Frozen Four Preview: Notre Dame

Throughout the week, I’ll have posts on each of the teams playing in the 2011 NCAA Frozen Four. There is plenty of quality FF coverage across the internet, but I’ll try and give you something just a little different.

Starting Thursday evening, at 5 p.m. ET, college hockey’s greatest showcase kicks off on ESPN2. Notre Dame will take on Minnesota Duluth as both teams are in search of their first national title. It should be a very exciting game between a couple of teams that don’t lack for star power.

Today we take a look at the Fighting Irish, led by head coach Jeff Jackson.

Instead of giving you analysis of the season they’ve had or the way they play, I’m taking a look at some of the other things that stand out in my mind when I think about this Notre Dame team, as well as who hockey fans should be keeping a close eye on during the Frozen Four.

Check it out, after the jump.

Notre Dame’s Fabulous Freshmen, Recruiter

Alright, so everyone is talking about Notre Dame’s freshman class. How can you not? There are 12 of them, and as a class, they’ve contributed a great deal to the success of this team.

No freshmen have been as important as T.J. Tynan or Anders Lee, both of whom I will get to in just a little bit.

Still, when a team has a freshman class of this size, you’d expect that team to lack the experience needed to make its way to the Frozen Four. However, there’s a solid group of upperclassmen, and of the freshmen playing, only four are true freshmen. The rest of the first-year players have been hardened through extra years in leagues like the USHL. Which helps a lot.

Another thing that I don’t think I’ve seen enough of is praise of Notre Dame associate coach and lead recruiter Andy Slaggert. This guy is Notre Dame through and through. A 1989 graduate, Slaggert has been an assistant at the school for 18 seasons, through four different coaching staffs. He has continually brought in high-end talent and has been a big part of the school’s rise to prominence in college hockey.

Whether you like it or not, having a school of Notre Dame’s stature and name-recognition being relevant is important for college hockey. Slaggert, who is part of an absolutely stellar coaching staff with Jeff Jackson and Paul Pooley, is a big part of helping them get there.

T.J. Tynan: The Season That Almost Wasn’t

Tynan is a truly interesting story. He wasn’t even supposed to be playing for Notre Dame this year, but an early departure from Kyle Palmieri opened the door for another forward. Tynan, who lit up the USHL last year, was expected to return for another year of seasoning with the Des Moines Buccaneers. Well, plans changed and it couldn’t have worked out any better for the Irish or Tynan.

Tynan has posted 53 points in 43 games, leading the nation’s freshman. College Hockey News named him their Rookie of the Year. The Fighting Irish also named Tynan it’s Most Valuable Player at it’s recent awards banquet.

Not only was Tynan joining the Irish this season good for Notre Dame, it was absolutely huge for Tynan. This is the last year, the small playmaker is eligible for the NHL Entry Draft after being passed over last year, due to concerns about his size and skating. While those remain concerns, his production is not to be ignored.

The fact that Tynan showed the same production at Notre Dame that he showed in the USHL with Des Moines is a big boost for him. He went from proving it against big, strong competition, to proving it against bigger, stronger competition.

He’s produced wherever he’s been. Which can only help him. With the price tag on players like Andy Miele and Stphane Da Costa as college free agents, Tynan is probably worth a late-round pick.

NHL Draft fans, keep a close eye on him Thursday night, as he is one of just a few draft-eligible players competing in the Frozen Four.

Anders Lee’s Extra Year in the USHL

Tynan may have more points, but Anders Lee has more goals with 24 and averaged just a hair over a point-per-game for Notre Dame. Where would Notre Dame be without these two?

Lee’s breakout freshman season, probably shouldn’t be all that surprising. He was a stellar talent for the Clark Cup-winning Green Bay Gamblers last season in the USHL. To be honest, it may have been Lee’s season in the USHL that put him in a position to have the season he’s had.

Lee was a multi-sport star in high school, and was a star quarterback for Edina (Minn.) High School his senior year. He was named Minnesota Gatorade Player of the Year for his exploits on the football field. He had offers from big-time college football programs like Minnesota. In fact, many feared he’d choose football over hockey. He was actually passed over in the 2008 NHL Draft, mainly because he had not committed to which sport he planned to pursue.

While Lee was a star on the gridiron, hockey was ultimately his sport. He played in the Minnesota State High School tournament a record FIVE times (played as an eighth grader for St. Thomas). He was all-state and a Mr. Hockey finalist as a senior with Edina

Despite all of his on-ice accomplishments, Lee had to spend a full season in Green Bay after his high school career ended. With his size and strength, it was important for him to get used to playing against players that could match him physically.

