This is not to say that last season was without its memorable moments and high notes (think second win in the Frozen Apple, historic defeat of Denver, and two emotional Harvard games). None can erase what lies ahead of this coming season. The Cornell hockey program will be on a path of proving next season. All the questions with few exceptions encircle addressing the Red's offensive woes throughout the entirety of last season. In a multipart series, this contributor of Where Angels Fears to Tread will address the ways in which the coming team will redress this fever-inducing problem.
Everyone the college-hockey world over knows that Cornell is GoalieU. This legacy is in the able hands of Mitch Gillam and Hayden Stewart. What outsiders of East Hill may not realize is that the carnelian and white have an equally entrenched legacy at another position in the starting line-up. Expecting great defensive and scoring performances from the blue line is as immutable as the appearance of the Cornell hockey sweater.
The championship runs of great Big Red hockey teams are tabbed as much by the era of given defensemen as they are goaltenders. Nick D'Agostino, Charlie Cook, Mark McRae, Chad Wilson, Steve Wilson, Mike Schafer, Geoff Roeszler, and George Kuzmicz are synonymous with their respective championship seasons and runs. Gordie Lowe, Harry Orr, and Skip Stanowski are among the best to play college hockey. The incomparable Dan Lodboa, the only transformative defenseman in the modern era of college hockey deserving of analogy to Bobby Orr, is the best defenseman to lace skates in a Frozen Four
Ever since Frank Crassweller, an all-American rover, danced on the ice of Boston Arena and St. Nicholas Rink and contributed to a 1911 championship, Cornell fans have expected much from their defensemen. However, when much is expected, not always is much realized. Last season, reality did not meet expectations.
Blue liners last season found the back of the net only eight times. The entire defensive corps garnered only 45 points. The former amounts to the second-worst goal-scoring performance of a defensive unit during the Schafer era. The latter fairs exactly the same. 45 points equate to the second fewest that a Schafer-coached group of blueliners has contributed. The season worse in both categories is not the same. So, arguably, last season was the worst offensive year for defensemen in two decades. This result was a tremendous letdown with all the promise of a Joakim Ryan-led cadre.
The disappointing conclusion of last season was nonetheless predictable when promise did not amount to potency. The numbers above could be misleading because they reflect absolute productivity for a season during which Cornell knew little production as a whole. Defensive scoring even trailed off as relative to overall scoring last season. The average Schafer-coached Cornell team generates 16.6% of its goals and 23.9% of its points from blue liners. Last season, goal production from skaters among the back two dipped below that average to 14.0%. This leads to an interesting trend.
The premise of this piece is that championship teams of Cornell hockey have been predictably dependent upon goal scoring from defensemen throughout every era of the program. The statistics bear out a certain level of predictability between the percentage of offense in terms of goals that a blue-line corps produces and the ultimate postseason success of that team. The average championship team at Cornell since 1967 has relied on defensemen for 16.6% of its goals. No, that is not a typo. The average relative contribution of defensemen of all modern championship teams equals exactly the average production of Schafer-coached teams. Perhaps there is a reason why in 20 years, Schafer has taken the Red to a title game 10 times.
Averages are nice and all, but means can be misleading. Appending a standard deviation to the championship mean will give a better understanding of the range of rates at which the average championship defensive corps produces goals relative to the mean. The group of defensemen contributes between 12.4% to 20.8% of goals on an average Cornell championship team (Oh, the spoils of being able to say something like "average championship" team in a meaningful way).
Shockingly, the offensive contributions of the 2014-15 defensemen squeak into that range. A 14.0% contribution of goals scored puts last season's blue liners in the bottom quartile of the range. The high-scoring eras of the 1970s and 1980s possibly depressed the ability of defensemen to keep pace. Not everyone can be Pete Shier. For example, the Whitelaw Cup years of 1973, 1980, and 1986, defensemen on those teams never contributed more than 13.3% of the goals that a banner-raising team tallied. Modern golden ages of Cornell hockey have come under Harkness and Schafer.
Using the championships teams from Cornell's most dominant era and its current bench boss (you know, whose system will be guiding the 2015-16 team), a new average band for average goal contributions from the defensive line-up emerges. The combined Harkness and Schafer range for defensive contributions is more than 10% narrower than the all-time championship range which reinforces the argument that when Cornell enjoys the greatest dominance, its style of play is consistent across multiple eras. The Harkness-Schafer range of defensive goal-scoring contributions is 14.4% to 21.8%.
So, was the writing on the wall last season? Yes, using the metric of reliable contributions of offense from the blue line, the 2014-15 blue line did not hold up its end of a time-honored tradition of gaudy relative offensive contributions. The group did not differ greatly from the average contribution that the average championship team deviates from the mean, but its offensive output remained sub-par for a squad that had the potential for playoff glory.
The closeness, only 0.4% off the blue-line goal-scoring pace of the range of the average of 11 of Cornell's championship teams, illustrates the slim margin between greatness and disappointment. There are good omens and bad omens in this.
Only marginal relative increases were needed for Cornell's back end to live up to this institutional tradition. Only two more goals from defensemen last season would have put the 2014-15 team at the Schafer-era average. Those two goals could have been the difference in the first quarterfinal contest against Union. That's the good news.
The bad news? Cornell's offense will need to be much improved next season overall. So, the task will fall to the defensemen to have an even better year relative to their scoring forward compatriots to carry the privilege of this statistically predictive legacy of scoring carnelian defensemen.
Anemic offense and injuries hurt the production of Cornell's blue line last season. The coming Cornell defensive corps with Holden Anderson, Ryan Bliss, Patrick McCarron, Alec McCrea, Trent Shore, Matt Nuttle, Brendan Smith, Dan Wedman, and Reece Willcox has the elements to drive such a disproportionate increase. However, as this writer said in the opening, this piece is not predictive. It is more of an issuance of a challenge. This writer thinks that Cornell's defensemen can rise to the challenge. The stakes are clear if they cannot.