Hockey, Ice Hockey, Sports

Reflecting on 2019-20, O’Connell sees growth and potential to build on

After concluding a wild regular season that he deemed “probably the tightest Hockey East race ever,” Boston University men’s hockey coach Albie O’Connell was just a day away from taking his Terriers to Lowell for their first-round playoff series with the River Hawks.

Freshman forward Trevor Zegras, shown in a Feb. 22 game against the University of Connecticut, just signed a contract with the Anaheim Ducks, making him one of seven Terriers leaving the program this season. JENNA VANSICKLE/ DFP FILE

In a matter of minutes, all postseason plans were halted and players began packing their things and prepared to return home.

“We practiced on that Thursday before we were going to go up to Lowell,” O’Connell said. “We got off the ice and … we had a phone call from the other side of campus saying, ‘hey, we’ll know more … but it doesn’t look good.”

O’Connell could barely say goodbye before his men headed their separate ways, returning home for the remainder of the semester along with the rest of the BU student body as a result of the spread of the coronavirus.

“We brought the guys back to meet after that. Right from there, [the] guys started going home, booking flights.” O’Connell said. “There was no closure to anything, really, All of a sudden, it was done. The plug was pulled.

Weeks after the news of the season’s conclusion, O’Connell said he has had a chance to reflect on the past five months that saw his team finish 13-13-8. 

O’Connell’s 13-man freshman class was relied on heavily throughout the season, with 10 first-years skating in at least half of the team’s 34 games. According to the head coach, the heavy workload for the team’s newcomers was partially due to early injuries to veteran leaders.

“If you think about [junior forward Ty] Amonte being out for the year and [junior forward Logan] Cockerill out for the first half of the year, that’s two of your best forwards. Not having them and their energy and their experience was hard.”

With a year of college hockey under their belt, O’Connell said the Class of 2023 will be expected to make a jump in their second season as Terriers.

“I think confidence-wise, coming into your sophomore year [is different than coming into] your freshman year,” he said. “They won’t be making the same mistakes that they did in the first half this year.”

In O’Connell’s eyes, there was a lot to like about the way BU played in the second semester of the season.

“Defensively, we got a lot better,” O’Connell said. “Our power play was very good. Our penalty kill was decent, it was better in the second half for sure.”

The Terriers finished the regular season sixth in Hockey East with a conference record of 10-9-5. Had the postseason been completed, O’Connell said he felt his men could have made some noise in the playoffs.

“I think we could’ve made a run,” he said. “I liked our chances the way we played down the stretch.”

With an unclear timeline for a return to normalcy, the team’s offseason plan remains uncertain as well.

“We don’t really know what to expect from summer school and workouts,” O’Connell said. “Right now we’re just trying to get the guys to finish up strong in school, and that’s different, too, with virtual learning.”

The university has adopted video-conferencing softwares, such as Zoom, for classes and meetings. With this technology’s proven effectiveness, O’Connell said he sees an opportunity for his team to harness the platform’s capabilities as well.

“Zoom is going to allow our guys to at least have some semblance of a team workout going forward,” O’Connell said. “From a planning standpoint, we can still virtually talk as a staff.”

While spring and summer team activities may be conducted a bit differently this year, O’Connell said he does not plan to lower his expectations.

“It’s an important time for the team to recognize that they have to make some gains off the ice to have success next year,” he said. “Physically, [the freshmen have] got to get stronger, which will allow them to make a jump.”

An additional focus for O’Connell is to put his team in a position to limit the number injuries sustained throughout next season. Only seven Terriers suited up for all 34 games this year, so finding ways to keep players healthy will be a priority for O’Connell and his staff.

“We’ve got to address some injury-prevention stuff that we can do,” he said. “You’re going to get injuries, but you can’t have four, five shoulder injuries in a season.”

Another critical factor towards team makeup and personnel is annual roster turnover. BU lost nine Terriers after the 2018-19 season, nearly all of whom logged significant ice time. This year, O’Connell said he feels more confident in the group that will be coming back.

“We’ve got a majority of the team coming back,” he said. “I think we’ve got a lot more bodies that have played at this level and understand what it takes to win.”

For now, BU will be losing four seniors, two graduate students and freshman forward Trevor Zegras, who inked a contract with the Anaheim Ducks. With 12 Terriers from this year’s team drafted to the NHL, there is always the possibility that more players will elect to sign their professional deals and advance to the next level before completing their four years at BU.

From the team’s perspective, O’Connell said it’s just a waiting game.

“It’s hard to predict who’s going to leave and who’s not,” he said. “Each individual guy is different with what their goals are, where they think they’re at, what’s actually real and what’s not.”

The 2020-21 campaign begins in just over six months, and as O’Connell nears the two-year anniversary of his appointment as head coach, he said he is eager to get started again.

“I think the group made a big step [this season],” O’Connell said. “We’re excited about the group who’s coming back, and I think we’re excited about the guys we have coming in.”

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