Things have changed in the ECACHL and in college hockey as a whole. The hockey has changed to the point where the distribution of talent is far more balanced. Even though there are close to twice as many teams, the college pool has become more comparable to the National Hockey League. On any given night, any team can beat any team. Rensselaer can go out to Denver and win; Yale can go up to New Hampshire and win. In the NCAA Tournament, the supposedly inferior CHA and Atlantic Hockey can win games. Having talent is great and important, but more than ever, it is not the end-all secret to success in college hockey. Some of the powerhouses have found this out the hard way in the last couple of seasons and even the last couple of weeks.
College hockey has become very detail-oriented with added importance on systems, depth, and special teams. It appears that the emphasis on these areas have jointly become the methodology of Cornell coaches Mike Schafer, Scott Garrow, and Brent Brekke in directing their program. A lot has been made of Cornell's off-season losses including their number one goaltender, top three defensemen, and four of their top six forwards. As a result, expectations were not high for the Big Red this season. Yet the team has busted out of the gate with four wins in four games. The early returns are in and there are few certainties in the ECACHL for the coming season. Even after just two conference games, Cornell looks like they are going to remain very competitive in an ECACHL which has improved top-to-bottom. It is not the same conference that Cornell dominated as recently as two years ago when they sported an 18-2-2 record or four years ago when they were 19-2-1. In terms of its standing within college hockey, the ECACHL is light-years ahead of where it was, yet Cornell remains the standard within the conference. It is not because they are so supremely talented, however, as may have been the case just a couple short years ago.
Cornell still boasts a weapon that most teams in college hockey lack and that is what will ultimately keep them at the top of the ECACHL. Even with six freshmen adjusting to the lineup and each and every one of the returning twelve players having additional responsibilities, everyone on the team plays. Even with all the inexperience in the lineup, particularly on the blueline, the Big Red use 18 skaters from start to finish. This was even the case on Friday night when over 40 minutes of the game was played on special teams. Seventeen of the eighteen Cornell skaters are on one of the two powerplay units or one of the two penalty killing units. The player who does not play on either is Colin Greening though he does see occasional time on the powerplay. When it all comes down to it, you could pick five names out of a hat, and those guys could probably play in any situation. This is going to make Cornell nearly impossible to prepare for and play against. Ask Roger Grillo or Keith Allain - they'll tell you the same thing.
Cornell has the talent to match up with anyone, but what separates them is the versatility and options within the lineup. Within the ECACHL, there are now a lot of talented teams but they rely on just a few players, as had been the case with Cornell the last few seasons. Schafer has always been a depth guy, liking to roll four lines, but there was never any doubt as to which line he would lean on. Obviously Cornell has players who play more prominent roles than others, but there is not one guy or one line you can take out of the lineup and count the Big Red out of a game. It is no longer The Matt Moulson Show or the 2-1 wins with great defense and goaltending. Take out one line with your best shutdown line and you still have three that can score. One or two lines having an off night? There are two others than can score. There is not really a first line or second. Each line is different and on any given night any one of the lines can be the "first line." Even though one of the powerplay units has been vastly superior to the other, it is only a matter of time before the team boasts two equally lethal units. There is just too much talent for there not to be two deadly powerplays, or even three.
It is very early so we will keep from planning the parade route, but this team is far ahead of where most thought they would be at this point in terms of attention to detail. It is not just that there are seven new faces in the lineup every night. The core of last year's team is being replaced from within, meaning the returning twelve players are all facing a lot more responsibility. Moulson, the Abbotts, Pegoraro, Gleed, O'Byrne, and Pokulok are being replaced by committee and in the very limited action so far, the plan has worked. A great example of this is how draws have been handled after losing far-and-away the top two faceoff men in Chris Abbott and Pegoraro. Believe it or not, the collective efforts of Bitz, Scott, Gallagher, and Kennedy have been more efficient on the draw and the team has really benefitted as a result. Looking back to the 2002-03 and 2003-04 seasons, Ryan Vesce took virtually every defensive zone faceoff making the team susceptible if he had an off night or when he got injured late in the latter campaign. An area that was a strength last year is actually improved this year, in addition to being much deeper. This is representative of the team as a whole. Last year's team was great but it was highly vulnerable because of its lack of depth in most areas. If Moulson was taken out of the equation or was having an off night or the first powerplay unit was shut down, there was a lot of question about where the offense was going to come from. When Chris Abbott was hurt in the ECACHL Championship, there was nobody to take his spot as the shutdown center. These questions will never be asked with this year's team because each area is covered by a group rather than an individual.
The best part is that this team is only going to get better - actually it is going to get a lot better. They have been good in the early going but they have not even scratched the surface of how good they can be. Credit has to be given to the coaching staff for quickly preparing this group for the enormous transition it was going through from losing so many key players. The defensive zone has improved with each game because every player is doing the little things that make for efficient coverage and breakout. It is not close to where it needs to be, but it has been sufficient thus far. Quinnipiac may be the most deadly offensive team in the conference but their defensive zone will not be as strong as Cornell's. That, and the fact that there are only a handful of players who need to be neutralized on the Bobcats, whereas the Big Red will threaten from top to bottom.
