Ready to Roll: ECAC West Season Preview

Unlike most other leagues within Division III hockey, change has been a constant in the ECAC West over the past decade. Whether it is teams joining or leaving the league, turnover of coaches, or changes in the scheduling of league games, very few aspects of the league have been stable from season to season.

Entering the 2005-2006 season, all three of the changes mentioned above occurred, or almost occurred.

RIT first made the ECAC playoffs way back in the spring of 1976, when they lost to Worcester State 11-0. Over nearly the next 30 years, the Tigers grew to national prominence in both Division II and III, and together with Elmira and Hobart held the league together when everyone else was willing to let it die in the late 90’s.

But now RIT has moved on to the ranks of Division I, and the rest of the teams can step out from under their shadow to lead the league into the future.
“Losing RIT will hurt the overall dimensions of the league,” said Neumann head coach Dennis Williams. “They are a great program. It is up to some of the other schools to step up, answer the bell, and be that next great team like RIT was. I think there are a number of teams in our league that are in a position to do that.”

“[The ECAC West] is still a strong league,” said Utica head coach Gary Heenan. “RIT certainly played a role in getting the league where it is. We always loved going to RIT in terms of what it brought to college hockey at our level. They always did a good job of putting an event around the game. The league will miss their building and the class of their organization.”
“We still have some great rivalries out there both within our conference and outside of it,” said Elmira head coach Tim Ceglarski. “Our games with Manhattanville have always been some pretty good contests and that rivalry will continue to develop over the years. It is too bad that the rivalry with RIT couldn’t continue. It was one of the best in college hockey.”

The league almost lost one of its young up-and-coming coaches when Utica’s Gary Heenan resigned from the school in mid-July to join the staff at Union. But, just a couple of days later, Heenan was back at the helm for the Pioneers, and the coaching ranks around the league stabilized.

The last big change this season is playing each team three times in league play. Teams will alternate playing the extra game home or away every other year, and the two game set will usually be scheduled for the same weekend. Increasing the number of league games to fifteen certainly makes the league schedule more meaningful and should heat up the already intense rivalries around the league.

“It is conducive to building great rivalries,” said Ceglarski. “There are a lot of great rivalries in our conference right now, but by playing each other three times that will continue to enhance things. Being at a point where we had four teams and six league games several years ago, to now with six teams and fifteen league games is a big difference.”

“That is going to make it more interesting in the league, but also more difficult as it goes on,” said Lebanon Valley head coach Al MacCormack. “You are seeing the same team over and over, in such a short schedule, and it is a tough schedule when you are going through it.”

Be sure to print out the rosters for this season early, and keep them handy while you are sitting in the stands watching the games. Only Lebanon Valley and Manhattanville have fewer than ten new players on their roster entering the season, and Neumann has a whopping nineteen new faces.
Most of the teams are retooling to make a run at the title and it should be a wild season. Here is my opinion of where the teams will finish in the regular season, and why.

Stay tuned for the regular season ECAC West column to cover all the action beginning on November 4th.

Click on any team’s name at the top of the sections below for its individual season preview.

Team Previews:
Manhattanville College Valiants
Coach: Keith Levinthal, seventh season overall and at Manhattanville (92-50-11)
2004-05 overall record: 21-4-1
2004-05 ECAC West record: 8-3-1
2004-05 ECAC West finish: Second
2005-06 Coach’s Poll: First
2005-06 Scott’s predicted finish: First

Last season, the Manhattanville Valiants were finally able to achieve a goal coach Keith Levinthal set on the first day of the team’s existence six seasons ago. The Valiants dominated RIT in the semifinal game, and worked past a pesky Utica team in the finals, to win their first ECAC West playoff title.
This season, Manhattanville has to take the next step in the program’s development and learn how to play as defending champions.

“You always want to be the best in your neighborhood and that is not an easy goal to attain with so many good teams in the league,” said Levinthal. “Our goal is to win a league championship, and then we will get beyond that if we can do that. I think the only thing winning last year does is take that monkey off our back a little bit.”

With the fewest number of incoming freshmen of any team in the league, the Valiants certainly look like the team to beat entering the season. Historically, Levinthal has carried a large roster to ensure that the Valiants have sufficient depth to fill in for the inevitable injuries and other problems that affect every team as the season progresses. But not this year.

