CANTON — Looking at the won-loss record doesn’t show the progress that was made by this year’s St. Lawrence University men’s hockey team in its first season under new head coach Brent Brekke.
Brekke, who has been an assistant coach at winning programs like Miami (Ohio), Cornell and Clarkson, inherited a program in trouble, which had gone 14-56-4 overall the previous two seasons.
This season SLU went from 6-29-2 to 4-27-5, and in ECAC Hockey play the Saints dropped from 3-17-2 to 2-18-2.
The Saints were hampered early in the season when last year’s leading scorer, Carson Gicewicz, was lost for the year to injury after playing just two games. SLU also lost forward Cade Gleekel early in the season when he left the program.
As could be expected after those two departures the offense struggled this year, going from 2.03 goals last year to 1.78 this past season. They also affected the power play, which went from 19.5 percent to 14.5 this year.
But SLU improved a great deal defensively this year. The Saints allowed 3.61 goals after allowing 4.03 the previous year. SLU’s shots margin went from minus 16.4 a year ago to minus 7.8 this season.
“I think the big thing is we have a benchmark for our guys,” Saints coach Brent Brekke said. “We understand what they are capable of and who they are as a player and an understanding of what they can do. We established a culture of what we want to be and our work ethic and our compete-level. I think we took some steps in those directions.”
The Saints did show more fight this season, even if they were not rewarded with wins. SLU went to overtime 11 times in 36 games, but posted just a 1-5-5 record in those contests.
“As the year progressed our message went from, ‘Right there,’ to ‘Being close is not good enough,’” Brekke said. “Being competitive is not our goal. Our goal is to win hockey games. That’s part of the building process to be confident and compete in games. The next step is you have to win, and that’s our goal. We play to win and have success and be champions in the long run.”
The Saints closed out the season strong, beating Harvard 6-3 in their final home game, ending the regular season with a 2-2 tie at Colgate and playing a competitive game in the opener of an ECAC Hockey quarterfinal series at Harvard, which the Crimson swept.
“I thought our last six or so games we started to compete on a pretty consistent level and be in games and gave ourselves a chance to be successful,” Brekke said. “We took some good strides against some good teams. Our guys felt more confident as the year went on.”
SLU has gone through a tough stretch ever since former head coach Greg Carvel left for UMass at the end of the 2015-16 season.
After a 17-13-7 overall record under former coach Mark Morris the following year, SLU has gone 18-83-9 overall and 8-53-5 in ECAC Hockey games in the past three years.
Adding to the frustration of losses has been the Saints seeing a string of key players opting to leave school early to either play professionally, quit hockey altogether or go to other schools.
In the last two seasons prior to this one, SLU lost goalie Kyle Hayton (Wisconsin), forward Jacob Pritchard (UMass) and defenseman Ben Finkelstein (Boston College) as transfers. Gleekel left early this season and at the end of this season SLU’s leading scorer, forward Zach Risteau (7 goals-16 assists), put his name in the NCAA transfer portal, making a return to SLU next season unlikely.
But Brekke and his assistant coaches Ben Murphy and Tommy Hill have been working hard recruiting. They added a few players over the summer who joined the team this year, including freshman goalie Francis Boisvert, and Brekke said at least five players will be joining the squad as freshmen in the fall.
“You are always out to out-recruit your current roster,” Brekke said. “You want your roster to get better and better. That’s the opportunity we have for guys to come in and really help build the foundation. Our premise with everybody on our team is you earn your opportunity and nothing is given. You earn it, whether you are a returning guy or a new face coming into the program. You control your daily habits and impact on the program and the opportunity is there for you, every day, to earn your spot.”
SLU’s incoming class won’t be announced for at least a month and possibly longer, but one player who has already announced a commitment to the program and could have an impact is forward Greg Lapointe from the Coquitlam Express of the British Columbia Hockey League.
In 59 games this season he scored 29 goals with 31 assists. The 5-foot-9, 174-pounder from Granby, Quebec, is a 19-year-old who has averaged more than a point a game in each of his last three seasons.