Ever since the Class of 2006 came to Cornell as freshmen, the Lynah Faithful knew that they were a special group that could ultimately lead the Big Red to college hockey supremacy. The group of players has not done much to change any minds since then and now their time to lead has come. Of course the premature departure of Shane Hynes wrinkled things a bit but the high expectations from around the college hockey world remain. And why not? Cornell does have the best goaltender in college hockey, among the best coaches in college hockey, the fourteenth overall pick from the 2005 draft, and one of the purest scorers in college hockey. Add all of this to a team that is packed with experience from two NCAA Tournament runs in the last three seasons and one starts to comprehend just how much this year's team is capable of.
Like most championship-caliber teams at any level of hockey, Cornell is built from the net out. Junior goaltender David McKee led the nation in almost every goaltending category last season. He was a First Team All-American, and among the three finalists for the Hobey Baker Award annually given to the best player in college hockey. McKee makes big saves when the team needs them most and gives the Big Red an opportunity to win every game, no matter whom they are playing. Every game is not an exaggeration because McKee has played in every single game during his first two seasons at Cornell. That trend will hopefully continue this season.
Cornell has built a reputation in the last ten years as being the best defensive team in college hockey. The numbers certainly support that notion, as they have been statistically the top defensive team in the nation three of the last four years. The biggest task for this season will be replacing the six departed players who thrived in that system.
Departed seniors Jeremy Downs and Charlie Cook perfected a defenseman's role in the system by always playing tough defense and keeping things simple coming out of the zone. Both were great skaters making Cornell's counter-attack a major strength. The defensive corps will certainly have a different look with the losses of Cook and Downs. The toughest assets of theirs' to replace will be their skating and consistency. Both knew Cornell's defensive scheme inside and out and were able to bring their games every night. Senior Jon Gleed is a similar player to Cook in his consistency, poise with the puck, and speed. He will become the leader of the defense and along with juniors Ryan O'Byrne and Dan Glover will have the responsibility of shutting down the opposition's top forwards. O'Byrne and Glover are physically imposing defensemen who skate well for players of their size. Sophomores Sasha Pokuluk and Doug Krantz also have great size but are more offensively-minded blueliners, yet they have become more physical since coming to Cornell. They, along with Gleed, are all capable of skating the puck out of the zone with skill and speed. The biggest positive of returning five defensemen who have seen regular time is that they all know what to do. They are all well equipped to perform in Cornell's tight defensive scheme. Freshman Jared Seminoff appears to have a great deal of poise so he should be able to make a quick transition to the college level. The defensive corps is a great mix of size, speed, and skill and has tremendous upside as a unit. It will be tough losing such capable defensemen in Cook and Downs but this unit has higher upside than last year's did. Every single defensemen, particularly Gleed and O'Byrne will need to raise their games to compensate for the departures and to sustain the unit's reputation as extremely difficult to penetrate.
All four of the lost forwards were exceptional defensively. Mike Iggulden was great on draws and would always work hard below the hash marks to keep the puck away from the net. Mike Knoepfli was great on the boards and was perfect at positioning himself and reading the play. Paul Varteressian was always billed as a top-notch defensive player with his hard work and exceptional ability along the boards. Any puck that Shane Hynes would get in the defensive zone would find its way out, almost always on his stick. This group of forwards was very difficult to play against in that they were all physical and hard-working. The Big Red will need to continue to be a physical and hard-working team in the defensive zone. They will be a bit smaller up front but they will be definitively quicker. As is the case with the defensive corps, the fact that there is a healthy amount of returnees means that this group will know what to do in the defensive zone. The losses up front are certainly significant but the returning personnel and freshmen can do more than just replace them. Additionally, Chris Abbott and Daniel Pegoraro, the team's top two faceoff men are also strong defensive centers.
As good as last year's team was, they did not boast a high-powered attack. The offense was not by any means futile, but it was not nearly as strong as it was in 02-03 or as strong as it could be this season. However, they were great at manufacturing goals and scoring by committee which made the Big Red a very difficult team to defend against. There was great scoring depth in that any line and either powerplay unit were capable of producing offense. Iggulden, Knoepfli, and Hynes were all offensive presences that will need to be replaced, but talent-wise, the offense looks to be in great shape. Senior Matt Moulson leads the attack as one of the better forwards in college hockey. He has a great shot, good puckhandling ability, and always goes to the net. Opposing teams will key in on him every night as they did last year, but Moulson is a diverse offensive player in that he can beat you in many ways. The great thing about Cornell's offense both last year and this year is that it will be able to produce even if Moulson is shut down. There is question as to where the secondary scoring will come from, but it will likely come by committee again. The second line of Cam Abbott, Pegoraro, and Topher Scott was assembled late last season and has the potential to be even more dangerous than the top line. Abbott is the big key because of his exceptional ability. He has been injury-prone during his career hampering his production, but Abbott is extremely quick and crafty with the puck. Because Moulson will attract the attention of the opposition's top defensive players, Abbott will have a huge opportunity to make his mark. This whole line will be pivotal to any success Cornell has this season because scoring depth is so key at this level. Scott and Pegoraro are both talented players who are as dangerous every time they are on the ice as Abbott is. The third line will also be a scoring threat, particularly freshman Evan Barlow. He is a big-time talent with a great shot and exceptional instincts. He is also a very aggressive player despite his lack of size. Chris Abbott will center the line and although he excels defensively, he is very capable offensively and should complement Barlow well with his aggressive style and creativity with the puck. Sophomore Raymond Sawada will factor in greatly to the offense. In the wake of Hynes's departure, Sawada will get a shot on the top line to not only be a physical presence but also to produce offensively. Junior Byron Bitz returns to the top line where he will be expected to create room for and get the puck to Moulson on a regular basis. Junior Mitch Carefoot will be primary in a grinding, defensive role but has proven himself capable offensively and has a knack for factoring in on big goals.
