It seems hard to believe that a coach in Atlantic Hockey whose team went 20-14-2, upset Ohio State and Western Michigan and tied Cornell on the road, could call that season anything but a success.
But for Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin, that’s exactly what happened last year.
“We had some good success last year, but we’re at the point now where we measure our success in championships,” said Gotkin. “We had a good year last year and had we found our way to the championship game and were able to win it we’d tell you it was a great year.”
The simple fact of the matter, though, is Mercyhurst did not make it to the championship game. They did not win the league and they did not take a third trip in four years to the NCAA tournament.
So as 2004-05 has rolled around and once again the league coaches have picked Mercyhurst to finish first, one has to wonder where Gotkin’s expectations lie.
“We’re excited again,” said Gotkin. “We like our returning players a lot. We certainly hope that we [can live up to expectations].
“We took some steps [over the last year] in terms of the program. I think our guys understand what it takes to win each night in the conference. We think that we have a good club.
“Will we be good enough at the end of the year? Stay tuned.”
Despite losing only four players, Gotkin still hit the road to bring in a solid recruiting class. The four freshmen — what Gotkin called three power forwards and a defenseman — will be thrown right into the fire.
“We’re going to look to give our freshmen as much responsibility as they can handle,” said Gotkin. “We addressed the concern from the last couple of years that we didn’t have any natural centers. So this year don’t be surprised if you see many of our centers as freshmen.
“We brought these guys in to play. Our history is that our freshmen get a lot of responsibility and we hope that they’re able to handle it.”
Gotkin hasn’t pinpointed returning players to fill roles on the team. In his mind that’s still a wait-and-see process.
“We haven’t really micromanaged the team,” Gotkin said. “We have a handful of players who we think have scratched the surface of greatness and we hope this will be the year for that.
“We like the makeup of our team. We hope the returning players and the newcomers can mesh together and the quicker they can mesh together, the better we’ll be as a team.”
One area where Gotkin needs improvement is goaltending. Despite solid numbers for both Andy Franck and Jordan Wakefield last season, the goaltending position, which on past teams has been the steadiest for the Lakers, was that club’s Achilles heel.
“We have a lot of faith in all three goalies,” said Gotkin, who will add a third goaltender to his mix this year in redshirt freshman Mike Elia. “We know it’s not a secret that if you want to be a good team in Division I hockey you have to get great goaltending. We saw that at times [last year]. We had great goaltending at times from both [Franck and Wakefield] last year, but we also got some average goaltending.”
Gotkin’s non-league slate, which includes a season-opening series at Wisconsin, road games at New Hampshire, Rensselaer, Union, Massachusetts, two at Colgate, and a home-and-home series against nearby Robert Morris, is one of the most demanding in the league. It is those games, according to Gotkin, where holes in goaltending are exposed.
“With the schedule we’re playing, we can’t afford not to have great goaltending all the time,” Gotkin said. “Those guys, when they’re playing well they give you a chance to win every night. There’s no more important position than goaltending.”
Should the Lakers take the corner and have a solid year between the pipes, you have to believe that they’re a shoo-in for the league title. The expectations are again high, but if you ask Gotkin, he’ll probably tell you he’d have it no other way.