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Reason for Union men's hockey to be optimistic about 2020-21

Reason for Union men's hockey to be optimistic about 2020-21

After trial by fire in an 8-25-4 season, Dutchmen's freshmen got plenty of ice time, and improved
Reason for Union men's hockey to be optimistic about 2020-21
Goalie Darion Hanson is expected to be a mainstay of Union's 2020-21 team.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

SCHENECTADY -- Union men's hockey head coach Rick Bennett had just finished grinding through video of the Dutchmen's season-ending double-overtime loss to Yale when his phone rang on Wednesday afternoon.

He wasn't wallowing in despair over the way that game ended -- Union had a game-winning goal waved off minutes before Yale scored -- or in the fact that the Dutchmen went 8-25-4 on the season.

On the contrary, "Just watching Game 3, I saw some of the stuff we can really focus on to make a huge jump. Film is tedious, but it teaches you so much," he said.

"If we get some of those things we need to curb in check, I really like this team going forward. I really do."

That's because, won-lost record aside, a roster top-heavy with first-year players showed enough promise to make the Dutchmen (who will also get injured wing Jack Adams back) an interesting and much-improved team next season.

An obvious indication of that is the fact that, of the six players selected by league coaches for the ECAC Hockey All-Rookie Team, two were from Union and four were from Harvard, known for attracting NHL draft picks who frequently leave early for the pros.

But the bright spots from Union's first-year crop of 2019-20 aren't limited to forward Gabriel Seger and defenseman Dylan Anhorn. "Optimism" can be a hollow word in March for a sport whose season doesn't begin until October, but next season's sophomores will bring back more ice time, experience and progress than they might have on a veteran-heavy team.

"We knew it was going to be a perfect storm from what happened this summer," Bennett said. "And then some stuff hit us even before the season. Then during the season. Then injuries, which we all get.

"It was perfect storm, but I'm proud of these guys, because we never put all that stuff in the papers. We never said, 'We're young' [as an excuse], like it seems every other coach says. This team battled hard, and that's a message that some of our alums sent out to us, that they're proud of this team for battling, and they never gave up. I think the last series proved that."

Union graduated a large class of nine seniors after the 2018-19 season, forcing Bennett to use freshmen in a heavy rotation.

It didn't help the Dutchmen's cause when Liam Morgan, one of the top point producers on that team as a sophomore, decided to leave for pro hockey in Northern Ireland in July.

Then two players, Sam Morton and Lucas Breault, left the program in midseason.

The vacuum left behind was filled by freshmen, and many of them took advantage of that chance, most notably Seger and Anhorn, two of only five players on the roster to have suited up for all 37 games.

Seger wound up centering Union's top scoring line and finished second on the team behind senior Anthony Rinaldi in points.

"That would be No. 1 for me, the way he picked up our 'D' zone coverage and was reliable," Bennett said. "He figured that out, so he's playing more offense.

"That goes back to the recruiting, where I compliment [assistant coaches] Jason [Tapp] and John [Ronan], is the hockey sense. If you have some hockey sense, as your learning the game and the speed of the game, it helps you so much. You can be controlled within the 'D' zone so you have some energy to go play offense."

For a stretch toward the end of the season, Anhorn was the only Union player with a positive plus-minus, until classmate Matt Allen made a push and finished at +1. Anhorn finished with six goals and 10 assists to rank tied for eighth in freshman scoring in ECACH despite playing at the blueline on a team that averaged 1.81 goals per game.

"Just the way he plays a 200-foot game is impressive," Bennett said. "He wasn't just a one-trick pony where he's an offensive guy. He has bought in to all three zones, and his work ethic is incredible. He's a future leader just by the way he works."

Bennett also credited forward Chaz Smedsrud as one of the most improved players from start to finish, and Allen as a player with perhaps the most room to still improve.

Smedsrud showed his scoring skill with a goal on opening night in a 7-3 loss to Boston University, then was in and out of the lineup from the middle of October to the middle of November, but by the end of the season, he was a regular on both the power play and penalty kill.

He took the first forward shift when Yale had a two-minute 5-on-3 in the second period of Game 2 in the first round of the playoffs. The Dutchmen got out of that predicament without giving up a goal.

"Once he figured it out -- because he's another guy with tremendous hockey sense, and he's got some skill -- once he applied that and learned and really got after it, he finished the year on one of the top lines, and at center, and he was on the power play and PK," Bennett said. "That's a pretty good transition from actually being out of the lineup.

"For PK, it was his 5-on-5, being responsible and his hockey sense. As far as the power play, that was John Ronan noticing his release. What was nice was that he could one-time a puck. We really haven't had that one-time bomb in a while. To score nowadays, you need that."

Although it's not entirely in his control, Bennett said he doesn't foresee any early departures to the pros by any of his older players, including junior goalie Darion Hanson, who weathered a long season with not much in the way of offensive support.

"Hanny faced a lot of shots, and next year I feel that he won't have to face the volume of shots, and we can definitely help him more," Bennett said. "I thought he handled it well. He was one of our best players throughout the course of the season. I'm sure he would be the first to tell you that he lost his way at times. But that's natural. Pros do that. He played a ton of hockey this year, and I think he learned a ton.

"We were down to a couple goaltenders for the first half of the year. You're not even talking games. People don't realize, they don't see the practices, with just two goalies. That's a lot of shots."

Adams, a Detroit Red Wings draft pick, was primed to be one of the top point producers for Union as a junior this season, but blew out his knee last summer during Red Wings' NHL development camp.

He spent the season home in the Boston area taking courses online and rehabbing and maintaining a rigorous training routine after surgery, and the byproduct of that will be a stronger, more imposing 6-foot-6 player.

"You look at Jack now, and you see a totally different person than what showed up on campus his first year," Bennett said. "He is an absolute man now. It's really impressive. I don't know how many players there are who are 6-6, 225 pounds, with that skill set, in college hockey, and we feel he can come back and replace Anthony Rinaldi on the top line. That's a nice gift to have.

"He said he wanted to be a professional hockey player. Well, you just went through something that a lot of professional athletes go through, and he passed with flying colors. He looks great, and he's a going to be a big load for a lot of defensemen."

In light of the dearth of scoring, the Union staff has recruited an incoming class with a little more of a sniper mentality on offense.

Bennett believes that class will also push next year's sophomores to not rest on their laurels or develop an expectation of extended ice time, like they enjoyed this season by default.

"Is eight wins acceptable? Absolutely not," he said. "So, these guys know, I don't know how you would think that you'd be entitled to playing time. You would need to have your head checked.

"I hate to say this in a losing cause, but this team had closure. And a lot of programs don't have closure. We have to take solace in the fact that we did, we've moved on, we had a chance to talk to our team and everyone is returning."

Reach Mike MacAdam at 518-395-3146 or [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.

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