The 5'10" Don Sweeney (Harvard '88) played with the Boston Bruins for 14 full seasons. From 1989 to the March of 2000, Sweeney was pretty much the exclusive defensive partner of the highly esteemed Ray Bourque. Nobody talks about Sweeney when reflecting upon Bruins greats, and perhaps rightfully so. Sweeney was (and still is) an undersized, defensive defenseman that has never scored more than 34 points in a season and has never hoisted the Stanley Cup. But ask Bourque about his extraordinary level of success during his Hall of Fame career, and he would most definitely mention his unheralded wingman. Only seen are the highlights of Bourque's smooth skating rushes and hard, accurate shot, but believe it or not, there were occasions when he was caught up-ice after a failed offensive rush, as well as times when he turned over the puck in the neutral zone. When these mishaps occurred, it was Sweeney who would cover up for Bourque with his quickness and his battling mentality. Nobody will ever mistake Sweeney for a Norris Trophy candidate, but his ability and contributions can never be questioned. His quickness, positioning, and grit make him the ultimate complement for a bigger, more gifted partner. Last year, his first as a Dallas Star, Sweeney was the partner of Sergei Zubov or Phillipe Boucher, both flashy, offensively talented blueliners.
The 5'10" Jeremy Downs (some list him at 5'11"), in his senior season, has always been the ultra solid defenseman that, although rarely lauded for his efforts, has quietly become the backbone of Cornell's defensive scheme. Over his career at Cornell, his two primary defensive partners have been Doug Murray and Ryan O'Byrne. Right away, one can see why Jeremy Downs is not noticed much. Murray was one of the best defenseman to ever play at Cornell and was one of the top five blueliners in the NCAA his junior and senior years – the two seasons that Downs was his partner. O'Byrne was a highly touted and highly publicized recruit as well as being a high draft pick that will likely have a long pro career. Downs has been the ultimate complement to his partners.
He is not at all flashy, but Downs gets the job done better than anyone. He is Cornell's fastest player and his fleetness in foot more than compensates for his lack of size. Lack of size refers to his shortness in stature, but Downs is not small by any account, checking in at a solid 185 pounds. Despite the fact that he physically looks up to most opposing players, Downs battles hard every shift and stays tight to his man. Downs executes his position to a T, always playing it safe and smart. On the breakout, his speed and intelligence factors in every time, and he rarely turns the puck over. Regardless of his partner over the years, Downs has always been there to bail them out of tough situations with his quick decision-making and overall speed.
Downs has never been known for his offensive abilities, but has stood out in that regard this season. Despite not seeing a second of powerplay time, he has certainly shown well, tied for first among Cornell defenseman with two goals and three assists. Downs has utilized his speed when needed to carry the puck and catch the opposition off guard. At times, the Big Red breakout has been sluggish, but Downs has often been the catalyst for effective rushes coming out of the zone. He has made good decisions and utilized his speed very well in these situations, contributing to his much-improved offensive output this season.
When O'Byrne was moved to play with Dan Glover last weekend, and Jon Gleed was paired with Downs, it was clearer than ever that whatever pair Downs is in is Cornell's top defensive pair, much like Matt Moulson is to the first line. Gleed and Downs saw the most important defensive minutes, nothing new for Downs, who has seen them his entire career at Cornell. For a defensive scheme that is praised as much as Cornell's is, Downs has never gotten nearly the credit he deserves as team's best defensive defenseman and the backbone of the team's defensive core. Over his tenure, Downs has often been overshadowed by his more heralded teammates. Although that is still the case to some degree, Downs has quietly stepped out of the shadows to become the team's best defenseman.
Although it is only eleven games into the season, and the competition has ranged from above average to way below average, there has been enough of a sample to issue superlatives. These are, of course, likely to change in the remaining portion of the season, where Cornell will face much better competition, including Boston College, Harvard, Vermont, two games against Colgate, and possibly Maine, and strong teams in the playoffs.
Best Freshman: Sasha Pokuluk
Like almost any freshman, Pokuluk has been inconsistent. But overall, he has played very well, surpassing the expectations for a freshman blueliner. He plays a key role on the first powerplay unit and sees a regular shift, almost always paired with senior blueliner Charlie Cook. He scored the prettiest goal of the season against Sacred Heart and has been at the center of other highlight reel plays as well.
Honorable Mention: Topher Scott
Most Improved Player: Daniel Pegoraro
Pegoraro has gone from the outhouse to the penthouse in the first portion of the 2004-2005 season. Formally known as strictly an offensive player, Pegoraro has rounded out his game nicely and now sees regular time on the penalty kill and gets faceoff duty in the defensive zone. He has improved offensively as well. Centering the second line and quarterbacking the second powerplay unit, Pegoraro has a goal and five assists in 11 games after having just one goal and one assist in all of last season. Although his totals are somewhat modest, Pegoraro has very possibly generated more offense than any other Cornell player.
Honorable Mentions: Chris Abbott, Jon Gleed
Unsung Hero: Chris Abbott
Although relegated to fourth line duties, Abbott has played the best hockey of his career this season. He has been relied on defensively, frequently taking important defensive zone draws. In addition, he has been one of the Big Red's top penalty killers. Offensively, Abbott has been outstanding, often single-handedly bringing the puck out of the defensive zone and going coast-to-coast. He has been one of Cornell's most consistent offensive threats. Despite being on the fourth line and seeing virtually no powerplay time, Abbott has still managed four goals and three assists, good enough for second on the team in goals and fourth in points.
Honorable Mentions: Mike Iggulden, Mitch Carefoot
Best Defenseman: Jeremy Downs
See feature above.
Honorable Mention: Jon Gleed
Best Forward: Shane Hynes
In three or four games this year, Hynes has been the best player on the ice by a long shot. Hynes is blooming into a dominant power forward that can single-handedly control games. He is second in scoring with three goals and nine assists, but could easily have a lot more. A fixture on the top line and the top powerplay unit, Hynes wins nearly every battle along the boards and has been particularly effective off the rush.
Honorable Mentions: Matt Moulson, Daniel Pegoraro
Most Valuable Player: Mike Knoepfli
MVP is often confused with being equivalent to best forward or best player. Mike Knoepfli has been most valuable to Cornell after 11 games. He is the team's best penalty killer, plays on the second powerplay, and sees regular 5-on-5 ice time against the opposition's top forwards every single game. Knoepfli is tied for third in goals with three and tied for fourth in points with seven. Knoepfli has set the tone and been incredibly solid in all aspects of the game. He is not flashy or dominant, but has been the team's most valuable player because of his solid, consistent presence in all areas.
Honorable Mentions: Matt Moulson, Daniel Pegoraro, Jeremy Downs