It's safe to say there hasn't exactly been a whole lot of fun the past two years had by the Buckeyes. Two veteran-laden teams stumbled to two straight losing records and first-round league playoff exits, seemingly erasing the good vibes brought on by NCAA tournament appearances in five out of seven years under head coach John Markell.
So why would the Buckeyes be having fun through the team's informal and formal practice session before tonight's season opener against Mercyhurst? The team's 15 freshmen have provided an injection of enthusiasm and youth, that's why.
"In some situations they're a bit naïve, but that creates an energy and a will and a love for the game that you can see in these guys," said senior center Matt McIlvane. "It's exciting for us."
As the Buckeyes, ranked 19th in the USCHO.com poll, take to the ice at the Ervin J. Nutter Center tonight in Dayton, Ohio, to face the Lakers as part of the Lefty McFadden Invitational, it is clear that at least some of those 15 new faces are going to have to make an impact. At least seven will have to dress every night, especially on defense, where just three experienced players – seniors Jason DeSantis, Johann Kroll and Kyle Hood – return at a spot that runs six deep.
In fact, Markell said that creating a defensive identity will be the toughest part for his young team to learn quickly. Just a week of full practices occurred before tonight's opener, leaving the coaching staff having to provide the new faces a crash course in OSU's defensive system and play without the puck.
"You hope that the junior teams they came from play a similar system and pay attention being away from the puck," Markell said. "Through filming and the intrasquad scrimmage we had on Sunday, you can show them what they're doing wrong and tell them, ‘If you don't know how to play without the puck, you're not going to get on the ice.'
"That's work and that's sacrifice. We want to be a tough team to play against."
Context provides clues that this could be a team that adheres to that formula. With 29 players on the roster and only 20 able to dress each night – 21 should OSU dress a third goaltender – there will be plenty of competition, especially amongst the freshmen, to see who will get on the ice.
The Buckeyes have boasted rosters of 24-26 each of the past couple seasons, a number that caused problems when the inevitable injuries hit. This season, injuries should cause less of a problem, and the players in the lineup will be the ones who have proven they most deserve to be there.
"We were always handcuffed by numbers, especially the year we lost seven or eight starters and we couldn't even dress a full lineup," Markell said "Hopefully those guys can really step up and there's that competitiveness. If you're in the lineup, you have to compete hard to stay in the lineup. It just can't be through attrition where a guy gets hurt and you're in. You have to do the right things."
To help those younger players along is a nine-member senior class that has experienced the best and worst of the program during their first three seasons. When the current seniors were freshmen, the Buckeyes went 27-11-4 and reached the Central Collegiate Hockey Association final before an NCAA tournament appearances. Each of the last two seasons, then, has ended early in their eyes.
"I think every upperclassman is going to have to be a leader," said senior Tom Fritsche. "Then as the year goes along everybody is going to have to chip in and help out, by example mostly."
So far, that has not been a problem, and chemistry has been a plus.
"It seems like everybody feels comfortable," Fritsche said. "That's the most important thing. When half the team is freshmen, we have to make sure we feel like a team and it doesn't feel split. I think we've done a real good job with that. Everybody feels together."
With the season opener on the horizon, fun has been easy to come by. Now the big question is if that will translate to on-ice performance.
"We're really happy with the character of our team," Markell said. "They're anxious to get it going. Instead of walking slowly down the hill, I guess they want to run down the hill. We want to make sure that they're patient and working in the right areas at the right time."
Fast Facts About The Buckeyes
2006-07 Record: 15-17-5, 12-12-4 CCHA, seventh place; lost in first round of CCHA playoffs, 2-1, to Northern Michigan
This Weekend: At the Lefty McFadden Invitational at Ervin J. Nutter Center in Dayton, Ohio; tonight vs. Mercyhurst at 8 p.m., tomorrow vs. Notre Dame/Wisconsin at TBA.
Home Opener: Oct. 19 vs. Miami (Ohio)
Projected CCHA Finish: fifth in both the media and coaches polls
Preseason Ranking: No. 19
Leading Returning Scorer: SR Tommy Goebel (12-14-26 in 32 games)
What About The Goals? Only three of Ohio State's top 10 point-getters return, led by Goebel and followed by DeSantis (5-20-25; fifth on team) and McIlvane (6-11-17; ninth on team). The Buckeyes will have to hope for a return to health from Fritsche, who missed the opening half of last season with a serious intestinal disorder. In 19 games, he had five goals and 13 points after leading the Buckeyes in scoring each of his first two seasons. Other returning sources of offense could include junior Corey Elkins, who had 14 points in 26 games and is one of the team's most talented players, and sophomore Mathieu Picard, who had 11 points on the team's fourth line as a freshman.
Which Of The Freshmen Will Step Up? Of 15 first-year players, someone will have to make a difference. Perhaps the most likely based on reputation alone would include former U.S. National Team Development Program players John Albert and C.J. Severyn. Albert had 33 points in 47 games on the U.S. Under-18 team last season, while Severyn added 16 points. Both have been drafted by NHL teams, as has freshman defenseman Shane Sims. Tabbed the eighth-best freshman defenseman in the country by InsideCollegeHockey.com, Sims was an all-star in the USHL, the top junior league in the country, a season ago and led his team to a championship in 2006. Also coming to OSU as a USHL all-star is forward Sergio Somma, who had 32 goals in 47 games last season.
How Will The Goaltending Fare? A season ago, Ohio State tweaked its strategy in an effort to promote goal-scoring, a move that proved to be disastrous when junior Ian Keserich left the program shortly before the season began. Freshmen netminders Joseph Palmer and Nick Filion were overwhelmed early in the season, necessitating a switch back to a more defensive setup. This year, the two are both sophomores; rookie mistakes will not be tolerated. Brought in to stimulate competition was freshman Dustin Carlson, a walk-on from Minnesota. Palmer will start tonight and will be given every chance to be OSU's No. 1. A former member of the USNTDP, he started the final 23 games last year and 15-15-4 with a 2.96 GAA and .890 save percentage.