Last week’s column was a preview of the four most experienced teams in the ECAC West. And it is that experience and depth that will most likely propel them to the playoffs.
But you certainly can’t discount the potential for the three younger teams we are going to preview in this week’s column.
Utica is a prime example. Coach Gary Heenan has been building that program since its inception four years ago. The Pioneers made the playoffs for the first time last season.
While I have picked them to finish fifth this season, just out of the playoffs, it is only by a cat’s whisker.
Lebanon Valley and Neumann are both programs in transition. The Flying Dutchmen enter the ECAC West this year, after enjoying several successful campaigns in the ECAC Northeast. But the differences in the level of play between those leagues can be quite dramatic at times, and they might initially struggle to make the necessary adjustments.
Neumann, on the other hand, is transitioning to a new coach and new philosophy. The Knights have already enjoyed a taste of success, tying a good Geneseo team 1-1 on Oct. 16.
As I noted in last week’s column, the ECAC West is wide open this year, with parity as the key word. It should be a wild ride.
Utica College Pioneers
Coach: Gary Heenan, fourth season overall and at Utica (36-35-5)
2003-04 overall record: 15-10-1
2003-04 ECAC West record: 4-5-1
2003-04 ECAC West finish: Fourth
2004-05 predicted finish: Fifth
In any team’s history, the fourth year is usually a milestone. The kids who were recruited in the first class to help build the program from the ground up are now seniors. And usually that class of seniors encompasses most of the team. They have gone from just trying to compete in games, to trying to win them, to making the playoffs. They can look back and admire all of the progress and accolades that their hard work has produced.
But that fourth season is also their last chance to achieve the goals and dreams set when the program began. They get one last, desperate try to be the first senior class to hang a championship banner in their rink.
The thirteen seniors on the Utica team find themselves in just such a situation this season. It is do-or-die for them, and they know it.
“Hopefully it is a ‘do’, and a ‘do’ from there,” said coach Gary Heenan. “We feel we are at that national level now. It was nice to see us in the national poll last year. That really was a confidence builder for us, and really said to us that we are there now. To beat Elmira and RIT, and to make the playoffs, gave us the mindset that we need to be successful and go after a championship this year. Certainly for the seniors, this should be a do-or-die year for them. This is what they have been building for. We promised the seniors this from when we recruited them. In our fourth year, we expected to compete for a league title. That absolutely is the goal. Not just to make the playoffs, but to win it.”
Utica has continued to evolve over the last three years, going from a clutch-and-grab style the first season to a much more wide-open but disciplined game last year. That transformation has been led by the current seniors and the coaches, as a team.
“We taught clutch and grab our first year,” said Heenan. “When you have 27 freshmen, you are not going to be at the level of the other teams in the conference. We had to take some penalties to make sure that we didn’t have so many goals scored against us. Last year, the focus was that we can’t be taking penalties, and that if we are on the power play, then we won’t be scored against. That was discipline within our program. We were thrilled with the discipline that we had in our team play last year.”
Utica qualified for its first playoffs last season, and a big reason for that was the play of its penalty killers. They killed 89.6% of the penalties against them last season in conference, and played above that level in the all-important stretch to the playoffs.
“We made some adjustments [to our penalty kill] at Christmas that helped,” said Heenan. “We changed X’s and O’s, and now we have guys in the program that understand what it means to be in puck lanes, etc.”
With success within the league and at the national level, Utica has been able to lure more and more talented recruits to the team. This year is no exception, as several strong players sign on.
Goaltender Adam Dekker will vie for playing time between the pipes. He played at Soo St. Marie behind two stellar goaltenders, one who is now in Division I, and another who was drafted into the NHL.
“We are really excited about [Dekker],” said Heenan. “We have three senior goaltenders, so we need to build experience. We have juggled all three, all three years, and we need to find some stability there. Dekker will challenge them for starts.”
Forward Nick Lynch is expected to make an immediate impact on the scoresheet for the Pioneers. Heenan had already penciled him in to skate on the second line, and play with the first power play unit, even before the season started. Heenan describes him as “a goal scorer who will put numbers on the board.”
Helping out on the blueline will be defenseman Tony Wiseman, who won a national championship two years ago with junior team Compuware.
But even with so much talent and determination, Utica still must battle for a playoff spot in the highly competitive ECAC West. Those coveted spots will be at a premium this season and it is up to Heenan and his seniors to ensure that they are not on the outside looking in when the last horn of the regular season blows.
“It’s crazy in this league,” said Heenan. “Elmira doesn’t make the playoffs last year, but could have easily won the playoffs. We are excited to see the changes that RIT and Elmira have to go through losing All-Americans. Hobart, Manhattanville, and Utica didn’t lose anybody. So we are happy to play those teams early. But if you lose your first four or five games before Christmas, you are out of the playoffs potentially. The dynamics of the league will be interesting going into that Christmas break.”
Lebanon Valley College Flying Dutchmen
Coach: Al MacCormack, 29th season overall (283-289-16), seventh at Lebanon Valley (114-41-6)
2003-04 overall record: 18-8-0
2003-04 ECAC West record: played in ECAC Northeast
2003-04 ECAC West finish: played in ECAC Northeast
2004-05 predicted finish: Sixth
Joining the ECAC West this season is Lebanon Valley, located in Annville, Pa., just east of Hershey. The Flying Dutchmen have been competing in the ECAC Northeast, where they made the league playoffs each of the last five years.
