Parity has come to the ECAC West, and it is about time, too.
Just five short years ago, the league needed a starting program in the form of Manhattanville even to survive. It was down to just three teams (Elmira, Hobart, and RIT), and on the verge of either folding or being merged with another league. Teams like Canisius, Mercyhurst, and Niagara had bolted for Division I, and the rest of the league was left holding the door watching them fade into the distance.
Fortunately, Manhattanville started a team, joined the league, and at least allowed it to limp along. But even then, it came down to a contest between Elmira and RIT for the league title year after year.
Those days are gone for good now. With the transfer into the league of Lebanon Valley from the ECAC Northeast this season, the ECAC West is up to a very healthy seven teams.
If that number of teams can be maintained for an entire season, the league would be eligible to move from Pool B up to a Pool A auto-bid in the 2005-2006 season.
But that is getting ahead of ourselves a little bit. First, we have this season to deal with, and oh what a season it is shaping up to be.
There are five teams that legitimately have a shot at the regular season title this year. It has been almost ten years since the league has seen that kind of depth. The result should be a treat for the fans, as the teams battle it out right to the end.
“I think we have the most competitive league in the country top to bottom,” said Elmira coach Tim Ceglarski. “I think there are five teams in our league that have a chance to win our championship. I think at any point in time this year, you might see four or five teams from our league in the top 15 in the country, assuming we don’t beat up on each other. It’s going to be interesting to see how the year plays out. I’m excited for our league. The competition is healthy for it.”
Unfortunately, the reality of the situation, at least for this season, is that only four teams will make the league playoffs. That means that at least one deserving team will be left swinging in the wind with an early end to their season.
“I think it’s probably the most competitive league,” said RIT coach Wayne Wilson. “That will probably get arguments from everyone, but if you look at our league last year it was true. Someone who could easily play for a championship is going to be sitting out of the playoffs.”
Nobody said that life was fair.
This week, we will take a sneak peak at Hobart, Manhattanville, RIT, and Elmira. Next week we will finish out our preseason tour of the league with the rest of the teams.
Hobart College Statesmen
Coach: Mark Taylor, fifth season overall and at Hobart (45-49-11)
2003-04 overall record: 15-8-5
2003-04 ECAC West record: 7-2-1
2003-04 ECAC West finish: First
2004-05 predicted finish: First
The Hobart Statesmen rode the wave of success at the end of last season to their first ECAC West title and first ever appearance in the NCAA tournament. From Jan. 16 through the ECAC West title game, the Statesmen rolled off an impressive 10-1 record, including winning seven straight games against league opponents.
“We took advantage of the run at the end [of the regular season],” said Hobart coach Mark Taylor, “and the guys kept it going all the way through to the end.”
Those were pretty rare heights for a team that posted only its sixth winning record in 30 years of existence. This year, it is Taylor’s job to keep his players focused and hungry, even though they now have a target planted squarely on their team.
“We did it because we played real friggin’ hard,” said Taylor, “and that’s what we are going to be about whether we are favored to win the game or not win the game. We’re going to play hard, up-tempo hockey. That’s one thing I was impressed with my guys. Two weeks after the NCAA’s were over, nobody was sitting back fat and happy. We’re not going to start over, but we are going to start again.”
These accomplishments have placed Hobart in the upper echelon of the league. No longer are they the doormats for other teams run up the score. Hobart has established itself as a contender both within the league and outside of it.
“I would say winning the league was just as important [as making the NCAA playoffs],” said Taylor. “Showing that we can compete in the league with the top group solidifies what we have established here. You can talk about where you want to go, and when you get there the kids jump out of the car and say ‘the view looks great’. I think that’s what it did for us. There’s no question getting to the NCAA tournament helps us, but I think the fight getting there is what gives us our credibility.”
But now Hobart must contend with pressures unfelt before. The pressure to repeat. The pressure of expectations to win every game. The pressure of being a target for every other team.
Looking at their roster, the Statesmen are in good shape to handle those pressures. They only lost three players to graduation, and return an experienced squad of upperclassmen who have seen both the highs and lows of the program.
Joining Hobart’s offense this year are four forwards. Tom Alfieri and Brian Cibelli are players local to western New York, with Cibelli being a big gun from the Syracuse Stars junior team.
Ed Brzek and Shawn Houde also join the forwards, both hailing from New England.
All-everything goaltender Adam Lavelle is a senior this season, so Taylor is bringing in a protégé-in-the-making to learn the ropes. Dmitry Papaevagelou was the starting goaltender for the New Hampshire Monarchs last year, and backstopped them to the EJHL title. He might be the frontrunner of the group of freshmen.
One of Taylor’s recruiting goals over the last few years was to gain balance in sizes between the different academic classes. In the 2000-2001 season, Taylor inherited a team with sixteen seniors. With a class of seven freshmen this season, he has accomplished that goal, and given his team a little depth to withstand the injuries that invariably happen during a long, grueling season.
