By John Lachmann
OXFORD, Ohio – Smaller and faster.
Miami began its transition to that philosophy in 2012-13, and the RedHawks have doubled down on that ideology this season.
The two freshmen forwards that played in Saturday’s exhibition are listed at 5-feet-7 and 5-8. The incoming defensemen that dressed in that game are 5-7, 5-10 and 6-0.
The key departed players from last season’s team are 6-0, 6-2, 6-2 and 6-3.
“It’s a different dynamic for sure,” Miami coach Enrico Blasi said. “With the way the rules are today, you’ve got to be able to skate and you’ve got to be able to move the puck, and that’s what we’re trying to focus our team on: Making sure that we can do those two things and do them well. It’s still a physical game, you still have to win battles, but you’ve got to be able to skate.”
The RedHawks’ new captain reflects the team’s new makeup. Generously listed at 5-9, junior Austin Czarnik is now the third-smallest forward on the team with the addition of freshman forward and Chicago Blackhawks draftee Anthony Louis.
“I am the third-shortest forward now, so obviously it’s better being a taller guy, but I’m still down there,” Czarnik said.
Czarnik has never been captain of any of his teams growing up with the exception of one weekend.
“Obviously it’s an honor, but it’s a job at the same time it’s hard work, meeting with coaches and making sure everything’s going right with the program,” Czarnik said.
Czarnik led all CCHA scorers in points, finishing with 14 goals and 26 assists for 40 points in 2012-13. He also led the NCAA in shorthanded goals with four.
He was impressed his team's speed.
“Probably one of the fastest teams in the country,” Czarnik said. “We have to get in there every single day, win the battles and forecheck hard and hopefully have turnovers.
Sophomore Riley Barber was one point behind Czarnik, as the Washington Capitals’ draftee rolled up 15 goals and 24 assists for 39 points.
Juniors Cody Murphy and Blake Coleman tallied 20 and 19 points respectively, and fellow classman and Tampa Bay Lightning pick Jimmy Mullin went 6-8-14 despite being scratched for several games and relegated to the fourth line for others.
Mullin should at least double that offensive output and has the potential to triple it or more. Coleman was wearing a boot on Saturday but participated in full-contact practice on Tuesday.
Another junior forward – Alex Wideman – looks to build on a five-goal, eight-assist season that saw him finish with just one point in his last nine games.
Other than Barber, there’s a lot to like about the sophomore forwards. Kevin Morris racked up seven goals and five assists, and he should be one of the team’s top penalty killers.
Sean Kuraly scored six goals and added six helpers, but he was a force at the end of the season, scoring three goals in the final four games.
And Alex Gacek looked much more confident on Saturday, and also scored a goal. He had three goals and four assists in 2012-13 but fits in well with the whole team speed concept.
John Doherty got into the act on Saturday with a beautiful feed for a goal. He played his five games last season on the lower lines, but he could help this team offensively.
And there’s the seniors – Bryon Paulazzo and Max Cook. Cook went 4-4-8 last season, and like a smaller version of Kuraly showed flashes of brilliance.
He played with Czarnik and Barber on the top line both in the exhibition and Tuesday practice, and if he stays on that line he’ll rack up a lot of points.
Paulazzo has played well when he gets into the lineup, but he was scratched in 14 of Miami’s last 16 games last season. He’s physical and has one of the best wrap-around moves on the team.
Added into the mix are freshmen Louis, Justin Greenberg and Devin Loe.
Louis endeared himself to the Miami faithful right away on Saturday by juking a defender on the left wing before feeding Kuraly for a goal.
Listed at 5-7, he’s competing with Wideman for smallest forward on the team. But both can fly.
Greenberg can skate as well, and the 5-8 rookie scored twice in the opener.
“I think they played great the first game, but I think everyone played a pretty solid game,” Czarnik said. “Obviously there’s some nerves for the freshmen but I think all of them stepped up and did a good job.”
Devin Loe (who looked his he has good hands based on 20 minutes of practice drills) is also in the mix.
Defense was and still is the primary concern entering this season.
Three seniors – Joe Hartman, Steve Spinell and Garrett Kennedy – all started last season, leaving Miami with no seniors and one junior on the corps.
Plus Hartman and Spinell were the biggest blueliners on the team at 6-3 and 6-2, respectively. The RedHawks brought in freshmen D-men that are 5-7, 5-10 and 6-0.
Blasi’s top line in the exhibition – and arguably the two best defensemen on the team at this point – consisted of sophomores Matthew Caito and Chris Joyaux.
