TROY, NY − It’s now year three in the Dave Smith Era for Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute Hockey program, and with it, higher expectations.
Another year of RPI hockey means a new freshman class, new skillsets, and new hurdles the team will need to get over.
“I wouldn’t say the third recruiting class is the most important thing. I think the guys that are on our bus are all in,” said Smith. “Some of those guys were here when we got here, some of them were transfers, some of them we bought in. More than anything it feels that we are all aware of each other and what we are intending to do with each other.”
RPI enters the 2019-20 season with an eight-man senior class and two-man junior class making up the leadership corps of the new season.
“We have a leadership group of ten guys, and they have created a certain way of things they want done,” said Smith. “They have passed that along to not only the emerging leaders in the sophomores but to the incoming guys. That feeling of oneness and cohesiveness is every day, it feels very special right now.”
Last season, RPI finished with a 10-23-3 record. RPI finished ninth in the ECAC standings, qualifying for a spot in the conference tournament where they were swept in two games by Yale.
RPI hit a hot streak in the latter half of last season, which gave the impression of the season's turnaround. Unfortunately, the Engineers ended the season with a three game losing streak before the conference tournament.
“I heard comments from the guys after the fact saying, ‘that felt good. It felt like we were never going to lose again,’ and then we did, but that is a feeling you want to remember,” said Smith. “That is a sense of ‘let's get that mojo back.’ We know it is going to be a challenge, but our guys are in a really good frame of mind right now that we can overcome anything that comes our way.”
Other than graduations, RPI loses only three players from last season’s roster. Leading scorer Jacob Hayhurst transferred to Michigan, forward Donovan Ott transferred to Division III Utica, and defenseman Mat Harris is no longer on the roster.
RPI loses a total of 51 points from last season, mainly coming from Hayhurst’s 23 point season.
Top-liner Brady Wiffen totaled 13 points in his senior campaign last season.
Pittsburgh Penguins prospect and one of last year’s alternate captains Will Reilly returns for his senior year. Reilly racked up 18 points on the blue line last season.
RPI will now also get a full year of Chase Zieky, who shined in just 21 games last season when he scored eight goals and 14 points.
Along with Zieky, Mike Gornall and Shane Bear will get a full season to prove themselves in the RPI red at Houston Field House.
Other key returners for the Engineer’s will be Ottoville Leppänen (19 points last season), Todd Burgess (16 points last season), and Kyle Hallbauer (11 points last season).
“Chase Zieky is practicing very motivated right now. Todd Burgess’ energy has been a step up from where it has ever been, and I think that is a good sign because when he plays with energy he has excellent skill,” said Smith. “I think Will Reilly is one of those guys that when everybody looks at RPI Hockey is going to say, ‘We need to be aware of Will Reilly’ I think those three seniors are in a really good position. I think there are some other guys that could be poised but we will keep them quiet until we see them.”
Defensively, RPI returns a strong corps. A full season of former Umass D-man Bear, alongside Reilly, Hallbauer, and Jake Johnson gives a good building block for the rest of the team.
“Defense is a big part of any team and to have so many returning guys together make a difference and we have some good freshman here as well,” said Reilly.
RPI enlists nine freshmen for the upcoming season. Seven Americans make up that class, with two Canadians mixing in. Seven of the freshman join the Engineer’s straight out of the USHL and two from the AJHL.
“It’s obviously different being in a game but in practice, you get to see their work ethic and skillset and they have been really good,” said Reilly.
It is tough to see how the freshman will be implemented into the roster just yet. Last year, Leppänen earned top six time almost immediately and ended second on the team in points. On the flipside, Tommy Lee played in 29 games, mostly as a center in the bottom six, and accumulated just one assist, so it is tough to project freshman impact immediately.
Ryan Mahshie could be this year’s Leppänen.
For the Brooks Bandits of the USHL last season, Mahshie put up 65 points in 57 games. A 34 goal scorer, a Mahshie and Zieky goal-scoring tandem would be fun to see if Mahshie finds success.
RPI brings in four forwards, four defensemen, and one goalie for the upcoming season.
Both Owen Savory and Linden Marshall return for a second year to battle it out for time.
Savory finished last season with a .926 save percentage and 2.46 goals against through 25 appearances. Marshall carried an .890 save percentage and 3.66 goals against over 14 appearances.
Both goalies are different prototypes. Savory the compact, athletic, and quick goalie while Marshall is tall and can take up more net naturally, while also being athletic.
Both will be pushing each other for time.
Smith has said countless times he goes with the better goalie that week, and both Savory and Marshall embrace that.
“It’s whoever is playing, it’s their net and that adds to the competition and how we push each other,” said Marshall. “I think that is how it has been done for a while with Dave and it helps us.”
Joining Marshall and Savory is Alec Calvaruso from the USHL. Calvaruso spent a season and a half at Colorado College before opting for the Sioux Falls Stampede in the USHL.
Calvaruso will need to sit out until the winter break due to NCAA transfer rules.
In the preseason coach’s poll, RPI was selected to finish ninth. In the media poll, they were slotted at tenth.
RPI opens conference play against Union on October 25. The Engineers will need to travel to Union before seeing them again the following night at the Houston Field House.
RPI and Union will meet again for the eighth annual “Mayor’s Cup” at the Times Union Center on January 25.
Cornell, Quinnipiac, and Clarkson each are in the top three of both the media and coach’s polls in different orders. RPI went 1-4-1 against those top teams last season beating and tying Cornell in both meetings.
It is not out of the realm of possibility that RPI can slip into the top six of the ECAC at the end of this season. Union lost six of its top seven scores last season including Jack Adams, who tore his ACL and MCL at the Detroit Red Wings developmental camp. Brown graduated last year’s leading scorer Tommy Marchin, and RPI tied Dartmouth in the first matchup last season before falling 5-2.
It’s a new season and it is a big one for Smith. The eight-man senior class is all that is left of the past regime and those players have had two seasons to bail if they did not agree with the direction of the program.
It sounds as if the players are buying into the season and they want to play for each other and prove something.
Special teams was not good last season (power play was second-worst in ECAC and 55 in all of Div. I, penalty kill was 6 in ECAC and tied for 20 in Div. I) so RPI will need to take better advantage of that, especially when they are not getting a whole lot of them (second least amount of powerplays in ECAC last season).
Having two reliable goalies who have proven themselves is nice to have, the defense will be strong, and hopefully a goal scorer or two can pop out in the offense.
Overall, it is an optimistic time for Engineer fans, but, RPI needs to begin to show results.