TROY — The music is a little louder in the locker room, head coach Dave Smith said.
There’s a little more certainty about everything, from daily routines to what is expected on the ice.
The belief that things will turn around with the RPI men’s hockey team has gotten stronger, at least to hear the coaches and players tell it.
Whether that manifests itself in a better record in the standings will be revealed soon enough, as the Engineers open the 2018-19 season with a home-and-home series against Massachusetts next weekend, after an exhibition game at Houston Field House Sunday.
The team remains in a state of flux in its second season under Smith, whose team won just six of 37 games last year and was one of two of the 60 NCAA Division I programs who averaged under two goals a game. The freshmen class numbers 10, and the roster includes three transfers who will be folded into the lineup in late December, when they become eligible under NCAA transfer rules.
Smith said he saw signs of progress last season and expects more in 2018-19. Now he’d like to see that reflected in the won-lost record.
“At first, you’re nervous with a new coach, new systems, new culture for the team,” senior defenseman Tommy Grant said during media day Wednesday. “Guys had a lot to think about last year, and this year guys are kind of stepping right into it. It’s an easier transition.”
“Progress has to come in absolutely every area that we can touch,” Smith said.
The most glaring of those areas is offense.
RPI averaged 1.97 goals per game and ranked above only Alaska Anchorage in that department. The Engineers’ top point-getter, Jacob Hayhurst, is back as a junior, but he had just 12 goals and 11 assists and ranked 32nd in ppg in ECAC Hockey.
“We need to get more guys contributing each shift, but at the end of the year, when we look at the stats, we’re going to need production from our defense, production from all four lines and we’ll need the guys that have been known to score to score,” Smith said.
Grant was named captain Wednesday, and senior forward Brady Wiffen and junior defenseman Will Reilly are the alternates.
In late December, RPI will gain the services of forward Mike Gornall (North Dakota), forward Chase Zieky (Providence) and defenseman Shane Bear (Massachusetts).
A native of Irwin, Pa., Gornall played in three games as a freshman at North Dakota in 2015-16 and 17 as a sophomore in 2016-17.
Smith said he wants the influence of players coming from programs that have high expectations each season to rub off on the Engineers through not just their performance on the ice, but leadership in the locker room.
“We’ve got three guys who have been practicing with us and will join us at Christmastime, and we think that’s going to be an interesting element to our season,” Smith said during the ECACH coaches conference call Sept. 24. “It’ll give us an instant bolt of energy. They’re champing at the bit. We’re going to be like a pro team at the end of the trade deadline.”
One question mark that was answered last year was Smith’s preference in goal.
As a freshman, Linden Marshall came in not expecting to play much, but took control of the position and appeared in 29 games.
“At times, it got a little overwhelming, especially with being an engineer and all the homework that comes with that,” Marshall said. “So it was stressful at times, but we have such great resources here, from the coaches and the teachers. You’ve got a lot of people to talk to, and this year, I’m comfortable because I know I’ve done it.”
“Comfortable” was a word frequently used on media day, referring to how the team has settled into Smith’s coaching and what he expects from everyone.
The next step is to move up in the ECAC pecking order. RPI (6-27-4 overall, 4-16-2 ECACH) finished 11th in Smith’s first season and lost to Colgate in the first round of the playoffs.
“There’s not a game that we don’t think we can win,” sophomore forward Jake Marrello of Slingerlands said. “Everybody’s on the same page.
“We were in a lot of tight games and overtime last year. There weren’t a lot of games where we were getting blown out.”
“That’s something we’re going to keep working on every day for as long as we’re here,” Marshall said. “I’d say it’s a work in progress. We’re not exactly where we want to be, but we’re working on it.”
“The friendships are a little stronger and the belief is really good,” Smith said. “Other teams are going to come in and challenge that, and we need to keep that belief at the forefront of an entire season, with ups and downs.”
The RPI women opened their season last weekend, dropping a pair of games, 2-0 and 3-1, at Minnesota State-Mankato.
The Engineers also had a first-year coach in 2017-18 in Bryan Vines and finished with the No. 8 seed in the ECACH Playoffs with a 7-14-1 record, 10-24-2 overall.
RPI was defeated in the quarterfinals by the eventual national champion, Clarkson. The Engineers will play their home opener 3 p.m. Saturday against Holy Cross.