SCHENECTADY — To some degree, every coach in college sports faces some rebuilding from one year to the next.
In the case of the Union men’s hockey team, it’ll be rebuilding with a capital ‘R’ in 2019-20.
The Dutchmen need to replenish a roster top-heavy with graduating seniors, and face some uncertainty about who will step into which roles.
One thing is certain: the Dutchmen will be solid in goal with current sophomore Darion Hanson, the only player head coach Rick Bennett identified as “a flight risk,” but who is not expected to leave early to start his pro career.
Following a rollercoaster season that finished with a 20-13-6 record, the sixth 20-win mark in Bennett’s eight seasons as head coach, expectations will be much lower next year. Union lost to Cornell in three games in the ECAC Hockey quarterfinals last weekend and will miss the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in the last five seasons, since winning a national championship in 2014.
“I think that’s [rebuilding] probably the word,” Bennett said Wednesday. “When you lose nine guys off a roster, and you’re only playing 20, 21 a night … yeah, that’s a hit. Hey, we knew it was coming. That’s the great thing about college athletics, and that’s why you recruit. For these guys coming in, that’s a tremendous opportunity.”
With a 10-10-2 record in ECACH, Union finished with the seventh seed of 12 teams and swept Colgate in the first round.
Among the regular-season highlights, the Dutchmen defeated Boston University to win the Friendship Four in Northern Ireland; defeated the top-ranked team in the country, St. Cloud State, 7-2 in the semifinals of the Three Rivers Classic in Pittsburgh; edged RPI 1-0 in the snowstorm-postponed Mayor’s Cup shootout, as Hanson and Owen Savory each earned a shutout; and won five straight through the close of the regular season and first round of the playoffs.
The low points were underlined by a head-scratching lack of consistency from one weekend to the next and even from one night to the next.
After starting the season 4-0-1, with a sweep on the road against Northeastern and a win and tie against Nebraska Omaha, the Dutchmen lost two to RPI in an early-season sweep that would haunt Union’s Pairwise ranking for the rest of the season.
And a day after blasting St. Cloud State, Union was ripped 6-3 in the Three Rivers Classic title game by a Brown team that would be a thorn in Union’s side all year. The Bears are the only team to reach the semifinals of the ECACH tournament in Lake Placid without the benefit of a first-round bye this year.
Looking forward, Union only loses 43.8 percent of this year’s goal-scoring despite the large number of seniors leaving, but what the Dutchmen lose in leadership is immeasurable.
“There’s a ton of pride in that locker room, that these guys know they’re going to be picked anywhere from nine to 12, let’s be honest,” Bennett said. “Maybe 10 to 12, who knows? There are 11 teams in our league saying, ‘Gee, that’s too bad.’
“I won’t be getting any cards.”
The first of the seniors to sign a pro contract was Ryan Walker, who got an amateur tryout deal with the Binghamton Devils on Wednesday, and about a half-dozen likely will wind up in the ECHL and American Hockey League.
Bennett hopes that some of the current freshmen will follow Walker’s model, after he was brought in to Union early, as an 18-year-old, and used all four years to make himself a better player.
“If they have the same work ethic and are coachable like Ryan Walker, then we’re going to have some players,” Bennett said.
Among the freshmen, the defensemen, Michael Ryan, Ryan Sidorski and Fletcher Fineman, saw more regular playing time than the forwards, because of a midseason injury to sophomore Joseph Campolieto that kept him out until the postseason.
Players like Sidorski and forward Lucas Breault came to Union a year ahead of schedule, instead of another year of seasoning in juniors, because of verbal commitments that fell through, most notably forward Mike Hardman, who will head to Boston College instead.
“Both really adapted, but once we go into league in January and February and on, the size and the wear and tear kind of got to them,” Bennett said. “But at the same time, they battled through and had a real good attitude.
“Their biggest gains have to come in the spring with our strength coach, Dan Gabelman. They have to show up September 1st, when their feet touch this campus, they better look better than they look right now.”
Another freshman, forward Blake Hayward, was in the lineup for the first three games, but that was it, and Bennett said it was a coach’s decision, not an injury, so “we’ll just have to wait and see where he stands within this program.”
Union typically announces its incoming class in August, shortly after the Aug. 1 final signing day.
Bennett said he expects the next class to be bigger and “probably half a step faster,” but “Are they as good of hockey players as these guys that just left? That’s up to these guys. They’ve got four years to prove that.”
Bennett has already had more than one discussion with Hanson about his plans, and “just an opinion, I don’t think he’ll leave to go play in the American Hockey League, especially a school like Union College, to go sit in the minors,” he said. “And he’s got some challenges here, from being a one-two, to being the clear one. Going from one-two to being The Guy, that’s a big step. So why not learn that pressure here, if it takes you one or two years. What’s the worst, you get your degree?”
For his part, Bennett’s name could drop into conversations about coaching changes.
On Tuesday, Miami (Ohio) fired its long-time head coach, Enrico Blasi, who was two wins shy of 400 for his career.
Bennett was reported as a finalist when Boston University was looking for a new head coach last season, but it would have to be the right situation, in many ways, for him to leave Union. In 2017, he signed a contract extension through 2022-23.
“That stuff happens unexpectedly,” Bennett said. “Who knows. I didn’t think so last year, I didn’t think so the year before. I’m extremely happy here. This school does some really nice things for their employees.”
“That’s the profession. In our profession, this isn’t football or basketball, where there’s that many teams to go to in Division I. I think [associate head coach] Jason Tapp is ready to go. He just needs an opportunity, and somebody to believe in him. John Ronan’s still learning, but every year he’s getting better and better. And that would really be a sad day, to lose those guys.”
Among the players approaching a crossroads is junior Anthony Rinaldi, who will lose linemates Brett Supinski and Sebastian Vidmar to graduation.
Sophomore Liam Morgan, who will be the leading point-scorer among returnees, will have to find new linemates after the graduation of captain Cole Maier and Walker.
Union also found a steady, strong line consisting of Sean Harrison centering Jack Adams and Parker Foo, all sophomores, but Bennett may have to break that up, if it means making the team better overall.
“It’s going to be really different next year,” he said. “Like, we know what we have in the net. We know what we have in the ‘D’ corps. Up front? It’s just going to be different. We don’t know the looks yet.
“When these freshmen come in, let’s be honest, it’s how they look and what value each of these guys can provide us when they hit the ice. Plus, these guys coming back who know what this program is about, can they get better? Because, to me, that’s the biggest jump. If we’re relying on those freshmen, buckle up.”
Reach Gazette Sportswriter Mike MacAdam at 518-395-3146 or [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.
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