Sunday, October 31, 2010

Men's Hockey Preview: Predicting the ECAC

This will be the first in a series of posts previewing Harvard Men's Hockey's 2010-11 season.

Back in September, WHRB was invited to participate in the annual ECAC media poll, an attempt to predict where each team will finish without having seen them play. Below the jump, we post our picks from September, and offer our thoughts on why we made them. We'll also post next to the teams their final ranking in both the coaches and media polls. We'll wrap up with our preseason all-ECAC team selections.

1. Yale (Coaches: 1st, Media: 1st)
No coach is allowed to vote for their own team, so the fact that Yale got 11 votes means they were a unanimous choice among the league. They also were a near unanimous pick among the media, including receiving the top billing on our ballot. Yale had plenty of offensive firepower through last year's NCAAs, including a 3-2 win over North Dakota and a high-scoring 9-7 game against eventual champion Boston College. The Elis return three top players in Broc Little, Denny Kearney, and Brian O'Neill to that offense, so expect it to be just as potent. Goaltending will be a question mark again for the Bulldogs, but it's been a question mark the last two years and that has not stopped them from winning the league both times. Anything but a three-peat would have us shocked.
2. Union (Coaches: 3rd, Media: 3rd)
The Dutchmen seem to have the best shot of dethroning the Bulldogs from the top of the ECAC standings, after nearly doing so a year ago. They lose their best playmaker in Marco Valery-Trabucco to graduation, but the Dutchmen still possess offensive weapons including Stephane Boileau, Adam Presiznuik, and Kelly Zajac (younger brother of the NHL's Travis). Add in a solid defensemen like Brock Matheson, and a great goaltending tandem in Keith Kinkaid and Corey Milan, and expectations should be high at Messa Rink.
3. Cornell (Coaches: 2nd, Media: 2nd)
Cornell loses seven letterwinners from last years roster. Let's just take a look at the names on that list. Gone is Ben Scrivens, a Dryden award winner. Gone are Blake Gallagher, Colin Greening, and Riley Nash, the top three goal-scorers for Cornell last season, taking with them the 107 points and +41 they amassed, as well as the 20 (of 32) PP goals scored last year. While some of this goal scoring will be replaced by players like Joe Devin and Patrick Kennedy, the real question comes in goal. Will it be the junior, Mike Garmin, of 0 starts and 3 games played in his college career, getting the nod? Or will it be the hometown hero, Andy Iles, of Ithaca, NY, seeing time in his freshman year? We know Cornell always has a solid defense, but will they be able to help out two raw goaltenders? And how much offense can we expect to see considering the talent that left Ithaca? Our guess is it won't be enough to challenge Yale, but the usual Cornell system and home-ice advantage will give them enough wins for a bye.
4. RPI (Coaches: 4th, Media: 5th)
Confession- RPI started out at second place on our draft ballot at the beginning of September. Then Jerry D'Amigo, American hero for his WJC performance, left for a contract with the Maple Leafs. Then Brandon Pirri headed for a contract with the Chicago Blackhawks, helping to fill a depleted farm system gutted by salary cap considerations. What could have been one of the most devastating trios in the league was reduced down to one, Chase Polacek, a Hobey Baker finalist last year. The concern for the 'Tute has to be that sans D'Amigo and Pirri, defenses can really zone in and lock down Polacek, and we have to wonder if he can put up the numbers to enter the Hobey race again without them. Still, backed by Allan York in net, RPI still should be one of the top teams in the league.
5. Colgate (Coaches: 5th, Media: 4th)
The Raiders easily have one of the strongest offenses in the league, with Brian Day and Austin Smith leading the way, along with Francois Brisebois. The three were the 1st, 3rd, and 4th best scorers last year in Hamilton, and should be able to account for the loss of David McIntyre. Still, we are not convinced that goaltender Alex Evin can bring the Raiders into a first round bye. He had a 3.02 GAA last year getting the majority of starts, and a save percentage hovering around .900. He also loses Charles Long as his backup goaltender, meaning Colgate will be depending more on Evin to step up. Unless he does, the Raiders will be on the outside looking in for the top 4 spots.
6. Dartmouth (Coaches: 6th, Media: 6th)
To be honest, we have no idea what happened with Dartmouth last year. We don't mean that to say we didn't pay attention to them- we saw them three times last year live, a bonus to the customary two. We do mean that to say we can't understand why the Big Green struggled. Jody O'Neill had a tremendous freshman campaign two years ago, but had a sophomore slump in net last year to the tune of a 3.96 GAA in conference play. He ended up splitting the season with James Mello, who performed better, and it'll be interesting to see if Mello's play last year won him the job for this year. Meanwhile, Dartmouth had a talented offense in Scott Fleming and Adam Estolcet, although little secondary scoring behind them contributed to the tough season. Even their defense, led by Evan Stephens, was a solid if not spectacular bluelining corps, yet struggled throughout the season. We think, and it looks like everyone agrees, that this was just an aberration though, and that Dartmouth will be back in the middle of the pack come this season.
7. Quinnipiac (Coaches: 8th, Media: 8th)
