It all looked so familiar.
Union hockey held its annual media day at Messa Rink on Thursday, the players decked out in fresh uniforms and assembled at center ice for the team photo, and coach Rick Bennett expressing the optimism that every coach in every sport does under such circumstances.
What isn’t familiar, at least not since Bennett became the head coach six seasons ago, is an ugly blot on the program’s record last season. It didn’t come close to approaching catastrophic, but sub-.500 doesn’t cut it around here, and that’s what the Dutchmen were — 13-14-9 overall and
6-10-6 in the ECAC — in 2015-16. It was Union’s first overall losing season since going
14-19-3 in 2006-07.
So which faces will step out of that team photo and turn things around? Some will be familiar ones, like senior Mike Vecchione, one of a half-dozen holdovers from Union’s 2013-14 national championship team.
Bennett can’t be sure who the others will be yet, but one quality the Dutchmen are counting on this season is a deeper roster that should alleviate some of the load on the top players, but also help maintain a hunger for success.
“They’re going to have watch out for a couple other guys, not just me, [Ryan] Scarfo, [Jeff] Taylor, [Spencer] Foo . . . everybody,” the senior captain Vecchione said. “If they want to take away me, that’s fine. They’re going to have to worry about four or five other guys.
“It’s going to be an interesting year.”
“That’s really one of the areas that we wanted to fix,” Bennett said. “We felt like, towards the end of the year, that through lack of depth, it created a situation where a lot of players got comfortable because they knew they weren’t going to come out of the lineup.
“This year, we feel we have balance in the ‘D’ corps, in the net and also the forwards. Now I guess we’re going to see if that translates to more wins or not.”
Expect Vecchione to center a line with Foo and Scarfo, a trio that scored 33 of Union’s 91 goals last season.
Vecchione had considered going pro after his junior year, but is back after seeing his production drop from 19 goals and 31 assists in 2014-15 to nine and 20 last season.
Bennett said that was in part a reflection of working on Vecchione’s development as a two-way player.
“He became more of a 200-foot player, and that was the goal,” Bennett said. “I know he didn’t put up the points, and people see all the points and think that he had an off year, but he became a better player overall. Hopefully, he uses that to his advantage.”
Another factor was opponents’ penchant for hounding the most obvious offensive threat in Union’s lineup.
“I felt like every time I touched the puck, there was one or two guys on me,” Vecchione said. “When I was trying to find some spaces, there was always a guy right in my back pocket.
“I think now that we have four deeper lines, we’ll have fresher legs out there, more guys who can kill penalties and play on the power play.”
“He’s so fast and skilled, he can take over a game if he wants to,” said Taylor, a defenseman from Clifton Park who was also a freshman on the national championship team. “We just expect him to play his game.”
Bolstering the Dutchmen in the speed department should be freshman Luc Brown, and Taylor also mentioned Ryan Burton as one of the freshmen who have opened some eyes in practice so far.
Alex Sakellaropoulos saw by far the bulk of the minutes in goal last year, but Bennett said sophomore Joe Young “made a big jump this summer, and we’ll just have to wait and see” about playing time in net.
Union was picked in the middle of the pack in both the preseason coaches and media polls, a development that was met with shrugs by the players.
No matter who gets it done, the Dutchmen, especially those who won the Frozen Four in Philadelphia three seasons ago, expect to shovel last season’s uncharacteristic record off the ice and out the back door of Messa.
“For me, I take it hard,” Vecchione said. “The program’s kind of been down the past couple years and I blame myself for a lot of that. We want to get back to that standard and win back some of those trophies we lost and build it back up to where it was when I got here.”
“Last year wasn’t a total disappointment; we’ve got to build off it,” Taylor said. “We haven’t tried to change the Union culture, we’ve just got to live up to it and play like it.”