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Finding Good Hockey in Western New York: Canisius and Niagara

Is the best hockey in the area being played at Canisius and Niagara?

NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at Edmonton Oilers
Canisius Alumni, Cory Conacher
Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

It’s quite a shame to me that the University at Buffalo does not have a D1 program, and in a lot of ways makes no sense. It makes zero sense to me that Arizona State has D1 hockey, but the UB Bulls do not. Even Alabama-Huntsville has D1 hockey. Alabama-Huntsville has even made a couple NCAA tournament appearances in 2007, and 2010.

While UB refuses to join the party, it’s very easy to forget that right here in Western New York, we have two Division D1 hockey programs with Canisius and Niagara University.

We may not have the University of Minnesota, or Michigan in our backyards, but both programs have enjoyed some modest success in the NCAA. Canisius has had one appearance in the NCAA tournament back in 2013 when they got ousted by top-ranked Quinnipiac. Niagara University has been apart of four NCAA tournament appearances. Both programs are also in transition to new regimes after a decade-plus under their previous coaches.

At Canisius, Dave Smith held the post behind the bench for eleven seasons before he left the school after leading them to a first-place finish in the Atlantic Conference, and was named Atlantic Hockey Coach of the Year. He also led them to their only NCAA tournament appearance in 2013. Niagara University opted for a change when it decided not to bring back coach Dave Burkholder, who spent sixteen seasons behind the bench. Historically, Niagara has had the more successful history at the D1 level but has fallen on hard times with a 28-80-16 record over the past four seasons.

The Canisius Golden Griffins, led by first-year Head Coach Trevor Large, are currently holding the #20 USCHO ranking after dethroning the previous holder of that same #20 spot, the Niagara Purple Eagles, after winning back to back games this month. Canisius is currently 10-5-1 and is wearing the blue and gold quite well this year. Niagara University is also led by a first-year coach in Jason Lammers.

The Niagara University Purple Eagles were absolutely dismal last year, but they have turned it around starting 9-7-1 under Lammers. That doesn’t sound too impressive until you know that they were 5-31-3 last year. The Purple Eagles have also gotten a strong performance from senior forward and captain, Derian Plouffe, who has been their top scorer this year. He is also one of the team’s top penalty killers and has contributed two shorthanded goals.

Both of these schools also have two outstanding players who are performing among the best players in college hockey.

Canisius Junior and Lancaster native, Dylan McLaughlin currently leads the NCAA in point per game scoring with 1.67 pts/gm. He is currently tied for third in the nation with 25 points in 15 games. Going back to his days in the USHL with the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders, McLaughlin has improved in every season of hockey he has played since 2012.

If McLaughlin can continue to keep up with the rest of the top scorers in the nation, and if Canisius can open some eyes as a team, then there is no reason that he shouldn’t be at least in consideration for the Hobey Baker Award. Getting consideration would be an accomplishment, let alone actually making the final three and winning it. It wouldn’t be shocking for him to end up following in Cory Conacher footsteps and playing at the professional level someday in the NHL, AHL, Russia, or Europe.

The Purple Eagles also have an intriguing player who stands out in defenseman Noah Delmas, and he is certainly a player to keep an eye on over the next year or two. He’s a sophomore who currently is second in the nation in defenseman scoring with 19 points in 17 games. Delmas is a mobile, skilled, right-handed defenseman who has excelled in the new system installed by Lammers.

He also worked out with Connor McDavid the last offseason to help hone some of his skills. That hard work appears to be paying off for Delmas, as he is Niagara’s second-leading scorer. Prior to playing at Niagara, Delmas played in the OJHL for the Aurora Tigers and had a small stint in the USHL with the Bloomington Thunder. If he keeps up his success, he might also have some professional prospects in his future.
The Purple Eagles will have their biggest test of the year at the end of the month when they face off against the number nine ranked Ohio State Buckeyes on December 29th. They might be underdogs against the Buckeyes on the road, but it will be interesting to see how they respond to losing back to back games against Canisius. It will also be interesting to see how they perform against one of the nation’s top five defensive squads in the Buckeyes.

Canisius will see their next game on the road against Cornell on December 30th and will see their rematch against #4 Clarkson, who handed them a 5-1 loss earlier this year at the Harborcenter.

Bonus: Keeping tabs on Top Ranked St. Cloud State

Why would you be interested in St. Cloud State if you’re a Sabres fan? I’ll give you two reasons: Jimmy Schuldt, and Will Borgen.

While Noah Delmas is currently the number two scoring defenseman in the nation, only Jimmy Schuldt has scored more points from the blueline this year than Delmas. Schuldt is also doing it for the number one ranked team by the USCHO in St. Cloud State. Schuldt is currently the prospect who will be generating the serious NHL hype right now, and he’s also playing for the much stronger program.

Delmas might pop up on the radar for professional teams if he continues to play at a high level, it’s going to take time before he’s taken seriously, and talked about more because he’s not playing for the national powerhouse. He’s also on the thinner side at 180 lbs, so he clearly needs to add a little more bulk for any level of professional hockey.

The Montreal Canadiens have been one of the teams reported being interested in Schuldt. Part of the reason why that might be is that the Canadiens drafted his teammate and defense pairing partner in Ryan Poehling in the first round of the 2017 NHL Draft. He also played with Habs goaltender Charlie Lindgren in his freshman year.
Buffalo could also be interested as his teammate is Sabres prospect Will Borgen, whom he has also been paired with in the past. They were also teammates for a few games going back to their USHL days with the Omaha Lancers. They also might be interested because they are in dire need of anyone with basic knowledge on how to play defense. Some of that help could actually come from Will Borgen if the Sabres bring him into the system next year.

It will take time for him to make the NHL, but I think many fans are sleeping on Borgen as a serious defensive prospect. He’s a speedy, smooth skater who has still been a work in progress with his offensive game, but this year has shown more signs of life in that area with eight points in fifteen games on one of the top teams in the nation. With patience, Borgen could develop into a very good NHL defenseman.

For fans who may be interested in Schuldt, he could be a potential top NCAA free agent target next summer if he chooses to go pro. NHL teams were ready to sign Schuldt last year, and will certainly be lining up this year. He is their captain and offers strong offensive instincts along with a cannon of a point shot. Buffalo has once again been weak on the blueline this year, and there is no doubt the Sabres could offer him a serious chance to make an NHL roster.

They could try to use Minnesota hockey legend Phil Housley as a recruiting tool, as well as Will Borgen if they sign him to an entry-level deal.