When healthy, junior Cam Donaldson is one of the most dynamic forwards in the ECAC. His skill was on display in his return to the lineup on Friday night, when he had two assists in Cornell’s 4-1 win over Brown.
In his two seasons at Cornell, the “when healthy” qualifier has been more significant than Donaldson or Cornell men’s hockey would like — the five-foot-eight speedster missed nine games as a freshman and two games last season.
Donaldson — who was back on the ice Friday after missing the Red’s first two games, a pair of road wins at Michigan State — is giving Mike Schafer ’86 the type of problem every head coach wants to have. It’s one the bench boss almost never had in a 2018-19 season in which injuries abounded throughout the lineup. With a deep and skilled forward corps, including several impressive freshmen, who’s the odd one out?
So far, sophomore Liam Motley has suited up for just one game, and is pushed further down the depth chart with Donaldson’s return. Motley was a healthy scratch in the season-opener before scoring a goal in last Saturday’s game against the Spartans. Freshman forward Ben Tupker suited up for the season opener before being scratched to make room for Motley in game two.
With more than 12 forwards able to suit up every night, every shift has to be earned in practice — it’s creating an early-season culture of competition that Schafer thinks will force his players to work hard and not take anything as given.
“Without competition I think you can get really complacent,” Schafer said. “I saw that a little bit with last year’s team — because we had so many injuries, guys knew they were going to play. It’s human nature that when you have somebody competing against you and pushing you, you tend to rise to the challenge.”
“Last year I think with all the injuries and stuff we kind of relied on a couple lines but this year definitely we got 20 players are out there and they can contribute,” Donaldson said after Friday’s game.
It also helps to have a few freshmen trusted to contribute right away. For the most part, the Red’s rookie forwards have looked comfortable in college hockey, making the competition for playing time even fiercer.
“No spot is solidified. Obviously guys like Morgan Barron and Yanni Kaldis have made themselves kind of noticeable, and they’re going to be in the lineup,” said junior forward Brenden Locke on Tuesday. “But no spot is safe. I’m not saying that in a bad way like guys should be scared to lose their spot, but it’s just that added like ‘I gotta bear down here because there’s a couple guys at my back trying to get into the lineup.’”
Matt Stienburg has lined up on a top line with junior captain Morgan Barron and sophomore center Max Andreev, and fellow newcomers Ben Berard and Jack Malone seem to be solidifying their places in the lineup.
“You come to the rink every day and you have to earn your spot in the lineup so I think that just kind of leads into the weekend,” Stienburg said earlier in the week. “We’re practicing hard and you get to a weekend and a game and it’s no surprise going into the corner and battling.”
It leaves the Tupker twins (Zach and Ben), Motley and sophomore Zach Bramwell to battle for the final spots in the lineup. Schafer usually dressed a seventh defenseman as his 19th skater last year, in the first season of the NCAA rule change that allowed for an extra player. This season, he’s experimented with suiting up a 13th forward: Zach Tupker was the extra man in Friday’s win over Brown, Ben and Zach both suited up in the season-opener and Motley was the extra guy in his one appearance.
Lines coming together?
Donaldson’s return also forces Schafer to decide what to do about his lines. Donaldson played on a then-all-sophomore line for most of last season with Barron and Locke.
But so far this season, a top line of Barron, Andreev and Steinburg has been productive, as has a third line of junior Tristan Mullin, junior Kyle Betts and junior Noah Bauld whose success dates back to a scorching hot playoffs last season.
In Friday’s game, that left Donaldson to slide into a spot in the second line with Berard and centered by Locke, his good friend and longtime linemate.
“Donny is an unbelievable player … and his elite speed and skill and vision out there really brings a different dynamic to our team,” Locke said.
Said Donaldson: “Playing with [Locke] last year, I know his tendencies and where he wants to go with it. He’s got great vision and he can find me a lot and I could find him.”
It remains to be seen if Schafer makes any changes to his top two lines — he said after Friday’s game he expects things to shuffle again — but through three games, his lines are beginning to take shape. The Red has used Barron-Andreev-Stienburg and Berard-Locke-Donaldson as its top two lines. That gives Cornell two trios that look like explosive top lines. If everyone can stay healthy, it’s a nightmarish situation for ECAC opponents.
The starting five may not mean much in hockey, but that third line forwards Mullin, Betts and Bauld are regularly the starters signals their ability to shut down the opponent’s top line. That the trio can provide some offense is an extra bonus.
Meanwhile, senior captain Jeff Malott has been a fixture through three games on a fourth line with sophomore center Michael Regush and freshman forward Jack Malone. Malott’s physical play and historic streaky scoring make him a solid fit on any line, adding some versatility to the group of forwards. With Motley and both Tupkers battling for the extra spot, all the forwards know their playing time is far from guaranteed.
Schafer said special teams play a big role in determining who earns ice time. Figuring out who can contribute on the power play and who is skilled at killing penalties often decides who earns a spot in the lineup.
“We’ll go into practice and see who’s consistent, whose effort is high, whose pace is high,” Schafer said. “A lot of factors go into it and if it’s even, it goes down to gut. A lot of times it’s special teams that will decide whether a guy will be in or out. Guys can find their niche [on special teams] and it can give them an edge.”
The Red has its captain, a center who scored 12 goals as a freshman and an NHL Draft pick as its fourth line. If the team can stay healthy, it’s an embarrassment of riches for a program that values depth and the ability to confidently roll four lines.
Schafer said he’s likely to shuffle the lines again, and his staff spends time after games analyzing who has performed well in practice and earned an opportunity.
“[We don’t want to] make a change for the sake of making a change, you want to make it because some guys need to maybe just pay more attention to detail or work harder or whatever it may be,” Schafer said.
On the blue line, freshmen have filled in impressively for a unit that, uncharacteristic of Schafer-led teams, was the question mark coming into the season.
With senior captain Yanni Kaldis leading the way and junior Alex Green playing solid minutes, three freshmen and Matt Cairns, a junior new to everyday play, have held down the fort, alleviating the pain of losing Matt Nuttle ’19, Alec McCrea ’19 and Brendan Smith ’19 to graduation.
Sam Malinski, Travis Mitchell and Sebastian Dirven have also needed to step up due to an injury to junior defenseman Cody Haiskanen, who played in the preseason Red-White game before missing the exhibition games. Schafer said earlier this week that he hopes to have both Haiskanen and sophomore Joe Leahy back soon, but didn’t provide an exact timetable.
Haiskanen is expected to slide into an everyday top-six role right away, and Leahy will battle for playing time with freshmen Malinski, Dirven, Mitchell and Peter Muzyka.
One thing’s for sure: Malinski has quickly solidified his spot in the lineup. The Lakeville, Minn., native has two goals and four assists through three games and was named the ECAC’s Rookie of the Week after his first weekend of college hockey. Malinski and Cairns have made a solid defensive pairing and Malinski has been a fixture on Cornell’s power play, which is operating at an outstanding 40% clip through three games.
Sporting a 3-0 record and coming off a win in its first ECAC game of the year, the Red hosts Yale at 7 p.m. Saturday. The 1-2 Bulldogs suffered a 2-1 loss at Colgate on Friday after splitting a home-and-home with Brown to start the season. The Bulldogs finished in a tie for fifth place in the ECAC last season.