Life probably won’t be quite so rosy right away in the tougher ECAC West, as Lebanon Valley struggles to make both the physical and mental transition.
“There are no weak teams in the ECAC West,” said coach Al MacCormack. “There were always a few weak teams in the [ECAC] Northeast where you would show up, and you would win. There is nothing like that here. Every single game is going to be so important. I think it will be a very, very difficult transition for us.”
The good news for Lebanon Valley is that league games are now much closer to home, meaning far fewer bus trips to the New England area. The bad news is that Lebanon Valley will be playing much stiffer competition day in and day out than they are used to, and that can become draining to a young team.
“We are a ways away from being able to compete in this league,” said MacCormack. “We are not ready yet. I think it is going to be a yearly transition.”
The Flying Dutchmen are also an extremely young team. Due to a short-term recruiting restriction placed on the team by the administration three years ago, there are currently no seniors on the team. The restriction was short-lived, but it has really handicapped the team this season, just when they need the leadership of a senior class the most.
“Not having any seniors on the team is going to be very difficult,” said MacCormack. “You need to have the leadership of seniors on a team. And there are only four juniors.”
Lebanon Valley will need those juniors to act and play like seniors this season to be successful, and to build momentum for the future.
Fortunately, the emphasis on calling the rulebook by the referees this season plays right into coach MacCormack’s style of play. His teams have always played an up-tempo, high scoring style within the Northeast, and he hopes to carry that forward into the ECAC West.
“I like a wide-open game,” said MacCormack. “I think the way college hockey and the NHL is going these days with the clutching and grabbing does not make for very good hockey. We have been a skating team, and open it up more. But if we do that in this league, we might be in a bit of trouble.”
Making the transition with the upperclassmen this season are ten freshmen. MacCormack has his eye on several whom he expects, and needs, to be contributors right away.
Jonas Svensson hails from Stockholm, Sweden, but played forward for the Green Mountain Glades of the EJHL last season. Justin Todd (Winkler Flyers, MJHL) and Rob Scales (Borderland Thunder, SIJHL) are two more forwards that MacCormack expects good things of.
Any transition is painful, filled with ups and downs as you try to find your place in the new order. But Lebanon Valley has a history of success as a hockey team, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them hit a new stride in the ECAC West before this season is finished.
Neumann College Knights
Coach: Dennis Williams, first season overall and at Neumann
2003-04 overall record: 3-21-1
2003-04 ECAC West record: 0-10-0
2003-04 ECAC West finish: Sixth
2004-05 predicted finish: Seventh
Everything is new this year at Neumann. A new coach, with a new philosophy, and new hope for improvement. Neumann has been the cellar-dweller since joining the ECAC West three years ago, but optimism abounds both around the program and the league this season.
Nick Russo, who founded the program, was let go at the end of last season. The administration at Neumann spent several months — some would say too many months — looking for the right person to finish the transition into the ECAC West. They finally settled on Dennis [nl]Williams, a former assistant coach at Utica College.
Perhaps the biggest breath of fresh air that [nl]Williams brings to Neumann is a change in philosophy.
“I’m keeping things simple to start with, and then gradually build into things,” said coach Dennis [nl]Williams. “I want to foster an attitude of being the hardest working team. We may not be the most skilled, but I guarantee we will go 110% day in and day out. Discipline and hard work are two of the major philosophies within a hockey program, especially taking over a program like this.”
[nl]Williams learned a lot from his former boss, and mentor, Gary Heenan at Utica. They still talk at least weekly, sharing ideas and stories. Heenan has quickly built a competitive team at Utica, and [nl]Williams hopes to follow that model over the next few years at Neumann.
“[Heenan] taught me that attitude and buying into the system can go a long way in building a team,” said [nl]Williams.
Unfortunately, since [nl]Williams wasn’t hired until early June, he didn’t have a lot of time to recruit for this season. He was only able to pull in four players: two defensemen and two goalies. The good news is that he has his eyes on a group of forwards that might be joining the team mid-season.
But there are definite bright spots in the players that [nl]Williams was able to find. One of them is defenseman Mike Gooch, who was a leader on the OCN Blizzard (CJAHL) the last three seasons. And it is that leadership that [nl]Williams is looking for from Gooch.
“He will be a player to watch and should put up good numbers,” said [nl]Williams. “He is an offensive defenseman, and has very good vision. He is a leader already out there for us. It is weird to have a freshman come in as an assistant captain. But the way I feel, we have a new program. Everyone here is at the same level. I want Gooch to move us up the ladder and be a leader all four years.”
It is indeed unusual to have a freshman sew the ‘A’ on his jersey, but it is a sign of the extent of the changes being made at Neumann.
Another freshman that [nl]Williams will rely on is goaltender Mike Collichio. The netminders at Neumann have seen a ton of shots over the past few years, and some have struggled under the constant barrage. [nl]Williams wanted to bring in a goaltender recruit who could help to relieve that burden, and step into the starting roll. From early results, it looks like he might have found just such a player in Collichio.
“[Collichio] is doing a great job pushing [Josh] Vega between the pipes,” said [nl]Williams. “They are battling it out to be the number one.”
In four-plus games so far this season, Collichio has played all but 40 minutes, and has a .944 save percentage and a 2.64 GAA.
Two other recruits that [nl]Williams was able to land are defenseman Mike Tamilia and goaltender Raymond Martin. Both are expected to see plenty of ice time as Neumann tries to build.
Don’t look for Neumann to compete for the title this year. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they win a league game or two, and start to gain the respectability that the players and the organization are looking for.