“We don’t have many guys coming in,” said Levinthal. “We are a pretty veteran team, and we felt like we wanted to keep a smaller roster with so many older guys. We have a few kids coming in that we think can help. Our focus is on the current guys who will get some increased roles over last year.”

With twelve seniors and seven juniors on the team, veteran is definitely a word that can be used to describe the Manhattanville roster.

But there are a few new faces in the Valiants locker room.

Troy Maleyko joins the team after playing the last two seasons on defense for Division 1 Quinnipiac. “Troy is a tremendous skater and will contribute offensively,” said Levinthal. “He competes hard.”

Also joining the elder blue-liners for Manhattanville is freshman Chris Galiotti. “Galiotti will give us some added depth at defense,” said Levinthal. “We have been really impressed with how he carries himself.”
Maleyko and Galiotti will need to battle for ice time with the five senior defensemen returning for the Valiants.

“We return a lot of key guys [on defense],” said Levinthal. “I think Galloway Carol, Steve Hoffert, and Paul Prefontaine are three senior defensemen who are as good as any in the country. They are solid and proven defensively and will be a big part of our team.”

On offense three newcomers join the ranks, and will be looked at mainly to shore up the penalty killing unit. Derek Lynden, Mike Luzzi, and Shane Fanini all will be called on to fill some big shoes.

“The biggest thing we lost [from last season] was our penalty killing,” said Levinthal. “We graduated Wade Richardson, Brad Olson and Jason Kenyon who were great PK guys. And we think Luzzi and Lynden will help fill in that area a bit.”

With the success of last season, and so many returning veterans, the odds certainly favor the Valiants to repeat again this season.

“We have a very veteran team, and those things are tricky,” said Levinthal. “They can either work really well in your favor, or they can be a disaster if you are not careful. I would think our season goes one way or the other. We have really good leadership and the guys are committed.”

Utica College Pioneers
Coach: Gary Heenan, fifth season overall and at Utica (52-40-11)
2004-05 overall record: 16-5-6
2004-05 ECAC West record: 9-1-2
2004-05 ECAC West finish: First
2005-06 Coach’s Poll: Third
2005-06 Scott’s predicted finish: Second

For Utica, this season is all about transition. After graduating its first class as a team last spring, the Pioneers now must make the transition from a startup team to a team that contends year after year.
Utica set the stage for that transition last season, winning their first ever regular season title and also graduating thirteen seniors. That loss of veteran leadership has sent coach Gary Heenan back to the basics to craft a new team.

“With so many freshmen, we have to teach a lot more,” said Heenan. “We can’t assume that the majority of the team knows our system, our drills, etc. From a coaching standpoint, we have had to slow down and be more descriptive in our teachings to make sure that all of the little details are being taken care of.”
Joining the Pioneers this season will be a slew of new freshmen. On offense, the Pioneers will need to replace three of their four top scorers.

“Our big hole is going to be our top three scorers,” said Heenan. “That is a tremendous challenge for our hockey club. We are obviously going to have freshmen in those roles now. How quickly those skill players can adjust to the level change will have a great say in how successful we are.”
Heenan is looking to newcomers Colin Kingston and Bryce Dale to step into those roles rapidly.

“[Kingston] has got great vision and playmaking hands,” said Heenan. “He is a guy who will be noticed each time we play. Dale is a guy with awesome speed and a good set of hands. Speed is more his asset.”

In a hint of setting up forward lines already, Heenan said that Dale will be playing alongside sophomore Jared Allison and junior Phil Boots.

Historically, the Utica Pioneers relied on stay at home defensemen, forcing the forwards to carry the puck up ice and score goals. But with this year’s recruiting class of blue-liners, Heenan went in a little different direction.
“We were always a defensive D corps, where we always had to have forwards playing the point on our power play,” said Heenan. “This year, we wanted a couple offensive defensemen.”

Filling that role are freshmen Josh Merson and Tiger Marcotte. Merson is a big kid, at 6’1″, who loves the weight room. Heenan describes him as “good hands with a heavy shot and size.”