Quinnipiac started hot out of the gates last year, but cooled down considerably and finished in the middle of the pack. The Bobcats will be a young team this year, as they lose four of their top five scorers to graduation. In net, then-sophomore Dan Clarke put up respectable numbers en route to a .500 season. Ultimately, Quinnipiac seemed too inconsistent to count on to make a move, as their ultimate .500 record showed last season. Filled with little confidence in their ability to move up, we pegged the Bobcats to be in the middle once again. Look for Scott Zurevinski and Jeremy Langlois to be the two main contributors in Hamden.
8. Princeton (Coaches: 10th, Media: 9th)
The Tigers came crashing down to earth after several seasons near the top of the ECAC, yet it's hard to say they are going to remain a middling team, as their fall was created by a rash of injuries. The result was a haphazard lineup for much of the season, with guys playing out of position, and inexperienced players getting a trial by fire. While Princeton lose a couple of players that brought them to the NCAAs, including netminder Zane Kalemba, it is possible that injuries last year will be a boon to the team this season, with players like Michael Sdao and Eric Meland getting some extra time in their rookie season due to necessity. Still, without Kalema, goaltending question marks seem prominent, and the Tigers need to answer those questions if they want to get back in the title hunt.
9. St. Lawrence (Coaches: 9th, Media: 7th)
As a rash of players started to leave the ECAC, RPI blog Without a Peer ran the numbers on the amount of goals per game returning this season. Despite not losing any players early, the numbers did not look good for the Saints, as they finished dead last in the category, returning only a little over a goal per game. To compound the problem, the Saints graduated not one but two regular goaltenders, with Kain Tisi and Alex Petizian both departing, leaving junior Robby Moss, who started only 5 games last season. With the numbers against them, the Saints made it as high as ninth only because of the difficulties of the North Country trip and the talent of bench boss Joe Marsh.
10. Harvard (Coaches: 7th, Media: 10th)
Certainly, no one could think about calling us homers with this pick, although the low ranking here is probably a symptom of a similar phenomenon. For the team you cover, the tendency is either to focus on the strengths you know about the team, and thus overrate, or to focus on the weaknesses you know better than anyone, and thus to underrate. With the media ballot coming off the doom and gloom of the summer, with top scorer Louis Leblanc heading for the Q, and plenty of talent graduating from the blue line, our mindset was in the latter half. One possible reason to stand behind the pick is the schedule- two of the top teams in Union and RPI open things off for the Crimson, and the visitors have the benefit of having had a month of games under their belts. Throw in a tough North Country trip in week two and then another road trip after that, and that's where the concerns mount. We'll have more on Harvard later (obviously), but the closing thought for now is that if Harvard has a slow start, the memories of the past two seasons could hurt this team's psyche and send them into a downward spiral fast.
11. Brown (Coaches: 11th, Media: 11th)
Brown has certainly taken to resembling their mascot the bear during the past two seasons. As hockey season begins, Bruno has just finished eating his fill of berries and is now settling in the cave for hibernation. After sleeping through the season, Bruno wakes from hibernation around March, and comes out hungry for the playoffs, collecting several pelts (Harvard two years ago, RPI and Yale last year) along the way. Still, acknowledging that Brown is scary in the playoffs is a different story than picking where they'll finish in the league, and we think they'll be hibernating again this year. The Bears don't lose a lot of talent (Aaron Volpatti being the exception that stands out at first glance) and are always a physical team, but their defense-first approach, backed by solid goaltender Mike Clemente, tends to do much better over a three game series than a 22 game season, especially with the firepower available to most of the teams in this league.
12. Clarkson (Coaches: 12th, Media: 12th)
It was a tough season both on and off the ice for the Clarkson Golden Knights, though with the off-ice problems behind them, the attention now shifts to the product at Cheel Arena. The biggest loss for Clarkson is the graduation of leading scorer Matt Beca, but other than that, Clarkson returns the bulk of their team. Ultimately, the Achilles heel of this team will be in net. Junior Paul Karpowich managed a gaudy 3.45 GAA and a subpar .898 save percentage and was the best of the three goaltenders on the team last year. We gave one team the benefit of the doubt by virtue of being in the North Country, but the difficult trip did little to help Clarkson last year. Perhaps without the distraction of the off-ice stuff, Clarkson will do better, but better is a relative term compared to their last place finish last season.

Here were our picks for the ECAC Pre-Season Team, picked to represent who we thought would claim the ECAC honors at the end of the season. The rest of the media agreed with us on all but the goaltender, as they went to the other side of the Capital District to tab Keith Kinkaid (Union).
Forwards: Chase Polacek (RPI), Broc Little (Yale), Austin Smith (Colgate)
Defensemen: Evan Stephens (Dartmouth) and Nick D'Agostino (Cornell)
Goaltender: Allen York (RPI)

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