“We’d like to be a pleasant surprise,” were the words from Canisius head coach Brian Cavanaugh.
Now in his 24th season behind the Griffs’ bench, Cavanaugh has learned that it’s better to be cautiously optimistic than to set expectations that are hard to meet.
“I think the players have their expectations,” said Cavanaugh, the dean of Atlantic Hockey coaches. “We probably don’t want to be bravado about them in the league. We’d rather be a surprise than throw up our colors right away and then realize we didn’t meet [expectations].”
In doing that, the Griffs certainly manage expectations, but at the same time, maybe this is a good time for Canisius to have some high hopes. The Griffs are coming off a mediocre year that saw them ride a rollercoaster all the way before upsetting third-seeded Quinnipiac in the quarterfinals of last year’s playoffs.
“We played better last year as the year wore on,” Cavanaugh said. “When we got to the playoffs we were happy to be able to knock off Quinnipiac, 1-0, and move on to the semifinals.”
Cavanaugh knows that his team was close to being a top-tier Atlantic Hockey squad. The Griffs posted an obscene eight ties, four in league play, and if, say, three-quarters of those games go in Canisius’ favor, the look of the season past is a lot different.
“We were a pretty competitive club,” said Cavanaugh. “If you look at the number of games that went into overtime and the number of games that we were in late, things could’ve gone either way. We hope that we can be more competitive this year to turn some of those ties into wins.”
Leading the way will be a trio of sophomores who, as freshmen, opened plenty of eyes. Michael Cohen (25 points, led team in scoring), Billy Irish-Baker (18 points) and Joey Coccimiglio (17 points) were three of the Canisius’ five top scorers a year ago. Their return, coupled with continued success, will be crucial to the Griffs’ finish.
“We hope that there won’t be any letdown from the freshman class from last year,” said Cavanaugh of this year’s sophomores.
Another bright light will be the return of redshirt senior Fred Coccimiglio, who last year suffered a season-ending injury early and was lost for all but four games.
Cavanaugh has identified the improvements needed if the Griffs are to take the next step.
“We feel pretty good about the incoming freshman class this year. We’re hoping that they can come in and fill some of the gaps, particularly on defense,” he said. “One [area to improve] is the combination of the power play and penalty kill. The power play improved a little bit last year but our penalty kill wasn’t as good as it should be.
“For whatever reason that happens, if it’s personnel, or the system, or just having people who hadn’t been on [the penalty kill] before, we need to improve.
“Part of that is staying out of the penalty box. That’s always a challenge for every team but especially this year with the emphasis on [officials] making sure that things are called.”
Another key — possibly the most important one — will be the play of goaltenders Bryan Worosz and Max Buetow. Then-junior Worosz saw most of the minutes last season for Canisius, with his share of highs and lows. This season, Cavanaugh hopes to balance time between the two goaltenders to keep Worosz more rested and give Buetow additional experience.
“Last year Bryan had about 85 percent of the starts and Max about 15 percent,” said Cavanaugh. “This year, we’d like to see it around 60 to 65 percent for Bryan.
“He’s a senior and you have to give [Buetow] the opportunity to develop and gain confidence. It’s hard to develop sitting and watching another kid.”
All of that will depend on performance.
“That’s a nice plan,” said Cavanaugh, “but they have to prove that they can implement it if they’re given the opportunity to run with it.
“You have to out-goaltend the team on the other end of the rink. Whatever it is, if it’s a team thing or an individual one, you have to find a way to be better at goaltending and goals against average.”
The potential of this young but relatively experienced team is high, but execution is the key. And if that execution goes as planned, Cavanaugh and his club will be a pleasant surprise.