Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Our Ballot

This is the fourth consecutive year that Without a Peer has had a vote in the annual ECAC preseason media poll... and by tradition, I usually share my ballot with the WaP readers in the interest of full openness about our little section of the poll.

I've always tried to be very, very serious with my ballot, because frequently as a fan, you always tend to look at your team in the most positive light possible. The worst place is always trying to figure out where to put your own team, because you A) don't want to be overly hard on them, and B) you don't want to look like you're being a homer. B is more scary than A when you're trying to cast off the partisan nature of running a fan blog and be dead-set honest with your assessment on how the league appears ready to turn out before the season begins.

That's why this year's poll may have been the most difficult one to fill out, as you're about to see. Our yearly "Know Your Enemy" series (which concludes tomorrow) helps me put this together, since it takes a microscope to each team in the league to find out what made them work last year, what will be missing, what returns, and what the prospects are, and that was key again this season in being able to rank the teams from 1-12. We don't mean to insult anyone, obviously, this is just the way we see things. Along the way, you find teams that you can't believe you're ranking so low, but someone has to be there, and when you can't find a way to put them ahead of other teams... there you have it.

So without further ado, the ECAC as I see it with the 2013-14 season about ready to get underway...

1. RPI - I tried to not put the bullseye on the Engineers' back. I spent the better part of a month trying to convince myself that someone else needed to be here, especially with two strong teams coming out of the national championship game, but at the end of the day, there's one truth about RPI that I cannot avoid. Simply, there is no other team in the league that returns established scoring ability (and much of its scoring from last year), established defensive capabilities, and has a solid, known quantity in net. Every other team is missing at least one of those. RPI's offense and defense may not individually be the best in the ECAC but as combined, they provide the best balance. Toss in a clear top goaltender heading into the season and we've got the team to beat.

2. Quinnipiac - The knock on the Bobcats from a number of quarters is that they graduated a heck of a lot of seniors last year. True. But they bring back basically all of the offense from last year and even augment it with solid recruits. Their issue is with defense, though they have a number of potential answers all around. This will be a younger team than last year's squad that romped in the ECAC, but there are enough known quantities with this team that they will continue to be dangerous, if vulnerable early in the season until the blueliners begin to gel as a unit. This is where the Q's non-Ivy status helps, as their first month of non-conference competition will help that happen.

3. Yale - The national champions are basically Quinnipiac with a more established d-corps but no immediately obvious answers in net. Practically since Keith Allain took charge in New Haven, the question has been between the pipes, and as we come into this season there isn't a real solid answer. If any of the goaltenders can get hot, however, the Bulldogs are as dangerous as anyone in the nation, as well evidenced by last year's championship run. The core of last year's scoring is back for more this season, which is going to cause headaches for even the best defensive teams in the ECAC. However, if this team gets into track meets repeatedly, that will not be beneficial for their long-term success.

4. Dartmouth - Another case where offense rules. I don't think the Big Green have as big of a problem in net as some have suggested, in fact, they have two very decent options there that really should not be causing much in the way of problems. Dartmouth gets ranked below Quinnipiac and Yale, however, on the explosiveness of their offense. It's a strong unit, it just isn't quite on the level of the Connecticut schools. They make up for that with more balance to that attack. Sometimes, having many skaters scoring a few goals is just as good as having a few skaters with many goals. That's going to be a very underrated element of Dartmouth's game that will probably see them coming away with two points more often than not.

5. Cornell - This is fairly low for the Big Red, but it represents a nexus of the team's late-year resurgence last season, their struggle to score goals, and their usual positioning as one of the league's top teams. Cornell isn't staying down for long, and while they have some questions to answer offensively, chances are pretty good they'll at least find enough answers to finish in the top half of the league for the 14th time in 15 seasons. The defense that has keyed the program's long-term success returned late last year, this ranking is indicative of a need to determine exactly where the offense is going to be coming from. They have many options, which is cause for optimism in Ithaca.

6. Union - Plenty of ability here to fill the gaps on offense, but those gaps accompany a Quinnipiac-level of concern on defense, with a likely competent but mostly untested goaltender and a defensive unit keyed by two of the best d-men in the conference but lacking in experience outside of them. This is not a mediocre team by any stretch of the imagination, however, and that more than anything speaks to the increasing depth in the ECAC that they are here in sixth. Rick Bennett's third season with the reins will be more difficult than the last two, but don't count him out - he's already proven that he can squeeze more from his teams than what appears to exist on paper.

7. St. Lawrence - It's very, very difficult to put a team with a pre-season Hobey Baker candidate this far down the list, but if anything, it's another testament to how good the league may be overall this season. As you'll see below, we've got two Saints in our selections for Preseason All-ECAC, and yet, here they are. That probably means that SLU will have the capacity to surprise, but they need to be able to spread the offense out a little bit more than they have in recent seasons, and they need a better than average performance from their goaltending in order to be competitive on the level that they were for a good chunk of last season - especially last February.

8. Harvard - Word came down in August that the players who left the team last season due to the cheating scandal would be returning this year, which represents a huge shot in the arm for a team that really needed it. The Crimson have a lot of young talent that were the heart of the team last year, but unfortunately that talent had very little in the way of support. The returning players should provide that support, and while this remains a very young, very raw program, it's one that has a bright future. That future should begin this year with a rise out of the doldrums of the league, and while there's likely still a learning curve ahead for Harvard, their special teams should prove considerably more difficult to deal with as compared to last year's train wreck, and that alone will have the Crimson competitive in games that were laughers last season.

