Rick Gotkin is celebrating his 25th year behind the Mercyhurst bench this season, and he’s coming off what might have been one of his best coaching performances.
Picked to finish seventh and featuring a huge rookie class and an unproven goalie, the Lakers tied for third in Atlantic Hockey last season, just two points out of first. Mercyhurst outlasted Holy Cross in a terrific quarterfinal series before falling in the semifinals to eventual champion Air Force.
Three of the Lakers’ top scorers last season were rookies. Daniel Bahntge and Nardo Nagtzaam finished 1-2 with 31 and 30 points, respectively. Another rookie, Chris Bodo, tied Nagtzaam for the team lead in goals with 11.
“Honestly, with so many [freshmen] we weren’t sure what he had,” Gotkin said. “The great thing, it was different guys on different nights [who came through]. We have a tough time telling who was the first line and who was the fourth line.”
In net, Max Strang was a virtual rookie, having played in just 10 games in three seasons before last year, when he appeared in 34 games, posting a .927 save percentage. His rookie season was marred by an injury that is now good news for the Lakers, because it allowed Strang to obtain a medical redshirt and come back this season.
“He’s a fifth-year senior,” Gotkin said. “Max is a great kid that played really well when he got his chance. Now he’s an older guy. He conducts himself like a man. He is a man. It’s great to have.”
Gotkin, who recently signed an extension through 2016, said his team’s strength last season was balance, but that means they can improve in all aspects.
“We’ve always taken great pride in depth and balance,” he said. “We like to have four lines jumping over the boards and using six [defensemen] all the time.
“There’s no question we can improve any aspect. We were not really great at anything last year. Pretty good, but not great.”
Gotkin is hoping lightning strikes twice in terms of an outstanding rookie class. He has high hopes for Kyle Cook, a 6-foot-4 forward from Middleburg Heights, Ohio.
“He can step in right away,” Gotkin said. “His size is a great advantage, and he skates well. We’ve had a lot of great small, fast forwards, but I think this shows the reputation of the league that we are getting more big, skilled guys.”
Another challenge for Gotkin is to avoid complacency after a season that many didn’t expect his team to have.
“I think last year we played with something to prove,” he said. “We had some disappointments on and off the ice the year before. We played with a little bit of a chip on our shoulder.
“Now the million dollar question is: Do we still feel that way?”
About the Lakers
2011-12 overall record: 20-16-4
2011-12 AHA record: 15-8-4 (tie, third)
2012-13 predicted finish (coaches poll): Third
Key losses: F Derek Elliott
Players to watch: F Paul Chiasson, F Nardo Nagtzaam, F Daniel Bahntge
Impact rookie: Kyle Cook had 70 points for the for the Jr. Blues last season, sixth best in the NAHL.
Why the Lakers will finish higher than the coaches poll: Mercyhurst was supposed to be in rebuilding mode last season, but emerged as one of the top teams in the league. There’s no reason to think it can’t exceed expectations again.
Why the Lakers will finish lower than the coaches poll: We’ll find out this season if any of the sparkling rookies overachieved last year.