By Dominic Chamberlain
The Griffs hockey team did not have the best year last year. The team finished the season with a 10-13-5 record in Atlantic Hockey. That 10-13-5 conference record meant the Griffs finished in seventh place in Atlantic Hockey and faced the rival Niagara Purple Eagles in the first round of the conference tournament. The Griffs would best their rivals but fall in the second round to Air Force, thus ending their season.
Entering into this season, the Griffs really aren’t expected to do much within Atlantic Hockey. In the preseason coaches poll, the Griffs were picked to finish in ninth out of the 11 teams in the conference. The only teams behind the Griffs in the poll are the aforementioned Purple Eagles and the American International College Yellow Jackets.
Part of the low ranking for the Griffs comes from the fact that the team’s two leading goal scorers, Ralph Cuddemi and Shane Conacher, departed. Cuddemi and Conacher were the leaders of the Griffs, finishing their careers at Canisius with 123 points and 106 points respectively. The Griffs will miss their offensive prowess.
This graduation of Cuddemi and Conacher’s decision to turn pro left a void for top Griffs forward. Filling that void will be Ryan Schmelzer. Schmelzer, a junior, will now be called upon to lead the way offensively. In his first two seasons with the Griffs, he played on the same line as Cuddemi and Conacher and will now look to take over as leader of the offense. Schmelzer, along with senior Geoff Fortman, were named team captains for the upcoming season.
“Its an honor,” Fortman said about wearing the “C.” “I’ve had the privilege of playing under three great captains in the past in Ryan Bohrer, Doug Jessey, and Ralph Cuddemi. I just want to keep their legacy going. It’s an absolute honor that the players and coaches have that trust in me.”
Fortman has been a versatile player during his time with the Griffs. Fortman was an assistant captain last season with the team and played in all 39 games. He and Schmelzer are the unquestioned leaders on this team.
Last year, the Griffs had a very young team and that will once again be the case this season. The Cuddemi, Conacher, and Schmelzer line always produced, but scoring on the other three lines lacked at times. Dylan McLaughlin and Felix Chamberland did step up for the Griffs, and new players this season will have to step up this season.
The difference this season may be in the team’s focus. Without one established top line, the team may be a more defensively centric team. Goaltending, according to Head Coach Dave Smith, will need to improve from last year. Enter three new goalies and the returning Simon Hofley. Hofley will be entering the season now with a year of experience in Division I hockey while the three new additions all had success before joining the Griffs.
Although the team will definitely be changing their play style to adjust for the departing players, Coach Smith doesn’t know the team’s true identity yet. “I’m going to let that one play itself out,” Coach Smith said of the team’s new identity. “I think you’re going to see a higher energy, a higher, hard to play against factor, and more depth. “
The Griffs certainly could use that depth, especially if the team wants to surpass the ninth place they received in the preseason coaches’ poll. A big factor on that could be a heavy defensive presence.
The Griffs allowed 109 goals over the course of last season and averaged 3.2 goals allowed per game. These are not fantastic numbers, however the Griffs were rather competitive in conference play, especially in the middle of the season.
“I think off the start we’re going to focus on defense,” said Fortman. “At the end of the day, defense can win games. I think that we have some young guys that can score so as the season progresses I hope we can be more and more aggressive. I think regardless of losing our two big scorers from last year, I think we have enough guys and enough depth that we’ll be able to put up points and contribute offensively.”
The Griffs have a very interesting and challenging schedule and it will test this young, adjusting team immediately. The Griffs will kick off the season playing the North Dakota Fighting Hawks who just so happen to be the defending National Champions. The Fighting Hawks dominated the Quinnipiac Bobcats in the championship game in the Men’s NCAA tournament, beating them 5-1.
Following what will undoubtedly be two challenging games, the Griffs will travel to Alaska for two games. Then, the Griffs will return home to the HARBORCENTER to open conference play against Robert Morris, who finished in first place in Atlantic Hockey last season. The Griffs have one of the toughest starts to a season in all of Division I hockey.
Other notable games include two games on the road against Penn State and four games against the Purple Eagles.
But before all of the regular season play starts, the Griffs will host the Guelph University Gryphons in an exhibition game at the HARBORCENTER. “We’re going to try and get in as many people as we can,” said Coach Smith on the Oct. 02 exhibition matchup. “We want to take the first step to establishing how we want to play these other teams. I expect a lot of mistakes and I also expect a lot of great things and the new guys that get in the game get their feet wet. It’s fun to watch them. It’s fun to watch that energy and excitement about playing their first college hockey game.”
Youth very well could be the theme of the season for the Griffs. With that being said, it is a long season, and as it unofficially starts this weekend, this young team will be looking to write a new chapter in Canisius hockey.