Young roster gives Ohio State a chance to lay foundation

Past predictors

When Mark Osiecki took over as head coach at Ohio State last season, he was brutally honest about what he had inherited from the John Markell era.

“I think on the big picture of our program, we’re able to move out 11 seniors and bring in new culture and bring these kids in at a relatively young age,” is what Osiecki told the press at the start of the 2010-11 season. “Obviously, we’d like to have some more youth this year, but at least next year you can bring in some youth and create that culture that we’re talking about here.”

This year, Osiecki gets his wish with a slew of new players. He’s also able to reflect more completely on his inaugural year.

“Going through last year with an upperclassmen team, it probably turned their world upside down with a change,” Osiecki said just before this season began. “It’s just that all of a sudden, it’s a change for a lot of kids for a long period of time where we’re coming in and doing a 180 for them. I thought the kids handled that really well, and for the most part they wanted to learn and were like sponges and absorbing everything, but at some point you just kind of hit a wall with everything that we’re asking them to do.

“Now you turn the page, and bringing in 13 new players, 12 freshmen and one junior transfer, and now we’re going to have a lot more gray hair and certainly will have to show a lot of patience.”

Last season’s Buckeyes struggled to find consistency and they could barely buy a goal — 2.57 goals per game on average, 37th-best in the nation — but they never quit and they had one of the best netminders in the country in Cal Heeter.

Good omens

As a junior last year, Heeter had a career season, with numbers (2.30 goals against average, .923 save percentage) that far surpassed anything he’d done before with OSU.

“Last year,” said Osiecki, “we thrust him in there pretty much the whole year, and we’re hoping that he can come back and do similar things. It is going to be tough to match some of the stats he had, and he gave us the opportunity to be in every single game.

“The best thing that can happen for us is that he plays the majority of the games, but we’re able to throw a Brady Hjelle in there and give Cal a rest every once in a while. But you’ll see Cal play a majority of our games and he’s earned that right.”

Hjelle, a junior who played two seasons with Minnesota-Duluth, helped the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders win the USHL regular-season championship with a record of 40-8-5, a 2.21 goals against average and .923 save percentage.

What spells doom?

An inexperienced offense. That could spell doom.

“We don’t have a lot of returning players,” said Osiecki. “Some of the kids did not see much ice time, and I’m not sure if they’ll continue to see any ice time or get that opportunity yet. A lot of these kids were recruited walk-ons.”

About the Buckeyes

2010-11 overall record: 15-18-4

2010-11 CCHA record: 10-14-4-2 (ninth)

2011-12 predicted finish (coaches poll): Seventh

Key losses: Forwards John Albert, Peter Boyd and Sergio Somma; defenseman Shane Sims

Players to watch: Forwards Danny Dries, Cory Schneider and Alex Szczechura; defenseman Sean Duddy; goaltender Cal Heeter

Impact rookie: Forward Max McCormick

Why the Buckeyes will finish higher than the coaches poll: After a year of growing pains under a new head coach, the Buckeyes know what is expected of them. It doesn’t hurt that Cal Heeter is in net.

Why the Buckeyes will finish lower than the coaches poll: This is a team that struggled last year to find its new team identity, and while OSU is talented, that chemistry may not be there yet — especially up front, where the improvement is most needed.