Nice Guys Finish ... First?
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
When you start the list of nice guys in hockey, Tim Taylor's name is invariably near the top.
But after years of doubt, Taylor is on his way to proving nice guys don't have to finish last. In fact, the way things look, they can even earn home ice for the playoffs.
Led by one of the nation's top all-around defensive tandems in Ray Giroux and Daryl Jones, a goalie in Alex Westlund who has come into his own and a strong sophomore class, Yale has jumped out to an 8-2-0 start (6-1-0 ECAC) following last week's 3-2 win over Princeton.
Heading into a three-week break, Yale — in first place in the ECAC — is off to its best start since 1991-92, allowing just 1.3 goals per league game, and is receiving votes in national polls. This all comes after finishing 10th last year, which actually was the program's first playoff appearance since 1992-93.
"It's a great start. We've had some pretty stiff tests and done OK," said Taylor. "At this point, we couldn't be better off. If anyone told me in August this is where we'd find ourselves, I would've signed the deal."
If the defense is the heart of the team, and the sophomores are the backbone, then Taylor is the program's soul. And working together, they have been reborn.
Taylor, a Harvard graduate, isn't just a nice guy. He's a 20-year mentor at Yale, a great teacher and a respected member of the coaching fraternity. That was evident when Taylor, after various coaching duties for Team USA in international events, was selected to coach the 1994 U.S. Olympic Team in Lillehammer, Norway.
The conventional wisdom of the time said Taylor would use the Olympics as a springboard to a job in the pro ranks, but a disappointing eighth-place finish squelched that talk. Meanwhile, Yale, without Taylor and stars like Mark Kaufmann, dropped from 15-12-4 to 5-21-1.
Then, despite the best efforts of interim coach and all-time Yale great Dan Poliziani, Taylor's year away would hurt recruiting. And when Taylor returned, Poliziani left. Yale has yet to have another winning season.
"There's no doubt we had a couple of lean recruiting years," says Taylor. "I don't know if being away had a part of it. The class we recruited [who were seniors] last year didn't have stars. We had role players and hard workers, but we didn't have players that could carry the mail. That whole thing hurt us for a couple of years."
Suddenly, said conventional wisdom, Taylor went from respected coach to a guy who just didn't have the energy for the job anymore, whose enthusiasm was sapped. The Elis had records of 8-17-3, 7-23-1 and 10-19-3.
But Taylor persevered and, last year, good things started to happen. The Elis had some nice games against ranked teams, made a late playoff run and won a playoff game, giving everyone hope for better things to come. Last year's freshman forward class, including Jeff Hamilton, Cory Shea, Jeff Brow and Jay Quenville, showed signs of being one of the league's best.
Still, who could blame coaches for picking Yale 10th when this year began?
"My immediate reaction when we were picked 10th was, 'I guess that's what we deserve,'" said Taylor. "But I thought we could certainly improve upon that."
Every team picked lower than where it thinks it will finish, tries to use it as a rallying cry, as a sign they aren't respected. Yale, however, has come through on its promises.
"After we practiced and played a little — those first two games against Air Force [a 7-1 exhibition win] and McGill [a 5-1 win] — I said to myself, 'If there are nine clubs better than us, we'll have a pretty strong league,'" said Taylor.
Yale followed up with a weekend sweep of Clarkson and St. Lawrence, and wins over tough teams like Cornell, Merrimack and Princeton. The Elis are getting stellar defense and goaltending and just enough offense, led by a budding star in the sophomore Hamilton, an all-ECAC rookie team member last year. Classmate Shea has four goals.
"We probably didn't expect to be in first, but we certainly didn't expect 10th," said Giroux, a second-team All-ECAC defenseman last year with nine goals and 21 points. "We knew we were much better than people thought. It's a matter of going out and seeing how good we were. Maybe some people took us lightly, but not anymore. Sure, it's going to make it tougher, but that's the way we want it."
The roots to this season began last year, when Yale turned in consecutive North Country wins at Clarkson and St. Lawrence, and followed those up with a tie against Boston University. The freshman-laden team began to gain confidence.
"It opened our eyes to the realization that we're pretty good if we work together as a team," Taylor said. "I think we did a good job of reestablishing the killer instinct."
A late-season win over Dartmouth was huge in earning a playoff spot, and by the time Yale lost a heartbreaking overtime game to Union in the season finale, it already had that berth tied up.