Marcotte, on the other hand, is on the smaller side at 5’6″, but is very fast with good ice vision.

“They are two different kind of dynamic players, but both defensemen who will hopefully add offense,” said Heenan.

One area coach Heenan doesn’t have to worry about is goaltending. All-ECAC West goaltender Adam Dekker returns to the nets, and he will now be helped by Utica’s new assistant coach Jason Lefevre. While Lefevre will help out in all aspects of the team, as a former starter in net for Colgate he will help Dekker elevate his game even further.

“[Lefevre’s] going to be involved in everything,” said Heenan. “But having played as an elite level goaltender, he will hopefully be able to add to Dekker’s game as well.”

Hobart College Statesmen
Coach: Mark Taylor, sixth season overall and at Hobart (59-54-15)
2004-05 overall record: 14-6-4
2004-05 ECAC West record: 5-5-2
2004-05 ECAC West finish: Fifth
2005-06 Coach’s Poll: Second
2005-06 Scott’s predicted finish: Third

Two seasons ago, Hobart enjoyed the fruits of its recent renaissance to vault to the ECAC West title, and national prominence. Last season, with basically the same team, the injury bug hit early and the Statesmen were never able to regain their balance, stumbling to a disappointing finish and missing the playoffs.

This year, with a little luck to avoid the injury bug, Hobart should be back in the playoff mix.

“We are pretty much where we have been the last two seasons, and should be in the hunt for some exciting hockey,” said Hobart head coach Mark Taylor.
But the five seniors who graduated last spring were Taylor’s first recruiting class, and were a big reason for the level of success that the Statesmen have enjoyed the last two seasons. Players like Craig Levey, Steve Mitacek, Tyler Dufour and Adam Lavelle all played important roles over the last four seasons.

“We lost some guys that were instrumental in helping me get it going here,” said Taylor. “Hopefully there are some guys here who can elevate to replace those guys. You say it every year when you lose guys ‘Who is going to replace them?’ But every year guys do.”

Unfortunately, Lavelle’s injury in the third game last season is what started the slide for Hobart.

“We never got the senior year out of Lavelle that we were hoping for,” said Taylor.

With coach Taylor’s teams, being strong defensively is the key, and this year is no different. Ryan Adler, Bryan Harris, Andy Brennan and Mike Steiner all join the Hobart blue liners.

“I like the group of freshmen coming in,” said Taylor. “We definitely added a group of defensemen who are definitely going to help us this year. Over the years, that is one thing that we have had is a good group of defensemen.”
But it isn’t all about defense for Hobart. Joining the forwards this season are Ben Wahler, Jason Merritt, Matt Smalling, and Andrew Bishing.

“Wahler and Merritt should have an immediate impact as forwards,” said Taylor.
In net, it seems like it is feast or famine for the Statesmen. Keith Longo joins the three returning goaltenders to form a solid core. However, expect Dimitri Papaevagelou to be the starter after a stellar freshman campaign last year.

“If anything, we are overly competitive at that position,” said Taylor. “Unfortunately, recruiting goaltenders isn’t always a perfect science. Sometimes you end up with too many good ones.”

Elmira College Soaring Eagles
Coach: Tim Ceglarski, fifth season overall and at Elmira (58-41-7)
2004-05 overall record: 11-12-3
2004-05 ECAC West record: 6-5-1
2004-05 ECAC West finish: Fourth
2005-06 Coach’s Poll: Fourth
2005-06 Scott’s predicted finish: Fourth

The last two seasons are not going to be remembered fondly by the Elmira Soaring Eagles fans or players. Both years, Elmira finished with eleven wins and twelve losses, barely making the playoffs last year but missing two seasons ago.

“Being under .500 and border line making the league playoffs isn’t a place we want to be in every year,” said head coach Tim Ceglarski. “It is definitely a concern. Nothing against our team last year, but there were times when we just went through the motions and expected our big goal scorers to score goals at opportune times. We didn’t work as hard as we could have worked.”
So, Ceglarski and assistant coach Aaron Saul decided to bring in a big recruiting class to shake things up and turn the ship around. Ten freshmen and a junior transfer make this year’s roster completely different from the past two seasons.

