“There are a lot of things going on,” said Cornell Big Red head coach Mike Schafer, reflecting on a summer that just passed.
“We had all those thoughts throughout the summer, [of] how your team is going to progress and how the guys coming back are going to get better and step up, and you better hope so because you recruited them — and then you look at your recruits and hope they make the transition to college hockey.
“We all have high hopes at this time of year, but there is also a lot of anxiety.”
Adding to the anxiety is a nod from the coaches of the ECAC. The Big Red were picked to finish second in the coaches poll — a pick that not many people find surprising. There are a lot of expectations from the college hockey world on the Big Red.
“There’s a lot of expectations within our program too,” said Schafer. “The most important is that we want to finish in the upper echelon, and our guys realize even more, the motivation to finish in the top three. [They saw] the overtime in the semifinal last year and how important it is to get into the top three.”
Last season the Big Red finished tied for fourth and advanced to Lake Placid. The Thursday play-in game win over Clarkson was followed by an overtime loss to St. Lawrence the next evening and then a 4-0 defeat at the hands of Colgate in the consolation game. A finish in the top three, and that Thursday game would have been avoided.
This season the Big Red look to remain in the upper half of the ECAC. As they do, what you notice right away is the amount of players on the roster. There are a lot of players on this team.
“We have a lot of depth on our hockey team and that’s something that we’ve strived for,” said Schafer. “And that’s to make sure we had a lot of competition. If we’re going to compete at a national level and in this league, we had better have a lot of competition and a lot of depth. A lot of times a superstar just doesn’t get it done for you. We have a lot of depth up front, on defense and competition between the pipes.
“It’s important to realize that whether you’re in sports or not, that competition brings the best out of people and elevates your ability to produce. A lot of people look at it as fearful of losing their job, but I look at it from the other perspective, that competition brings the best out of people and it brings the best out of people if they weren’t pushed.”
Look no further than in goal for the depth Schafer talks about. Ian Burt, Matt Underhill and Chris Gartman are all back there. And, even though Burt and Underhill got most of the time last season, there will be a race.
“The three goalies will compete to see who takes the job and see who runs with it for the season,” said Schafer.
Then in front of the goaltending is a very strong defensive corps that has elements of everything one would want from a defense.
“[Our defense] represents our whole team and that’s depth,” said Schafer. “We’re looking for offensive production from [Larry] Pierce, [Doug] Murray and [Mark] McRae, and we’ll get solid defense from [Brian] McMeekin, [Travis] Bell and [Danny] Powell and other guys will compete for time. We have the nice complement back there.”
And up front, Schafer also likes his depth and what they will bring to the table.
“A sign of a good team is that we don’t really know where our scoring is going to come from,” he said. “We’ve worked for balance and goal scoring from all aspects of our forwards. Denis Ladouceur and David Kozier coming off of an injury, and [Matt] McRae, but we have a lot of other guys that produce offense for us. Andrew McNiven and Dan Svoboda started coming into their own as players late last year.”
Adding to that depth will be another nice recruiting class that Schafer has brought to Ithaca.
“I am happy with our recruiting class and in terms of how they complement our team,” he said. “We have smaller guys like Ryan Vesche and Jason Kuczmanski, and we also brought in guys like Kelly Hughes and Greg Hornby, who is one of the guys that people will come to fear very quickly and he’s probably going to be the hardest hitter in the ECAC. He’ll turn heads very quickly.”
— Cornell head coach Mike Schafer
And with all that depth, the Big Red are certainly looking to play a type of game, but not what your typical person may think.
“There’s a misconception that we’re big and play a defensive style,” said Schafer. “The style that we like to have is to have the puck in the offensive zone, protect it and take the puck to the net and be strong physically that way. We’re one of the most aggressive teams in the league in that we bring two guys to forecheck all night long.
“People think of us a big team that hangs back and plays a defensive style and that’s not the way it is at all. We’re aggressive with our forecheck and when we have the puck, and that takes depth, because it’s very tiring.”
So the key theme for the Big Red this year is not who will be the superstar, but what the Big Red as a team can do to take them to the championship.
“We have a lot of different players that can have breakout years,” said Schafer. “But I’m not concerned with who does it — I am sure that someone will. I’m more concerned that we have the depth to do it.”