Over the summer, when Boston College coach Jerry York looked at his roster of incoming freshmen, he saw a wealth of potential.
Now, 18 games into the schedule, many of those rookies have assumed key roles in helping the Eagles achieve a 12-4-2 record, 6-1-1 in Hockey East play.
“Four [forwards] are playing pretty regular, two of which have made an immediate impact — Ryan Fitzgerald and Austin Cangelosi,’’ said York.
Fitzgerald is fourth on the team in scoring with 18 points; Cangelosi is fifth with 17.
“That’s a pretty good benchmark for a freshman,’’ said York. “They’ve contributed on special teams, they are playing regular shifts, they’ve really been all I could’ve asked for.’’
Fitzgerald, who is from North Reading, has a rich hockey pedigree. His father, Tom, played 1,097 games in the National Hockey League, including 71 with the Bruins in 2005-06.
Fitzgerald, a fourth-round pick (No. 120 overall) of the Bruins in last summer’s draft, is a cousin of former Eagle Jimmy Hayes, now with the Florida Panthers, and current Eagle Kevin Hayes. They were both instrumental in Fitzgerald ending up at BC.
“[Jimmy] was pushing me pretty hard to come here,’’ said Fitzgerald. “I’ve always been a big fan of BC so it was a pretty easy choice. With Kev still here, we’re all pretty close. He is one of the guys who kind of looks out for me and gives me good advice, so I can build from that.’’
Kevin Hayes, drafted in the first round by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010, said Fitzgerald’s many pre-enrollment visits to the school led to an understanding of the Eagles’ system and York’s expectations.
“He fits really well,’’ said Hayes. “He was a little unlucky to not make the World Junior team, which I think he should’ve made.’’
Hayes said his family is very close to Fitzgerald’s, close enough that they would support Fitzgerald when he was playing for Malden Catholic.
“We never had to play against each other because our schools were in different leagues,’’ said Hayes, who played at Noble and Greenough. “But my mom and his family are very, very close.’’
Another cousin who was influential in the cousins’ hockey careers is former NHL player Keith Tkachuk . Fitzgerald’s younger brother, Casey, and Tkachuk’s son, Matthew, play on the Under-17 team in the US National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich. Casey, a defenseman, plans to go to BC as well.
As proud as Ryan Fitzgerald is of his family lineage, he wants to be a key contributor to his BC hockey family.
“We have all the parts to be a successful team,’’ said Fitzgerald. “I think the first half [of the season] was feeling out what everyone’s role was going to be. The second half, everyone is starting to figure it out and I think we can be a pretty dangerous team down the line.’’
Fitzgerald said he is looking forward to next month — the first time he will compete in the Beanpot Tournament at TD Garden.
“I have been going to the Garden ever since I was a kid to watch that,’’ said Fitzgerald. “It’s one thing you grow up wanting to play in if you grew up in Massachusetts. Mass. kids kind of have a different feel than a few of the other kids because we know the history of it and how important it is to Boston.’’
After mixing and matching lines, York has Fitzgerald at center with Cangelosi at right wing and Destry Straight on the left side. Fitzgerald and Cangelosi are natural centers.
“They’re very gifted with the puck,’’ said York. “Both are terrific offensive players and they’ve been good additions to our club.’’
Fitzgerald said moving to a line with Cangelosi and Straight has been seamless.
“It was a pretty easy transition, I’ve known Austin for a while,’’ said Fitzgerald. “We’re pretty comfortable with each other. We’re both not the biggest guys so we know how to survive out there. It’s pretty easy to read off him and I think he feels the same so we have pretty good chemistry going.’’
Cangelosi said having so many freshmen on the team has helped them jell as a unit.
“We’re all the same age and even though we’re from different places, we’re all on the same page,’’ said Cangelosi, who is from Estero, Fla., and played high school in Massachusetts at Northfield Mount Hermon before moving on to Youngstown of the USHL. “It’s very easy to get along with all of them, they’re great kids.’’
Both Fitzgerald and Cangelosi have marveled at the talent of left wing Johnny Gaudreau, who is on an offensive tear with linemates Billy Arnold and Hayes.
“He’s very talented, very skilled and he’s probably the best player in college hockey,’’ said Cangelosi. “It’s tough keeping up with him but a lot of fun, though. He’s mesmerizing, some of the stuff he does. You pass him the puck and he does his thing.’’
The forwards aren’t the only ones having an impactful year.
Defensemen Ian McCoshen and Steve Santini as well as goaltender Thatcher Demko competed for the US in the World Junior Tournament (the US was eliminated by Russia in the quarterfinals Thursday) and might make it back for Saturday night’s Frozen Fenway game against Notre Dame. York said he thinks the tournament helped their development.
“[McCoshen and Santini] are both big and strong and have a good feel for both sides of the puck,’’ said York. “I think Scott Savage is going to be a very fine player as he keeps adjusting to Hockey East.
“Those three defensemen were essential to us. We thought we really had to improve that part of our team. I’m very proud of how they’ve stepped in.’’
Goaltending was a question mark going into the year but not anymore. Both junior Brian Billett and Demko have proven to be very capable.
“The play of the goaltenders has been very encouraging,’’ said York. “With Parker Milner playing almost all our games over the last two years, that was an area we were concerned with, but Brian Billett has shown he can play at this level and Thatcher Demko has come in and really adjusted to Hockey East so we feel confident about both our goaltenders. That’s a strength, the way I look at it.’’
One of the reasons the Eagles are tied with Providence (12-4-2, 6-2-1) at the top of the league standings is the contributions from the freshmen.
“It’s been a breath of fresh air to have that many freshmen,’’ said York. “We’re looking at four forwards, three defensemen, and a goalie. As the year goes by, they’re all going to be really good players at this level. They’re fitting in very, very well with our team.’’
That doesn’t mean the Eagles can’t play better.
“We’ve certainly showed some flashes where I think we could be a very, very good team,’’ said York. “We’ve also shown some areas where we absolutely have to show improvement in.
“It’s been a very interesting first half of the year for me. We like our won-lost record, we like our positioning in the league, but I don’t think we’ve scratched the surface yet on how good we can be.’’