Ah, the preseason coaches' poll. A chance to look at teams trending up, teams trending down and bulletin board material for at least a few weeks. It wasn't much of a surprise that Robert Morris and RIT took the top two spots with the Colonials getting seven first-place votes and RIT four. Here's a brief look at the 11 teams in Atlantic Hockey and what their coaches had to say on the annual media day conference call:
An empty place: Robert Morris won the regular season title last year but that and $1.60 will get you a cup of coffee at Tim Hortons. The Colonials were upset by Mercyhurst in the semifinals and with too low a PairWise ranking were out of the NCAA tournament despite a 24-win season and consistent rankings in the USCHO.com Top 20 poll. They return a lot of talent and experience with a new sense of motivation.
"I don’t think I have to curb their expectations," Derek Schooley said. "They are the same expectations they had last year. If we're lucky we win the regular season and go further in the playoffs. At the end of the day RIT gets to hang the banner that says Atlantic Hockey Champions and we get to hang the banner that says Regular Season Champions. You want to be sure you're ready and prepared to not be upset in the playoffs. You have to be focused enough to do it over a full season, not just 9/10ths of a season."
Dark at MGM studios: RIT nicknamed its top line MGM for McGown-Garbowsky-Mitchell but only Josh Mitchell returns for his senior year while the other two begin their pro careers. But coach Wayne Wilson sees positives and potential in that. "We were excited for that line and it was great for them but more than anything else, I think a lot of our guys sat back and watned to watch that line a little too often," Wilson said. "Other guys have to step up and are anxious to play bigger roles. That has to play out and we'll mix things up. We can't be afraid to mix things up and see how they react to that."
Oh Bentley: Filled with talented rosters the Falcons find a way to stumble, big time, in the post season. The last two years the Falcons received first-round byes and hosted a quarterfinal series. In 2014 they lost in three to Canisius and in 2015 they lost in three to Mercyhurst. "We have seen as our guys have seen in the last three to four seasons, the team that's hot at the end of the season has gone to the NCAA tournament," coach Ryan Soderquist said. "We want to peak at the right time and to do that we need to be patient and poised. That's something our guys understand."
New style for Canisius: The Ice Griffs lost a hefty senior class, one that helped established the program as contenders in the league. But as coach Dave Smith pointed out, the class was filled with role players -- guys who understand what they needed to do and sunk their heart into their assignments. In replacing that group, the Griffs made a concerted effort to change the dynamic of their program. Smith said the program added defenders with more speed and ability to join the rush and play in all three zones while upfront there are more freshmen ready to be go-to-players immediately, much like senior Ralph Cuddemi.
Speaking of Cuddemi: The senior forward is the leading returning goal scorer in Atlantic Hockey after netting 22 last year. Production is important, but Smith feels his numbers will be a byproduct of his intangibles. "Ralph is such a wonderful person who works so hard," Smith said. "We want Ralph to produce and it's important for us for Ralph to produce but when I talk to Ralph I want him to focus on exactly what his character is -- effort, drive, determination. If he does those things, you can't predict if a guy will score 40 points, but he's going to get points and have an opportunity. Ralph is the horse that's pulling the cart in terms of the demeanor he has with the guys. As long as he brings his work ethic, regardless of points, his senior year will be a success."
Sacred Heart could be a spoiler: The Pioneers are looking for their first winning season since 2009-10 when they went 21-13-4. Talented? You bet. The key for coach CJ Marottolo comes in one word. "Consistency," he said. "Consistency night in and night out and from practice to practice. Every day it's about being ready to practice. We feel we learned last year. We had segments where we lost three, four, five games in a row then came back to win five out of seven. We need to create that consistency in how we go about our business. Our team needs to mature and grow."
Settling in: In his second year as the Holy Cross head coach David Berard has to figure out how to replace goalie Matt Ginn who set school records in save percentage (.931) shutouts (four) and goals against average (2.10). The details of that are still to be figured out, but Berard sees his club ahead of last year's schedule thanks to familiarity. "Last year at that opening meeting it was like talking to 28 freshmen," he said. "No one knew me. No one knew how we would play. Every day was something different. ... In order to play our best, coach your best, be the best in what you do, you have to feel comfortable doing it."
Scrubbing the slate clean: Frank Serratore said this is the youngest Air Force team he's fielded in Atlantic Hockey and that's a good thing. It was a disappointing season for the Falcons and Serratore said he's looking to "scrub our program and systems and culture and all those things. ... We always prided ourselves on being the hardest working teamin the country and the most difficult team to play against. We weren't last year. ... I think we had a really good senior class. Talented. But I believe that team underachieved. We’re looking at the team this year, not based on wins and losses but on how we perform every night. I want to be hardworking team, a difficult team to play against, an overachieving team."
So no freshmen 15? Mercyhurst lost to graduation. A whole lot. So there will be a bit of rebuilding in Erie, Pa., this season with a freshman class Rick Gotkin noted has come to campus in great physical shape which puts them in a position for success. "You used to worry about kids coming in as freshman not understanding how hard they have to work off the ice," Gotkin siad. "Quite frankly, now it's a 24-hour thing for these guys. I'm amazed when I bump into these guys in Wegmans and see the things in their cart. I certainly never ate like that. My wife tries to get me to eat better now. They know so much already."
Worst season ever: There is no sugar coating -- Niagara is coming off its worst season in program history. The Purps went just 7-28-4 to finish dead last in the league. Injuries were part of the problem but the team seemed to spiral in other ways as well. "It's what we did to ourselves," coach Dave Burkholder said. "Sometimes when a team is against a coaching staff, it's not a bad thing. You know what, they spend all their time together. They're living together, in class together and they have to come togehter as a team. I feel that our seniors and captains have done a good job of acclimating the nine freshmen to our program and they'll be ready to go. They need to come together as a unit."
But those injuries: While Burkholder started by saying Niagara is healthy, he later mentioned that goaltender Jackson Teichroeb had surgery in the spring and still has not been cleared to play. Adrian Ignagni transferred to Division III Oswego to get more playing time. "I told Jackson when he's healthy and cleared he'll be given the net," Burkholder said. Teichroeb has been skating on his own and while there's no timetable, Burkholder said he "maybe mid-October" for the junior's return.
The 716 in net: Brian Riley has been working to build the program at Army West Point (note the new official name for the school this year) and last year's large freshman class provided a breath of fresh air. That includes Atlantic Hockey's Rookie of the Year in Tyler Pham. The Black Knights also return Buffalo native Parker Gahagen in net. "He's an extremely hard worker. You can't get him off the ice," Riley said of the junior. "He puts in a lot of time to become ma better goalie and I think he has the potential to be a top goalie. For him, one of the things we need is better consistency back-to-back. He can win some big games for us on a Friday night, but we want him to put those in on Friday and Saturday and the next Friday and Saturday. We want a more consistent level night to night from him."
Make more plays: It's simple but it's what American International needs to do -- make plays and play more in their opponents end than their own. "With a little deeper roster in quantity and quality, hopefully that will forster more internal competition so we can be more competitive externally," Gary Wright said. "We're just trying, whether it's special teams or tweaking breakouts, anything we can do to have more possession time spent in the offesnive end and change that differential with shots for and against which was not a good number last year." For the record, that number was 1,422 - 906 meaning AIC was outshot, on average, 39-25.