Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Know Your Enemy: Union

For the second consecutive offseason, there's been a great deal of drama in the Capital District as it pertains to college hockey, only this time, it's at the other end of Route 7. Fresh off their first major title of any kind in Division I - the ECAC regular season championship, which was powered by an outstanding stretch run - Union brings back a significant chunk of the team that was so successful last season, but will also be missing several key elements, including a pair that had not been expected to be missing, which has been enough to raise a number of questions about the Dutchmen coming into the year.

Union
Nickname: Dutchmen
Location: Schenectady, NY
Founded: 1795
Conference: ECAC
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 2011
Last Frozen Four: 1985 (Division III)
Coach: Rick Bennett (1st season)
2010-11 Record: 26-10-4 (17-3-2 ECAC, 1st place)
Series: RPI leads, 45-23-10
First Game: February 26, 1904 (Albany, NY)
Last RPI win: November 13, 2010 (Troy, NY)
Last UC win: November 12, 2010 (Schenectady, NY)

2011-12 games: November 15, 2011 (Troy, NY);
December 10, 2011 (Lake Placid, NY); January 14, 2012 (Schenectady, NY)

Key players: F Kelly Zajac, sr.; D Nolan Julseth-White, sr.; F Jeremy Welsh, jr.; F Wayne Simpson, jr.; F Kyle Bodie, jr.; D Greg Coburn, jr.; D Shawn Stuart, jr.; D Ryan Forgaard, jr; F Daniel Carr, so.; F Josh Jooris, so.; F Matt Hatch, so.; D Mat Bodie, so.; G Troy Grosenick, so.; F Tyson Fulton, fr.; F Trevor Mingoia, fr.; F Max Novak, fr.; F Daniel Ciampini, fr.

Key losses: F Adam Presizniuk, F Stephane Boileau, F John Simpson, F Justin Pallos, D Brock Matheson, G Keith Kinkaid

Previous KYE installment:

We've recounted (and of course, snickered at) Union's long, tortured tenure in Division I, but last year they did in fact climb to the top of the ECAC hill for the first time, but as has been their curse in practically every season, the playoffs were not kind. For the second consecutive season, the regular season champion fell to a bottom-of-the-barrel team that had taken down RPI in Troy the previous week. The Dutchmen did earn their first ever trip to the Division I NCAA tournament, where they earned a #2 seed to set up a potential all-ECAC quarterfinal against #1 Yale in the East Regional. Unfortunately, they were held scoreless by the #3 team, which would eventually go on to win the national championship - Minnesota-Duluth.

All told, however, it was a season that has to be looked upon as an unqualified success for Union even if they'd had the potential to do much more in March than they were able to accomplish. That they did it with a sophomore goaltender who won the Dryden Award as the league's top goaltender was even more impressive.

The drama began shortly after the season ended. Kinkaid signed an NHL deal with the New Jersey Devils, which will keep him in the Capital District next season, only he'll be playing his games at the Times Union Center in Albany instead of at Achilles Center in Schenectady. Shortly thereafter, the man who brought Union out of the depths to the top of the pile, head coach Nate Leaman, departed to accept the top spot at Hockey East's Providence College, wisely taking with him the man we've always believed has been his muse, former RPI captain Ben Barr.

The good news for Union? The vast majority of the scoring that propelled them last year is coming back, with Presizniuk the only major loss offensively. Welsh, unless he signs late, will not follow Kinkaid in forgoing his final two years at Union. Zajac returns for his senior season, and two young guns who were among the best freshman scorers in the league last year in Carr and Jooris. Boileau was a senior leader, but missed a good chunk of time to injury last season.

That returning offense is enough to make Union a very solid team next year on its own. Even on nights when Kinkaid was not on top of his game last year, the Dutchmen still pumped enough goals to come out on top more often than not, especially down the stretch. The biggest questions for Union, unquestionably, come in the two places they unexpected lost personnel - behind the bench and between the pipes.

Union moved quickly to replace Leaman with Rick Bennett, who had been one of Union's assistant coaches - so quickly, in fact, that they more than likely had the contingency planned long before Leaman left. As we mentioned with Clarkson (and will mention with Princeton when the time comes), it's never a sure bet how a team will react to a new coach. In this case, Bennett isn't coming in cold, having already coached (and in many cases, recruited) the players he'll be working with.

In net, replacing Kinkaid hasn't been easy. Grosenick is the only returning goaltender, and with Kinkaid so dominant last season, he didn't get much playing time (though he did fairly well when he was). Julian Laplante was supposed to be coming in to be the second goaltender, but he instead followed Leaman to Providence (along with one other recruit). Scrambling to bring in another netminder, Union moved up the timetable on Niskayuna native Colin Stevens, who they had hoped would be able to spend another year in juniors to prime him for college hockey, instead he'll probably have the opportunity to compete with Grosenick for the starting job this year.

At the end of the day, despite the loss of Kinkaid and Leaman, Union still boasts a solid team with great offense and a defense capable of making life easy on the goaltender no matter who it is. Unless the coaching or goaltending question marks take a serious turn in the negative direction, there's no reason to suspect that Union won't probably have another very good season this year.

Especially when Bryan Hicks is in the house.

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