In its last regular-season action, Cornell men’s hockey was churning in the month of February, averaging four goals per game en route to a flawless 9-0 record. Unfortunately for the Red, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the postseason, denying the team an opportunity to hunt for the hardware.
Now over a year and a half removed from those cancellations, the Red is finally readying for an official return to the ice. The team has ironed out some kinks in two exhibition matches against Princeton and the U.S. National Team Development Program. But in the time since March 2020, the Cornell roster has seen the departure of a number of seniors, especially on offense.
Chief among the losses in upperclassmen is former captain Morgan Barron, who signed with the New York Rangers in 2020. In the 2019-20 season, Barron led the team in scoring with 14 goals and 32 points. As the top player on a stacked Cornell team, Barron racked up a bevy of honors, including being named ECAC Player of the Year. Additionally, he was one of the 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award, given to the best player in college hockey.
Michael Regush was the second-leading scorer on the team with 11 goals, but he will join the Miami University hockey team as a graduate student-athlete. In addition to Regush, other core contributors from the 2019-20 squad such as Cam Donaldson and Tristan Mullin will not return. Mullin and Donaldson, who combined for 40 total points, also left for other schools, with Mullin completing his senior year at Vermont and Donaldson entering Massachusetts as a graduate transfer.
2020 graduates Noah Bauld and Jeff Malott have also moved on. Bauld and Malott contributed a total of 22 points, providing important senior leadership, something that senior forward and captain Brenden Locke will hope to emulate.
“What I try to instill from the guys who left — Morgan Barron, Yanni Kaldis and Jeff Malott — is their professionalism,” Locke said. “Everything they did was straight to the point — no messing around, and I think that’s one thing I’m trying to bring.”
That being said, the Red still has a number of returning forwards. The two headliners among that crop of players are Locke and senior Kyle Betts. Along with senior defenseman Cody Haiskanen, Locke and Betts are serving as the team’s tri-captains. Not only will they be instrumental in providing leadership and guidance to the team’s underclassmen, but they will also make important contributions on the ice.
In Locke’s last season, the then-junior was the team’s second-leading point-getter — only behind Morgan Barron — notching 26 points on eight goals and 18 assists. Additionally, Locke posted a +/- differential of +20, tied for the highest mark on the team. In light of the departure of numerous scorers, Locke will play an essential role on this offense as one of the leading scorers.
Kyle Betts returns to the team as one of the three upperclassmen from the 2019-20 campaign. In that season, Betts recorded three goals and seven assists in 24 games. Betts will provide necessary leadership both in even-strength and special teams situations.
“The natural thing is to look at guys like Kyle Betts, who will lead us the way as far as the penalty kill is concerned,” said head coach Mike Schafer ’86.
But beyond Betts and some of the experienced skaters, there are plenty of opportunities for the younger players to step in and claim valuable time on the penalty kill.
“There’s obviously a host of young guys who will come in and have to kill penalties for us, and it’s not just them, but other guys who have come back and weren’t even in the lineup,” Schafer said. “They have got to step up and try to claim those roles on the penalty kill.”
Beyond the penalty kill, several familiar faces figure to be essential pieces in the offense as well. Several underclassmen from 2019-20 have made big strides as players.
“Some of those guys have really utilized that [time away] to really improve their game,” Schafer said. “I look at guys like Max Andreev, Sam Malinsky, Travis Mitchell and Ben Berard — they have taken some major steps in play, and that had a lot to do with their work ethic when we were done.”
Juniors Ben Berard and Matt Stienburg made the biggest splash out of any players from the Red in the preseason, each scoring three goals. Berard put the game away against the U.S., scoring two power-play goals in an 18-second span to give Cornell a lead that it did not relinquish. He also scored a goal in the Princeton contest. Meanwhile, Stienburg also scored a power-play goal against the U.S. and added a pair of scores when playing Princeton.
Along with Stienburg and Berard, senior Max Andreev will play an important role for the Red. Andreev was the team’s fifth-leading scorer in 2019-20 and notched 15 assists. The Russian native should be a core facilitator and scorer this year, just as he was in the preseason. Juniors Jack Malone, Ben Tupker, Zach Tupker and seniors Zach Bramwell and Liam Motley will provide further support on the attack, rounding out the offense.
Of the 10 new freshmen on the team, four are forwards. Two of the four sophomores also add manpower to the offense as forwards. Some of these underclassmen have already made their name known on the ice, recording points during the Red’s two exhibition contests.
One of those players is Justin Ertel. Drafted in the third round of the NHL Entry Draft by the Dallas Stars with 79th overall pick, Ertel tallied 120 total points in his time at St. Andrew’s College, the same school that Barron, junior forward Matt Stienburg and goaltender Matt Galajda ’21 attended.
Against Princeton, Ertel recorded Cornell’s fourth goal of the contest off a redirection from junior forward Jack Malone and Haiskanen. Scoring that first goal has helped grow the freshman’s confidence.
“Personally, it’s helped me a lot in finding my stride and kind of showing that I am able to play with these players,” Ertel said.
Ondrej Psenicka also etched his name on the scoreboard, doing so against the U.S. After the U.S. struck first with a goal by Casey Seamus 18:49 into the contest, Psenicka responded less than a minute later to put Cornell on the board, rebounding the puck into the net following Betts’ shot on goal.
Beyond Ertel and Psenicka, the other new forwards include sophomore Kyle Penney, freshman Sullivan Mack, freshman Dan McIntyre, sophomore Jack O’Leary and freshman Kyler Kovich. In Cornell’s last season of play, the freshmen proved to be important contributors throughout the year, and Locke is placing high expectations on this group of underclassmen.
“We’re expecting big things from them,” Locke said. “Obviously, we lost a lot of key guys, but we have the next-man-up mentality, and I think those guys are going to fill in nicely. They have showed up and bought into culture. There’s been no messing around with them.”
Cornell men’s hockey will put their new offense to the test in its first taste of the regular season since March 2020 when it hosts Alaska this weekend at Lynah Rink.