There is no question that the Big Red will have the potential to have a high-octane offense. It is again a great mix of players. They have skill guys in Moulson, Bitz, Scott, Pegoraro, Cam Abbott, Barlow, and Mark McCutcheon, but even in this group there is good adequate size. They have their grinders, too, in Sawada, Chris Abbott, Carefoot, Tyler Mugford, and Ryan Kindret. Even though there is less than there has been in the past, the Abbotts, Barlow, and Scott all play far bigger than they are, always pressuring the puck and never afraid to take the body. So much of course will be contingent upon chemistry but the elements are definitely there. It is all about finding the right mix. An important aspect of the group is that there are a lot of solid, all-around forwards; players that can succeed in any role and any situation. That is what makes this team potentially more dangerous than the one that went to the Frozen Four in 2003. This is possibly the fastest group of forwards Cornell has had in many years but it is still a physical and skilled unit.
One of the biggest issues from the 2003-2004 season was offense from the blueline. That team posed minimal threat on the transition and from the point positions in the offensive zone and was a critical factor in the team's offensive struggles that season. This was an area of strength least season with the infusion of Krantz and Pokulok but especially with the ascension of Cook as a consistent offensive threat. Krantz and Pokulok will be looked upon to carry the offense from the backline and are both more than capable of doing so. Pokulok is very talented, boasting a huge shot, great hands, and good instincts. Krantz also has a great shot, but is underrated in his puck carrying ability and vision. Both are capable powerplay quarterbacks and will generate their fair share of chances on the transition. O'Byrne will be looked at to contribute offensively as well with his enormous shot. Gleed is not talked about a lot in regards to offense but he is more than capable in this area with his skating ability. Seminoff is also looked at as having good offensive potential. One thing is for sure: the blueline will generate a lot of offense and is capable of producing more than last year's unit did because it is a strong skating unit and there is a lot of intelligence when deciding to jump into the rush and when to hold back.
Strength in special teams has been another forte of the Big Red in recent years. This area in particular is where the departed players from last season will be missed. Cook really thrived on the powerplay as a second option to Moulson's shot in the high slot. The one-time play to Cook became the top unit's most successful option by the end of the season. Replacing the success of that option on the powerplay will be its toughest task. O'Byrne has a harder shot and in time it could become a greater weapon than Cook's was. Pokulok started last year on the first unit but eventually lost his spot. He will be a key player with his offensive ability and will often position himself in the slot as a screen and an option on the backdoor. Scott and Bitz will round out the top unit working in the corners and the half-boards. Hynes's presence in front of the net will be missed but with Pokulok's and Bitz's size and Scott's scrappiness, they will be able to replace him. The second unit will look similar to last year's with Pegoraro on the left point and Sawada and Cam Abbott up front to work in the corners and the half-boards. Losing Knoepfli's shot from the high slot will be a tough loss. The dynamic Barlow will play high on the right side with Krantz quarterbacking. This unit may actually have more talent than the first unit but with any powerplay it is all about how the players gel and read off one another rather than how much talent there is. (Of course this is all subject to and likely to change.)
The penalty kill will see more of a makeover. Knoepfli, Iggulden, Varteressian, Cook, and Downs were penalty killers and exceptional ones at that, causing for some concern. Chris Abbott and Pegoraro will anchor each unit with Carefoot, Cam Abbott, McCutcheon, and Mugford rounding out the forwards. There is a lot energy and quickness in that group so they should be fine. With little turnover in the defensive corps, the penalty kill should be in good shape.
A team can be exceptional in all of these areas, but to have success you need certain intangibles. Leadership, work ethic, and experience are the most notable ones, and Cornell looks to be in good shape in all three. Last year's seniors had tremendous presence and it will be tough to replace them. As far as work ethic, it usually comes from the top and this year's seniors have that edge to their games, making them appealing beyond their talents. Cornell does not have the talent of a Minnesota where it can coast through a game and still win, so they will have to come out every night. Experience may be the biggest advantage the Big Red will have. The seniors have been there before and know what it takes to win. Winning is an attitude that is contagious and that has certainly been evident since Mike Schafer became coach ten years ago. It will be that attitude and experience that can separate the Big Red from other teams late in the season. They have the right mix of players and depth in every area. Winning late in the season is about more than talent and personnel, however. That winning attitude and cohesion, playing as a unit will be what separates the top team from the rest of the pack.
As Schafer has said, everything has to go right to win the National Championship. Having the team firing on all cylinders at the right time with every player thriving in their role is so critical to having success. Last year, although they came up short, the team came together at the right time and really performed at its highest level in the second half of the season. So much of that came on the leadership and performance of the seniors. They played the best hockey of their careers in the second of half of the season and really led the team to become greater than the sum of its parts. Duplicating and surpassing last season's success will be contingent upon the same kind of efforts from this year's seniors. That must happen for any team to still be standing at the end. Even if all of that happens, everything still has to go right.