“Complacency doesn’t breed many good things,” said Ceglarski. “We needed to bring guys in here that are going to make us a better hockey team quickly. This recruiting class is big, and I am sure the next one is going to be big as well.”

A big hole to fill is in the offensive zone. Elmira graduated its four top scorers from last season, who accounted for 49.5% of its goals. While you can’t expect the seven new forwards to have that kind of production right away, the Soaring Eagles will need them to chip in quickly.

“Our forwards aren’t going to score a million goals, but we are going to work a heck of a lot harder than our teams in the past just by the makeup of our team,” said Ceglarski. “We don’t have the natural go to goal scorer this year, so every single one of our guys is going to have to work harder.”
Justin Joy, a junior transfer from Plattsburgh, will be tapped to lead by his example of hard work.

“[Justin] is a spark plug out on the ice and works hard on both ends of it,” said Ceglarski. “He creates a lot of opportunities.”
Others that coach Ceglarski highlighted were Dave McKenna, Derrick Ryan, and Albert Mitchell.

“McKenna is not big in stature, but is very gifted with the puck and the ability to setup players,” said Ceglarski. “Ryan is a big bull when it comes to playing physical in his own zone, and can contribute some offense. Mitchell is small in stature (5’6″ 139lbs) but he won’t back down from anybody. He has great wheels, a good set of hands, and makes plays when he is out on the ice.”
Defense is another area where Elmira recruited more players than they lost from last season. The Soaring Eagles only lost Chris Mann to graduation from the defensive corps, but brought in three freshmen to fill the void.

“One of the areas we definitely needed to improve on was our defense, and I think we did that with the three guys that we brought in,” said Ceglarski. “Nicolas Dumoulin is a strong two way defenseman, shoots the puck a ton, very physical, and plays well in his own zone. Tyler Cann has a lot of poise on the ice and moves the puck very well. He will probably end up quarterbacking the power play and is very skilled. Kyle Branson is a kid with a lot of composure with the puck.”

Two mediocre seasons, some would say sub-par by Elmira standards, seems to have lit a fire under the Soaring Eagles to rapidly improve.

Lebanon Valley College Flying Dutchmen
Coach: Al MacCormack, 30th season overall (288-308-17), eighth at Lebanon Valley (119-60-7)
2004-05 overall record: 5-19-1
2004-05 ECAC West record: 1-11-0
2004-05 ECAC West finish: Seventh
2005-06 Coach’s Poll: Sixth
2005-06 Scott’s predicted finish: Fifth

Last season, Lebanon Valley couldn’t seem to catch a break. Entering the season, the Flying Dutchmen knew that the transition into the ECAC West would be a struggle. Learning how to compete in a league with multiple nationally ranked teams would take time, but both the Lebanon Valley players and coaches thought that they would enjoy at least some level of success.

However, their task was made even more difficult when leading scorer Cameron Vandeveer went down with an injury just ten games into the season.

“It was a very, very, very tough year last year,” said Lebanon Valley coach Al MacCormack. “We had a rash of injuries. We were in a lot of games, but then again we were not in a lot of games. I think experience helps a whole lot. Going into last year, we were underdogs in every game. We didn’t have one senior on the team last year, and then our leading scorer (Vandeveer) went out with an injury early in the year. So we were left without any leadership, and we struggled last year. But the experience of last year is only going to help us.”

This year, an influx of new talent and a year’s experience should lead to a much improved Lebanon Valley team and more success.

“We have everyone back from last year’s team that contributed,” said MacCormack. “We have to start from our goaltending out.”

Key to that success will be senior goaltender Sonny Holding and sophomore Craig Vardy. Between them they accounted for 96% of the minutes in net last season, and will be called on for an equal amount of time this season.
An important ingredient for the Flying Dutchmen this season will be the incoming class of seven freshmen and one transfer. Rob Malloy and EJ Smith will be called on immediately to shore up a thin defensive corps.

“Rob Malloy and EJ Smith look very good in preseason play,” said MacCormack. “We only had five defensemen last year, so hopefully Malloy and Smith will add some depth. We have to have depth, because we didn’t have any last year.”

Up front, Lebanon Valley will look to Matt Rowe and Josh Andrews to jump right into the offensive mix of things.