Caito led all Miami blueliners in goals
(5) and points (16), and also went plus-12. And though he is 5-10, it’s amazing no NHL team drafted him, especially considering he blocked an unheard of 81 shots last season.
His undrafted status is probably good for the RedHawks, as he is more likely to remain in Oxford for four years.
Caito also seems like a natural leader. Even last year as a freshman he directed players on faceoffs.
“Last year, Spinell did a great job of being a great leader and really showing the way,” Caito said. “So I kind of try to mentor those guys and if they have any questions, tell them which way to go, all that stuff, but they’re doing a great job and I’m really happy with how they’re going.”
Joyaux was impressive in his own end as a freshman, though he was not an offensive threat. He dished for four assists in 2012-13.
Sophomore Taylor Richart is the only other regular returning, and he also tallied four assists in 40 games last season. He appeared more confident vs. Windsor on Saturday.
So the remaining three regular blueliners will come from the following pool – junior Ben Paulides, sophomore Michael Mooney and freshmen Trevor Hamilton, Matt Joyaux and Tommy Wingels.
Mooney, who played six games in 2012-13, was scratched for the exhibition, which probably means he’s not going to log significant minutes.
Paulides is the biggest wildcard, as he only dressed 12 times in 2012-13, but at 6-feet-2 his size could be an asset. However, he wasn’t terribly impressive in the exhibition and may not be able to keep up with Miami’s speedsters.
Matt Joyaux, all 5-7 of him, was the most impressive of the lot on Saturday. He went tape-to-tape with all of his passes and has a well-reputed shot. That could come in handy on a team needing puck-moving D-men.
Hamilton moved the puck and looked like he could ultimately be a point man on the power play.
Wingels seemed like the prototypical Blasi defenseman that the coach seems to pull out of nowhere. Wingels wasn’t noticeable to most, but in a good way. He didn’t make any mistakes on defense and moved the puck out of the defensive zone.
Caito talked about the freshmen performance vs. Windsor:
“They did really good, I was happy with every single one of them,” Caito said. “They know the system really well and over time they’re just going to get better and better as the weeks go by.”
Regardless of the lineups, Miami could require an adjustment period, at least early in the season. But sophomore goalie Ryan McKay is confident in his team.
“I think that the way we’re going to combat that is purely by great team defense,” McKay said. “That’s something we had last year and that’s something that we pride ourselves on. Penalty kill, too, same thing. We pride ourselves on penalty kill and Coach (Brent) Brekke installs that system with us and I felt like we had some pretty good success last year and I’m looking forward to the same thing this year.”
And Blasi offered his simple strategy to combat his team’s size issue on defense.
“Move the puck, play good team defense, use our skating ability.”
In net, it appears sophomore goalies Jay Williams and Ryan McKay will alternate starts, at least at the beginning of the season.
Asked if that was the plan, Blasi said:
“I think you know me better than that.”
So unless that means Blasi plans to revert to his strategy of riding David Burleigh for 2,333 minutes like in 2002-03 – not that there was anything wrong with that at the time – it seems a safe assumption the goalies will rotate.
Williams was the better goalie on Saturday, stopping all 10 shots he faced without allowing a rebound, which solidified his role.
Unlike the last two Miami goalies, Cody Reichard and Connor Knapp, who acknowledged they were friends but were not close, the Jay and McKay duo have a bond.
“Best of friends, my best friend on the team,” McKay said. “Jay and I, everyone says we’re completely opposite from personality to the way we play, but honestly we’re in pretty much all the same classes and we get along like the best of friends, so I love the kid.”
McKay comes across as studious and business-like. Williams is more of an extravert.
But if both continue to split time in net, they could be looking at logging about 20 games each in net, which is well below their average minute totals in juniors.
So is that prospect difficult?
“Yes and no,” McKay said. “Every start you get is just that much more important from a numbers standpoint, but at the end of the day it’s still hockey. You want to give you team the best chance possible to win every night and you make the most of every opportunity that you get.”
One area Miami needs to improve in is its power play. Despite its plethora of skilled forwards, the RedHawks finished 37th in the NCAA at 15.9 percent.
Miami took a step in the right direction, going 2-for-3 on the man advantage vs. Windsor.
The RedHawks were also perfect on the penalty kill, and their overall play had Blasi thinking positively.
“It was all a good start,” Blasi said. “Obviously
a good starting position for our team (in terms of) what we need to work on to get better, and now that we’re full-time practice those things are going to be implemented as we go. But I like the makeup of our team, I think there’s something there, and you just have to continue to focus on our daily improvement.”