by Ari Baum - November 1, 2006
Week 1: Assimilation

There is one big question that everyone has on their mind: Will Cornell's new players adapt to the Cornell system or will Cornell's system adapt to the new players? The answer may not be as simple or obvious as some may think. When all is said and done, Cornell hockey of 2006-2007 will be decidedly different than that of the prior ten years. This is not to say that the coaching staff is abandoning the system that has brought it so much success, but expect definitive changes in the on-ice product. The coaches themselves seem unsure at this point exactly what it is that they want, and as a result, the players likely feel the same way. The reality is that everyone is going to have to endure some adjustments to their norms.

Let's just get it out of the way. This is the most talented Cornell team in terms of offense of the Schafer era. As opposed to the predominantly north-south players of the past, this team now boasts a dynamic mix that can rival the very top programs in college hockey. There is no way to deny it. Just watch Tony Romano for a shift or Justin Milo or Blake Gallagher. These new players have added a new dimension to Cornell's offense. Representation of the old style still remains in force with the likes of Raymond Sawada, Byron Bitz, and Mitch Carefoot, but experienced players like Topher Scott, Mark McCutcheon, and Evan Barlow have to be licking their chops with the influx of skill, better-suiting their games. What does it all mean though? Will this infusion of skill come at a cost?

The early results are in and all signs point to, well, more of the same questions. Romano has unbelievable skill, at a level that Cornell has not seen in a very long time. When he got the puck, all of Lynah buzzed. At the same time, his tremendous ability comes at a price in the form of decision-making. Cornell plays a safe, detail-oriented game and it has thrived under it because they allow so few scoring chances against. Romano, for example, may lift people out of their seats, but he also gives ulcers. A handful of times over the weekend, he turned the puck over in the worst places possible: the defensive blueline and the offensive blueline. Sit behind any coach at any high level of hockey and you will hear them preaching about not turning over the puck in these so-called "danger-zones" because teams with good transition games will jump on them every time and turn the mistake into odd-man rushes. This is not to pick on Romano but if anyone represents a contrast in style, it is him. After all, he may be the first Cornell player since the Brian McCutcheon era to try and dipsy-doodle his way out of the defensive zone. This, not surprisingly, led to a turnover. Of course, he will learn. The coaches will make sure it happens sooner rather than later. However, the question remains: how much will the Cornell system stifle a player like Tony Romano? The answer is not very much, though it will most certainly take some time for both Romano and the coaching staff to be comfortable.

The coaches are going to need to meet the players half-way. Part of having so much talent is utilizing it correctly. The freshmen will need to be gradually broken in to the system, adapting to the finer points of Schafer's detail-oriented system. As this happens, Cornell will look more like the Cornell we are all used to. Nobody is suggesting the abandonment of defensive responsibility, but allowing the team's offense to perform is imperative if this new talent is going to pay off in the long run. As solid a player as Mitch Carefoot is, he is not a top line winger, nor is he a point-main on the powerplay. He has some skills but he is not in the same zip code as most of the freshman. If he has never played on the powerplay during his time at Cornell, it does not make a whole lot of sense to put him there on the deepest offensive team he has played on in four years. If Carefoot were to be on the powerplay, he would not be out of place as the mucker who wins the battles in the corners and creates traffic in front of the net. At the same time, Justin Milo and Blake Gallagher both have tremendous skills and vision and may be better utilized if positioned higher in the zone. In the past, Schafer has often set up his powerplay with a three-man rotation up high and it is something worth looking at again. Having Milo's big shot and quick release up there would certainly utilize his ability better than having him in front of the net where he was positioned in the first two games. This is just one example of how the coaching staff needs to go against some of their previous norms just a little bit so as to fully utilize the team's talent.

