High-end talent gone, but Rensselaer still has high hopes

Rensselaer may be the toughest team in ECAC Hockey to pin down this year. The coaches and the media like them enough to place them fourth and fifth, respectively, in the preseason polls.

However, Rensselaer has lost some mighty talent in the last 12 months, including two-time ECAC player of the year Chase Polacek and two-time All-Star goaltender Allen York.

York signed early with Columbus and stuck in its training camp late into September.

There are big shoes to fill not only in net, where coach Seth Appert expects Bryce Merriam to pick up the torch and run with it, but in terms of losing five of the top 10 scorers last year.

“I think we’re a very different team from last year,” Appert said. “We don’t have the high-end juniors and seniors we’ve had in the past few years. We don’t have the Hobey Baker finalists. It’ll be more offense by committee throughout our lineup.”

That would make Nick Bailen, a returning first-team All-Star, the chairman of this “committee.” He comes off an eight-goal, 36-point campaign from the blue line. RPI will have to watch closely after March or April to see if he’ll be sticking around or also signing a pro contract early.

“He’s one of those dual-threat players. As good as he is offensively, he wins puck battles, blocks shots, and from a power-play perspective, he has the ability to see plays and make high-end passes to free up teammates,” said Appert. “He’s the ultimate competitor and I love having him in the program. Now, we’re hoping he takes another step in his overall game.”

With the recruiting class he has coming in, Appert praised his staff for bringing in born leaders.

“Six of the seven positional players were captains on their teams last year,” said Appert. “These are good players and good leaders from good families. In four years’ time, this may turn out to be the best class we’ve brought here in the five years that I’ve been coaching here.”

About the Engineers

2010-11 overall record: 20-13-5

2010-11 ECAC record: 11-9-2 (tied for fourth)

2011-12 predicted finish (coaches poll): Fourth

Key losses: F Chase Polacek, F Tyler Helfrich, D Jeff Foss, G Allen York

Players to watch: Junior D Nick Bailen, sophomore F Brock Higgs, junior G Bryce Merriam, freshman F Matt Neal, freshman D Curtis Leonard

Impact rookie: F Jacob Laliberte

Why the Engineers will finish higher than the coaches poll: The super rookies could pile on points a la Polacek, Helfrich and Bailen; Merriam will stabilize the goal picture.

Why the Engineers will finish lower than the coaches poll: No experienced, offensive leaders at forward right off the bat.