If you want questions and uncertainty, you've got it. For the first time since the 2002-03 season, Cornell will have to replace their number one goalie, top three defensemen, and four forwards off their top three lines. You do not really have to look far back to see how Cornell fared the last time they were in this difficult situation. After having a tough start to that season, the very young 2003-04 Big Red team managed to finish second overall in the ECACHL regular season before bowing out in the quarterfinals of the playoffs. Despite the parallels, that team was pretty different than the 2006-07 version will prove to be. Yes, the coaching staff will be faced with the daunting task of replacing the departing core of players, but the Big Red are further along in their development as a program than they were in 2003-04.
A couple things truly separate the top echelon of college hockey from the second tier. The first is facing the annual off-season sweat of losing players early to the professional ranks. Great programs get great players and one of the prices of getting the top talent is that you are likely to lose them well before graduation. Cornell has certainly begun to feel the wrath of the almighty dollar as the Michigans, North Dakotas, and Minnesotas have for years. After their Frozen Four run in 2002-03 and losing a ton of talent to graduation, Cornell lost their number one goaltender David LeNeveu. After the 2004-05 season where the team was a goal away from the Frozen Four, the Big Red lost Shane Hynes early. Those losses seem nominal compared to this past off-season when arguably the team's three best returning players bolted early to the pros: David McKee, Sasha Pokulok, and Ryan O'Byrne. This brings us to the second trait of true perennial contenders: being able to quickly fill those significant losses internally and through recruiting. Make no mistake, Cornell could have run the table this season if that trio had stayed on board. But that is the last time we are going to mention them. They are gone and could not come back even if they wanted to. This all begs the question: despite all of its losses to graduation and the professional ranks, can Cornell sustain its recent level of prominence in NCAA hockey?
Up front, Cornell will need to absorb the losses of far-and-away its top offensive player in Matt Moulson, its two most reliable two-way players in Chris Abbott and Daniel Pegoraro, and a steady, energetic, and well-rounded winger in Cam Abbott. That is certainly a tough group to replace but the forward group is still unquestionably the strength of the 2006-07 team. Quite frankly, last year's team would not have been able to have the success it did without Moulson or Chris Abbott. They found that out the hard way in the ECACHL Championship when the latter was out with an injury and the team was never even in the game. Neither have imminent replacements but that may be a good thing. Moulson's scoring and Abbott's steady, reliable all-zone contributions are going to be replaced by committee, making Cornell far tougher to play against and making the team less reliant on just a couple of players. That still begs the question of how this group will replace them.
Dependence on internal promotions from year-to-year is a certainty in college hockey and Cornell will be no different this year. The team returns ten forwards from last year's team. The two players who will be looked upon the most to elevate their respective games are the newly appointed 'letter-wearers,' senior captain Byron Bitz, and junior assistant captain Topher Scott. The duo finished second and third respectively in team scoring last year and will be looked to as the team's offensive leaders this season. You can count on them being the anchors for the top two lines and being regulars on the top powerplay unit as they were last season. Senior Mark McCutcheon will also be looked to in the production department after coming off a breakout season where he scored nine goals, second among returning players. The other senior forward, Mitch Carefoot, will also be expected to contribute more in the way of offense while still being an active presence defensively. The other returning regulars from last year, Raymond Sawada, Tyler Mugford, Evan Barlow, and Mike Kennedy will also be expected to improve significantly in all aspects of the game. That status-quo will not be good enough if the departed are to be sufficiently replaced. Sawada and Mugford paired together with Chris Abbott last season to form one of the best shutdown lines in college hockey. Both have worked on their skating a lot and will continue to make life difficult for opposing top forwards, setting a physical tone for a team that has traditionally thrived off of that style of play. Sawada, in particular, will be looked upon to add even more to the offense than he did a year ago when he finished fourth in scoring. Kennedy will compete for more ice time and responsibility, offering a complete package of size, skating, skill, and defense. He has the complete game down the middle that the team will be missing from the loss of Abbott and Pegoraro. Barlow will be one of the players called upon to replace Moulson in the goal scoring department and will need to dramatically improve upon his numbers from last year. Sophomores Ryan Kindret and Matt Connors will provide depth and either can play in scoring or checking roles. If Cornell is to stay at the top of the ECACHL, all of these players will have to elevate their games and contribute significantly more than they did last season.