Although they would obviously never admit it, the coaching staff is going through a transition. This is not the same group of players they have had the last few years. There is not nearly as much size, though there is much more speed and skill, and most obviously, there is not the same defensive consciousness among some of the players. One of their biggest tasks will be to instill that attention to detail within all the players, while their other, and probably more taxing, job will be to loosen the reigns a bit on the offensive side of the ice. The guys behind the bench have not changed, so even though there are some different types of players, expect the same level of accountability in the defensive zone. The breakout will get better. The coverage will get better. The offense will get better. At the same time, their opponents will also be better.

There really is not a whole lot else to say this early in the season. A lot is going to happen in the coming months and there are going to be some growing pains both for the players and the coaches. When all is said and done, expect a Cornell team that may not be quite as dominant defensively, but has the ability to beat teams in a variety of ways. In the longer-term, do not be surprised if the next time Cornell is in a tight, low scoring game in the NCAA Tournament they come out on top.

3 Stars of the Weekend for Cornell

1. Troy Davenport
There was certainly a degree of suspense heading into the weekend with regard to which goaltender would be starting. Beyond that, all eyes were on the Cornell crease to see how David McKee's heir would perform. Suffice it to say, Davenport looked like a seasoned veteran. Cornell struggled early in each game and Davenport stayed composed, making a handful of big saves in each game. He was not tested a whole lot in either game, but he was forced to come up with some big saves at important times and proved up for the task. One of the best Mike Schafer quotes ever came prior to the 2003-2004 season when all the talk was geared around replacing Hobey finalist David LeNeveu in net. Schafer said of McKee that his job would be to make people forget LeNeveu. Considering McKee was right where LeNeveu was within two years (as a Hobey finalist), one can say he met Schafer's challenge. If Davenport has more weekends like his first, it will not take people long to forget McKee.

2. Topher Scott
It is clear that Scott has taken his game to a new level. He may not have put up any points against Robert Morris, but Scott was a factor in the offense all night, particularly on the powerplay. He was just as good against R.I.T. except he made a bigger dent on the scoresheet, scoring a goal and two assists. Scott is getting even more creative with the puck while somehow getting stronger on it as well. He showed tremendous creativity and patience and is going to put up some big numbers this year.

3. Brendon Nash
Nash was the best player on the ice against Robert Morris and although he came back down to Earth a bit against R.I.T., he still managed two assists. Nash played with a ton of composure for a freshman defenseman and was making great plays with the puck all weekend. He is definitely offensively-minded but was responsible in his own end as well. If he can continue to play at that level, Cornell's defense will be in much better shape than many predicted. Who would have thought that Brendon Nash would be the team's leading scorer after two games?

Burning Questions

Are any forwards in danger of coming out of the lineup?
You have to feel for Chris Fontas who sat out all of last season after transferring. He was looked at as a shoo-in to bring a solid, experienced, two-way presence to a team that seemingly lacked in these areas. At least this past weekend, Fontas was the odd man out. With Scott moved back to center after a couple of years on the wing, there were no spots to spare down the middle. A player like Mike Kennedy may have been on the bubble but he performed very well and solidified his spot in the lineup. Two guys who may be vulnerable are Evan Barlow and Tony Romano. Both had good weekends and will stay in the lineup for the foreseeable future, but if they do not improve defensively, then Scott could move back to the wing and Fontas could potentially draw into the lineup. The same answers are applicable for Joe Scali though he could also play the wing. For now though, expect the twelve forwards to remain the same.

Which defenseman will come out of the lineup when Glover returns?
Right now, sixth on the non-injured depth chart probably belongs to Justin Krueger. Krueger did not have as strong a first weekend as Nash did, getting caught flat-footed a handful of times. He does have some good size though, and if he can work on his foot-speed he should climb the depth chart. Taylor Davenport also struggled at times this weekend and will need to get up to the college speed if he is going to stay in the lineup when Glover returns. More is also expected out of Evan Salmela. While he may not be in danger of falling out of the lineup, he needs to get his game to another level.

