Monday, September 27, 2010

Men's Hockey - ECAC Preview

As a member of the ECAC Hockey Writers and Broadcasters Association, I have a ballot in the EHWBA's annual preseason media poll, which outlines the media's expectations for the coming season (and is often compared against the coaches' poll). The ballots are not made public and a lot of the voters choose not to expose themselves to criticism. Which is certainly understandable.

Well, I'm used to criticism. So here it is. My ballot.

Realistically, there's always more of a "band" breakdown in the ECAC at the start of any given season than a solid 1-12 ranking, even though we are asked to rank teams in that way. Where the bands exist depends on the relative quality of the teams in question. Teams in any of the bands could finish anywhere within that band. Sometimes, the bands are as simple as 1, 2-11, and 12. This year, it's a touch different. This year, I think the bands are 1, 2-6, 7, and 8-12.

As you'll shortly see, I disagree with most of the poll's final placements, but I do at least concur on which teams are the top six, and which are the bottom six.

1. Yale (1st coaches [11/12], 1st media [25/30])- The Bulldogs are head and shoulders above the rest of the league and are the clear favorite to win a third-consecutive Cleary Cup. Their only weakness is in goal, but their offensive strengths will mitigate that regularly. Yale is already a fair preseason pick for the Frozen Four, if they get their goaltending situation straight and get bolstered by a good incoming class they could be competing for a national championship.

2. Dartmouth (6th/6th) - The Big Green awaken from a two-year slumber with some dynamite offense and adequate defense that, while not on Yale's level of excellence, should be enough to make them a top contender in the ECAC. They have a pair of goaltenders who have demonstrated the ability to be among the best in the conference - if one or both of them can show it again, the sky is the limit.

3. Colgate (5th/4th [2/30]) - Balance is the watchword in Hamilton. While the Raiders graduated one of their most recognizable offensive stars, they still have a ton of talented - and experienced - scorers returning this season, as well as a decent amount of tested blueliners. Like Yale and Dartmouth, goaltending is going to be the issue. Will they have someone who can step up and lead them to the top of the league?

4. Cornell (2nd [1/12]/2nd [2/30])- Even in a down year for Cornell, they're still going to be right there fighting for an quite possibly earning a first-round bye. Despite losing a lot of talented scoring and the best goaltender in the league in the offseason, the Big Red's defensive mentality will probably be enough to get them by more often than not.

5. RPI (4th/5th) - The Engineers would have challenged Yale for the top spot if they'd returned all of their underclassmen, but as it is RPI still returns a very experienced team loaded with seniors, a Hobey Baker finalist, and the best returning goaltender (statistically) in the league. It's hard to throw all that away.

6. Union (3rd/3rd [1/30]) - The defense isn't in question for the Dutchmen, but the offense is. The defense is solid enough and what offense they return is ample enough to pencil Union in for a home-ice slot in the first week of March, but they're going to need to show more than what they have on paper to vie for another first-round bye.

7. Brown (11th/11th) - The thing I like about Brown that has them solidly ahead of the back-of-the-pack band is their experience and the level of commitment the players showed to playing Brendan Whittet's system last March. They have significant weaknesses on defense, but their offense and their system will be enough to win them some games - not enough to shoot for the top four, but probably enough to at last get a home-ice series.

8. Princeton (10th/9th) - Someone has to get the final home-ice slot, and while I feel like none of the bottom five teams are especially good enough for it, Princeton is my dark horse for that final spot. The Tigers underwhelmed last year and then lost a significant chunk of the talent that was supposed to have them battling Yale at the top of the table, but there's at least a little bit of everything, even if it doesn't add up to be terribly overwhelming.

9. Quinnipiac (8th/8th) - The Bobcats have one thing going for them this year, and it's their goaltending. Besides having one of the best goaltenders in the league, they also have the deepest bench in the league between the pipes. Unfortunately, the offense took a massive hit and will be very young, as will many of the defensemen, who were young last year as well. The offensive questions are the ones most in need of answering.

10. Clarkson (12th/12th) - It'll be hard to be much worse than they were last season, but the Golden Knights are at the very least another year older, and considering that the major issues last year were inexperience and injuries, they should at least be somewhat better as long as the injuries don't come back. The goaltending situation, however, needs to improve drastically for Clarkson to shoot for home ice.

11. Harvard (7th/10th) - It's back to the drawing board in Cambridge for sure. The Crimson relied heavily on their star freshman last season - he led the team in scoring with only 23 points - and now he's gone. The goaltending has been known to be good occasionally, but it's difficult to look at the roster as it's comprised and be able to see a team capable of putting together a solid run in the ECAC.

12. St. Lawrence (9th/7th) - Someone has to be last. It may not end up being St. Lawrence, but there's not much to like in Canton this season. Two senior goaltenders gone, a truckload of scoring gone, and other than a couple of talented young blueliners and a promising young forward, it's hard to find the core of a team that is going to be in the running for much of anything. The hope in Canton has to be behind the bench- Joe Marsh has been known to wring more from his teams than people reasonably expect. If I had to do it over I might have moved them up a bit on Marsh alone but a coach by himself is never a given.

My preseason All-ECAC ballot:
G Dan Clarke, Quinnipiac - This one is probably the most wide open position in the league, and my vote went to Clarke over RPI's Allen York (the choice of the coaches) and Union's Keith Kinkaid (the choice of the media). More than the latter two, Clarke has the ability to carry his team farther up in the standings on his own if he plays to his ability - we saw it in the first three months last year.

D Evan Stephens, Dartmouth - You name it, he does it, and does it pretty well. I had Stephens on my preseason ballot last year and he did not disappoint. A Third Team All-ECAC selection last year, Stephens is perhaps the best all-around defenseman returning this season. He moves the puck well and can be a pain deep in his zone. He was a consensus pick between the coaches and the media.

D Taylor Fedun, Princeton - Fedun was one of the pests that made the Freakout! intolerable last season. A Second Team All-ECAC pick, Fedun takes the mantle of "best quarterback" from Yale's Tom Dignard, who graduated last year. He has great vision for delivering the puck from the blue line to where it can be best utilized within the offensive zone. The coaches selected St. Lawrence's George Hughes, while the media picked Cornell's Nick D'Agostino, both sophomores.

F Chase Polacek, RPI - Only two of ten Hobey Baker finalists from last year are returning to school this fall. Polacek is one of them. The reigning ECAC scoring champion, and a First Team All-ECAC selection, he's an obvious choice - and was a consensus selection of both the coaches and the media.

F Broc Little, Yale - Another obvious and consensus choice, given his 20-goal ECAC campaign last season. A First Team All-ECAC pick last year, Little is the spearhead of the Bulldogs' scary offense. Little is my second repeat from last year's ballot.

F Scott Fleming, Dartmouth - If you're not familiar with Fleming yet, prepare to become aware. Last year, he silently put up 22 goals to lead the Big Green in that category for the second year running. His linemate Adam Estoclet tends to, in my view, get more attention (and was one of my other potential choices for this slot), but Fleming is just as dangerous with the puck and has a great scoring touch. The coaches and media both took Colgate's Austin Smith, who was another one of my potential choices here and a good selection.

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