9. Brown - This is an increasingly talented Bears team, but the ability to find solid goaltending has, over the years, been the major bugaboo in Providence and it's something that is going to be hurtful for this program again unless they can get it figured out as early as they did last year. It's a team with a couple of very good impact players who should be among the best in the league, and a team with a fairly decent defensive capability overall. The problem foreseen here is the lack of a known quantity in net combined with a lower level of talent among the supporting cast members as opposed to, say, Union or SLU. Still, no one should overlook this team, which does have the capacity to be a solid home-ice team this season if one of the teams above slips up.

10. Colgate - Still a very, very young team that has some growing pains to suffer through before what should be a couple of outstanding campaigns in the near future. In fact, the Raiders have the young offensive punch to potentially do what RPI did last year on the backs of sophomores and freshmen - they simply need the defense and goaltending to come along as well, which isn't a sure bet. It's a feel-good team with a captain who is winning his fight with Hodgkins lymphoma, but that leadership is going to have to be bold enough to translate into hard fought victories in games where the team came up short last year. This squad ran out of gas late last season, the defense is going to need to be strong for games where the goals aren't coming, which will crop up from time to time on young teams.

11. Clarkson - Offensively this team doesn't lose much but they still have a lot to do in that area in order to be a regular threat, as evidenced by the epically bad goal drought that the team ended last season with. Defensively, it's kind of a mess as well, although the Golden Knights do return a more experienced defensive group. However, as with the offense, experience means nothing if it doesn't bring with it improvement, and that's really needed all around in Potsdam, especially between the pipes. Clarkson at their best recently has been just enough to get by, but at their worst, it has been terrible in recent seasons. Without growth in all facets of the game, and the team's depth, this will be another tough season for the Knights.

12. Princeton - There really doesn't seem like there's lots and lots to love with the Tigers right now. Outside of one stud forward (who will steal this team some games on his own), there are question marks abounding with Princeton, more really than with any other team in the league, because the offense, defense, and goaltending is all only slightly above suspect this year. None of them are truly bad, and in that sense, the Tigers are kind of the inverse of RPI in that Princeton's offense and defense are not by themselves the worst in the league, but as combined they really don't rise to the level that would see any kind of guaranteed success. The good news is that they're not a clear-cut last place program, which means there's some room for them to finish out of the cellar.

The preseason poll also includes the all-ECAC selections, and these are the ones I came up with:

G - Jason Kasdorf, RPI: The last couple of years, we've been hesitant on exactly who the top returning goalie in the league is. That's not the case this year - Kasdorf's outstanding rookie season was far better than the campaigns of any returning goaltender last year. The only other netminder with a case, based on his full collegiate experience, is Cornell's Andy Iles. But Kasdorf was the only returning goalie who regularly carried his team to victories last season and had far better numbers in goals allowed and save percentage than any current netminder.

D - Shayne Gostisbehere, Union: While many thought the hard-nosed blueliner who became a revelation in his freshman year in Schenectady was ready to bail out after just two years, Gostisbehere returns for his junior season as the clear cut top defenseman in the ECAC right now. His rough and tumble presence up against some of the top forwards in the league gives the Dutchmen a serious edge, forcing the opposition to be solid offensively across many scoring lines - that alone can be enough to keep a team in games against tough competition.

D - Justin Baker, St. Lawrence: Probably the most difficult decision on this year's ballot was this spot, which was between Baker and Union's Mat Bodie. While Bodie gives the Dutchmen outstanding leadership from the point, Baker's two-way ability was an important link to success for the Saints last year, giving the team a connection for their wildly successful top line. Baker's importance on defense is just as important, and he returns this season as a key element in a SLU team that will be on the razor's edge between a great year and a tough one.

F - Greg Carey, St. Lawrence: Hard not to take the top returning goal scorer in the nation as one of the top three forwards in the league. Some would say that Carey's mind-blowing offensive numbers last season were a function of the graduated Kyle Flanagan's outstanding play. That would be foolish in the extreme - Carey has a prove track record of success across his three years in Canton even when Flanagan is not playing, which was more often than the Saints would have liked over the years. His ability commands absolute attention whenever he's on the ice, let alone carrying the puck.

F - Andrew Calof, Princeton: Easily one of the top talents in the east, Calof is going to be Princeton's best player this season and it's not even going to be close. On another team, with a stronger supporting cast, he'd already be in the discussion nationally for the Hobey Baker Award - ironic, perhaps, since Princeton was Hobey Baker's home - but that doesn't diminish the fact that he's the only individual forward in the league who's in the same area code as Carey in terms of being dangerous to contend with whenever he's on the ice. He's going to keep Princeton from being pushovers, that's for sure.

F - Kenny Agostino, Yale: Another tough call here between Agostino and Brown's Matt Lorito, especially with the strong collection of offense at Yale potentially helping Agostino excel more than he would if he were in Lorito's position. However, it's hard to argue with a guy who's already reached 100 points for his career after just three seasons being in this position. The Bulldogs are national champions in part because Agostino was able to define himself as being one of the best forwards on a team full of good ones, and his return helps keep Yale among the best teams in the nation, to say nothing of the ECAC.

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