same from year to year, but the guy in it changes because between the ages of 18 to 22 people do a lot of changing. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.
“I’m hoping our guys change for the better and I think that with the players we have coming in there is going to be stiff competition at every position and there is nothing like that in sports because it makes everybody better.”