So begins life without Jeff Hamilton. The question has been asked a million times over, but no one really knows what will come of the Elis now that one of the most prolific scorers in school history has finally graduated.
One thing for sure: head coach Tim Taylor and his staff have been preparing for this moment. And while opposing coaches may revel in the fact that they won’t have to match up against Hamilton, Taylor is hoping to take some by surprise.
“We’ll be surprisingly competitive within our 12-team league,” said Taylor. “We’ll learn quickly what life after the Jeff Hamilton era is like. We’ll have a little different look at our offensive attack. There’ll be some more balance, and we’ll have more point producers. That’s my goal, to have a few 20-point producers.”
Two players who matured after playing with Hamilton for the past few years are captain Luke Earl and junior Nick Deschenes. Earl, who posted 27 points on the year, finished off his junior campaign on a seven-game scoring streak. Deschenes also found his offensive touch, and he returns as the team’s leading scorer with 17 goals and 20 assists.
Also, the 6-3, 220-pound Deschenes possesses something that Hamilton and Earl never had: size. His ability to gain position in front of the net is critical for the Elis, especially for special-teams play. Last season, Deschenes collected a team-high eight power-play goals.
“The emergence of Luke Earl as an offensive force last year, and Nick Deschenes also had a breakthrough year, [means] those two will take over the first line responsibilities. They’ll be the nucleus that make us click,” said Taylor. “It’s interesting to look at guys like Deschenes and Earl. They went from down to up, and these things happen to college players. We recruit players who we hope are good college players. They come in as 18- and 19-year-olds, and when they become comfortable playing against 22-year-olds, some of them respond and some don’t.”
Speaking of other potential 20-point scorers, Taylor is quick to mention seniors Jason Noe and Spencer Rodgers, as well as sophomore Evan Wax.
“Evan Wax went from two points to 20 and he’s capable of getting over 30. I look for him to make another big step,” said Taylor. “Jason Noe and Spencer Rodgers were point producers in prep and junior and I expect them to have breakthrough years.”
The one returning player who needs no touting is Jeff Dwyer. The sophomore was the top producing defensemen for Yale last year with three goals and 18 assists en route to the All-ECAC Rookie Team. His sheer size and game sense make him dangerous on both ends of the ice. Dwyer will also have experience around him as the defensive pairing of Bryan Freeman and Stacey Baumann return for their junior years.
Taylor is also comforted by the fact that he has a solid goaltender returning in senior Dan Lombard. After missing the final two games of the season last year with a rib injury, Lombard returns to the ice in healthy form and will look to provide a stability for the revamped Yale squad. Backup Peter Dobrowoski saw limited action behind Lombard, but stepped in nicely for the final two games of the season when Lombard was sidelined.
“We should be strong in goal with the return of Lombard,” said Taylor. “We also have a solid corps of returning defensemen. That will hold us in good stead.”
Key to Yale’s success will be the incoming freshman class. How they acclimate to collegiate hockey and fit into the Elis’ style will be one determining factor for this team. A host of outstanding prep-school standouts, including Chris Higgins, Christian Jensen and Ryan Trowbridge, will vie for time up front while Joe Callaghan and Michael Grobe look to add depth to the defense.
“This is our best freshman class in years. I like to let them perform first, but I feel we have some impact players, most notably Chris Higgins. He’s one of the most skilled players we’ve had.” said Taylor.
So while others may view the upcoming season as a rebuilding year, Taylor sees only opportunity.
“A lot of playing time is opening up,” said Taylor. “I am quietly optimistic that we have guys to fill those roles.”
Nevertheless, the coach will miss his superstar.
“It may be more by committee than an individual, like when we had Jeff Hamilton.”