On the latest episode of New England Hockey Journal’s “RinkWise” podcast, NEHJ’s Jeff Cox joins the show to preview the upcoming prep hockey playoffs alongside host Kirk Luedeke.
The discussion focuses on the potential field for the NEPSAC Elite 8 Tournament, the premier tournament in prep school hockey that includes the top eight teams in New England — in addition to the Large School and Small School Tournaments, all three of which are set to be held at campus sites from March 2-6.
Belmont Hill just suffered its first loss of the season, while Avon Old Farms and Kimball Union Academy have been at the top of their respective conferences from the regular season’s start to finish. What is the one school no team wants to face right now? Listen to the full episode below to hear analysis and projections.
In addition to team talk, the duo also touches on myriad players, including Kimball Union’s Jaiden Moriello (Saugus, Mass.), Avon Old Farms’ Conor Callaghan, Salisbury’s Dylan Hyrckowian, Belmont Hill’s Sam Scopa (Lexington, Mass.), St. Mark’s Michael Fisher (Westboro, Mass.), Nobles’ Ben MacDonald (Weston, Mass.) and many more.
On how quickly the season goes to get to this point:
Cox: “It’s a short season. … You can’t have too many hiccups. It’s like college football where you lose one game, two games, and your chance at a national championship, or in this case a prep school Elite 8, is over.”
Key trends that have stuck out in the second half:
Cox: “There’s a way to win in prep school hockey. It’s having depth and having older guys. You don’t win consistently with a bunch of ’06s, ’07s, ’05s. Brunswick is a good example. They’re a great team )they have possibly more Division 1 players on that roster than any other team in prep school hockey) but it’s mostly ’05s, ’06s, a couple of ’04s, and one late ’03 in Hank Cleaves (Riverside, Conn.). They’ve had some impressive stretches, but they’ve also had some bumps in the road along the way.
“I think when you look at Kimball Union, Avon and Belmont Hill, which to me have been the three best teams all year, they’re older and they’re deep. You win with older guys and prep school hockey for the most part.”
On why Avon Old Farms has been so successful again:
Cox: “John Gardner and that program speak for itself. I really like their depth up front. I think they have a couple of key pieces on the blue line and then obviously Callaghan, but you have an older team for the most part. Joe Connor (Amherst, N.H.) has been their leading scorer — he’s an ’05. But other than that, their top guys are all ’02s, ’03s, ’04s.
On why Salisbury (2020 Elite 8 champ) is the most intriguing team in the mix:
Cox: “Andrew Will is as good of a coach as there is. They’ve won a whole bunch of prep school championships with him at the helm there. They have, to me, two of the more dynamic players in prep hockey this year in Hyrckowian and Ben Poitras, who are both Northeastern commits. They’re an older team for the most part. They’re deep. They don’t have as much Division 1 talent as they’ve had in the past but they have a great goaltender in Austin McNicholas.
“If they can squeak into the Elite 8 … I would not want to face them because Andrew Will and (Kimball Union head coach) Tim Whitehead, their track record speaks for itself.”
On Kimball Union chasing its fourth Elite 8 title since 2017:
Cox: “They’re just a deep team. I talked about it in the power rankings last week … one game they had 13 different guys find the scoresheet; that’s really impressive. The schedule they play isn’t quite as good as what Salisbury and Avon play, just because the Lakes Region is not quite as tough as some of those Connecticut teams, but they’ve had some good games. They beat Holderness recently in overtime and Holderness is having a great year … but KUA, to me, has the offensive firepower to outscore anyone.
“Their ‘D’ might not be quite as solid and their goaltending is good — it’s kind of had a bump in the road like you’d expect with an ’05 (Daniel Heroux) — but they’re a great team. They’re an undisputed top-4, in my opinion, as far as who is going to win this Elite 8.”
On why Kent is an interesting team on the cusp of the Elite 8:
Cox: “Kent’s an interesting team because their top-7 leading scorers are all ’03 seniors that have been around for a while. But on the blue line, they have three ’06s playing every night, and two of them play significant minutes and are really good hockey players, but as we talked about with ’05s, it’s hard to be in ’05 in prep and it’s even harder to be in ’06.
“They’ve had some inexcusable losses … but they also beat Salisbury twice. So, I think they’re just a good example of the fact that you’re going to be a little bit inconsistent when you have a younger blue line. But I really like Kent. I think they have some seniors that are ballplayers. They’re just guys that step up.”
On the return of NEPSAC tournaments after none were held in 2021:
Cox: “There was no end game for any of those teams. We mentioned some of them, but there have been some really good hockey games in prep school hockey this year and great exposure for the kids, college coaches and NHL scouts are at most all the games.
“It’s still a great, great, great take for kids in New England. Prep hockey is still really good. It might not have been as high-end as it had been in the past, but there are still a lot of good players and there will still be over probably six or seven guys that get drafted this June out of prep hockey.”
For more on the upcoming playoffs, additional conversations about teams such as St. Sebastian’s, Nobles, Holderness, St. Mark’s, Cushing, Dexter and more, listen to the full episode of NEHJ’s “RinkWise” today.