Cornell is not a big team like they were just a couple of years ago. In fact, both Yale and Brown looked bigger. But Cornell is a lot quicker while still adept in the physical game. Against Yale, their superior speed was a big difference in drawing penalties the entire game. When things got rough, there were still the Tyler Mugfords of the team to keep the peace. The best part of this team is that beyond the depth it has in personnel is has the ability to play any style of hockey. Although the speed and skill were called upon, the rough stuff was still there. To be successful at this level, a team needs to have multiple dimensions and identities. Cornell appears to have that moreso than the last few years. Those were great teams but their identities were homogenous.
Do not expect any easy weekends this whole season but it works the other way as well. Although the team may not have any superstars, they are deep and very difficult to play against. All eighteen skaters are going to play regardless of what type of game it is while none will be relied upon an excessive amount. Although there are still some significant issues with the team, it is moving in the right direction at a pace ahead of what many expected at this point in the season. The bottom line is that the depth of this team in all areas is going to keep Cornell very competitive this season and we have only seen the tip of the iceberg as to how competitive they can be.
1. Taylor Davenport
There was no question before the season started that the Big Red was going to need significant improvement from a couple of its defensemen if it was going to stay towards the top of the ECACHL. Davenport answered the call this past weekend, having the breakout weekend of his career. He is not flashy at all, but Davenport gave an incredible effort in both games. He must have blocked a dozen shots against Brown while also getting his stick on a number of passes. Davenport was also very solid against Yale, again positioning himself very well and doing the little things to a T in his own end. He is undersized and perhaps a step slow but Davenport showed a great deal this weekend in terms of his smarts and work ethic. The coaching staff may have a sleeper top-pair blueliner on their hands - a pleasant and much-needed surprise.
2. Mark McCutcheon
Through four games, McCutcheon has definitely been Cornell's best player, and was at it again over the weekend. On a very deep team, McCutcheon is one of just a couple of players who plays in every situation and he has contributed a great deal. His progression is becoming eerily similar to that of Mike Iggulden in that he is becoming an outstanding all-around player during his latter years at Cornell. It is a travesty that he does not have a letter on his chest with the effort that he gives each night. It goes beyond that, though, as his performance has been stellar. McCutcheon has been one of the key guys on the Big Red's very successful "second" powerplay unit, with the one-time option to McCutcheon being its biggest weapon. McCutcheon had a goal and three assists during the weekend and was the best player on the ice against Yale. He is playing with a ton of confidence right now and still has another level he can get to.
3. Jared Seminoff
It is easy to lose Seminoff in the shuffle but he has emerged as Cornell's number one defenseman as only a sophomore. Looking back to last season, McCutcheon was able to emerge as an impact player mostly due to Shane Hynes leaving early for the pros. Seminoff seems to be taking advantage of O'Byrne and Pokulok leaving early in a similar way. Last year, he was viewed as a solid, complimentary defenseman. This year, he has continued to be solid, but has raised his game to another level, logging a ton of minutes and playing in all situations. He was great in both games, making smart plays with the puck while positioning himself well without it. Believe it or not, Seminoff is tied for the team-lead in scoring right now after posting another three assist weekend. He does not have a ton of talent, but Seminoff plays a very smart game, never taking a shift off.
What should the fish-throwing policy be this year?
By the time this is published, the policy will have likely been announced. Expect the same political nonsense from the last few years: not allowing any fish-throwing at any time. Expect the same lies about how Cornell will receive a penalty even if fish is thrown during player introductions. And expect fish to be thrown then anyway. A handful of students will be thrown out of the game while the game is delayed a few minutes while the fish are picked up. What is truly amazing about this policy is that it is enacted and enforced each year despite the fact that players and coaches have gone on the record supporting the tradition. Athletics and the administration feel a need to impose their will upon the students and pose jurisdiction on a tradition that is far bigger than they are. There is a compromise here if any of the politicians making the decisions are interested in laying down the law while actually getting the respect of the students. In fact this compromise has been "proposed" the last several years: the students throw fish in the beginning of the game as per the tradition and nothing is thrown after that point. This has been the case each of the last three years and athletics and the administration has ignored this. No penalty has been assessed like promised though a warning has been issued and no fish were thrown afterwards. What is wrong with this? Why can't the students uphold a 40-year old tradition that has never harmed anyone? Surprisingly, athletics and the administration have no answers, only baseless mandates and baseless threats. It is truly unfortunate that a few students will have to miss the game on Friday to be made examples of when hundreds will be throwing fish.
What is the answer for the "first" powerplay unit?
