WEST POINT — Army hockey has built its foundation on defense-first principles, but there may be a change afoot.
A defensive unit that has emphasized size and physicality on past teams is gearing toward smaller, more agile skaters with hopes of sparking the offense.
“I don’t care what level — the pro level, the college level — you see a lot of teams going to ‘D’ (defensive) corps that can have guys back there who can really skate and kind of add to the offense,’’ said head coach Brian Riley.
The graduation of eight seniors leaves a void of 23 goals from last season’s team, namely from forwards Tyler Pham and Conor Andrle, each of whom scored eight. But Army’s fourth-leading scorer, Alex Wilkinson, was a sophomore who posted six goals and 21 points from the blue line on his way to being named Atlantic Hockey defenseman of the year. Riley calls Wilkinson the most exciting Army defenseman since ex-pro and current assistant coach Zach McKelvie.
Two of Army’s three blue-line recruits, Andrew Quetell and Marshall Plunkett, are considered mobile and capable of jumping into the offensive play.
“The past couple of years, our team has shifted,’’ said junior winger Dominic Franco. “We got a lot more skill, both up front and on defense. Hopefully, that can translate into a new style for us and score some more goals.
“We have a good (defensive) group. They can all skate, shoot and pass, and they think the game pretty well. The big focus this year for us is a unit of five movement out there as opposed to a forward/’D’ split, so hopefully that will translate well for us.’’
Army is making that transition with a team that is still considered youthful. There are five seniors, seven juniors and a sophomore class of nine, not all of whom were given ample playing time last season, so there’s going to be players in new and expanded roles. Riley brought in six freshmen, split evenly between forward and defense.
“We lost some size,’’ said senior co-captain winger Taylor Maruya, “but having said that we have a lot more speed and agility this year, so as long as we are staying out of the (penalty) box and giving our power play a lot of opportunities and skating fast and playing the way we should be, I think our team will do really well this year.’’
Last season, Army finished tied for third in Atlantic Hockey, only six points out of first. The Black Knights (15-15-6) took eventual playoff champion Air Force to overtime in a decisive quarterfinal Game 3 before losing 1-0.
The Black Knights return 10 of their top 12 point-getters and 70 of 93 goals scored. Second-team all-star Michael Wilson scored 18, Franco had 12, Zach Evancho netted eight, Brendan Soucie posted seven and Trevor Fidler had six.
Army opens the season Saturday at ECAC powerhouse Union College. The top forward lines (left to right) will feature Wilson, Mason Krueger and Evancho; Fidler, Soucie and Franco; Maruya, Tipper Higgins and Ian Mansfield; and John Laurito, Kevin Dineen and Tucker DeYoung. The defensive pairings will be Wilkinson and co-captain Dalton MacAfee; Matt Berkovitz and John Zimmerman; and Cody Fleckenstein and Bryan Gerstenfeld.
Sophomore Jared Dempsey, who made nine starts in place of injured Cole Bruns last season, beating nationally ranked Colgate and New Hampshire in the process, takes over the starting job at goalie. He had a 2.44 goals against and a .923 save percentage.
The team believes the work of the past two classes has returned the Black Knights to where they expect to be every season: above .500 and in contention at season’s end. Riley said he understands why the Atlantic Hockey coaches picked his squad for sixth, given the personnel losses, but he believes Army will contend in a league that is getting harder to win every season.
“We haven’t got to where we want to be, which is the NCAA tournament,’’ Maruya said. “I think maybe having a little bit of different composition on this team, different types of players, it could send us to where we want to be. … We are not going to be happy with anything less than getting into the tournament.’’