The Sun Devils hockey season didn’t go as planned.
Despite the opening of Mullett Arena and a program-record 24 home games, ASU finished 18-21 and missed the NCAA Tournament field for a third straight season (not counting 2019-20 when the Devils would have made it had their season not been canceled due to the COVID-19 outbreak).
Of the Devils’ eight road losses in the season’s first half, three came in overtime (Minnesota-Duluth, Bemidji State, New Hampshire) and two more came in the final two minutes of regulation; one with 16.7 remaining in regulation at Clarkson, the other with 1:58 remaining at Denver.
The Sun Devils had a goal disallowed late in regulation of the OT loss at Duluth, and officials made a horrifically bad call on Denver’s game-winning goal with 1:58 remaining on Dec. 2.
When the schedule finally turned favorable, the injury bug hit the Devils hard. For stretches of the second half, ASU had nine players out of the lineup and had to call players up from the club team.
When the season ended, the program absorbed one final blow. Sophomore forward Josh Doan, the top recruit in program history, informed Powers that he would be turning pro with the Coyotes, removing a talent that the staff thought would be there for at least another season.
I caught up with Powers this week for a wide-ranging Q&A to review the season and look ahead.
Now that you’ve played one full season at Mullett Arena, what was that experience like for the program and for you?
“It was incredible in every way, but one of the biggest things I’m excited about is now we get a full offseason to really make it home. There’s so many things that you don’t get to do when you get home from a 10-day trip, you move in and three days later, you’re playing a game. When you’re in the midst of a season, your focus is your team. It’s not on fixing things. It’s never perfect right off the bat.
“When we first moved in and were playing in a brand new barn in front of 5,000 people, it was almost like the Twilight Zone. It was weird for our kids. I think it took our kids a while to get adjusted to not looking at the situation as pressure. We used to play in front of 700 people. Now you’re playing in front of 5,000 people and maybe you don’t perform because you’re putting more pressure on yourself. We got more used to it and we won 14 games. It wasn’t like we were bad at home, but we want to turn it into the kind of home-ice advantage that we had at Oceanside. That’s gonna be a huge focus this offseason.”
When you evaluate your roster, what changes do you need to make?
“We need to be harder and heavier. We’ve had exponentially less skill when we’ve had more success as a program.
“Listen, we had so many injuries that when you’re that thin and your top six are basically playing 22 to 25 minutes a night and you’re calling up a club kid to play on your third line, it is what it is. If you look at our first dozen games when we were healthy, we were playing with everybody and beating really high-end teams.
“But we also can make the argument that we were too light and too small and that’s why we couldn’t stay healthy. So we need to get bigger, we need to get heavier, we need to be way harder to play against. We need guys that don’t have identity crises and that’s what we have coming in. We have big, heavy mules that understand their role is to get pucks out, get pucks in, be physical, kill penalties, block shots, and be really hard to score against.”
Do you still have enough skill?
“Obviously, losing Josh is tough, but we’re returning a healthy Matthew Kopperud, who had 22 goals in a season as a sophomore. We’re returning Lukas Sillinger, who played through a lot of injuries and didn’t finish the last 10 games because of injury, but had 38 points as a sophomore. Dylan Jackson’s coming back and he scored 12 goals. Ryan Alexander is an 11-goal freshman. Charlie Schoen is an unbelievable talent who was a 60-point (56) kid in the USHL that didn’t get to play last year.
“We have a lot coming back that we’re excited about. We’re not missing the skill. We’re not missing the creativity. We’re not missing the kids that can put the puck in the net. We just have to fill in some holes where we’re gonna be really tough to play against, and we already have.”
How has the transfer portal and its most recent changes altered program building?
“It’s definitely a new dynamic in college hockey and it’s crazy. Players are getting bombarded with calls, but the good ones don’t take them. The good ones just basically pick a couple places they want to look at, and we’re definitely in that conversation now with high-end kids.
“It’s like the wild, wild west. You can find real talent now in the transfer portal. The people who say those kids are transferring because they had issues in other programs or weren’t good enough, or the people complaining about the process are just curmudgeons who are not adapting to the new reality.
