Forward Chase Polacek and goalie Allen York were two vital cogs last season in helping Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute make its first NCAA hockey tournament appearance since 1995.
But Polacek and York are off to the next level of their hockey careers, trying to make it to the NHL. Polacek’s departure was expected because he was a senior. York decided to give up his final year of college eligibility to turn pro.
How the 18th-ranked Engineers replace those two players will play a major roll in determining their success. RPI, which went 20-13-5 last season and finished tied for fourth in ECAC Hockey, opens its season tonight at 7 against Minnesota State at Houston Field House.
RPI coach Seth Appert knows that the fans are very concerned about how he’ll replace those two players, and he understands their worries.
“You always lose guys, though, in college hockey [and] college sports,” Appert said. “Unlike pro sports, where you retain your stars and you replace your role players because of salary caps and budgets. In college, it’s more of the opposite. The players that are in roles, they’re growing up through your program, and most of the time, the stars are moving on because they’re graduating or they signed early. We view it as a good thing that we miss our seniors because we had a good senior class that meant a lot to us on the ice.”
Polacek, who signed with the AHL’s Peoria Rivermen, was a two-time winner of the ECACH Player of the Year. Last season, he led the team with 21 goals and 27 assists.
Polacek and Tyler Helfrich (14 goals) were the only Engineers to record double figures in goals. With Helfrich having graduated, sophomore forward Brock Higgs is the top returning goal scorer with nine. Only four other forwards had more than five goals — junior Marty O’Grady (seven) and seniors Alex-Angers Goulet and Josh Rabbani and graduate student Joel Malchuk (six each).
But there is a promising offensive force that could give the Engineers a boost. Jacob Laliberte comes to RPI after two outstanding seasons for the Central Junior Hockey League’s Cornwall Colts. He had 125 goals and 118 assists the last two years. Last season, Laliberte led the league with 63 goals and 70 assists. He also had a league-best 22 power-play goals.
“I don’t put goals on our freshmen,” Appert said. “Here’s how I judge my freshmen. In the first month, I judge them on are they fitting in with their teammates, have they bought into how hard we work in practice and the weight room, are they going to class every day, have I not been getting an email from a professor saying that they’re not in class and are they not so homesick that they’re in my office in a puddle of tears because they don’t know what to do here. Jacob’s an A-plus right now.”
Laliberte, who is joined by fellow freshmen forwards Ryan Haggerty, Mark McGowan, Matt Neal and Zach Schroeder, is just looking to fit in.
“My main goal is to help the team win every night,” Laliberte said. “We have a team-first mentality here. I think that’s all that matters.”
York, who posted an 18-11-4 record with a 2.17 goals-against average, a .924 save percentage and two shutouts, decided not to return for his senior season, opting to sign with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“We would have loved to have Allen back for his senior year,” Appert said. “But I also think it was time to go. The opportunity was there. The timing was perfect for him, in regards to Columbus’ organization.”
Replacing York is junior Bryce Merriam, who played on seven games last season. He was 2-2-1 with a 2.71 GAA and a .913 save percentage.
Merriam got a chance to be the No. 1 goalie after York suffered a slight concussion during a Feb. 4 game against Quinnipiac. He started the next three games while York recovered, and went 1-2. Merriam stopped 39 shots in a 5-2 win over Princeton on Feb. 5. Both of the losses came in overtime.
“I think it was great,” Merriam said about getting those three starts. “Obviously, I don’t want Allen to get a concussion, but it definitely help boost my confidence. Those couple of games, I came out and played very well, I just gained confidence, and it gave me the feeling I can play.”
Merriam didn’t play in last Saturday’s 7-0 exhibition win over Acadia because of a slight knee
injury. Freshman Scott Diebold did, and made 19 saves. The Buffalo native was 10-16-3 with a 2.75 GAA and a .913 save percentage for the U.S. Hockey League’s Tri-City Storm last season.
The defensive unit returns five players from last season. Heading the list is All-ECACH first team player Nick Bailen. The junior made a great impression on the Engineers in his first season last year after playing his freshman season at Bowling Green in 2008-09. Bailen had eight goals and 28 assists to lead all ECACH defenseman in scoring.
Joining Bailen are senior Mike Bergin, and sophomores Bo Dolan, Pat Koudys and Guy Leboeuf. Koudys was selected by the Washington Capitals in the NHL draft in June.
There are two newcomers on the defense. Luke Curadi played for former RPI assistant coach Jim Montgomery and the USHL’s Clark Cup-champion Dubuque Fighting Saints. Curtis Leonard spent last season with the Ontario Junior Hockey League’s Wellington Dukes.
“The expectations stay the same,” said Bergin, who will be the co-captain along with Malchuk. “We’re looking to win the ECAC, and go to the NCAAs and compete with any team out there. We did lose Chase, we did lose ‘Yorkie.’ But we’ve got great freshmen coming in, and the upperclassmen coming back are in great shape.”
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