Tuesday Morning Quarterback: East

Problems in Buffalo … Again

It was nearly a year to the day since head coach Brian Cavanaugh was fired by Canisius College. Things seemed like they were on track for the Griffs, which boasted a new head coach, new athletic director and new attitude.

But the housecleaning at Canisius following months of discipline problems wasn’t enough, and last Friday the school announced that four players were getting the boot from the men’s hockey team, prompting many to shake heads wondering when this program will get back on its feet.

Truth be told, that day may have already come. With the hiring of former Mercyhurst assistant Dave Smith, the Canisius program took a major step in the right direction. The fact that there were further expulsions from the team doesn’t necessary indicate that there are still problems.

It points more in the direction that, if anything, this program won’t put up with any disciplinary mistakes by players.

“As a staff, our athletic director, our assistant athletic director and our sports supervisor were all consulted at length on this,” said Smith on the phone Monday about the removal of brothers Matt and Mike Ruberto, defenseman Craig Nooyen and goaltender Ryan Hatch. “It wasn’t a decision I made alone. The magnitude of the decision was talked about with numerous people.”

Smith has said since the beginning of his tenure at Canisius that his goal is to make this a team of which the school and the Buffalo community can be proud. His exact words before the season started were, “You’re either a solution to the problem or you’re a part of it.”

Obviously, it was his opinion that this quartet was in the latter category, and for the Canisius program to succeed both on and off the ice, they need not be along for the ride.

The one notable fact about dismissing these players is the fact that the club isn’t exactly losing bench guys.

The Ruberto brothers both were solid players. Mike’s 12 points rank second on the team. Matt is considered a pretty decent defenseman who last year scored 11 points in 27 games.

Hatch is statistically the team’s best goaltender with a 3-1-0 record and a .904 save percentage. Nooyen hadn’t contributed much offensively from the blueline, but the fact the team is parting ways with two defensemen will cause some problems.

So in making his decision, Smith has to stand comfortable with the fact that as important as it is to win games, it’s more important to win games with players who represent the character and values of the school.

In the end, Smith seemed confident that these dismissals, though tragic, were done to better the team in the long term, even if that means taking a short-term hit.

“Anything can happen on any campus,” said Smith. “It doesn’t frustrate me more or less than any other coach who would have to make these decisions on how to run their program or athletic department.

“I don’t look at is as if we’re trying to clean up the program. I look at is as if we’re trying to do the things necessary for us to be an elite program now.”

The one thing that Smith tried to stress was the fact that the decision to dismiss the four was made taking into consideration the players’ actions, not based on the past problems this team sustained.

“There’s no carryover from last year,” said Smith. “Everybody on our team began with a clean slate. We did a lot of work to improve our public image both on campus and in the community.

“I’ve been here since April and we’ve had a new athletic director [Bill Maher] come on before that. I’m not unaware of what happened last year, but we’re doing things that are new since April.

“The AD is doing things his way with the athletic department. So to say that we’re responding from last year, we’re just responding and holding ourselves responsible to the way we want things to be now.”

No Love for the East

Anyone who has read this column since its inception a couple of months ago knows that I like to wave the college hockey flag for the East. Right now, though, I’m almost ready to make that flag white.

BC's Cory Schneider is one of the few Eastern representatives of the college game on the World Junior roster (photo: Melissa Wade).

BC’s Cory Schneider is one of the few Eastern representatives of the college game on the World Junior roster (photo: Melissa Wade).

When USA Hockey announced the World Junior roster on Monday, it was frightening to see that college hockey’s three Easternmost conferences — Hockey East, the ECACHL and Atlantic Hockey — had placed only two players on the 22-man roster, a number that’s somewhat disappointing.

Moreover, Boston College was the only team represented, with goaltender Cory Schneider making his second consecutive appearance and rookie Nate Gerbe making his first (if you count recently department Boston University forward Chris Bourque, I guess you can salvage three players).

All in all, though, this year seems like a bust for young talent in the East.

Is there an explanation? Possibly. For one, the recent success of the WCHA has likely had an impact on recruiting. The eastern schools have struggled to win the recruiting wars for players such as Phil Kessel, Blake Wheeler or Brian Lee. But having talked to two of these players (Wheeler and Kessel), both grew up watching the WCHA and both had their hearts set on playing in that league since they were young.

Using that theory, might it be wise to say that the eastern colleges are suffering from a lack of talent coming out of the eastern states? Quite possibly.

A look at the World Junior roster shows that 10 players hail from the state of Minnesota, double the number from New England, New York and New Jersey combined.

So where then does the problem lie?

Well, first off, I wouldn’t deem it a problem. The fact of the matter is that the eastern states still turn out some excellent hockey players. Secondly, eastern college hockey is hardly struggling to produce solid teams — four of the top 10 teams and eight of the top 15 schools come from Hockey East or the ECACHL.

So is it time to sound the alarm? Likely not. But the powers that be in eastern college hockey are probably taking notice today.

Is there a silver lining? Absolutely. Eastern fans (other than the Eagles’ faithful) won’t have to worry about playing shorthanded over the holiday season (December 26 to January 5, to be specific) as, barring injury, each roster will be intact.

Not Your Usual Suspects

My years getting to know the college game began in the mid-’80s when I was a Boston College fan, but never really took shape until the early ’90s when I was a student at Massachusetts-Lowell.

Being so close to the league geographically, I always knew the landscape around Hockey East.

The ECAC (as it was known back then) though, wasn’t as familiar to me. But when I arrived at Lowell in 1992, I was told that Harvard and Clarkson were a couple of sure bets to land atop the league each year.

Save a couple of freak years here and there where one club would emerge to beat the pair, that held through right up until the beginning of this millennium.

Still, the transition was easy. Now, just expect Cornell to take Clarkson’s place atop the league. Simple enough?

Well, not this year. The Red are no longer as “Big,” and that has nothing to do with the school’s nickname. Instead, there are new schools emerging, looking to take the reins from Cornell.

For the second straight year, Colgate has come out of the starting gate with guns blazing, posting a 10-2-3 record heading to the Christmas break. St. Lawrence is looking to poke its head into the fray, sitting comfortably at 11-5-0. And even Union, despite being .500 in the league, is 9-5-2 overall.

Though game-by-game, the ECACHL hasn’t always been that easy to pick (ask one of the many columnists for USCHO.com who week in and week out have struggled) at the end of the year, you could always pretty much predict the outcome.

Until this year.

I firmly believe that this, out of the six conferences, will be the most tightly-contested league around. There’s a chance that a club might be fighting for a first-round playoff bye on the last night of the season and end up in ninth place. Or a potential league champion might be playing instead of watching on the tournament’s first weekend.

Keep your eyes open. At this point it seems the ECACHL is full of surprises.