After season upon season of seeming youth, Connecticut returns a lineup where veterans outweigh the inexperienced.
Still, for this year’s edition of UConn, that’s not enough to earn complete respect.
UConn returns the top player in Atlantic Hockey, last year’s leading scorer and MVP Tim Olsen, and graduated only one significant player in Eric Nelson. But, as shown by their low ranking in the preseason coaches’ poll, UConn has questions unanswered.
Can this club play together as a team from the get-go? Are they solid on defense? Are they solid in goal?
Yes, UConn can score, but over the last two or three seasons when the chips were down, the big defensive play or the big stop in net didn’t happen.
Last year, rookie Scott Tomes walked in and took the starting goaltending job from two players who had played every game the season before. Tomes’ numbers were average, but they improved the team’s netminding stats from a season earlier.
But now Tomes, along with the UConn defense, will need to make significant improvement to take the team’s next-to-last goals against average and turn that upside down.
“It’s enough incentive for [Tomes] that he played every game last year and he should want to play every game again this year,” said Marshall. “We brought in a couple of freshmen (Brad Smith and Matt Demas) and we hope one of them can put some pressure on [Tomes] right away so that it can give us some options.”
It sounds as if Marshall is hoping for a competition, for a battle for number-one in net. At the same time, he’s practical. “If Scotty went down last year, we weren’t playing anybody else. So now we’re preparing for a situation that may or may not arrive.”
Marshall hopes, in addition to defensive improvement, that his club can maintain its offensive numbers from a season ago. UConn averaged 3.29 goals per game, second in the league to Mercyhurst. To do that, he’ll need continued production from young guns.
“We were playing 13 freshmen on every given night last year,” said Marshall. “That sense of newness and working their tails off every night is something that we need to recapture. It can’t be the idea that it will be easier in the second year.”
Helping the offense in addition to the rookies will be the return of Matt Grew, who missed the entire season with a back injury, and Beau McLaughlin, who suffered a season-ending injury down the stretch that caused him to miss the playoffs.
He’ll also add three forwards to the lineup — Nike Neilon, Charles Solberg, and John Stockler — with the hopes that those five players can bring competition to the forward position
“We have three new forwards plus two who were injured last year in Beau MacLaughlin and Matt Grew,” Marshall said, “so in all we’ll have five new forwards to plug into the [existing] 12, which should give us a lot of depth at that position.”
UConn will take on a tough schedules. Before ever playing a league game, UConn will face Nebraska-Omaha in the Maverick Stampede, then travel to Rensselaer, Massachusetts, Dartmouth and Northeastern.
“If you look at our schedule, we have to remind our guys that this season is a marathon and not a sprint,” said Marshall. “Before we even get into our league play we’ll be playing teams that are ranked top 15 in the country.
“We can’t too far ahead of ourselves or get too far down. We just have to take each game as a learning experience and hopefully we can get stronger in the end.”
With that mentality, Marshall wants to manage his team’s expectations as well.
“I want to see us develop slowly again and learn to become a team early on, and then good things will happen to us,” Marshall said. “I don’t want us to come running out of the gate thinking we can take on the world and then have a couple of setbacks early and feel we have a mountain to climb.”