“We have a couple of boys whom we think are going to be able to contribute right away,” said MacCormack. “Matt Rowe and Josh Andrews should help us up front right away.”

Jarred Frey, a sophomore transfer from Fredonia, will also add to the offense although an injury will limit his action in the short term.

New this off season was Lebanon Valley tapping into the Canadian junior leagues for recruits. This strategy has proven successful for the other teams in the league, and the Flying Dutchmen have now joined in. Two freshmen from north of the border, Matt Rowe and Josh Andrews, join fellow upperclassmen Canucks Justin Todd and Jeff Smith.

“We are trying to tap into some of the Ontario leagues for recruiting,” said MacCormack. “I’m hoping that they can help build us up.”

The improvements both on and off the ice this summer should help Lebanon Valley take the next step in transitioning into the league.

Neumann College Knights
Coach: Dennis Williams, second season overall and at Neumann (4-17-2)
2004-05 overall record: 4-17-2
2004-05 ECAC West record: 2-9-1
2004-05 ECAC West finish: Sixth
2005-06 Coach’s Poll: Fifth
2005-06 Scott’s predicted finish: Sixth

Last season was marked by constant turmoil for the Neumann Knights. First year coach Dennis Williams was hired late and was unable to do any recruiting. Then, in early November, a third of his players, including all of his upperclassmen leadership, were suspended from the team for NCAA violations.

Suddenly, Williams was left with a shell of a team to struggle through the remainder of the season with. But in a way, it appears that those events were a blessing in disguise.

Over the summer, Williams took advantage and recruited almost an entirely new team. A quick review of Neumann’s roster shows twenty freshmen, and all of them are expected to play regular shifts this season.

“We are going to be young with twenty freshmen in the lineup,” said Williams. “We are going to win some games with youth and energy, and we are going to lose some games with the youth part of it. It will be a learning experience for all of us this year, but it should be a fun year.”

To garner these recruits, Williams extended his reach back to his roots in the Canadian junior leagues. The majority of the entering freshmen hail from north of the border, and as mature older players are expected to inject a level of leadership immediately.

“My goal this year was to go out and find the best mix of recruits,” said Williams. “I’m from Stratford, Ontario, so I went to that league and took out what I thought were the top elite players that didn’t go Division 1. We have a great group of guys coming down.”

The new group of forwards will be looked at to pull Neumann out of the league basement in goals per game.

“We have some guys coming in that I have the expectation will put the puck in the net,” said Williams. “But it is going to take some time for us.”

“Mike DiMarchi is going to be a pretty dynamic player up front for us,” continued Williams. “Mike Hedon is a scrappy, in your face type, player who goes in the corner for you. He had 38 goals last year. His goals aren’t pretty, but he gets the job done. Josh Gaynor, Jesse Cole, Erik Stoyanovich, and Kyle Casey are all Stratford kids coming from a program that is rich in winning. They have done very well year in and year out. They are four of the top five goal scorers up there, and all were leaders on their teams.”
Neumann added size on defense and will rely on their mobility to keep the Knights in games early in the season.

“Brock Van Slyke, Doug Slipakoff, and Colin Herman are three pretty big D that I am looking to come and be big mobile defensemen,” said Williams.
Coach Williams also got a gift early in the off season when former Oswego goaltender Brett Leonhardt decided to transfer to Neumann. He will need to vie for starts with the Knights returning sophomore goaltender Mike Collichio who had an outstanding season last year and was a big reason behind the games that they won.

“I got a call, and [Leonhardt] went through all of the self release paperwork,” said Williams. “He said he wanted to come down here, and it is hard to turn down a goalie that has gone 10-1-2 in two years. He has won some big games for them, and he is excited to come down here and be pushing with Mike Collichio to be the number one goalie. I think he realizes that he is coming into a situation where we have a pretty good number one goalie already. But he is excited about that opportunity.”

The youthful Neumann Knights will certainly take their lumps as the season goes along. But by concentrating on the fundamentals, and gaining experience, it won’t be long before they start to climb up the ladder in the ECAC West.
“We are looking two years down the road, when this group of freshmen are juniors, that is the year that we will need to do something in the league,” said Williams. “I just need to get these guys going and learning.”