“You think I regret bringing in Robert Mastrosimone? You think I regret bringing in Colin Theisen? Those are two kids that came from blue-bloods where their experience was so much better here than where they were. It has just changed the game for coaches that don’t value building relationships with their current players. You have to do it now because if you don’t, they have the option to leave and it’s easy to do it.”
Did Josh Doan’s decision surprise you?
“It didn’t surprise me because Josh was so upfront and communicative throughout the whole process. It was a good month and a half ago that he told me, ‘[The Coyotes] want to meet with me. I don’t know what it’s about, but I’m just letting you know because I don’t want to meet with them and then have you hear that I’ve met with them.’
“Josh changed his mind a lot because he liked ASU, he enjoyed college hockey, and he wanted to win and be a part of a tournament team. A lot of that played into him wanting to come back.
“Throughout the whole process, I just listened and supported him. I just genuinely believe it’s not my place to give him unsolicited input. I wanted to just support him. I told him, ‘Whatever you do doesn’t change your time here. It doesn’t change our relationship. It doesn’t change your relationship with the program. You have enough people around you that you trust and that know what they’re talking about, so you’re gonna make the right decision. But whatever the decision is, live with it, stick with it, believe in it and don’t look back.'”
How does his loss impact the program?
“We’re still a new program that just finished our seventh full season and we have four NHL contracts in the last four years so we’re proud of that. That’s a good thing for our program. It’s not a bad thing for a young program when a kid signs an NHL contract. Are we gonna miss him? Of course. We love the kid. He’s a great player, but it’s onward and upward. You’ve got to believe in your ability to replace and we will.”
Aside from Doan, Demetrios Koumontzis signed with the ECHL’s Idaho Steelheads, Chris Grando signed with the Jacksonville Icemen (ECHL), and the Utah Grizzlies signed Jacob Semik. Who else won’t be back?
“All the seniors. We’re not bringing back any fifth-year players. Aside from the guys that have signed, Jack Judson is probably going to play a fifth year at another school. Ben Kraws is in the portal.
“Underclassmen-wise, Ryan Robinson and Cade Stibbe are gonna go somewhere else where they can play; they are in the portal. Jack Jensen is going to go somewhere else.”
What about Red Wings prospect Robert Mastrosimone, who still has another year of eligibility?
“He’s playing the waiting game and seeing what’s going to be available as a free agent. There’s a lot of teams that are interested in him, but it doesn’t look like Detroit is going to happen. It’s just a waiting game, but he has the option to come back. It’s a good option and he’s open to it.
“He’s going to be here all summer, and I think he’s probably going to enroll and leave that as an option. It’s not something that we’re going to know about for a while. I know he wants to get a contract and play pro hockey and I’m confident that can happen for him, but this is going to remain an option.
“We have models built where he’s coming back and we have models if he doesn’t but when he makes that decision, he has a home. If it happens, he’s just going to be an unbelievable cherry on top if it happens.”
Can you provide some insight on the incoming freshman class?
“Our freshman class next year is one that fits the identity that we want to play. Up front, we have an incredible sandpaper guy coming in who’s the captain in Fargo in Kyle Smolen, who is going to probably be about a 50-point guy in the USHL. He is a hard, skill guy, which is what we need and what we lacked this year.
“We also have three kids that are respectfully, three of the toughest kids in junior hockey to play against. And those kids are coming in to fill bottom-six roles and embrace bottom-six roles. One is Cole Gordon (Minnesota, NAHL), who is Boyd Gordon’s nephew. He’s 6-2, 205. He’s unbelievable on faceoffs, he’s great on the defensive side of the puck and he doesn’t have an identity crisis. He can skate. He hits everything. He’s great on the forecheck. He plays just like his uncle.
“And then we have Cole Helm, who’s in Dubuque (USHL). If he’s on the ice, you’d better keep your head up. He hits everything. He leads the USHL in penalty minutes, but those aren’t dirty, bad penalties. He just isn’t afraid to drop the gloves and answer the bell, which you can do in junior hockey. He’s very hard to play against. He’s mean, he’s tough, he’s physical. He’s very good defensively. He knows what he is. He doesn’t have an identity crisis.