The eight returning regular forwards from last year will be joined by arguably the most dynamic and explosive group of freshmen Cornell has had in the Schafer era. Although there is a ton of skill in this group, it is important not to overlook the fact that many of these players have well-rounded games and should fit in well to Schafer's defense-first system. Justin Milo, Blake Gallagher, and Tony Romano all have extremely high skill levels but they all lack size. Milo and Gallagher both bring more physical presence than many will expect, however, while Romano has some of the best puck skills you will see at the college level. Milo has a huge shot with a quick release and Gallagher is a versatile offensive player with a knack for scoring goals. Colin Greening compliments this trio well in that he has a lot of skill but also has a big frame at 6'2". The two other new players (one freshman and one transfer) bring the blue collar attributes that has made Cornell so competitive in the last few years. After all, Cornell has garnered success in recent years just as much because of its third and fourth lines as their first and second. Joe Scali is a very competitive, strong skating, physical presence who will be difficult to play against while Chris Fontas adds some experience and responsible all-around play down the middle. The six new players will bring everything to the team, particularly an exceptional level of skill - a level that the Big Red has not had in quite some time. It is again important to point out that as a group, these players bring a physical edge and a sense of defensive responsibility, so it is unlikely that these qualities will be abandoned by the team as a whole.
Cornell will have 16 forwards on its roster to start the season, a big difference from the 14 it had last season. As a result, there will be a lot more internal competition for lineup spots which should have a positive effect on the team as a whole. Considering how much is expected of the forwards defensively by the coaching staff, there will not be any coasting back to the defensive zone and no standing around and watching. If anybody fails to do their job defensively or offensively for that matter, there will be four players waiting in the press box for the opportunity to do a better job. It will not be just four blue-collar players in coats and ties each game either. There is so much depth in terms of skill on this team that there will be two or three very capable offensive players not playing each night which means the guys who do play had better perform or they will be watching the next game.
This group is extremely talented but also well-balanced. Almost every one of the 16 forwards is considered to be responsible defensively and in tune with the physical brand of hockey. It should also be noted that if the defense corps has any strengths, one is that it is a solid puck-rushing group which should further the offensive cause even more. There has been a lot of talk about how Cornell may be shifting its philosophy from physical and defensive play to a run-and-gun style due to the infusion of more talent and an overall decline in size. Although this may be the look of it on paper, do not expect the Big Red forwards to be any less physical or any less accountable in the defensive zone. The differences in the group will be in its amount of depth, skill, and speed. Really, no matter which players are on each of the four lines on any given night, there are going to be four lines that can score. At the same time, expect each line to be able to generate offense off the cycle and off the rush. In the recent past, Cornell has been considered more of a cycling, pressure team, but expect more chances and production off the rush this year. Coming back to one of the original points, the Big Red is going to be a lot harder to play against because it will have so many more sources of offense and ways of beating you. One line may be bigger and more physical so it will be more effective off the cycle while the next boasts a lot more speed and skill and thus more competent at developing chances off the rush. Gone are the days where the opposition could shut down the most dangerous scorer or the first line or the first powerplay unit and hold Cornell's offense in check.
Like what you've read so far? Tuck that away and brace yourself for the next part. Losing Gleed, the Abbotts, and Pegoraro to graduation and McKee, Pokulok and O'Byrne to the pros took a huge bite out of Cornell's renowned defensive scheme. For years now, Cornell has been the standard of excellence in college hockey for defensive play. A big part of that has been the coaching staff implementing a system on which it is very difficult for opponents to get goals. At the same time, to achieve the effectiveness of that system, the coaching staff needed to have the right players in place. Utilizing a big, mobile group on defense as well as smart, hard-working players up front has made the coaches look like geniuses and the players look like machines at times. This is not meant to be negative, but rather the opposite. The coaches are geniuses for finding and developing the players who could best execute their system. The players learned that system so well that it became routine for each of them to execute their jobs to perfection on the defensive side of the puck. The offense last year was nothing to write home about and it has been more than replenished. The defense from the last five years has been the best in college hockey and it remains to be seen whether it will be able to sustain that level.
Eight is not a great number in terms of depth on the blueline but it was just enough to get last year's team through some injuries. Take that number and subtract one and that is essentially what you have this season. What's worse is that the number one guy and most experienced of the group is out until January. The fourth most experienced defenseman has played a grand total of ten games at the collegiate level. Oh yeah, and there is virtually zero experience at the collegiate level between the three goaltenders. That is the bad and the ugly but is there any good? Don't worry, there is.
The guys behind the bench have not changed. Do they have the same level of talent on the bench to execute their defensive scheme? Most definitely not, but many observers do not believe it takes extraordinary players to learn how to play defense. Hockey has turned to a defense-first sport (at least for the majority of teams) in the last decade or so because learned team defense can neutralize natural born talent. As good as Cornell teams have been the last five years, they were never accused of being absurdly talented, leading some to believe that the players have been produced by the system rather than the other way around. The ultimate answer is probably somewhere in the middle but that is definitely a good thing when you take into account who the team's defensemen are.
