POTSDAM — Clarkson University’s men’s hockey team has been on campus since early August and practicing in some form for at least two months. But the Golden Knights finally are in game-week mode for the first time in 2020-21 as they open the season Sunday with a 3 p.m. nonconference game at Colgate.
Of course with the COVID-19 pandemic ongoing nothing is for certain. On Tuesday Clarkson coach Casey Jones found out that Union had joined neighbor Rensselaer in canceling its season and the pre-2021 portion of the schedule also changed.
Mercyhurst originally was slated as Clarkson’s home opening-weekend opponent on Dec. 5-6 but the Lakers canceled due to COVID-19 circumstances, so Clarkson’s home opener is now a nonconference game against St. Lawrence University at 4 p.m. on Dec. 5. Clarkson replaced the other Mercyhurst game with a nonconference game at SLU on Dec. 12, giving the team four total games with the Saints before 2021.
“We’re going to have to really be pro-active with the way we look at our schedule,” Jones said. “We may be playing each (conference) team five or six teams in the second half. Hopefully, we get our eight or nine games in before (2021) and get ourselves in the mid-20’s for games.”
One of Clarkson’s top players, 6-foot-7 senior defenseman Connor McCarthy, is happy to finally be preparing for a game and accepting the fact that many teams aren’t playing this year, but Clarkson still is participating.
“As a senior we are all really thankful we are playing a game,” McCarthy said. “It doesn’t matter if we had to play St. Lawrence 20 times or not, it is just to put on a jersey for (more) games is going to be fun.”
McCarthy’s run at Clarkson is an example of what Jones looks for in his recruits. He produced a modest freshman season with one assist in just nine games. He played in 34 games as a sophomore and totaled four goals and 10 assists, and broke out last year with nine goals and 11 assists in 34 games.
“His first year he came in and he was little passive in terms of trying to assert himself,” Jones said. “His stick skills were really good. He’s become really, really effective with the puck on his stick and his shot. He’s really effective on the power play. I think his whole game has come around. This year he’ll get into that major role on penalty kill. He’ll be a leader on the back end.
“You have to recruit good players, but once you get them you have to make them better year-to-year. He’s a great example of a player that every single year he’s taken a significant step forward in his progression. I’m sure he’ll have a lot of looks from the pro ranks to play past Clarkson.”
Like everyone else, McCarthy spent much of the year stuck in his house during COVID-19 restrictions. He said he spent part of that time trying to learn how to play the guitar.
He’s set the guitar aside and his focus now is on having a successful final season with the Golden Knights before professional hockey comes calling.
“Definitely a weird experience,” McCarthy said. “Practice has been good. I thought coach has done a good job of spreading out when we were going to do our systems and skill work. I think we all knew that we would play a game. We knew we were preparing for something eventually.”
Heading into this season McCarthy is ready to take another step up with his game.
“Defensively I just want to be able to be that shutdown ‘D’,” McCarthy said. “I also want to jump up and play five-on-five more offensively. I am going to start penalty killing a lot more and be in any position the coaches stress.”
Clarkson went 23-8-3 last season and finished second in the ECAC Hockey standings with a 16-5-1 record. Had the season not been called off early, the Golden Knights would have been in Lake Placid for the conference’s final weekend for a third straight year as well as made the NCAA Tournament for a third straight year for the first time since 1999.
Clarkson lost its top two scorers to graduation in Haralds Egle and Devin Brosseau, but returns players who scored 73 of the team’s 96 goals a year ago. Clarkson lost Greg Moro, Jordan Schneider and Shane Kuzmeski on defense, as well as goalie Frank Marotte, who won the ECAC Hockey Ken Dryden Award.
But Jones has brought in a talented freshman class and expects many of his returning players to be capable of improving statistically this season.
“I think we have the ability to move pucks and skate really well this year and we are pretty deep up front,” Jones said. “We’ve added some good additions that will add some depth to our team and some guys internally have taken some enormous steps. We lost some big minutes (on defense). I always say if you have four returning vets you are in decent shape, and we do have that. We won’t have a deep roster back there, but guys who have had a lot of success at previous levels. (Goaltending) is competitive right now.”