In stark contrast to the "second" unit, the "first" has struggled badly. They rarely have gotten set up in the first four games and even when they have, nothing has come of it. It is somewhat surprising given how much talent is out there. Still, a powerplay needs to have the right mix, not necessarily five brilliant offensive players. Looking at the second unit's success proves that. What this unit is lacking right now is the smart, creative playmaker like Romano and Scott on the other unit. Both Milo and Gallagher are shooters and need to be treated as such. That means moving Milo to his sweet spot on the right point/half-boards. Bitz seems unclear of his role, which seems to be as the puck-distributor, which is probably not conducive to his strengths. He has a big frame and good hands and could be a good fit right in front of the net. Gallagher is a good fit on the left half-boards as he represents a dangerous threat to peel off and go to the net with his shot. Having Milo on the right point will give Gallagher a cross-ice one-timer option to the left-shooting Milo. The key is still the playmaking, creative player. It would not make sense to mess with the other unit so that rules out Scott or Romano. A guy who has produced early on and has the ability to play the point and be a puck-distributor is Evan Barlow. Barlow can run things from the right point or from the corner. Having a three-man rotation on the points like what was seen with Bâby, Mark McRae, and Murray would be an interesting option with Milo, Barlow, and possibly Krantz on the left side. Krantz has a big right-handed shot and is good at getting it through to the net which makes him a good fit on the left side. He also skates well which will allow him to recover a lot better than Nash has on opposing shorthanded breaks. Then having Barlow on the right blueline and Milo closer to the right half-boards/high right slot will give Barlow one-time options on each side. Krantz will have four options: shooting, moving the puck to Gallagher on the left half-boards, moving it to Barlow cross-blueline, or moving to Milo on the high-boards area. This situation would allow Gallagher and Milo to use their shots and each other better with the cross-ice options, Bitz to create a more effective screen with his size (than Milo who has been in front of the net for some reason), and Krantz to get in the act with his big shot. The big x-factor in this scenario is Barlow. He certainly has the ability and has played the point in the past. Regardless, he is much better suited to the set-up role than Bitz or Gallagher. The bottom line is that having the primary shooters in Gallagher and Milo on opposite sides will force the penalty killers to look at more options and an entirely different setup than the other unit. It will also force the penalty killers to spread out a lot more than they will want to, leaving Krantz and Barlow with better looks at the net. Once Schafer finds another successful unit, Cornell's powerplay will be unstoppable.
How good is Clarkson?
They are currently leading the NCAA in goals-per-game and are coming off of two very impressive road wins against Dartmouth and Harvard. I had Clarkson underachieving this year and finishing in the bottom-half of the ECACHL. There is no doubt that the Golden Knights are among the most talented teams in the conference and they are arguably the most talented. They have a lot of depth and are strong at every position. This was the case last year as well when they finished in the bottom half of the conference. So what has changed? Not a whole lot in terms of personnel, but Clarkson is a team on a mission this year. This team is dangerous and if they meet their potential, the Golden Knights should finish in first place. The key for them will be the discipline they have lacked in the past as well as consistency. To that end, Clarkson could finish anywhere from first to tenth in the conference.
What was good about Mugford's major penalty against Yale?
Sure, Mugford's cross-checking major on Saturday night took Cornell off an ensuing five-minute powerplay and two-minute two-man advantage, but it was a very necessary move. You love to see a player come to a teammate's defense after a dangerous, unnecessary hit. The player he went after, Brennan Turner, had been taking liberties with Cornell players all night and did the same last season. Mugford sent an important message on this exchange: even though Cornell is a smaller team this year, they are not going to be pushed around. Expect the Big Red to stay a physical team but even more important is making it clear that the smaller skill players are not going to be messed with. With Cornell already comfortably ahead in this game, Mugford's decision was smart and took the big picture into account. In the third period of this game, there were no more bush league plays by Yale players. They got the message. It will not be the last time Mugford will have to send it though.
You are not going to believe it, but Harvard is off to a terrible start. The Crimson are off to an 0-3 start and have been outscored 15-8 in those games (they play BC on Tuesday). Last season, Harvard started 2-2-0. The year before they started 0-2-1. In 2003-04 they were 1-2-1. They made it to the ECACHL Championship in each of these seasons and do not expect any less this year. Harvard has some issues they need to work through but expect them to be one of the last teams standing once again this season. They have a lot of talent and excellent coaching. The Crimson do have a young defense and inexperienced goaltending so it may take them a while to get on track. That being said, Cornell also has a young defense and inexperienced goaltending. Expect a very emotional, energetic game on Friday night, but Cornell has the advantage because they have been playing far better and will be on home ice in a raucous environment. Harvard is going to be a desperate hockey team even this early in the season so it is going to be a tough game, definitely the most challenging to date in the young season for Cornell.
Harvard 2 - Cornell 4
Much has been made of Cornell's struggles with Dartmouth over the last decade. The Big Green are also off to bad start despite high expectations so expect them to be playing desperate hockey this weekend as well. Dartmouth is probably the most physical team in the conference but also has a lot of skill. They often struggle on the defensive side of the puck and in net so Cornell will need to focus on exploiting these weaknesses. It is not unheard of for the Big Red to lose its focus the night after playing Harvard so a good start is going to be a very important in this game. Expect a physical and offensive affair.
Dartmouth 4 - Cornell 4