The other returnees besides Glover are senior Evan Salmela, junior Doug Krantz, and sophomores Jared Seminoff and Taylor Davenport. Glover and Seminoff are very responsible in the defensive zone and are the most reliable players the team has to go against the opposition's top forwards. Krantz has improved a lot at Cornell but will need to be in a new zip code this season for the team to be successful. He has the potential to be a top pair defenseman because he has all the tools: size, skating, puck skills. He just needs better hockey sense and consistency and also needs to use his size better. Salmela will never be perfect in the defensive zone because he is undersized and not all that quick. He does have a great first pass but is generally very good with the puck. Davenport is more of a mystery though he did not look out of place in limited action last season. The two freshmen, Brendon Nash and Justin Krueger, will both play right out of the gate and will have steep learning curves. Both possess good size but lack foot speed. There is no reason to think that they cannot thrive in the Schafer defensive scheme with due time if they can keep their games simple and work on their skating.
As was mentioned before, the strength of defense is that they are an offensively-capable group. Each player can make the first pass and is competent at joining the rush. If the team is going to try and generate more offense off the rush this season, then the defense will have a big part in that by breaking the puck out of the zone (making that first pass) and periodically joining the rush in order to generate odd-man situations.
The defensive scheme that is synonymous with Cornell hockey is a lot more than just the defensemen or the goaltender. So much of it is the forwards working hard and making plays in the defensive zone. There is an expectation that the forwards will be as responsible and efficient in the defensive zone as it has been in the past. Bitz, Scott, Kennedy, Fontas, and Scali are all centers with good defensive instincts who will work hard to help out down low in the defensive zone. Even though Pegoraro and Abbott are gone, this group of centers has the ability to absorb that responsibility by committee. There is a lot of strength from the wings in the defensive zone as well, specifically McCutcheon, Carefoot, Sawada, and Mugford. The best defense from the forwards could come in the way of offense and possession of the puck. As the long-time philosophy of the Edmonton Oilers indicates, "You don't have to worry about the defense if your offense has the puck."
In net, there are perhaps even more question marks than on defense. Questions have surrounded the last three Cornell goalies, who all attained First Team All-American status, suggesting that they were the products of the great defensive system. Again, the answer is likely somewhere in the middle, which will increase the pressure even more for Troy Davenport and Ben Scrivens, the two goaltenders who will battle for playing time this season. Even if the defense surprises everyone and performs at a very high level, any goaltender is going to be called upon to steal games for his team and this year will be no different. Beyond that, the question will be whether one or both goalies can give Cornell an opportunity to win each night. Whether it is 2-1 or 5-4, the goalie has to play well enough for the team to win, regardless of how badly the team is playing. It does not really matter if there is a great defensive scheme in place or not because the goalie is going to be tested regardless.
Something that is easy to lose sight of is special teams. At least in the early going of the season, there are going to be a ton of powerplays. This has been the case in college hockey games across the country in the early stages of the season. There is a mandate for officials to crack down on obstruction and holding penalties. Whether these types of infractions occur or not, expect there to be a ton of penalties so officials can fill their quotas. Cornell has been very strong on special teams the last few years and will need to be even better on them this season because they are going to get tested a ton. One of the advantages to having depth is that the coaching staff will have more players at its disposal that can play in special teams situations, which will be particularly beneficial later in games. With all the skill Cornell now has, they have enough capable personnel for three powerplay units and there should be plenty of weapons on each. In terms of the penalty kill, the Big Red returns some of its best man-down players, specifically Carefoot, McCutcheon, Mugford, Krantz, and Seminoff. Especially early, expect special teams to determine the outcome of a lot of games.
There is definitely a lot more uncertainty surrounding the team this year than the last couple seasons, but there is an equal amount of excitement. There is a great amount of talent and a lot of depth. More than anything, this season will provide the ultimate test for the coaching staff to prove that they can turn a marginal group in terms of team defense into one good enough to win games. This will be a season of some transition as the team gains greater speed and skill, though it is highly unlikely that it will come at the price of defensive accountability. The bottom line is that the Cornell hockey program has reached a point where it is a contender for the National Championship until they prove otherwise. That is why the brilliant pollsters keep the Big Red in their rankings even after losing so many important players. For that, we can nod in approval for a program that has achieved a reputation of being one that is never in a state of rebuilding, but rather reloading. Regardless of how this season goes, the über-talented freshmen class should indicate that if the Big Red cannot get back to the NCAA Tournament this year, they will be back sooner rather than later. Cornell is here - at the top echelon - to stay. The only remaining question is how much longer it will take them to get to the top of the top.