Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Know Your Enemy: St. Lawrence

In the X-Men saga, there's no greater arch-nemesis of the title group than Magneto. He's the perpetual enemy, so ubiquitous that he's been a part of pretty much every X-Men movie that's ever been made. Well known among supervillains that five years ago he topped an online ranking of the greatest comic book villains of all time - and yet, throughout the years, on occasion, he's been one of the X-Men's strongest allies, even at times a member of the team. And that kind of has to be the feeling in Canton right now. For 14 seasons and the beginning of a 15th, Mark Morris led the hated Clarkson Golden Knights, and 11 times over that stretch, he led them to a better finish in the league standings than the Saints - not to mention wins in the 1991 and 1999 ECAC Championship games over SLU. And now he's back - in the ECAC, in the North Country (where he grew up), and leading the charge at St. Lawrence, not Clarkson.

St. Lawrence
Nickname: Saints
Location: Canton, NY
Founded: 1856
Conference: ECAC
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 2007
Last Frozen Four: 2000
Coach: Mark Morris (1st season)
2015-16 Record: 19-14-4 (11-8-3 ECAC, 4th place)
Series: SLU leads, 81-57-6
First Game: January 3, 1951 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: November 6, 2015 (Canton, NY)
Last SLU win: February 5, 2016 (Troy, NY)

2016-17 games: November 12, 2016 (Troy, NY); January 27, 2017 (Canton, NY)

Key players: D Gavin Bayreuther, sr.; F Woody Hudson, sr.; D Ben Masella, sr.; F Drew Smolcynski, sr.; D Eric Sweetman, sr; D Nolan Gluchowski, jr; G Kyle Hayton, jr.; F Ryan Lough, jr.; F Mike Marnell, jr.; D Matt Purmal, jr.; F Joe Sullivan, jr.; F Michael Laidley, so.; F Jacob Pritchard, so.; F Taggart Corriveau, fr.; D Ben Finkelstein, fr.

Key losses: F Brian Ward, F Tommy Thompson, F Alex Hagen, F Sean McGovern, F Christian Horn

Previous KYE installments:
Morris was wildly successful at Clarkson. Never had a losing season in 14 years, with 11 20-win seasons, three ECAC titles, and seven NCAA appearances, including an appearance in the 1991 Frozen Four. And then an incident with a player at a practice in 2002 ended his career in Potsdam. He hasn't stopped coaching since then, stringing a gig at the Northwood School in Lake Placid (2004-06) into the head position with the then-AHL Manchester Monarchs. After eight seasons in Manchester (and seven playoff appearances), he became an assistant with the Florida Panthers, and spent last season as the head coach of the Charlotte Checkers, Carolina's top AHL team. So he's still got that track record as a very successful coach.

He comes in replacing a St. Lawrence grad, Greg Carvel, who left Canton somewhat unexpectedly to become the new head coach at UMass in Hockey East. This, by far, is the biggest news at SLU from this off-season - but it obscures the fact that Morris is inheriting one of the best teams in the ECAC that still has plenty of punch.

With the departures of Alex Lyon, Jason Kasdorf, and Michael Garteig, one could make a very strong argument that Hayton is the best returning netminder in the conference - a guy who would probably could have been a shoo-in for all-ECAC honors in practically any other season given his resume from last year, but was ultimately behind all three of the aforementioned goalies at awards time.

On top of this, there's probably no more stacked blue line in the entire ECAC than at SLU. Three seniors and two juniors - Bayreuther, Masella, Sweetman, Gluchowski, and Purmal - return having played in every or nearly every game last season (Bayreuther and Sweetman in particular have dressed for all 112 games in the last three years). Finkelstein joins the fray as SLU's lone NHL draftee this season, but there are other likely options for the sixth D-man as well, including another senior in Mike Graham who has seen action in exactly half of SLU's games over the last three years. All of that is a combination of experience and talent that no one else in the league can boast.

In 2015, SLU found success with Hayton as the backstop and a balanced attack. The attack last year wasn't quite as effective as that - fewer 10+ point producers, fewer 5+ goal scorers, but not by much. The three leading point-getters, Bayreuther, Smolcynski, and Ward, were a bit more separate from the pack, but again, not by much - and seven of the top 12 scorers from last season return as either juniors and seniors, with another, Pritchard, clearly among the top young forwards in the ECAC heading into his sophomore season. Only two freshmen had as many or more points in league play as did Pritchard, and we've already sung both of their praises - Yale's Joe Snively and Brown's Tommy Marchin.

Ward and Thompson especially may stick out as solid losses for St. Lawrence, but their depth up front should be enough to absorb their absence. About the only area of concern for the Saints is the abysmal power play they had last season. If you thought RPI's power play was bad, you might have missed St. Lawrence, who connected at only 11.8% (against the Tute's almost-as-bad 12.3%) for the year, and crucially went 1-for-17 during a five-game losing streak in January that probably spiked any opportunity SLU had for earning an at-large bid to the NCAAs.

There's frequently a lot of questions that pop up about any team when they have turnover at the head coaching position, but there's almost no one that questions Morris' bonafides, and his constant success as a coach combined with the talent that has already been on display at Appleton Arena in the last couple of seasons leads one to believe there's probably not going to be much of a hiccup - though there's always some risk for a failure for even outstanding coaches to mesh with players he didn't bring in himself, it just feels unlikely here. There's just too much talent in place. The potential exists for bumps down the road, as a pair of SLU recruits have already decommitted (likely to follow Carvel to UMass), but unless Morris suddenly has issues adapting to the changes in the recruiting environment since he left Clarkson, that probably won't be much of an issue, either.

St. Lawrence now has all of the pieces in place and the requisite question marks at opposing schools to make a serious run at the very top of the ECAC, and there's little doubt that they should be among the pre-season favorites to finish atop the league, make a run to Lake Placid, and potentially make their first NCAA appearance in a decade.

It combines to make the North Country, for the first time in quite some time, the feared road-trip it traditionally always was. Give the Saints the slight edge thanks to their advantage in net - and perhaps, with their new ally behind the bench.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the nice write up. We lost more than two recruits and a couple were real blue chippers. Coach Carvel with his NHL experience and coaching cred with being assistant coach at last years World Championships (among other credentials) took several recruits with him including a goalie (Wischow?) who supposedly could have pushed Hayton for playing time.
    Carvel's leaving is/was a great loss and a shock as he is from Canton and supposedly had his dream job. But big bucks lured him to UMass. The hiring of Morris (who granted has been nothing but a winner) was very controversial. Many Alums and long time supporters of the program were not and are still not happy with the hire. Some of them you know from USCHO and they may disappear from the site they are so upset. I would imagine Morris doing well and winning with the team will make everyone forget quickly (if that happens.) From everything we have read Finklestein will play a role immediately and in particular on the PP, which you so accurately pointed out was a disaster. The point you overlook (to a degree) is what systems and type of play Morris will want from this team. Much has been made of Carvel wanting/saying the team "played the game the right way!" Same with Joe Marsh. Mostly clean, fast, up and down. If Morris introduces a lot of new systems and a different style of play......that could cause bumps and an adjustment period. We open at Penn State which could tell a lot. They have a strong, growing program that puts up SOG like they were getting paid $1,000 per shot on net.
    Thanks again for the nice write up and good luck this year.

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