All he did was lead the USHL’s best team in scoring with 66 points (35 goals, 31 assists). He did the same in the playoffs, posting 22 points (10-12) en route to Clark Cup MVP honors.

That extra year of seasoning and a full year of focusing on nothing but hockey put Lee in a position to have the season he’s had. It’s something I think other schools should strongly consider when recruiting players out of high school. Some will be ready to go right away, but perhaps those players can make a better long-term impact with an extra year in junior.

Lee was ultimately drafted in his second year of eligibility, by the New York Islanders in the sixth round (152nd overall) in 2009. The Isles have been known for making mistakes on Draft day, but Anders Lee could turn out to be an absolute stroke of genius for Garth Snow and his scouting staff.

The way that Lee plays should give him a very good shot at a solid NHL career. Based on his last two seasons, I think it’s safe to say Lee made the right choice in choosing pucks over pigskins.

If Notre Dame’s going to beat UMD, it’ll need Lee to be leading the offensive charge. So keep a close eye on No. 9.

Early Departures, Broken Commitments Don’t Slow the Irish

A problem that many of the elite college programs in the NCAA have is that they have to recruit elite players. It’s only a problem because the really good ones rarely stay for the full four years and some never make it to campus when the allure of the Canadian Hockey League proves too great.

However, Notre Dame has weathered the storm incredibly well, obviously.

When star freshman Kyle Palmieri was offered a contract by the Anaheim Ducks this past offseason, he signed it. Palmieri has had a solid season in the AHL and even saw time in 10 NHL contests this season. Can’t fault him for leaving when he did. However,  it was Palmieri’s early exit opened the door for T.J. Tynan and we all know how that worked out.

Notre Dame had two blue-chip recruits never make it to campus after signing National Letters of Intent over the last two years. Defensemen Cam Fowler and Jarred Tinordi, both drafted in the first-round in 2010, were all set to go to Notre Dame until plans took a drastic change late.

Fowler, who was slated to be with the Irish last season, opted to play his draft season in the OHL with the Windsor Spitfires. Fowler was selected 12th overall by Anaheim and has played an important role for the Ducks all season long. Even if he went to Notre Dame last year, he likely would have been one and done. Clearly, Notre Dame is no worse for the wear in what would’ve been Fowler’s second season (thought he sure would have helped last year).

Tinordi, who was supposed to be part of this year’s stellar freshman class, was drafted 22nd overall by Montreal in 2010. Not long after the draft, Tinordi announced that he was walking away from his commitment with Notre Dame to play for London in the OHL. It was widely speculated, that Montreal told Tinordi they wanted him in the O.

Again, Notre Dame still ended up reeling in Stephen Johns (who received overtures from Windsor), a second-round pick in 2010, who has provided all of the physical presence Notre Dame has needed from him on the back end. So, while it would have been nice to have the 6-5 Tinordi, the Irish clearly came out OK on the other end.

As you can see, Notre Dame would have undoubtedly gotten help from the elites like Palmieri, Fowler and Tinordi this season, but through smart recruiting of players to fill the voids, the Irish find themselves just two wins away from the national title. Not too shabby.

Notre Dame’s NHL Drafted Players

Name – NHL Team – Year, Round, Overall

Riley Sheahan – DET – 2010, 1, 21
Stephen Johns – CHI – 2010, 2, 60
Bryan Rust – PIT – 2010, 3, 80
Nick Larson – CGY – 2008, 4, 108
Ben Ryan – NSH – 2007, 4, 114
Sean Lorenz – MIN – 2008, 4, 115
Joe Lavin – CHI – 2007, 5, 126
Jeff Costello – OTT – 2009, 5, 146
Anders Lee – NYI – 2009, 6, 152
Kevin Lind – ANA – 2010, 6, 177

Helpful Links

Notre Dame Ice Hockey Official Website
Notre Dame Roster and Bios

Notre Dame Season Statistics

For more news and notes on Frozen Four participants, be sure to check out College Hockey, Inc.’s website. With Nate Ewell as the new communications director over there, expect tons of quality info that will arm you with a bunch of facts and figures heading into the Frozen Four.

Coming up Tuesday morning, a look at the University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs and don’t miss the University of Michigan Wolverines preview Tuesday afternoon.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
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