Hockey: Incoming Union forwards have big skates to fill
SCHENECTADY Prior to last season, Union coach Rick Bennett and his staff knew they would have to restock the offensive talent since center Kelly Zajac was going into his senior year.
Then, after the Dutchmen were eliminated in the NCAA Frozen Four semifinal by Ferris State, junior center Jeremy Welsh turned pro, signing with the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes.
Bennett and the staff are confident that they have the recruits that will help replace Welsh and Zajac, who combined for 35 goals and 51 assists in helping the Dutchmen to a memorable season.
The Dutchmen announced their six-player recruiting class Friday. It’s the first class for Bennett as head coach, and also the first Union recruiting class for assistant coaches Joe Dumais and Jason Tapp.
“You always want to try to replace the class that left with a better class coming in,” said Bennett, who guided the Dutchmen to a 26-8-7 record in his first season as head coach after six years as assistant/associate head coach. “That’s how your program gets better. We won’t know that until after four years. Obviously, we didn’t plan on Jeremy Welsh leaving. But with him graduating this summer and the year he had [27 goals, 17 assists], he made the decision [to leave], and it was the right decision to go.
“The unexpected is always going to happen. It’s starting to happen at Union College now, so it’s stuff we have to be prepared for. I thought Joe and Jason were prepared for that, and that helped us.”
Four of the incoming players are forwards, and the other two are defensemen.
Heading the list is left winger Matt Wilkins of the Alberta Junior League’s Brooks Bandits. The 21-year-old Wilkins led the AJHL in scoring with 34 goals and 65 assists, and was a finalist for league MVP. In his two years with the Bandits, Wilkins had 64 goals and 122 assists. He scored 28 career power-play goals.
“I’m not going to put the stipulation where he has to be a point producer,” Bennett said. “People seem to forget that Kelly Zajac was a 20-point guy his freshman year. Matt Wilkins is going to come in and contribute right away, but within the confines of our team. We’re really looking forward to him playing a top-nine role.”
Another high-scoring forward coming in is center David Roy of the Brockville Braves of the Central Canada Hockey League.
Roy, 20, was the Braves’ second-leading scorer last season with 32 goals and 37 assists. He led the Braves in power-play goals (12), power-play points (19) and short-handed goals (three).
“We were looking to bring in a couple of guys that could play on the top two lines,” said Dumais, who previously was an assistant coach at Connecticut. “I think a lot of that comes from within your program, too. There are a lot of the freshmen and sophomores, right now, who are looking to step up and fill those shoes, as well.”
Another forward coming in is 19-year-old Nick Cruice of the Eastern Junior Hockey League’s South Shore Kings. Cruice had 19 goals and 34 assists last season, putting him fourth on the Kings’ scoring chart.
Cruice was expected to come to Union for the 2013-14 season. But when recruit Andrew Johnston, a forward from the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s Humboldt Broncos, decided to skip college and sign a contract with the Philadelphia Flyers, Bennett asked Cruice to come in a year early.
The final forward is center Theo DiPauli of the U.S. Hockey League’s Chicago Steel. Injuries limited the 19-year-old DiPauli to just 46 games played over the last two seasons.
The two defensemen have connections to the NHL.
Tim Boyle, who was selected in the fourth round of the NHL draft June 23 by the Ottawa Senators, is the brother of New York Rangers center Brian Boyle. Tim Boyle, who is 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds, played at Nobles Prep. He had six goals and 12 assists in 24 games.
“Tim was drafted in the fourth round, but I’m sure he’ll tell you that it’s just a beginning,” Bennett said. “His brother went through it being a first-rounder, and he found out that it took him four years at Boston College and then some years in the minors to get to where he is today. That’s nice to have a family and a brother who has gone through it, so he knows he can pass on to Tim that it’s just a beginning.”
Sebastien Gingras is the son of Gaston Gingras, who played 10 seasons in the NHL with the Montreal Canadiens and St. Louis Blues.
Gingras, a teammate of Roy, was Brockville’s top defensive scorer with 12 goals and 31 assists. A right-handed shot, the 6-2, 190-pound Gingras had 17 power-play points. Union lacked a right-handed shot from the point on the power play, and the coaching staff believes Gingras will be a force there.