The blue line has historically been an emphasis for Cornell’s hockey program.
“It’s a huge culture,” freshman defenseman Hank Kempf said. “They call it the corps here. It’s a culture that they don’t just want us to carry on — they expect us to carry on,” Kempf said.
Heading into the 2021-2022 season, the blue line is one of the biggest questions facing Cornell. While the team has returned nine of 15 forwards, only four of its defensemen have taken the ice for Cornell heading into this season.
Most of the defense’s biggest contributors, including star goaltender Matt Galajda and second team All-American Yanni Kaldis are no longer with the program. Whether a group of newcomers can step in and fill their shoes will be critical to determining the team’s success.
“It’s part of college athletics,” Schafer said. “There’s going to be guys that graduate … and you just have to replace them. You’re never going to replace them as a person or as a character.”
In 2019-2020, the Red allowed an average of 1.55 goals per game, the second lowest in the nation. That team’s blue line was led by Kaldis and Alex Green, both of whom have since graduated. The defense also received meaningful contributions from a group of players who will be back with the team this season.
Then-junior Cody Haiskanen was sidelined by injury to start the season, but contributed down the stretch. Two years later, Haiskanen is one of the team’s tri-captains and is the leader of the defensive corps.
“It’s a big honor for sure, but I don’t take it for granted,” Haiskanen said. “It comes with a lot of responsibility every day. I take it personally as my job to have the team ready.”
In addition to Haiskanen, the team returns a group of three juniors who contributed in 2019-2020. Then-freshmen Sam Malinski, Travis Mitchell and Sebastian Dirven emerged as reliable defensemen. Mitchell’s 11 points at even strength contributed to him being named an ECAC rookie of the year finalist. Malinski contributed the most points by a Cornell defenseman in 10 years. Dirven played in all but one of the team’s games, adding four points during the final 14.
While those four make up a solid foundation, the unit will need contributions from its newcomers. The most likely candidate to be called on is Kempf, who was selected by the New York Rangers in the seventh round of this summer’s NHL Draft. Kempf started in both of Cornell’s exhibitions.
“There’s definitely a lot of roles that need to be filled,” Kempf said. “[The coaches] are preaching to us to be assertive out there and feel like you belong because the younger guys are expected to come into these roles and fill them.”
Sophomores Jack Lagerstrom and Tim Rego are also poised to be featured prominently on the blue line. Rego worked his way into Cornell’s power play units during the two exhibitions and Lagerstrom demonstrated his passing ability, feeding Kyle Betts from deep in the Red’s defensive zone for a breakout that led to a goal in last weekend’s game.
Haiskanen sees parallels between this year’s group and prior seasons’ defensive units.
“When I came in, there was me and two other freshmen,” Haiskanen said. “We all stepped in right away and the older guys did a great job teaching us Cornell hockey and showing us the ropes. I just want to do the same and pass it down to these guys and show what it means to be a Cornell hockey player and defenseman.”
Despite the turnover and the challenge of preparing a new group for the season, Haiskanen feels confident in the unit’s abilities.
“I’m very confident in our back end,” he said. “Our young guys have shown a lot of promise and there’s just so much more room to grow. I’m excited to see where things go.”
Behind the blue line, Cornell’s goalie is another area of uncertainty going into the season. For the past three seasons, Matt Galajda has been a reliable presence in net and established himself as one of the best goalies in the nation.
After Galajda’s departure to Notre Dame, Cornell’s roster is left with three goalies, all of whom are still waiting for their first collegiate playing time. Between senior Nate McDonald and freshmen Ian Shane and Joe Howe, no goalie has emerged as the definitive starter for the Red.
“There won’t be a starter on our team for quite some time,” Schafer said following the first exhibition game.
Part of the difficulty in evaluating the goalies has been the disparity in the number of shots each has faced in the exhibitions. Howe is the most tested, with saves on 19 of the 20 shots he saw. Shane has stopped seven of eight and McDonald has saved all three of the shots he has faced.
Schafer did not say who would start this weekend against Alaska Fairbanks or if he will use more than one goalie during the games.
“After Thursday’s practice, I’ll probably sit down with our staff and go with my gut on what we’ll do,” he said.
The goalies and the blue line will get to start answering the many questions facing them on Friday night when Cornell starts its season by hosting Alaska Fairbanks at 7 p.m. at Lynah Rink.