This week, Harvard men’s hockey coach Mark Mazzoleni held a meeting with the team’s defensemen to discuss playing time. His message was Orwellian: All defensemen are equal, but on Fridays and Saturdays, some have to be more equal than others.
In a season that has often gone according to Murphy’s Law, Mazzoleni has dealt with what you might call a good problem over the last five games. For the first time since November, he has seven healthy defensemen. Six are NHL draft picks. The only undrafted player—senior David McCulloch—plays with an aggressiveness that Mazzoleni raves about.
Unfortunately, Mazzoleni can’t bend the rules and dress them all. There are still only six spots on the scoresheet. So, he sat senior captain Kenny Smith last Friday and sophomore Tom Walsh on Saturday.
The team leaves this afternoon for its weekend series in New York’s North Country, and Mazzoleni has yet to determine his defensive pairings for tomorrow night’s game at Clarkson.
“They’re so darned close on ability level and production back there that I don’t see it being one consistent guy out of the lineup,” Mazzoleni said after yesterday’s practice. “We don’t have one defenseman back there who deserves to be sitting out consistently.”
Each has his own upside. Noah Welch, an All-American last season, leads the corps in scoring (11 points). Sophomore Peter Hafner, Welch’s longtime partner, has the group’s best plus/minus rating (plus-10). Smith had his best game of the season in the 7-5 comeback win at Yale two weeks ago and has three points in his last three games. Junior Ryan Lannon plays virtually mistake-free, stay-at-home hockey. Walsh assisted on a key goal at Yale and pinches at the right times. Freshman Dylan Reese is forever confident with the puck and makes expert breakout passes. And then there’s McCulloch’s physical play.
“It’s great to have that depth,” Welch said. “Coach Mazzoleni has made it clear that he’s not going to shelve any defenseman.”
In determining who plays and who doesn’t, Mazzoleni promised that the coaching staff will be meticulous in its analysis of practice and games.
“A lot of things we look at, you don’t know about, other media don’t know about, and our team doesn’t know about,” he said. “We keep stats on certain things, and we watch a considerable amount of tape. These aren’t rushed decisions. They’re very well-thought-out.”
Smith has found himself on the short side of those calculations twice this season, and doesn’t expect to have any “special” treatment because he’s the captain.
“At any competitive level, you’re going to have more guys than slots,” he said. “We’re competing for spots, but it’s not hostile at all. Our defensive corps has a very good relationship, so the guys are very supportive of one another.”
Throwing Their Weight Around
With his team averaging 2.50 goals per game in ECAC play—compared to 4.27 last season—Mazzoleni has shaken up his forward lines like a Boggle dome most weekends.
But Mazzoleni has been careful not to disrupt the chemistry that has developed on his sizeable second line. Left wing Dennis Packard, right wing Rob Fried and center Brendan Bernakevitch, have played together in the last 11 games—a salient of stability in an otherwise tumultuous season.
Bernakevitch is the smallest of the three at 6’1, 195 pounds, which helps explain why the line has been so solid defensively and so hard to knock off the puck. Packard (6’5, 225) leads the team with a plus-13 rating, and Bernakevitch is second among forwards at plus-6.