“It’s a new year. We lost a lot of great players, a lot of great leadership.”
For the Harvard men’s hockey team, these words from coach Ted Donato ’91 are all too familiar. Each season, and especially the last two, the talent walking the stage in late May seems irreplaceable. And yet, the Crimson is starting to develop a knack for turning over its roster and staying competitive year in and year out.
Last season, the fresh departure of Jimmy Vesey ’16 and Kyle Criscuolo ’16 overshadowed the early portion of Harvard’s 2016-2017 campaign. Vesey was just the fourth Crimson iceman to bring home the Hobey Baker Award, given to the nation’s top player, while “Crisco” was the program’s first two-time captain in over 90 years and a dynamic scorer in his own right.
In a sense, the class of 2016 helped put Harvard hockey back on the map after nearly a decade of irrelevance. Winning ways were mostly ephemeral during this stretch—until Vesey, Criscuolo, Colin Blackwell ’16, and company began laying the foundation for the success they experienced as upperclassmen.
Now, when the Crimson reconvenes after a summer of training, the winning identity cultivated by the outgoing class lingers, and it permeates both new and returning players.
“The teams that we’ve had over the past couple of years, we’ve developed a culture,” tri-captain Eddie Ellis said. “We’ve made it a little easier for freshmen to come in and feel comfortable…. I think all the seniors have done a great job connecting with the freshmen and getting them acclimated to our culture.”
Regardless, the media and fans were skeptical of the Vesey-less Crimson at the outset of last season. Meanwhile, Harvard’s talented freshman class and the team’s capable group of veterans went somewhat underappreciated.
Flash-forward to the following May, and the Crimson was bidding farewell to an even more impactful senior class than the 2016 graduates, Vesey’s Hobey or not. These seven seniors carried the team to its first Frozen Four appearance since 1994, and on its journey the squad captured a Beanpot victory, Ivy League championship, and ECAC regular season and playoff titles.
Despite all the accolades from last season, including a clean sweep of the yearly Ivy League awards and nominations to all three all-ECAC teams, this year’s Harvard squad faces a similar set of lasting questions about its retooled roster. The uncertainty mainly revolves around the forward corps, whose 2017 graduates accounted for 45 percent of the team’s scoring last season.
Before the season, tri-captain goaltender Merrick Madsen noted the annual underestimation of the program’s rising talent. He doesn’t seem to read into it anymore.
“I think we should give our forwards more credit than they have been getting so far this fall, from anybody,” the netminder said during the preseason.
As Madsen verbalized, the team doesn’t seem too fazed by the task of replacing six forwards and a defenseman, having been through major retools before. Early in 2017-2018, the Crimson will look to last year as a blueprint for maintaining the competitive level that it reached last season.
Just like the players, coach Donato learns with each roster turnover. In March, leading up to a first round game against Providence in the NCAA Tournament, he reflected on the uncertainty his team experienced entering the 2016-2017 season.
“We’ve been fortunate over the last few years to have some talented guys,” coach Donato noted last season. “This year, I don’t think as many people around the country expected us to be as competitive when we lost the Hobey Baker winner [and] when we lost Kyle Criscuolo.”
The Harvard bench boss acknowledged two factors that proved key to one-upping the 2015-2016 squad. For one, last year’s team received more consistent and balanced production than its predecessor. But even more crucial to the Crimson’s improvement year over year was that the players made the most of their larger roles within the lineup.
“I think we’re a different team. I think we’re more balanced,” coach Donato said last season. “We’ve added a couple of very talented young freshmen, and then some of our guys have had a year of development.”
Coach referred to the “development” of seniors Luke Esposito ’17, Sean Malone ’17, Tyler Moy ’17, and co-captain Alexander Kerfoot ’17, who combined to form one of the deadliest attacks in college hockey last season. Senior-led Harvard ranked second among 60 Division I programs in goals per game (4.06) and led the nation in assists per game (6.96), evidence of the team’s elite puck-moving ability.
“It’ll take us some time, like it always does, to establish the identity of the team,” said coach Donato after besting Dartmouth, 5-0, on Sunday. “It’s easy to forget, looking back that last year, at this time we had a bunch of guys who were hoping to take a big step, guys like Esposito and Moy and…Malone.”
As for the seniors specifically, the 2017 graduates finished their final season atop the NCAA in almost every single scoring category. Harvard’s fourth-years led all senior classes in goals, assists, per-game averages for both, power play assists and points, shorthanded goals, and game-winning goals.
“[Last year’s seniors] had the confidence to step up and say, ‘Hey, it wasn’t just [Vesey and Criscuolo], it’s all of us collectively, we've learned a lot, and this is our time to show it,’” sophomore forward Nathan Krusko said. “All of them as individuals did an amazing job showing us, the younger guys, what to do.”
Even after graduating one of the most dynamic offensive talents in program history in Vesey, the team became an offensive juggernaut by replacing its scoring by committee.
Can sophomore Ty Pelton-Byce, juniors Ryan Donato and Lewis Zerter-Gossage, and seniors Seb Lloyd and Jake Horton be this year’s committee? Sadly, it’s not as easy as last year’s seniors made it look.
Seniors no longer dominate the Crimson’s top six. Instead, Harvard will need superlative leadership from tri-captains Horton, Madsen, and Ellis to effectively integrate its freshmen.
As always, the tone in the locker room starts with the captains leading by example. And nobody leads by example by sitting in the stands. Horton, who was battling some nagging injuries ahead of Sunday’s contest, demonstrated his dedication by powering through those ailments and lacing them up on opening night.
“Jake Horton had an unreal summer,” coach Donato lauded. “He’s in beast-mode shape and…he looks like a guy who is on a mission. We’re excited, he’s a leader.”
Even with veteran players like Horton in the top six, surpassing last year’s scoring pace is unlikely. This team draws on experience from the blue line, returning five of last season’s regular fixtures and adding shifty freshman Reilly Walsh to the fold. The keystone of this solid back end is Madsen, who looks to expand his stake in the Harvard record book after a dominant junior season.
Last year’s surge of point production, however, was as obvious a marker of improvement as it was impressive. After all, flashy dangles, needle-threading passes, and six-goal games aren’t exactly the subtlest elements of sport.
Less celebrated than the 396 points scored by last year’s team, and what truly got the group to the United Center in early April, was the timeliness of its scoring. The Crimson potted a league-best 56 goals in the third period last season. Seeing the importance of this clutch factor, coach Donato has already challenged this year’s team to maintain it.
“We’ll certainly be able to be dangerous,” coach Donato said. “The challenge is, can we score when the game is on the line? I think last year we were able to do that, [but] it’s a new year and it’s a new challenge.”
This season will be full of these challenges for the Crimson. Can Harvard channel the winning culture left behind by past players to overcome them?
—Staff writer Spencer R. Morris can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Spencer on Twitter @SMorrisTHC.