What direction is the powerplay going?
The Big Red has two relatively balanced powerplay units. It is more of a 1A and 1B situation than having clearly-defined first and second units. The 1B unit looked sharper over the weekend with Topher Scott as the setup man. The 1A unit had its moments but the pointmen struggled with decision-making a fair amount. Eyebrows were certainly raised with Carefoot being on the point after not playing on the powerplay at all in his first three seasons. The unit seemed to do better with Krantz in his place. In general, there is a ton of potential on each unit and expect both to contribute equally once they get going.

Why was the home-opener not sold out?
For some reason, the girls' hockey game on Friday pushed the men's opener back to Thursday. There's no saying why that would happen when the latter is the revenue-generator. Thursday night saw several notable events around campus including the re-opening of Bailey Hall and some well-attended events around town, including the annual Chamber of Commerce Auction. In addition, the increase in price of student season tickets has led to dozens still available even after all line numbers had gotten off the waiting list. It was very disappointing and poorly thought-out by athletics when all of this was added up and there were several hundred empty seats in the opening of the newly-expanded Lynah Rink.

Upcoming Weekend Outlook

The schedule has been designed almost perfectly for a team breaking in a lot of new faces. Each opponent is a little tougher than the last and this weekend should be no different. Brown has done nothing in the early going to show that they are worthy of climbing out of the ECACHL cellar. They tied a marginal Canadian school in Trois-Rivieres and tied fellow basement-dwellar from Hockey East, Merrimack, on Saturday. That being said, Brown has to be considered a candidate to improve from last year, returning its top 15 scorers. There are no easy games in NCAA hockey and Cornell has proven in the past couple seasons that very few of its early season ECACHL games are easy.

Cornell 4 - Brown 2

After several rough seasons and with a new coach behind the bench, all eyes will be on New Haven to see how Yale fares this season. The early results have to be considered positive for the Bulldogs who have chalked up two road wins to start their season. One came against Holy Cross while the other came against perennial powerhouse New Hampshire. Yale did lose its exhibition to McGill the weekend before, however. Still, Yale was a tough team last season and gave Cornell all it could handle in the two games they played. You have to think they are feeling very confident after beating New Hampshire and will be energized to open their season at home under their new coach. The good news is that Colgate has to play them first but expect a very tough game in beautiful New Haven on Saturday night.

Cornell 2 - Yale 3

ECACHL Predictions

1. Colgate
They have the best player in Tyler Burton and the best goaltender in Mark Dekanich as well as a great supporting cast. Pretty tough to not give the Red Raiders the nod.

2. Harvard
Don't be surprised if they start slow then run the table after New Year's. They have done it for the last five years.

3. Dartmouth
There is a lot of talent in Hanover, although they have some significant holes to fill. Still, the Big Green has been on the verge on the national scene for a few years and are looking to prove themselves.

4. Cornell
More holes to fill than any other ECACHL team, but still a ton of talent both on and behind the bench. It's very likely the Big Red will catch some by surprise come March.

5. Quinnipiac
This is your breakthrough team of the year and potentially the most lethal in terms of offense in the whole conference. They work hard but also have the talent to be a factor.

6. Yale
Their early season results are impressive, but Yale actually made some positive strides last year and should climb out of the doldrums this season.

7. Clarkson
They may be the most talented team in the conference, but the Golden Knights have disappointed for the last couple of seasons. They still lack the discipline to be a true contender.

8. Rensselaer
The Engineers have proven that they are a vastly-improved team in the early-going but they are going to find out that the same holds true for much of the ECACHL as well.

9. St. Lawrence
The Saints will rebuild this season after losing much of their core but Joe Marsh always ices a competitive team with exciting and talented players.

10. Princeton
The Tigers have a strong group of returning players but there is not enough talent for them to make an impact.

11. Brown
They could be a breakout team with all the experience on their roster but the talent is not at the level of most ECACHL teams.

12. Union
Despite positive strides over the last couple years, the Dutchmen still lack the talent and depth to compete on a nightly basis.