In April 2013, the Yale men’s ice hockey team hoisted its first national championship trophy. Today, nearly four years later, the freshmen on that team have graduated, several of them to professional hockey, leaving a nationally competitive program in their wake.
Now, with only memories from its 2013 Frozen Four run, the No. 17 Yale men’s ice hockey team looks to continue the success it has enjoyed the past few years.
Last season, the Bulldogs (19–9–4, 14–5–3 ECAC) finished second in the conference regular season standings behind then-No. 1 Quinnipiac. In the ECAC tournament, the Elis were swept by the seventh-seed Dartmouth in the quarterfinals. Nevertheless, Yale was able to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament as the No. 3 seed in the East Regional, but the Bulldogs ultimately dropped a 3-2 overtime decision to UMass Lowell in the first round.
“We lost some big pieces defensively, so we have to work very hard to build off of the success of last year,” defenseman Charlie Curti ’19 said. “We are confident that we have the right systems in place, and more importantly the right players and coaching staff, to pick up where we left off and be more successful than we were last year.”
The Bulldogs were picked to finish fourth in the ECAC Media Poll and fifth by the ECAC coaches. Although Yale had no members on the pre-season All-ECAC Hockey team, the Elis return their two leading goalscorers from last year — captain John Hayden ’17, who led the team in goals with 16, and Ivy League Rookie of the Year Joe Snively ’19, who tallied 10 goals and 18 assists.
Other key returners include Frankie DiChiara ’17 and Ryan Hitchcock ’18, who combined for 29 points in 2015-16 season. Goaltender Patrick Spano ’17 is also expected to be leaned on heavily as the successor to netminder Alex Lyon ’17, who signed with the Philadelphia Flyers, after appearing in only one game last season.
“As a team we are focusing on attacking with speed and transitioning quickly to produce offense,” Snively said. “We lost a great group of seniors, but we are confident in the players that will step into those roles.”
Head Coach Keith Allain ’80, reigning Ivy League Coach of the Year, will have to deal with the loss of two All-Americans, defenseman Rob O’Gara ’16 and goaltender Alex Lyon ’17, who signed with the Philadelphia Flyers at the end of last year. In the 2015–16 season, Lyon led the NCAA with a 1.64 goals-against-average, posted the second best save percentage at 0.936, was a finalist for the Mike Richter Award for the best Division I hockey goalie and owns nearly every Yale statistical record for his position.
O’Gara accumulated a bevy of awards during his career at Yale, including being named the ECAC Hockey Best Defensive Defenseman and to the NCAA (East) First All-American Team. He was a fifth round draft pick of the Boston Bruins in 2011 and has already appeared in three NHL games this season. Other key losses include forward Stu Wilson ’16 and defenseman Ryan Obuchowski ’16, both All-Ivy selections, as well as captain Mitch Witek ’16.
The Bulldogs bring in nine freshmen this year to replace their talented senior class. Eight of them spent last year playing in junior leagues, which provide a significantly higher level of competition than high school hockey. Twins Evan and Mitchell Smith ’20 were the two highest scoring Eli recruits in juniors, notching 37 and 40 points, respectively, in the 60-game junior season. The Smiths project to slot alongside right wing DiChiara on the second line.
The sole Yale freshman not to play in junior hockey last year was Luke Stevens ’20, who put up 55 points in 28 high school games. Stevens took the road less traveled to New Haven, but other than Hayden, a third-round Chicago Blackhawks pick in 2013, he is the only player on the Bulldogs roster to be drafted. The Carolina Hurricanes selected Stevens in the fifth round back in 2015.
“In college, everyone is right on you, so it forces you to make decisions a lot quicker,” Stevens said. “We [as freshmen] are going to have to push ourselves to play at full speed all the time and make quick decisions with the puck in order to have success. The biggest thing is to just take it one day at a time, work hard every day and everything else will fall into place.”
Defense has been Yale’s calling card over the last couple years; they conceded the fewest goals in the ECAC a year ago. The blue line looks thinner than usual after Nate Repensky ’18 went down for the season with a hip injury. His loss compounds the departures of the three seniors from last year: Witek, Obuchowski and O’Gara. Of the four Yale backliners to appear in at least 30 games last year, only Adam Larkin ’18 returns to Ingalls Rink ice for the new season.
Two other consistent contributors from last year will return on the back end along with Larkin — Curti and Anthony Walsh ’19. Yale’s defensive solidity will also depend heavily on the contributions of incoming freshmen. Billy Sweezey ’20 is projected to log serious minutes on the back end, as does Chandler Lindstrand ’20. A third new player, Matt Foley ’20, and veteran Dan O’Keefe ’17 will also compete for time.
“The concern is that someone will get injured, and we will be even more shorthanded than we already are,” Larkin said. “[The] guys that we do have need to be extra focused on taking care of our bodies throughout the season. It’s exciting for the defensemen because we all understand how important each of our roles is to the team. We brought in three very talented defensemen that will play huge roles right away, so we just need to make sure that they know the systems and how we want to play defensively.”
The Eli offense ranked fifth in the ECAC in goals scored, but returns many of its top contributors. Hayden and Snively will anchor the first line alongside Hitchcock. The Bulldogs bring back six forwards who contributed double-digit points in 2015-16. The experienced third line of Mike Doherty ’17, Ted Hart ’19 and Chris Izmirlian ’17 will continue to contribute to the offensive effort.
The path to the ECAC championship for the Bulldogs will again run through Quinnipiac. The Bobcats, national runners-up to North Dakota last year, are ranked sixth in the country. St. Lawrence finished second behind Quinnipiac in the ECAC preseason coaches poll, and the Saints are expected to be in the running as well. No. 13 Harvard, shorn of last year’s Hobey Baker winner Jimmy Vesey, were projected to place third and an unheralded Clarkson team fourth.
Although Yale finished fifth in the poll, the Elis did garner one first-place vote. The Bulldogs will play a daunting schedule this year with six of the other current top-20 teams in the country on the slate.
“I’m looking forward to a great season,” Spano said. “I expect everyone to work hard.”
The Bulldogs open their season up against Sacred Heart on Saturday at 7 p.m.