Nate Leaman is in his second season at the helm of the Providence College hockey program. The former SUNY Cortland player brought Union to program highs in the ECAC before taking the reigns for the Friars.
Prior to his arrival Providence had missed the playoffs three consecutive seasons. In Leaman's first year, there was marked improvement. The Friars finished seventh in the regular season before upsetting UMass-Lowell in the best of three quarterfinal series.
This season the team has taken further steps towards elevating the program. Providence is currently in fourth place, the final home ice position for the first round of the league tournament.
Much of the reason for the resurgence is the talent of the underclassmen, especially the freshmen class. Leaman certainly has done a great job of recruiting, pulling in Calgary Flames first round draft pick Mark Jankowski and goaltender Jon Gillies, also property of the Flames.
One could argue that no player has been more valuable to his team's success this season than Jon Gillies who played for the Indiana Ice in the USHL last season. The South Portland, Maine native backed up John Gibson for the Gold Medal-winning Americans at the World Juniors earlier this year. His .926 save percentage currently leads Hockey East.
After a hard fought 3-3 tie with Boston University Saturday, Leaman was extremely complimentary of his freshman netminder. "I thought he played terrific, which is a good sign for us. He struggled last night and as a freshman he was able to come back with a great game. In that overtime he did a heck of a job." That performance in the extra session is indicative of how well Gillies has played all season.
The freshman forwards are very talented, but young by college hockey standards. The rookie class of forwards is highlighted by Jankowski, Paul de Jersey, Noel Acciari and Steven McParland. Jankowski, the Stanstead College Prep School product, is obviously the headliner, but the group will develop and be important players in the years to come. De Jersey played particularly well Saturday night, even though he did not find the scoring sheet. Coach Leaman stated, "He played good. If he keeps getting the chances, [the points] will come."
That is not to say that some of the upperclassmen have not had a helping hand in the team's improved play. One of the best stories is that of junior forward Derek Army. His father Tim was the head coach his freshman season before being terminated, which paved the way for Leaman's arrival. Army could have transferred, but instead stuck around and is now leading the Friars in scoring with ten goals and eight assists. The North Kingstown, RI native is a third generation Friar.
Other coaches have picked up on the improvement in the Providence program. Although his team took five of six points from the Friars, Boston University coach Jack Parker was impressed. "They work hard and pride themselves on outworking their opponents. They have plenty of talent and work hard. We had to dig deep."
In addition to this season's success, this is an exciting time to be a fan or supporter of the Friars. Last year the school announced the plan to renovate Schneider Arena, and construction has already started. The improvements to one of the older rinks in the league will further help in recruiting efforts as well as student-athlete and fan experience.
The Friars still have a difficult stretch of games to overcome in the next few weeks, but this is a program on the rise. With Leaman leading the way, there will be plenty of exciting times at Schneider Arena for years to come.