October 9, 2012

From NEHJ: Harvard's next step

By Dan Guttenplan

It’s easy to poke holes in any argument made for Harvard to challenge for an ECAC Hockey championship this season. 

Harvard coach Ted Donato has re-emphasized recruiting. (Photo: Gil Talbot)

First and foremost, the Crimson trailed in 28 of their 34 games last season, and won only 13 of those 34 games. Second, Harvard graduated its best player and leading scorer, Alex Killorn, a consensus first-team All-America selection. Third, Harvard hasn’t won an ECAC Hockey title since 2006.

Those reasons alone might seem suitable to put the pro-Harvard argument to rest. But consider this:

* Harvard returns five of its top six scorers from a team that held a third-period lead over Union in last season’s ECAC Hockey championship game.

* Although the Crimson tied an NCAA record last season with 11 ties, they also had the nation’s top power play.

* Returning from injury are two of Harvard’s top players from 2010-11, Conor Morrison and Brendan Rempel (Willington, Conn.). That duo combined to miss 45 games last season.

* For the second year in a row, Harvard is being credited by some for having the conference’s top recruiting class.

The recent uptick in recruiting talent might best explain the resurgence of Harvard, a program that arguably has as strong a history as any in the conference.

The Crimson advanced to eight conference semifinal games in a span of nine years from 2000 to 2008 before going through a down period from the start of 2008-09 season through 2010-11. In that three-year span, Harvard logged a record of 30-58-10, forcing coach Ted Donato (Dedham, Mass.) to change his recruiting strategy.

“For me, it’s one of the areas I’ve learned the most over the years,” said Donato, who accepted the head job at Harvard in 2004. “I’ve had the benefit of being in a town with great coaches, and I’ve watched how they’ve gone about the business of feeding the lifeline of the program. It’s certainly an important part of our success.”

Donato focused his search on mature players directly out of prep schools, rather than junior hockey. His first powerhouse recruiting class enrolled last fall and made an immediate impact.

As freshmen, defenseman Patrick McNally, forward Colin Blackwell (North Andover, Mass.) and goaltender Steve Michalek (Glastonbury, Conn.) logged major minutes, filling valuable roles for an improving squad. McNally played the point on the top power-play unit in the nation, becoming one of the top scoring defensemen (six goals, 22 assists) in the nation. By championship weekend, Blackwell had earned a spot on the top line with Killorn and Marshall Everson. Michalek split time with Raphael Girard in goal, earning All-Ivy League second-team honors.

Donato added seven more potential contributors in this year’s group of incoming freshmen. The class is headlined by forward Jimmy Vesey (North Reading, Mass.), a third-round pick of this year’s NHL draft by the Nashville Predators; and forward Brian Hart (Cumberland, Maine), a second-round pick in this year’s NHL draft by the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“At schools like (Boston University) and (Boston College),” Donato said, “they have great classes year after year. They’re able to absorb injuries, departures, guys going pro. We feel that the future is bright, but a lot of hard work has to take place.” 

Defenseman Danny Biega had 35 points in 34 games last season for Harvard. (Photo: Gil Talbot)

As excited as Donato is about this year’s crop of freshmen, he is quick to note that this season’s team will go only as far as its upperclassmen takes it. The most important piece of the puzzle likely will be returning All-America selection Danny Biega, who keyed Harvard’s power play last season along with Killorn. Late last season, Donato credited Killorn and Biega for stabilizing the team as the talented freshmen got acclimated.

The Crimson, who finished 13-10-11, also experienced some inconsistent play in net.

Goaltending is not expected to be an issue this season, after Girard emerged last February. Girard entered last season in competition with Michalek for the starting goaltending position. The freshman, Michalek, beat out the sophomore, Girard, but neither player ran away with the job until after the Beanpot. That’s when Girard caught fire, logging a 3-0-2 record and 1.75 goals-against average in seven appearances in February. He was named ECAC Goaltender of the Month.

Morrison, who tore the meniscus in his knee, and Rempel, who had compartment syndrome in his thigh, eventually returned, although Morrison didn’t debut until the postseason. But neither played to the form they showed the year before when Rempel was named the team’s Most Improved Player, and Morrison tallied 19 points as a sophomore.

“It was definitely a new position not being on the ice, but it challenged us to contribute to the locker room presence,” Rempel said. “Based on the way the team was playing, we couldn’t do anything but stay positive.”

Rempel and Morrison will join Biega in a strong senior class, which also includes two of power-play standouts: Everson (13 goals, 20 assists) and Alex Fallstrom (13 goals, 12 assists). By the ECAC Hockey tournament, when Harvard played as the No. 3 seed, the majority of last season’s ice time went to players from this year’s senior class.

Harvard opened with a best-of-three series victory over rival Yale. The Crimson then posted the upset of the tournament by shocking second-seed Cornell in the semifinal. Had the championship game against Union ended 15 minutes earlier, Harvard would have secured its first NCAA appearance since 2006.

“The one thing our team learned last season,” Biega said, “is how important every game is. I didn’t realize that in the two years before that. It’s such an advantage to get a bye and have rest for the tournament. That’s the difference between having a good year and a great year. It decides who goes to the finals. This year, we’ll have strong focus for each individual game.”

This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal

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