Rochester Institute of Technology tied for third place last season, its lowest finish since joining Atlantic Hockey in 2006. The Tigers are picked to tie for fourth in the preseason coaches’ poll, their lowest preseason ranking since being picked to finish eighth in that debut season of 2006.
But don’t push the panic button yet, Tigers fans. Last season RIT finished just two points out of first place and a win away from the NCAA tournament.
Still, there seems to be a feeling that there may be other teams out there not named Air Force that can finish ahead of a program that has been ridiculously consistent since joining Atlantic Hockey.
“The standings were pretty bunched up last year, so why not the polls?,” said RIT coach Wayne Wilson, starting his 14th year at the helm.
The Tigers took some major hits due to graduation. Many of the holes Wilson has to fill are from the blue line back. First team all-star goaltender Shane Madolora is gone as well as three senior defensemen, two of whom were captains.
Two of the Tigers’ top three leading scorers have moved on, and junior forward Mike Colavecchia, who led the team in goals (14) and points (32) last season will miss the first month of the season due to injury.
“He had a bone chip removed,” Wilson said. “It was actually something that happened in juniors but it got worse in camp this season.”
That’s the bad news. The upside is that RIT has two proven goaltenders ready to pick up the mantle of Madolora, junior Josh Watson and sophomore Jordan Ruby. Wilson has helped their development by electing to start both of them in big non-conference games so far in their careers. Ruby played against Union and Wisconsin last season, while Watson played against Union and Merrimack the season before.
Wilson said he’ll rotate the pair early in the season, possibly throwing freshman Ken MacLean into the mix as well.
“[If a starter emerges] I won’t be the one making the decision,” Wilson said. “They’ll be making the decision with their play.”
Another positive for the Tigers is a healthy Chris Saracino. The senior defenseman, who was a tri-captain in 2011-12, missed half of last season due to injury and did not play after Jan. 7. Up to that point he had nine points in 14 games and had been named MVP of the Vermont tournament the weekend before.
Saracino returns as the sole captain with sophomore Matt Garbowsky and senior Adam Hartley sporting the “A.”
“Saracino was maybe our best defenseman when he was in the lineup,” Wilson said. “It was quite a blow from a leadership standpoint when we lost him, someone that was running our power play and penalty kill.”
Complementing Saracino on the blue line is junior Greg Noyes, who had a breakout year in 2012-13, scoring 20 points to pick up some of the slack.
“Noyes has the potential to be a top defenseman in the league. He was particularly good the second half and looks to build on that,” Wilson said.
RIT returns a good part of its penalty killing unit, which was ranked 10th in the nation last season (84.7 percent).
Still, there will be some pressure on a talented rookie class to contribute soon, especially on the offensive side, where the Tigers lacked chemistry last season.
“The freshman are fitting in well and our chemistry is as good as it’s been in four years,” Wilson said. “We’ve been able to continue to recruit better. I think everyone in the league has been able to recruit better.”
Expected to help out right away is rookie Anthony Hamburg, the only NHL draft pick in the AHA this season. Hamburg was taken 194th overall by Minnesota in 2009. He played briefly at Colgate before returning to the USHL, where he tallied 38 points for Omaha.
Rochester native Dan Schuler will see plenty of time on the blue line according to Wilson, including some special teams..
Recruiting could get even better for the Tigers as they break ground on a new on-campus arena that will seat 4,000 fans, roughly twice the capacity of Ritter Arena. Work on the Gene Polisseni Center kicks off on Oct. 19, a day before the Tigers’ game against Penn State at the Blue Cross Arena.
The Tigers’ first NCAA games of the season come on Oct. 11-12 at No. 3 Michigan.
“We’re just chomping at the bit to play at this point,” Wilson said. “We’re eager to get started.”
About the Tigers
2011-12 overall record: 20-13-6
2011-12 AHA record: 14-7-6 (tie, third)
2012-13 predicted finish (coaches poll): Tie, fourth
Key losses: D Chris Haltigin, G Shane Madolora, F Taylor McReynolds
Players to watch: F Mike Colavecchia, F Matt Garbowsky, D Greg Noyes
Impact rookie: Forward Anthony Hamburg is the only NHL draft pick in the league this season, taken by the Minnesota Wild in 2009. He played briefly for Colgate before returning to the USHL, where he put up 38 points last season at Omaha.
Why the Tigers will finish higher than the coaches poll: RIT’s consistency has been, well, constant since the Tigers joined the league. They find a way to be at or near the top of the standings.
Why the Tigers will finish lower than the coaches poll: The Tigers’ offense was down as expected last season and needs to improve. One of Madolora’s backups will need to step up or the lack of offense could be exposed if it continues.