By Mike McMahon
NORTH ANDOVER — Stephane Da Costa, the best ever?
That's a heavy statement to make about any player, even for a Merrimack College hockey program that has struggled mightily to set its roots in big-time college hockey.
There have been some impressive alums before him, including 13 who have signed NHL contracts, including the school's all-time leading scorer Jim Vesey (244 points in 140 games), ex-NHL goalie Jim Hrivnak (who played in 85 NHL games), Mike Reynolds, Bob Magnuson, Thom Lawler Jr. and Rejean Stringer, to name an elite few.
But for Merrimack, the 20-year-old Da Costa, the shifty Paris-raised freshman center, might be better than them all.
Merrimack's ascension to respectability this season — it's eight league wins (8-11-1) are the most in 13 seasons and the Warriors have seven league games remaining — centers around Da Costa.
This was unexpected.
Not a single recruiting service or Web site had him listed as a top-20 forward among incoming freshmen. But Da Costa is second among all rookies in the country with 35 points (13 goals, 22 assists), trailing only RPI's Brandon Pirri (9-30-39).
Da Costa has copped Hockey East's Rookie of the Month Award all four months this season.
He is a strong candidate for the NCAA Rookie of the Year Award at the Frozen Four festivities in Detroit.
Simply put, he could be the best thing to happen to this program since it went Division 1 23 years ago.
"He's probably the best player I've ever coached," said fifth-year Merrimack head coach Mark Dennehy after Da Costa sliced through three defenders to score the game winner in Saturday's 3-2 win over Vermont.
He's bringing attention to North Andover. His five goals against Army in just his second collegiate game brought national headlines from publications like Hockey News.
Not to mention the Warriors are in the Hockey East playoff hunt and are looking for their first playoff appearance since the 2003-04 season.
"I wanted to come here and help the team win," Da Costa said. "I liked that it was small. Hockey is not big (in France) so to come here and get to play and go to college is a dream."
His mere presence on the ice forces opponents into a frenzy.
"He is a pretty talented player," Northeastern head coach Greg Cronin said. "If he has the puck, he's going to do something with it."
But Merrimack's best ever?
He might just be. Since the start of the season, Dennehy says he has never seen as many NHL scouts talk to one player as they have Da Costa. After his five-goal outburst against Army, it was as if a scouting convention took place at Lawler Arena.
A normally empty corner of the rink was suddenly filled with men wearing suit pants, dress shirts, and jackets embroidered with logos of NHL teams.
They all believe he's legit.
The one obstacle might be his size. He's 5-11 and listed at 180 pounds but 165 would be more accurate.
"Can he play in the NHL? Absolutely," said one scout who asked to remain anonymous. "He needs to get stronger — and by that I mean upper-body strength — but you just look at the skill, what he has now, he could play in the NHL if he adds some strength. I'm based in the East so I see a lot of these teams he's playing (in Hockey East) and some have big, strong defensemen.
"But even in (the AHL) it's another level when it comes to strength and conditioning," said the scout. "I'm not sure his body is ready for that type of physicality yet. But when he gets there he'll be an NHL talent ... for sure."
Warriors' young guns
Da Costa has been the biggest diamond in an impressive recruiting track record for Dennehy and his staff. Matt Jones and Joe Loprieno both left school to sign NHL deals with the San Jose Sharks and this summer Joe Cannata and Kyle Bigos became Merrimack's first NHL draft picks since 2002. Karl Stollery was named to the Hockey East All Rookie team and Chris Barton is among the scoring leaders in the league with 17 goals as a junior.
Suddenly, things are looking up.
On top of that, he may have recruited one of the biggest "diamonds in the rough" to ever play college hockey. Da Costa was on few teams' radar.
It might be premature to compare him with the greats like Vesey, Stringer and Reynolds — it was a different era and Da Costa hasn't played nearly the amount of games — but his talent can't be ignored.
Da Costa's game-winning goal over Vermont last weekend made him Merrimack's highest scoring freshman (since being in Hockey East) with 35 points. And he still has at least seven games remaining.
One question Da Costa will face after this season is whether to go pro. If he stays, the Merrimack College record book may need to be rewritten and its fans would have reason to expect more of the same.