There is something about Jim Roque that is quintessentially endearing.
“I’ve only got 25 guys this year. Last year we carried 29,” said Roque. “I couldn’t, in my heart, cut anyone who wanted to put in the time — there’s no way.”
Ah. That’s it.
Last year, Roque replaced Frank Anzalone as Laker head coach in a move that can best be compared to swapping night for day.
Anzalone was an interesting throwback to a time when Laker hockey ruled the league … many moons ago. A defensive, temperamental guy, Anzalone spent the first year of his program apologizing for what he saw as his team’s lack of Division I skill; he spent the last navigating off-ice drama that several players seemed to attract.
While Roque got a little publicly grumpy in Columbus early last season — and probably hasn’t forgiven me for it yet — not once did the man denigrate his players or point to his predecessor as a reason for Lake Superior State’s performance.
Of course, it may say more about Anzalone than Roque that Roque, a man who often looks as though he’s glowering at the world, was a fresh breeze in Sault Ste. Marie.
“Last year’s team had a group of 12 seniors and they had been together since the beginning,” said Roque, “so even though there was change going on with the team, they kind of took it upon themselves to protect each other and to protect the team. Almost to a fault they wanted to handle everything. I think it lead to some of the younger guys being excluded.”
Sounds like post-traumatic Anzalone syndrome, an understandable condition given what those seniors witnessed in four years.
“This year’s group,” said Roque, “is more inclusive. It will be easier to get guys to buy into what’s going on.”
It’s not as though Roque came took over for Anzalone cold; Roque served as Anzalone’s assistant from 2001 until Anzalone’s departure. He knows this team, knows these seniors, and helped recruit nearly all the underclassmen.
The 2005-06 season was a definite improvement for the Lakers, so it’s not as though there’s bouncing back to do.
The cornerstone of the team — next to tenacious team discipline and defense — is senior goaltender Jeff Jakaitis.
“His best asset is his mental skill set,” said Roque. “He’s just so calm. Nothing rattles him. He’s also very athletic. He’s flexible and he’s got good vision. He kind of looks smaller than he is because he plays with a little slope, but he’s a confident guy and he knows himself.
“If I could change one thing, I’d make him a junior again so that we could have him for another year. He’ll wear a letter for us this year, and he’s done everything we could ask — he’s a good student, a good person, and he works hard.”
Like nearly every other team in the league, the Lakers need to score more goals. A total of 93 goals isn’t enough, even when allowing just 84. It’s the one and only characteristic of the Laker team that kept them mired in the middle last year, and will likely do so again.
Only senior Trent Campbell netted more than 10 goals for the Lakers last year, and although the overall committee effort was there, there weren’t enough pucks in nets to make a significant difference in the fate of the team.
With Roque behind the bench, the Lakers did win three more league games last season than they had the year before, the final campaign with Anzalone. Perennially partnered with Northern Michigan, the Lakers also draw Miami and Ohio State this year as clustermates. That’s travel as well as the league’s defending regular-season champion … and a team that made them, really, really made them, in Columbus last November.
In fact, the Lakers start their regular-season CCHA play against OSU at the Schott in mid-October. It’s a golden opportunity for Roque and Company to turn something negative into something positive, yet again.
Thanks to Sean Caruthers for his Media Day contributions.