TROY — There are what the head coach calls cosmetic changes to the hockey facilities slowly beginning to reveal themselves.
There is an effort to gather funds — $20 million is the objective — for a more profound renovation of the home rink, Houston Field House.
And the coach himself is new to these parts.
One thing hasn’t changed within the RPI men’s hockey program, veteran players are saying: the Engineers still expect to have a winning season. Whether they’ll be able to pull that off or not will begin to be answered in earnest this weekend, when RPI opens the 2017-18 season — its first with Dave Smith as head coach — at Ohio State on Friday and Saturday night.
The Engineers begin ECAC Hockey play with a home-and-home against Union on Oct. 27-28.
“We’re expecting a top-four finish,” senior defenseman Jared Wilson said during RPI’s media day on Sept. 27. “If that’s not your goal, you’re lost right out of the gate. We know we had a group that was better than our record showed last year, and we’re going to prove that.”
“I don’t think our expectation has changed from any other year,” senior forward Viktor Liljegren said. “We want to be a contender in this league, finish top four and go to Lake Placid and hopefully the [NCAA] tournament. That’s always been the standard, and it’s still the standard.”
RPI, the NCAA national champion in 1955 and 1985, had its worst season (8-28-1) in decades last year, after which Seth Appert was fired with a sub-.500 record over 11 seasons as head coach.
Smith was hired after a successful run at Canisius College that included an Atlantic Hockey championship in 2013.
The Engineers’ roster was already in the process of some turnover while the 2016-17 season was in progress, and RPI brings a crowded class of nine freshmen into 2017-18.
While those players have been adjusting to college hockey in general, the upperclassmen have been adjusting to a new coach.
“It’s a new experience, and there’s a lot of learning and adjustments, a lot of little things,” senior defensemen Mike Prapavessis said. “But it’s easy when you have a coach who communicates well. We communicate, too, and that’s the best way to get on the same page.”
“A lot of the challenge is the same,” Smith said. “We have to get everybody on the same page, and that doesn’t change at my old school or here at a new school. It adds the number of people who need to learn how I and our staff would like us to play. It’s been tremendous. The support is great, the passion of the RPI hockey community is through the roof.”
Among the newcomers is goalie Linden Marshall, who split time with junior Chase Perry in a 2-1 exhibition loss to Saint Mary’s.
Perry would appear to be the default starter based on his experience, but Smith said there are jobs and roles there for the taking, no matter which class a player is from.
“It’s a little bit exciting because everybody, whether they had good statistics or not, has an opportunity to impress right away,” Smith said.
“I hear myself say those things, and as I say it I hear myself in the back of my head going, ‘Not one of them [freshmen] has touched a puck in a game yet.’ So the transition is always interesting. They know that they’re able to mistakes and we’ll support them. Not all of them can dress because we don’t have enough spots, but they’ve all been contributing so far.”
Opening weekend in Columbus, Ohio, will be a homecoming of sorts for Smith, a native of Arthur, Ont., who played five full seasons in the American and International hockey leagues and was under contract with the New York Rangers in 1994-95.
Before his pro career, Smith played four seasons at Ohio State before graduating with a degree in journalism/public relations.
“I think it would be different if I was playing,” he said. “I’ve been back there lots of times. It’s fun for me to look around and tell some lies to the guys about what it was like when I was there. It’s a great opponent, a Big Ten opponent in a world-class city, and I just happen to go to school there. We’ll tell stories, but we’re there to play hockey and play the games.”
Smith wants the Engineers to be more of a puck-possession team, while pushing the pace to generate offense.
“We started with that a little bit last year, and it’s not just making stupid turnovers or bad plays, but just knowing when’s the right time and place to make a play into the zone and when’s the right time and place to throw it deep and go get it,” Wilson said.
“We want to be hard to play against,” Smith said. “We want to push the pace, all five guys all the time. We want to do it with structure, but from that structure comes pace.”
No matter what happens this year, the Engineers, as always, will look forward to the mini-season within the season, the matchup with Route 7 rival Union.
Besides the ECACH home-and-home coming soon to a pair of rinks near you, the Engineers and Dutchmen will also square off in the annual Mayors Cup game at the Times Union Center on Jan. 27.
“You’re definitely up for those games,” Prapavessis said. “It’s been pretty even in my time here, but we get up for them and they get up for us, too, so those are some of the most fun games to play. We’ll be ready for them.”
“Oh . . . always; it’s always something to look forward to,” Liljegren said.