Offense: Despite losing T.J. Fox to Worcester of the AHL — and good for him — the Dutchmen look pretty solid up front. Five skaters who had 20 points last season are back for another round, including defenseman Lane Caffaro, who had seven goals and 18 assists in 2006-07.
Coyle is literally the senior leader among the forwards, and has improved with each season under head coach Nate Leaman. Matt Cook and Mario Valery-Trabucco each scored a dozen goals last winter, and freshman Jason Walters was close, with eight.
Despite being picked 12th by both the coaches and general media, Leaman says “it’s not a horrible spot to be in,” allowing his team to potentially sneak up on unsuspecting victims.
Six of Union’s eight recruits are forwards, improving the program’s immediate prospects even more. Justin Pallos distributed the puck nicely for the traditionally strong Jr. Bruins of the EJHL, with 14 goals and 32 assists in 45 games last season. Winger Andrew Buote impressed Leaman & Co. with 61 points in 60 games out in the Alberta Jr. League, and the staff is optimistic that either Adam Presizniuk (92 points, 58 games) or Luke Cain (85 points, 59 games) from the British Columbia league will produce at anything remotely resembling last year’s pace.
Inflated stats aside, both BCers could be successfully reprogrammed, if necessary, by virtue of their frames: Presizniuk is 6-foot, 180, while Cain is an intimidating 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds.
The curious thing about last year’s Dutchmen is that they were second-worst in the ECACHL with 54 goals scored, but put pucks by everyone else at a torrid pace overall, scoring 103 goals in 36 games.
“ECAC games are naturally a bit tighter,” theorized Leaman, but he also pointed out that league games dominate the second half of the schedule. “My top three centers were sophomore, freshman, freshman,” he said, “and they maybe hit a wall in the second half of the year.”
Bad luck? Bad matchups? Hard to say, but I don’t think it’s a phenomenon that is likely to repeat itself.
Defense: Sean Streich is the only departing defenseman, leaving a cohesive group of players who have-to be honest-seen a lot of lows in the last year. Four of the returning blueliners played better than 30 games, and the fifth and sixth rear-guards — Mike Harr and Mike Wakita — played 24 and 20 games last season, respectively. This is a corps who has seen a lot of game action.
Sophomores Jonathon Lareau and Dustin DeGagne saw limited action last year as well, and will scrap with recruit Brock Matheson as well for playing time.
The Dutch D was porous last winter, surrendering nearly three and a half goals a game in league play, and roughly three and a third overall. True, the goaltending was spotty at times as well, but a dependable defense would’ve saved the ‘keepers the misery more often than they did. Barring injuries or a mind-boggling corps-wide plateauing of skill, the Union defense should be significantly improved over last season’s version.
Goaltending: Senior Justin Mrazek played the lion’s share of games last time, seeing pucks in 34 tilts and keeping a respectable 3.01 goals-against average and .904 save percentage. Sophomore Rich Sillery backed him up with six games of work, but only started two of those games.
It was Mrazek’s first time as the number-one guy, and he was shaky, allowing four or more goals nine times and getting himself yanked early three times by December 1. (To be fair, he finished every game he started after that.) However, Mrazek demonstrated the ability to handle massive workloads, as evidenced by the season-opening 41-shot shutout of Ferris State or the one-goal, 37-shot win over Dartmouth in early January … but he was not a convincing load-bearer on the whole. Hopefully the added year of playing time has helped both Mrazek and his defense, and in combination they ought to bury last season’s results.
“Mrazek had a great summer; he worked his tail off,” said Leaman, noting Mrazek’s attendance at the Washington Capitals’ rookie camp, by whom Mrazek was drafted.
Pushing Mrazek will be newcomer Cory Milan, the Goaltender of the Year in the goal-happy BCHL last season. Leaman is convinced that either of the two have the stuff it takes to be elite goalies in this league, but as always, stressed that consistency is crucial.
Outlook: Union looks like it’s being dismissed already, by both the coaches and the media, in one way or another. No one will ever say that you can overlook a team in this league, and that’s not just good sportsmanship: everyone knows how high the parity is in the ECAC Hockey League.
But Union, I feel, is getting the short end of the stick … passively at least, if not actively. The program that has never won a league playoff series is evolving, and while they’re not up to the level of Clarkson, or Cornell, or Colgate just yet, they will probably steal some points from those teams this season. The defense can’t reasonably get worse than it was last year, and the extreme scoring differential between the league and non-conference games was almost assuredly a fluke … Union will not be at the bottom of the charts come March. This is not that team. Mark it down.