Hobart certainly proved last season that they have the skill, dedication, and most importantly work ethic to win the league. This year, they are out to prove that they can also win it consistently.
Manhattanville College Valiants
Coach: Keith Levinthal, sixth season overall and at Manhattanville (71-46-10)
2003-04 overall record: 15-5-2
2003-04 ECAC West record: 6-2-2
2003-04 ECAC West finish: Tied for Second
2004-05 predicted finish: Second
Manhattanville enters this season with the fewest unknowns, and at least on paper, with the strongest lineup.
“We return pretty much everybody,” said coach Keith Levinthal. “We return eleven of our top twelve scorers. We return all of our defensemen but one. We have six juniors and one senior on defense. One of the newcomers is a transfer from Findlay, who beat Michigan State and lost to North Dakota by only one goal last year. And he got a regular shift there. For a team that only gave up a little over two goals a game last year, our defense aught to be pretty good this year.”
The Valiants defense ranked first in the conference last season allowing only 2.50 goals per game in league contests, and ninth in the nation with an overall average of 2.36 goals per game.
This experienced corps of defensemen will be joined by two freshmen, Zeke Hume and Chris Wanchulak. Levinthal expects Hume, in particular, to help quarterback the powerplay from the blueline.
“Hume might help us a lot with providing us some depth on the power play,” said Levinthal. “He was a point-a-game guy on defense in the British Columbia Hockey League.”
But to have a successful season, and gain the league championship that Manhattanville is looking for, the team must avoid the injury bug that plagued them last season.
“Last year we dealt with a lot of injuries,” said Levinthal. “We lost [Chad] Van Diemen with about a month to go in the season. I don’t know if we were ever the same on the power play after he left. We dealt with Jason Kenyon, our captain, being out most of the year. I think the big thing for us is if we are healthy. Last year, we had so many injuries. If we were a healthier team [last year], it would have made things a whole lot easier.”
For the second year in a row, Levinthal has been able to attract a Division I transfer to his squad. Last year, the Valiants were joined by four players who came from the defunct Iona College team. This season, Paul Prefontaine will add to the team after playing the last two years at Findlay. The experience of playing in big games is one benefit that Levinthal sees these transfers adding to his team.
“These are kids that we dealt with through the recruiting process,” Levinthal said about the transfers. “They happened to get these other options, but when they fell through they came back. They all have friends already playing on our team who like it here.”
Also joining the Valiants this season are two freshmen forwards and a goalie. Andre Howard and Jason Murfitt look to add to an already potent offense that averaged scoring 4.45 goals last year, ranked sixteenth in the nation.
“Howard and Murfitt both had great junior careers,” said Levinthal. “They are going to be very good players.”
Manhattanville did lose one player that wasn’t due to graduation. Andrew Gallant, who saw action in eleven games in goal last year, is not back at school this fall. Levinthal spotted newcomer Paul Reimer during the Valiants trip to western Canada last season to play the University of Regina, while he was playing with the Flin Flon Bombers (SJHL).
With an experienced group of players, and a few new recruits to add depth, Manhattanville is poised for success this season.
“Every game is huge in the league,” said Levinthal. “If we play well, then we don’t have to worry about it. But like everyone else, if we take a night off it doesn’t take much to get yourself knocked out of the playoffs.”
Rochester Institute of Technology Tigers
Coach: Wayne Wilson, sixth season overall and at RIT (103-21-11)
2003-04 overall record: 13-7-5
2003-04 ECAC West record: 6-2-2
2003-04 ECAC West finish: Tied for Second
2004-05 predicted finish: Third
If you listen closely to the whispers around the league, you will hear one repeated over and over again. “What is RIT going to do after losing its four best defensemen?”
It has been a long time since any team has had their defensive corps gutted so drastically by graduation. The Tigers lost Ryan Fairbarn, Ryan Francke, Mike Walling and Matt Moore to graduation, players that logged close to 80% of their ice time in RIT’s zone last season.
“We lost some good people, but we expect also to bring in good people,” said RIT coach Wayne Wilson. “The four seniors that we lost are also the same four freshmen that we had when we almost went undefeated. So, you never know what it’s going to bring. The people that we brought in this year are all big kids, so that is going to be something that everyone playing us will have to match up physicalness-wise. I’m happy with what we brought in, but the games will tell where we are at.”
Matt Harris, Brent Patry, Brandon Mulholland, and Stephen Burns were recruited to bolster the RIT defense, and each is at least six feet tall and 200 pounds. If nothing else, there will be some big bodies filling up the Tigers’ defensive zone this season.
But the real strength of RIT this season will be offense. Michael Tucciarone, a member of the preseason All-USCHO team, will be returning after suffering a serious leg injury midway through last season. Tucciarone was on an All-American pace when he suffered the injury, tallying twelve goals and 22 assists in only fourteen games.
