For years, head coach Mike Schafer ’86 has instilled a defense-first system for Cornell men’s hockey. This system places some demands on the roles of goaltenders and forwards. Logically, though, the defense-first system challenges the defensemen most, tasking them with regaining puck possession and clearing the puck up the boards. Last year’s defensive leader, Patrick McCarron ’17, has graduated, and others will need to step up to replace McCarron and Holden Anderson ’17. Let’s discuss Cornell’s nine defensemen heading into the 2017-18 season, including the three freshmen, and analyze who will be the leading blueliners for Cornell this year.
Leading the pack is Alec McCrea. The junior from California has been a steady presence over the last two seasons for the Red. McCrea is a two-way defenseman who contributes offensively and defensively, and Cornell rarely has defensemen as dynamic as McCrea. Assuming he can stay healthy, he will be a major part of Cornell’s defense this season.
Yanni Kaldis is just a sophomore, but he was outstanding throughout his freshman season. Kaldis is an offensive defenseman and generated a number of goal-scoring chances last year, but amazingly did not score his first collegiate goal until the road game against RPI, when he struck in the game’s last minute to win it for Cornell, 4-3. Kaldis also had three assists on the road at Harvard last season, and figures to contribute the most to the offense from Cornell’s defense this season.
Brendan Smith and Matt Nuttle, classmates of McCrea, are very reliable defensemen. They are not flashy nor offensively focused, but concentrate on making smart plays with the puck in the defensive zone. Every defensive unit needs players like Smith and Nuttle to balance out the offensive skills of McCrea and Kaldis. In their junior seasons, Smith and Nuttle could take a step forward and secure a spot in the top four defensemen this season.
Ryan Bliss and Trent Shore are the other returning defensemen, but both enter the 2017-18 season with question marks. Bliss was a bright spot in his freshman and sophomore seasons, but missed all of last season due to a back injury. We will see whether Bliss hits the ice for his senior season, stays healthy and builds on the promise he showed, or if he struggles with further injury problems and rarely features in the Red lineup. Shore has sporadically played for Cornell, with only two starts last season after playing 12 games as a freshman. It remains to be seen if Schafer plans to make use of Shore more in his junior season.
Cornell added three freshmen at defense, and there likely will be lineup slots available for at least one of them right away. Matt Cairns leads the group as the only NHL draft selection. Over the summer, the Edmonton Oilers selected Cairns in the third round, 84th overall. The NHL scouting literature on Cairns reveals that his offensive game is excellent but he is still working on the defensive side of his game. Interestingly, Cairns was mentored by Paul Coffey, one of the best defensemen in NHL history, who was known for his smooth skating and offensive skills playing for Edmonton. Cairns is likely to be in the Cornell lineup when the season begins.
Cody Haiskanen comes to Cornell from Fargo, North Dakota. In 60 games for the USHL’s Fargo Force, Haiskanen recorded 28 points, including four goals. He only played one USHL season and is not an NHL draft pick, so we know less about his skillset and he is less likely to begin the season in the lineup.
Alex Green also arrives from the USHL without NHL draft status. The Chicago native played for the Lincoln Stars last season and posted a modest tally of 15 points in 43 games. While the plan may be for the likes of Haiskanen and Green to be slowly introduced to ECAC Hockey, Cornell’s defense has struggled with injuries in recent years, so Green and Haiskanen could get unexpected chances early in the season if recent injury trends continue.
On opening night, assuming all nine defensemen are healthy, expect to see McCrea, Kaldis, Smith, Nuttle, Bliss and Cairns playing for Cornell. The first four can expect to play any time they are healthy, while Bliss should reclaim a starting role if he is ready to return from injury. Shore has yet to cement a place in the lineup, which leaves one spot for the most talented freshman, which is likely Cairns. Given injuries and the need for rest, all nine defensemen will play for Cornell at some point this year. If Shore, Green and Haiskanen are involved at the start of the year, they should be ready for when, not if, they get a chance in the Cornell lineup.