As much of a surprise as Yale was last season in finishing third in the ECAC, the Bulldogs remain one of the mysteries of the upcoming 2003-04 campaign. The biggest question is: How will they make up for the loss of Chris Higgins, who left to sign with the Montreal Canadiens?
Higgins’ 20 goals and 41 points will be sorely missed, as will the contributions of Evan Wax (18-19-37) and Nick Deschenes (8-11-19). The graduation of steady blueliners Stacey Bauman, Greg Boucher and Bryan Freeman should not be overlooked, leaving head coach Tim Taylor with significant holes to fill.
To the coach’s credit, he’s built excellent depth at most positions, thereby making the transition a little easier. Up front, senior Ryan Steeves returns after posting 15 goals and a team-high 23 assists. Captain Vin Hellemeyer will also be counted on to boost his 20-assist, 31-point totals from last season.
Expect top forward recruit Brad Mills to make an impact for Yale. They’ll need him to make the adjustment to the college level quickly, so as to have additional balance and make up for Higgins’ departure.
“He’s a highly skilled forward with speed and excellent puck handling ability,” described Taylor. “He is a natural playmaker. He will be an impact player for us, and should challenge for ice time on one of our top offensive units. He distributes the puck very well and is effective on the power play. [As] an older freshman, [he] should adjust quickly to the college game.”
NHL picks Jeff Dwyer, a preseason All-Conference selection, and Joe Callahan are the nucleus of the defense. They will be called upon to lead the team and help elevate the play of some of their younger teammates. The Bulldogs will also get a boost from the return of Mike Grobe, who was out of school last year, but played in 31 contests, registering 10 points, as a freshman in 2001-02.
Rookies Matt Cohen and Bill LeClerc will be expected to step in immediately to fill the void left by the graduated trio.
“Matt is a solid two-way defenseman with a tremendous offensive upside,” said Taylor. “Only 17 years of age, he is still maturing physically. As he becomes physically stronger, he will evolve into an outstanding two-way player in our league.
“He makes excellent decisions with and without the puck and has improved dramatically. He is very prepared to make the step to college hockey.”
LeClerc, meanwhile, is a converted forward, which gives him the skills to be a key offensive threat from the back end of the rink.
“He is quick, an excellent passer, and has a great shot from the blueline,” confirmed Taylor. “Because of his high skill level, he should be able to adjust to the speed and tempo of the college game very quickly. He is a highly competitive player who is quickly learning how to take care of his defensive end. He has a tremendous upside.”
In goal, sophomore Josh Gartner, the son of NHL Hall of Famer Mike Gartner, stepped up in the second half of the season to take control of the starting job. Expect him to do the same, but this time right from the outset. Gartner posted a 2.54 GAA and .917 save percentage last year. Junior Peter Cohen, the likely backup, struggled a year ago, but Yale could use the boost of having him challenge for a starter’s job.