Read all about the upcoming Cornell men’s hockey season in The Sun’s 2018-19 Men’s Hockey Preview Supplement.
The past few years Cornell men’s hockey tells a story of improved success and a rise to prominence. With the team improving its record each year since 2015-16, the current seniors have seen the progress unfold before their very eyes.
And while the five of them each skated in the same games, in the same rinks, on the same ice, for the past three years, each has forged his own path and written his own story alongside the team’s.
“They are all great kids and great people,” head coach Mike Schafer ’86 said of his senior class. “But they have all gone through their own little journey within the four years.”
For the team, each story provides something for the younger players to learn from. And as for the fans, there’s something to appreciate about these veterans and their stories of struggles and successes.
Mitch Vanderlaan – Forward (C)
For a second straight year, Vanderlaan will sport the ‘C’ after a season in which the Red had the nation’s best winning percentage under his co-captaincy with Alex Rauter ’18. Despite missing some time last year, Vanderlaan was a key component to the success of last year’s campaign, notching 20 points across 27 games in 2017-18.
“He has been a key contributor on our team, up front one of our best scorers” said senior defenseman Matt Nuttle of his captain. “He’s really good at leading by example, always doing the right things.”
Standing just five-foot-seven, the captain has been known for his high energy play since his freshman year. He seems to be everywhere on the ice, all at once. With 27 blocked shots, a point of emphasis for Schafer’s teams, Vanderlaan led all offensive players in that category last season despite sitting out six games.
“[Vanderlaan] gives 110 percent every shift on the ice, and the younger guys follow that kind of stuff,” said junior defenseman Yanni Kaldis.
Since he scored the opening goal of his first home game at Cornell in 2015, Vanderlaan, unlike all freshman, “contributed right away,” as Nuttle described. He totaled 28 points that year — most on the team — and hasn’t looked back.
Alec McCrea – Defenseman (A)
Originally committed to Harvard, McCrea eventually ended up on the “good” side. And Cornell is undoubtedly grateful that’s how it all panned out. Like Vanderlaan, McCrea had an immediate impact for the Red.
As a freshman blueliner, McCrea played in every game, and even notched 15 points — the most for any defenseman in 2015-16.
“Alec started [well] right from the start,” Schafer said.
Despite putting his body on the line — having led the team in blocked shots in each of the last two seasons — McCrea has shown exceptional durability, playing in all but one of the 100 games Cornell has played since he arrived on East Hill.
As an alternate captain, McCrea is continuing to lead by example, with his leadership transitioning to off the ice as well now.
“The leadership … is much more than obviously anyone else outside the locker room can see,” Kaldis said. “[McCrea and Nuttle] do a lot of the talking, they’re vocal guys. They lead by example both on and off the ice.”
Matt Nuttle – Defenseman (A)
Like McCrea, Nuttle is another strong voice in the locker room alongside his co-alternate captain. But unlike McCrea, Nuttle did not nearly have as much of an impact or presence his freshman year.
“[I struggled] figuring out the speed and how [the team] played,” Nuttle said of his freshman campaign. “That was a big adjustment for me.”
Nuttle only appeared in two games his freshman year, while some of his classmates appeared in all 34. Just two years later, he appeared in every game and was a major contributor to a nation-best defense.
And since everyone can’t suit up for every game, Nuttle believes his experience gives him, “some perspective that I can share with the younger guys.”
There are probably some players now that are in the same shoes Nuttle was in three years ago, and it’s nonetheless an asset to have an alternate captain that has been down a similar path. To Schafer, it’s not that much of a surprise that Nuttle is now donning a letter on his jersey.
“Matt’s always been one of those guys that’s been able to relate to guys across all classes,” Schafer said. “He’s always been a tenacious worker and guys respect that.”
Beau Starrett – Forward
Even though Starrett came to Cornell as a third round NHL draft pick, it was not necessarily smooth sailing for the center during his first year on East Hill.
“Beau had some injuries his freshman year and since then has obviously been a big contributor,” Nuttle said.
Despite seeing the ice early in the 2015-16 campaign, Starrett ended up appearing in less than half the games that season due to injuries. Health issues prevented Beau from settling in and finding consistency as a collegiate hockey player.
But since the 2016-17, Starrett has missed only one contest and been a solid contributor to the offensive output of the Red, recording 24 points over the past couple seasons.
While Starrett was slow to get going, he has improved since and is likely to continue doing so this year with the departure of several top goal scorers. Schafer believes Starrett has the great potential to have a significant impact on offense in the senior’s last go-around.
“The biggest thing for Beau is to get him to shoot more,” Schafer said. “Something he’s wanted to do much more this year is have a shooting mentality and so far he’s done that.”
Brendan Smith – Defenseman
Smith, just like his classmate Nuttle, faced adversity at the outset of his college career. In fact, he’s not yet played a full season, missing numerous games especially in his freshman and sophomore years.
“Me and Smith have had interesting journeys, both of us kind of struggled a bit our freshman year. [Smith] dealt with some injuries,” Nuttle said.
But like Nuttle, Smith is now a cornerstone of a Cornell defense that was statistically the best in the nation last season.
“The two of those guys have probably improved the most in that senior class,” Schafer said.
Smith had the team’s second best plus-minus in 2017-18 at plus-19. And while Smith doesn’t carry an official designation as a leader, his teammates nevertheless see him at the forefront of guiding this squad.
“Even the guys who don’t have letters like [Smith] … they are really good leaders too. They could’ve had letters on their jerseys.”
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Now, each of these stories has culminated into one final chapter, with this group of seniors leading and mentoring a Cornell squad on the hunt for glory.
As the Red seeks redemption, hoping to return and advance further in the ECAC and NCAA playoffs, look for all five senior skaters to have memorable roles in this 2018-19 season.