Young Hockey Buckeyes Ready To Go

The second year of the Mark Osiecki era is about to get under way for the Ohio State men's hockey team. The Buckeyes start with a two-game set Friday night and Saturday night vs. visiting Quinnipiac, and there will be plenty of new faces on the Value City Arena ice thanks to 13 newcomers and the graduation of a class of senior leaders.

Adding 13 newcomers to a team can do a lot to mess up chemistry.

That's why when those newest Ohio State hockey players showed up for summer quarter, the team's veterans did their best to welcome those players with open arms.

There were movie trips, outings to local restaurants, and oh yeah, a few early-morning workouts to build team camaraderie.

"Grinding out 7 a.m. runs with a group of guys will build chemistry really quickly," senior defenseman Sean Duddy said.

There's little doubt this will be a much different version of the Ohio State team than the one head coach Mark Osiecki inherited a season ago. That senior-laden group did its best to adhere to the changing culture Osiecki brought in but still finished ninth in the 11-team Central Collegiate Hockey Association before a swift exit in the league playoffs.

This one has a new face, however. With the hopefully lucky 13 players now having arrived, only nine players remain on the 28-man roster from the John Markell era.

"I think the group that is coming in is good, culture kids," Osiecki said. "I think the hard part is there is a big group and all of a sudden the upperclassmen are a minority, so I think that's the biggest catch-22. You have a whole new group of guys coming in that we've recruited in, and they could look at it like, ‘Oh, we didn't get recruited by these guys.' You don't want them to feel that way."

That doesn't seem to be the case. Osiecki said the team's four seniors have taken the youngsters under their wings and are embracing the new setup.

"This year, it's definitely a different feeling," Duddy said. "Having all the freshmen come in at the beginning of summer was crucial. We really feel like a tight-knit group right now. We feel like a close team. The culture is in place. A lot of the guys are really fitting in."

The coaching staff was able to start working full-time with the team Saturday, and the Buckeyes defeated visiting University of Windsor by a 6-5 score that day in an exhibition game.

As a result, it's hard this early to get a true tab on the team's strengths and weaknesses, but Osiecki likes the way the team is approaching things going into the opening of the season.

"It's their habits, their energy," he said when asked what he likes about the team. "They come in, they're ready to go. The team concept is there. They all look to back each other. Skill-wise, play-wise, we'll see where it goes."

What follows is a breakdown of the team as it goes into Friday night's opening game vs. Quinnipiac at Value City arena.

Top threat – Senior Danny Dries: The New Hampshire transfer was billed as a potential attacking force when he transferred into the school and lived up to that last year. After posting a 21-28-49 line in 71 games with the Wildcats, he was second on Ohio State last year with 15 goals and added 12 assists. He's clearly Ohio State's most talented and creative player when it comes to seeing the ice and making things happen.

"I'm pretty excited about it – one more go round," the center said. "I'll do whatever I can to step it up to the national level. I think there's a different feeling during the summer. It's now or never."

The outlook – Interesting. The Buckeyes lost 57 of their 95 goals from a year ago and struggled massively with scoring down the stretch, potting just 21 goals in the last 13 games. Much of the thrust will likely fall on a freshman class of players who excelled at scoring in their junior careers, including draft picks Max McCormick and Ryan Dzingel. Two players who could step up are sophomores Alex Szczechura, who is the second among returning scorers with seven goals last year, and Chris Crane, an NHL draftee who showed a 200-foot game last year.

"It's going to be scoring by committee," Osiecki said.

Top threat – Duddy: He's an Ann Arbor native, but Duddy has been a standout on the Buckeye blue line for three seasons. He has only one goal, making him the epitome of a defensive defenseman, but Duddy has a plus-10 rating in three seasons. He's also tough, returning after suffering a broken leg at Alaska as a freshman and a deep skate wound a year later vs. the Nanooks.

"I'm the senior guy, but we have a lot of guys that can lead," he said. "We have plenty of veteran experience on the line, guys that have played before and had experience in big games, and it's going to be up to us to bring those freshmen around."

The outlook – Fair. Duddy leads a solid group that includes two-way defensemen Devon Krogh (junior) and Curtis Gedig (sophomore). Both add offensive flair and can play in their own zone, with Gedig impressing a season ago as a newcomer despite not getting a goal. Junior Brandon Martell adds size and experience, but there are four true freshmen defenders who will need to be depended upon in Ben Gallacher, Al McLean, Justin DaSilva and Clark Cristofoli

"My opinion, I'm a former defenseman and I look at it as defense is extremely hard at the college level to win with freshmen in the lineup," Osiecki said. "I think it's going to be a huge learning curve for a few of them."

Goaltending outlook – Very good. Ohio State returns senior Cal Heeter, one of the best goaltenders in the CCHA and the team MVP a season ago. He started every game, going 15-18-4 with a 2.30 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage that placed fourth in the league. Heeter made plenty of standout saves in each contest; at 6-4, he has the size to fill the net but also has the ability to rebound to make the second save when necessary. Ohio State also welcomed in Brady Hjelle, whose college career started at Minnesota-Duluth before he set a USHL record last year with 40 victories. OSU also has the top reserve from a year ago, sophomore Jeff Michael, back after he got into one game.

"We're trying not to have (Heeter) thinking, ‘Hey, I have to duplicate what I did last year,' " Osiecki said. "That would be next to impossible. We just want him to relax, to play. We certainly have some a couple of other guys here. Brady has some great experience. With him coming in, I think the best thing that's going to happen with Cal is we have to get him some rest so he doesn't burn out."

Ohio State has turned to Duddy and Schneider as captains. Duddy shared the honors last year with seniors Sergio Somma, Peter Boyd and John Albert while Schneider will be serving as a captain for the first time.

"It was a team vote," Osiecki said. "I think it's a good indication of where we need to be at. I think those two certainly guy certainly speak the language of what we want to do as a program. They are phenomenal away from the rink, phenomenal academically and … they lead by example every single day."

Schneider said he wouldn't change the way he approaches things each day, while Duddy said he learned a lot a season ago.

"Last year there were four of us and I was one of the young guys, all the other captains were seniors," Duddy said. "Now that I've seen it for a year and seen the expectations what needs to be done. It's a little bit easier this time around, but it's definitely something I don't take lightly."

Top Newcomers
Among the forward group, Dzingel (6-0, 185) finished fifth in the USHL a season ago with 67 points, potting 23 goals. McCormick (5-11, 182) added 42 points and was Wisconsin's Mr. Hockey as a prepster in 2010. OSU also welcomes in three high-powered Canadian imports in Alberta Junior Hockey League MVP Tanner Fritz (5-11, 200), AJHL star Riley Simpson (5-8, 165) and the British Columbia Hockey League's fourth-leading scorer in Chad Niddery (5-10, 175).

Defensively, Gallacher (5-11, 185) has earned high honors during his career in the Canadian junior ranks and is a fourth-round draft pick. DaSilva also brings size at 6-6, 225.

Projected Finish
The CCHA media voting placed the Buckeyes ninth in the league while the coaches picked the team seventh. However, the Buckeyes expect more, as any team would with the season about to begin.

"I'm optimistic every year," Duddy said. "I always think we're going to be good, but I really do believe that this team is going to be good. We have some good veterans coming back, good goaltending, the freshman class from what I've seen so far is really very good.

"We have a good mix of older and younger guys. You can say we're a young team, but these guys are going to play a big role and I expect them to step it up and I'm sure they will have a great year. I think we can do some real damage."

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