“For once, I’m returning a bit of a veteran team,” said Ohio State coach John Markell. If you’re not a Buckeye hockey fan, there is no way for you to appreciate the optimism of this statement.
Markell tends toward the glass-half-empty side of life. In his defense, he has had to contend with some of the drawbacks associated with programs that achieve certain measures of success, like the early departure of NHL drafted players. And his team is often displaced from its home arena in favor of higher-paying renters at the most inopportune times … like during the CCHA playoffs.
However, the 2008-09 season was a tonic for Buckeye hockey, returning Ohio State to the NCAA tournament one year after the dismal 2007-08 season in which the Bucks finished in 11th place with just seven CCHA wins. A good deal of credit for that turnaround — and a large reason for Markell’s uncharacteristic optimism — belongs to this year’s junior and sophomore classes.
“We’re still a relatively young team with just one senior in Mathiew Picard,” said Markell. “Our 13-member junior class has gained a tremendous amount of experience playing in all situations.
“It’s been my experience that when you move from your sophomore to junior season, you expect it to be a ‘pop’ year.”
There are plenty of juniors who can pop this year, four of whom — John Albert, Hunter Bishop, Peter Boyd, Sergio Somma — who netted 10 or more goals in 2008-09.
The Buckeyes also return two CCHA 2009 All-Rookie Team members, forward Zac Dalpe and defenseman Matt Bartkowski.
“I am expecting these two players to perform at the level that I think they can get up to,” said Markell, “maybe quicker than other players. We certainly leaned on them quite a bit last seaon and hope they continue to improve and show the promise that they did in their first year.”
While OSU’s offense was fast, fearless and fun to watch last season, nearly every other aspect of the Buckeyes’ game needs improvement. The Bucks needed to score as many goals as they did per game, as they gave up nearly three per contest, even though junior goaltender Dustin Carlson (2.50 GAA, .917 SV%) was respectable last year. The Buckeye defense was porous — young, but porous — and OSU’s special teams were lousy.
Still, there’s plenty of reason for optimism in Columbus. With the hiring of JB Bittner — whom many CCHA fans will remember from OSU’s 2004 run to the CCHA championship, as the guy who scored the game-winning goal 23 seconds into overtime of the semifinal against Miami before belly-flopping down the ice in celebration — Ohio State now has two, three-time Buckeye hockey captains coaching along with Markell, including Steve Brent.
And Markell hopes to create real passion for hockey at Ohio State with many more new fans; this season, OSU students get into Buckeye hockey games for free.
“We’re excited about that and can’t wait to see what happens to our crowd and attendance,” said Markell, “especially at the start of the year, especially when there’s lots of football going on.”
Oh, yeah. That’s right. Football.
Well, maybe the students will start showing up in January to find that they’ve missed a really great first half.