“And then the other kid that’s really intriguing is Anthony Achille. He plays in Maine in the North American League, and you could probably say he’s the fastest kid in junior hockey right now. He’s relentless. He’s fearless. If your team doesn’t have the puck, he knows his job is to go and get it back. Those kids help shape an identity that we just lost. They know why they’re being brought in. They know what their roles are going to be. They embrace the roles and they’re going to be just awesome.
“Then we have two tremendous defenseman coming in in Josh Niedermayer (Penticton, BCHL), who’s big, who can skate, who’s strong. He’s a mule. He defends. He’s hard to play against on the back end, which we lacked last year. And then Anthony Dowd, who is a tremendously talented kid. A lot of people think he is the best defenseman on the (USHL’s) Chicago Steel. He was committed to Providence. He opted to decommit because he wanted to go to a bigger school so it was between us, BU and Michigan and we got him.”
What about local kids?
David Hymovitch is a really good forward in Muskegon (USHL) who was committed to Quinnipiac, and once he saw what was going on in his hometown, he was just like, ‘Man, I want to be a part of it and go back home.’
“My goal every year, as long as it makes sense, I would love a local kid in every class. I think it’s the right thing to do to help grow hockey here and there’s enough good talent here where if we can get the highest-end local kid in every class then we’re in good shape. We got Josh Doan. We didn’t have the arena when Matthew Knies committed, but we have a local kid who has verbally committed — I can’t say his name (PHNX can; it’s Carson McGinley) — on the U16 Coyotes that just won the regionals and are going to Nationals.”
The NCAA Tournament began this week, highlighting some of the top talent in the nation such as Minnesota’s top line of Logan Cooley, Knies and Jimmy Snuggerud. How do you start attracting that level of talent to the desert?
It’s going to take a couple of years. Kids have already committed for the next couple of freshmen classes. The first birth-year class that we’ll be on a level playing field with other programs, as far as players like that go, is the 2007 birth year, which can commit to schools starting this August.
“Those kids were all at the top-40 NTDP camp this past week. We have done Zooms and have very high interest with probably half that list. It will take some time to catch up. Until then, people can’t judge us. There’s probably a three-year lag effect between the building of our arena and the time when we start landing those kids.
“That doesn’t mean we’re not gonna get better and better. The arena is going to help and kids are going to decommit and come here, but we’re not on a level playing field with any birth year until the 07s. That’s the harsh reality. People have opinions. They see the beautiful arena and they expect a change in results overnight but that’s just not realistic.”
Do you worry that if you don’t get back in the tournament soon, that lack of success will become a self-fulfilling prophecy where people will start to view you as this fringe independent school?
“No, not at all. I think we’ve done a great job of setting the bar very high for our program out of Oceanside by making two tournaments. But there’s a reason why, as an independent, nobody did it for 27 years prior to that. Alaska had an unbelievable year this year and didn’t get in because it’s friggin’ hard to do as an independent.
“Our expectation is to do it every year and we know we can; we’re capable of it. People aren’t going to put pressure on me. I don’t give a shit what anybody thinks except for my family, my players and my boss, and I know they’ve all got my back. It’s a good thing that people have high expectations for us. It’s awesome. But I rest on the same thing I told you before. ‘If you think you can do all the things that I’ve done out of Oceanside then go do it; you can have my job.'”
It is widely viewed as advantageous to NCAA Tournament hopes to play in a conference, due to the automatic bids or the possibility of earning a bid via conference tournaments. Canisius earned a bid as the No. 41 team in the PairWise rankings by winning the Atlantic Hockey Conference tournament, and No. 25 Colgate earned a bid by winning the ECAC tournament. Is there anything new you can tell Sun Devils fans about the program’s efforts to join a conference and that timeline?
“Yeah. It’s incredibly promising right now. That’s all I can say.”
Top photo of Suns Devils hockey coach Greg Powers via Getty Images
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