The 2003-04 season is one that Bulldog head coach Bob Daniels would like to put behind him. “It was a disappointing year … coming off the championship season. I don’t think we handled success all that well and I don’t think we got off to a very good start.”
Last year’s record of 15-20-3 was surprising, given the 31 wins and regular-season championship of the year before, and the loss of so few impact players from the 2002-03 squad. In his assessment of last year, however, Daniels — always his own biggest critic — forgets to take into account the biggest single contributing factor to the disappointing 2003-04 season: the Curse of Coach of the Year.
Ask Guy Gadowsky, the 2001-02 CCHA coach of the year. And for Daniels it was a double whammy, as the league’s coach of the year and winner of the Spencer Penrose award.
(RedHawks fans, send Enrico Blasi all the good mojo you can muster.)
All superstitions and Daniels’ self-flagellation aside, when you take a 79-point player like Chris Kunitz out of the mix and goaltender Mike Brown is seeing upwards of 25 shots per game, things are going to change.
“In a word,” says Daniels, “optimism is the flavor for what the sentiment is for our team right now.”
And why not? After Daniels and his coaching staff realized that the Bulldogs could not simply pick up at the start of last year where they’d left off the season before, FSU played smarter hockey and showed improvement in the second half, including a 6-5-1 stretch in January and February against such cupcakes as Alaska-Fairbanks, Miami, and Ohio State.
“The good news for our program is that we still have a pretty solid core of players from our team two years ago,” says Daniels. The Bulldogs return 18 letterwinners from a year ago, including 11 forwards. Averaging 2.54 goals per game for eighth best in the league was part of last year’s disappointment, but the Bulldogs have good returning offensive players in Jeff Legue (8-11-19), Derek Nesbitt (7-10-17), and Greg Rallo (6-9-15).
“All of them had disappointing years last year, and were a big reason why the team had a disappointing year.” That, says Daniels, will be big motivation for this year’s effort.
The offense welcomes newcomers who are expected to make an immediate impact, such as big Matt Stefanishion (6-3, 210) out of the SJHL, and Daniel Riedel and Adam Miller, both of the USHL.
On the defensive side of things, other veterans coming off disappointing seasons include goaltender Brown (3.34 GAA, .888 SV%), a 2002-03 All-American, and senior captain Matt York and junior Jeremy Scherlinck.
“Brown will be pushed by [newcomer] Derek MacIntyre,” says Daniels. MacIntyre, picked in the eighth round by the San Jose Sharks in this year’s NHL Entry Draft, compiled a 1.77 goals against average and .924 save percentage with the 2003-04 NAHL champion Soo Kewadin Indians.
Jeff Legue. The senior and assistant captain is a natural goalscorer and good playmaker, quick on his feet and tough. In 2002-03, Legue had 59 points, 30 more than he amassed last season. This will be one motivated Bulldog.
Red or Blue?
After such a dropoff from the season before, 2003-04 may not be the best barometer for the Bulldogs. The team needs to improve in every facet of the game to return to the winning ways of yesteryear, and FSU’s cluster partners and schedule won’t make things any easier.
Paired as a rival with Western Michigan, with whom they split four games last season, the Bulldogs also face Miami and Ohio State four times this year, teams that may prove very tough in spite of their youth. In their first six league games, the Bulldogs will face OSU, Michigan, and Michigan State, three of the league’s top four teams from a year ago.
“We’re going to be tested right out of the gate,” says Daniels. “We’re going to have a pretty good barometer of where we stand.”
Offensive? Defensive? It’s too soon to say how this FSU squad will define itself, given the disappointments of a year ago and an intriguing list of newcomers. One thing that may stand between the Bulldogs and success: tougher on-ice enforcement of NCAA rules.