It was an overwhelming first couple of months for Rick Bennett after he was promoted from associate head coach to head coach of the Union College men’s hockey team on April 22 after Nate Leaman left to take over at Providence College.
There was moving from the cramped office he shared with former assistant coach Ben Barr near the Dutchmen’s locker room to the main office behind the bleachers. Bennett had to hire two assistant coaches — Joe Dumais and Jason Tapp — to replace Barr and himself. He also added Joel Beal as a volunteer assistant coach, the role Tapp had the past two seasons.
Then Bennett had to deal with goalie recruit Julien Laplante, who was found to have played 20 minutes of a major Canadian junior hockey league exhibition game, a violation of NCAA rules because players are paid in major juniors.
Bennett dealt with all those issues, and with them out of the way, he is ready to begin his first season as the head coach of the Dutchmen.
And what a time for Bennett to be taking over. Union, coming off its best season ever at the Division I level, opens the season Saturday night at Army.
“At first, it was a little bit of a whirlwind,” Bennett said. “But now, it’s really kind of settled down.”
The Dutchmen, ranked 11th in two national polls, captured their first ECAC Hockey regular-season title and reached their first NCAA Division I tournament. That capped an eight-year career for Leaman at Union.
In steps Bennett, a former Hobey Baker Award finalist while at Providence who has spent the last six seasons at Union, including the last four as the associate head coach.
“It’s been a nice transition,” Bennett said. “I think when you’re kind of coming in with the same team, in my case, it really worked out better because you know the guys. So you know the transition there has been nice. Having 10 freshmen has been eventful, too, but it’s also been a good thing.”
The players are happy that Bennett was quickly given the job instead of the school going through a search for a new coach.
“It was pretty important,” said senior defenseman Nolan Julseth-White, who will be the team captain. “It all came kind of a shock to most of us. But having that seamless transition . . . made that shock go away pretty fast, and we got right back to work.”
Junior forward Jeremy Welsh has noticed some changes Bennett has made.
“It’s been different, definitely,” Welsh said. “He hasn’t just followed the same programs. I wouldn’t say it’s an adjustment, it’s a little bit of a change. Change is nice sometimes. I think everyone’s enjoying the fresh scenery and a different atmosphere around the rink.”
The Dutchmen bring back a offensive corps that was one of the most dangerous in the country, especially on the power play, which led the nation at 29.5 percent (51-for-173).
Senior Kelly Zajac led the Dutchmen in scoring with 13 goals and 29 assists and five game-winning goals. Welsh was second with 16 goals and 21 assists. Sophomore Daniel Carr had an outstanding first season, leading the team in goals (20) and power-play tallies (12). Sophomore Josh Jooris (9-23-32) and junior Wayne Simpson (16-14-30) will also be forces.
There are some promising freshmen to help with the offensive load. Daniel Ciampini had 33 goals and 49 assists last season for the Ontario Junior Hockey League’s St. Michael’s Buzzards. He had a league-leading nine short-handed goals, and had 15 over the last two years.
Trevor Mingoia had 20 goals and 28 assists in 29 games for Berkshire Prep. He was a teammate of Dutchmen sophomore Kevin Sullivan in 2009-10.
Despite the graduation of Brock Matheson, the defensive unit is solid. Sophomore Mat Bodie set a team record for points by a defenseman with 32 points on six goals and 26 assists. Junior Greg Coburn had five goals and nine assists. Julseth-White and Shawn Stuart should be the Dutchmen’s top two shut-down defensemen.
Also back are junior Ryan Forgaard and senior Taylor Reid. Two freshmen, Shayne Gostisbehere and Charlie Vasaturo, will look to crack the lineup.
The biggest issue will be who takes over for Keith Kinkaid in goal.
After posting a 1.99 goals-against average and winning the Ken Dryden Award as the ECACH’s top goalie, Kinkaid gave up his final two years of college eligibility to sign a free-agent contract with the New Jersey Devils.
Three players will compete to replace Kinkaid. Sophomore Troy Grosenick played in three games last season, and was 0-0-1 with a 2.12 GAA.
“Keith was a great goalie here,” Grosenick said. “I’m not Keith Kinkaid. I’m not looking to be Keith Kinkaid. It would be dumb for me to do that, to be quite honest. I just have to focus on what I can do in practice and, hopefully, it gets me some playing time.”
The two others are freshmen. Dillon Pieri was 13-12-6 with a 3.30 GAA with the Boston Advantage Midget Major team.
But the one everyone will be watching is Niskayuna native Troy Stevens. Expected to join Union for the 2012-13 season, Stevens came in this season after the Laplante situation. He put up great numbers for the Boston Junior Bruins last season, going 24-3 with a 1.66 GAA, a .937 save percentage and six shutouts.
Stevens is trying to stay relaxed while playing for the team rooting for while growing up.
“[I’m] working hard every day in practice, work hard with coach Tapp, work hard in the weight room and do everything I can to just contribute and just enjoy every moment of it,” Stevens said.
Bennett doesn’t feel any pressure about trying to repeat the success the Dutchmen had last year. But he doesn’t want his team to be complacent. That could spell trouble.
“We can’t forget about last year, but just kind of learn from it,” Bennett said. “We’ve got the leadership. I know we have the forwards and the ‘D.’ I have full trust in those three goalies.”
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Categories: College Sports