Wilson recruited several strong forwards to go along with the already potent RIT attack.
“I think the strength of our team is going to be up front,” said Wilson. “We lost a good player in Michael Tarantino and a role player in Adam George. Everyone else is coming back.”
Joining the upper classmen forwards will be four freshmen.
“Matt Smith was a player that scored an awful lot of goals in junior hockey,” said Wilson. He was rookie of the year in the WJHL last season.
Ricky Walton is a smaller player that will bring a lot of energy to the RIT line up. Simon Lambert is described as an extremely hard worker with a real nice touch around the net. And Darrell Draper did quite well in a strong BCHL junior league.
“Those four guys are going to make things awfully interesting,” said Wilson. “I think our team up front is going to be as good as we have ever had. We should be able to score goals from any direction.”
The final ingredient that RIT needs to make a run at the title is goaltending. Wilson brought in a highly touted goaltender from Quebec named Jocelyn Guimond. But he will be ineligible to play this season due to competing on a Canadian Major Junior team.
So that leaves George Eliopoulos to carry the torch in net for RIT again this season. Eliopoulos showed signs of brilliance last year, but was unable to string together the series of wins that RIT needed to be successful.
“We are just looking for consistency from our goaltending,” said Wilson. “George [Eliopoulos] showed signs of just dominating in some games. If he can play to his goals against and saves percentage, then we are all set.”
If the Tigers can put the pieces together, they will again be a force in the league. If not, then they could just as easily be the team looking in at the playoffs from the outside.
Elmira College Soaring Eagles
Coach: Tim Ceglarski, fourth season overall and at Elmira (47-29-4)
2003-04 overall record: 11-12-2
2003-04 ECAC West record: 4-6-0
2003-04 ECAC West finish: Fifth
2004-05 predicted finish: Fourth
From the coaches, to the players, to the fans, last year was a season that everyone would like to forget ever happened in Elmira. Things just never came together for the Soaring Eagles, and they missed the playoffs for the first time since the 1997-98 season.
“There is a quote from Henry Ford ‘Failure is success if you learn from it.'”, said coach Tim Ceglarski. “We learned a lot about our team last year. We learned a lot about our approach to the game. There is no question that we made some mistakes in our offense as far as which direction we should go in our recruiting. We thought the year that we won the ECAC West (2002-03), we had an incredibly gifted team offensively. But we were giving up too many goals. We really tried to change the complexion of our team by bringing in some guys that were two-way players. And no offense to those guys, but that combined with a number of other issues kind of backfired on us.
“So this year we approached it as trying to go out and find the best offensively gifted forwards and the best skilled guys that we could. We learned a lot about our team and a lot about commitment level from a bunch of people. We are very excited for the season to get started and to prove that last year was a minor bump in the road.”
The Elmira coaching staff is expecting that change in recruiting philosophy to be evident immediately on the ice. And from the looks of their pre-season workouts, things are going according to plan.
“This year we made a concerted effort to go out and recruit the best skilled guys that we could at all positions,” said Ceglarski. “We like the complexion and composure of our team right now. We had 62 guys show up for our first meeting, so it is very healthy and competitive.”
There are four freshmen forwards, all from junior leagues, whom Ceglarski expects to have an immediate impact. Michael Richard is a very gifted playmaker who loves to play gritty hockey along the boards and has a knack for finding the open teammate to pass to.
Tyler Schremp has a lot of offensive tools and is a very good all-around player. Ryan Arnone is described as a gifted and smart forward who can play both center and wing equally well.
A little bit of a surprise is Andrew Bedford.
“He was a kid who we thought would really grow into a very good player by the time that he graduates,” said Ceglarski. “But over the summer he grew another inch or two since the time that we recruited him and we think he is going to be a terrific hockey player for us. He is a winger who can move the puck and is a threat to score from anywhere inside the top of the faceoff circles.”
Elmira also expects a big contribution from recruited netminder Raphael Cundari, who is described as tall, quick on his feet, and a good puck handler which is a key skill in the small ice surface of the Thunderdomes.
“[Cundari] will challenge [Greg] Fargo every day for playing time,” said Ceglarski. “He will give us the second goaltender that we have always been looking for to push Fargo.”
The infusion of new blood, and new commitment to the team, may be just the ingredients that Elmira needs to climb back to the top of the league standings.
“We’ve tried to put it into our minds to not really discuss last year, but never to forget last year either,” said Ceglarski. “We need to take every single game individually. It might sound like an old cliché, but we have no right based on our record last year to look by anybody. We understood last year that every time we played somebody that they were playing the defending champion of our league. They were out to knock us off. There aren’t a lot of people giving us a lot of credit [this year]. If people want to call us an underdog, that’s great. I think a lot of people are going to be surprised by how we play this year.”
Scott Biggar will look at the rest of the ECAC West in next week’s column.