Everything came together for the Elis in the playoff game against seventh-seeded Colgate, a heavy favorite. Westlund, who secured number-one status midseason, made 46 saves in a 1-0 shutout. Yale was competitive before ultimately bowing out to top-seeded Clarkson in the quarterfinals, but the scene was set for this year.
"We returned a lot of players and we didn't lose too many," said Westlund. "If you look at our record, nine games under .500, obviously it's pretty bad. But we played top-10 teams really well. We split with Cornell, split with RPI; there were a lot of positives even though, overall, our record was not very good. That was a big reason we were confident. Last year we knew we were close. Not there, but close."
The same could be said for Westlund, who is quickly turning into this year's Trevor Koenig — who, as a junior for Union last year, led the nation in save percentage and came from obscurity to win the league's Ken Dryden Award as top goaltender. Westlund is currently going in the same direction, at 7-2-0 with a 1.71 goals-against average and a .938 save percentage.
"The team has matured in front of Alex," said Taylor. "He's been a pretty good goalie from the middle of last year on, in terms of his mental toughness. He's truly been overshadowed in the league by [Tim] Thomas, [Dan] Murphy or [Trevor] Koenig, or goalies that have been on stronger teams. But when you look at his save percentage [.916 last year], he was in the top echelon nationally. That speaks pretty well for him. So he's not a surprise for me.
"This [program], if anything, has been revitalized by this group. They're fun to coach and very talented, practices are lively, and I enjoy going to the rink."
While Taylor will never admit if he was truly dispirited in the post-Olympic years, or even close to retiring, it is clear that this year's team has him reinvigorated.
"He's tremendously excited about this year," Giroux says. "He works probably harder than any coach I can imagine."
Says Westlund, "The players, we take losing pretty hard. But when we lose, I don't think anyone takes it as hard as [Taylor] does. He's been frustrated. When you're losing season after season, it has to wear on you. I think he's real excited about this year's team.
"He's definitely becoming more personable. The type of people on this team has a lot to do with it. He's a very warm person. You might not get that on first impression, but he cares more about this team than anyone."
Taylor admits to being excited again, but there's still work to do.
"There's no doubt about it. I feel like this is a high-water mark in terms of coaching," he said. "[But] we still have to make believers out of people. We were picked so far down in preseason, a quick start convinces some but not all."
It's been so long since Yale was a winner, there are many who wondered if it was possible for the program to ever be a major player in the league. But some people forget the strong teams Taylor coached through the '80s and early '90s. Names like Bob Brooke, Bob Kudelski and Randy Wood cracked NHL lineups for a long time (Wood is still playing). Peter Allen, Craig Ferguson and Mike O'Neill all play in the AHL, and Dave Baseggio and John Emmons reside in the IHL.
In 1984, Taylor was also coming off a stint with the US Olympic Team as an assistant, and upon returning, led Yale to its two best seasons in program history. A 19-11-1 season in 1984-85 was ended by two straight losses to Cornell. In 1985-86, Yale went 20-10 and swept a star-studded St. Lawrence team two straight in the playoffs before losing a heartbreaker in double overtime at Boston Garden to a Cornell team on the way to an ECAC title.
And anyone doubting that it can be done again need to look no further than Yale's travel partner to see what a program like Yale's can do. Princeton went from years of mediocrity or worse to two 18-win seasons in the past three years, including trips to Lake Placid.
Harvard, Princeton and Yale are generally considered in the same class, the elite of the elite. You can interchange them subjectively, but the trio is more or less even when it comes to scholastic merit. Harvard, however, has always seemed to have an edge in recruiting because of its Boston roots.
Yale and Princeton, meanwhile, have had it tougher. And while the Tigers may not win a national championship any time soon, Princeton's Don Cahoon is proving, like Taylor did in the '80s, that a consistent winner is achievable.
With a combination of no scholarships to offer and the most rigorous entrance requirements, Yale and Princeton look for that special player — perhaps a late-bloomer or someone whose parents have encouraged toward an Ivy League education.
"We cross over a lot," said Taylor. "Sometimes that does happen. But there's a lot of good players out there and we have to find the ones that academically can come. I try to avoid the heavy-handed recruiting and not go head-to-head with Princeton and Harvard."
In the case of Giroux, he had the grades and he was too small for a major junior team. And his brother Rich was already at Yale.
"I could've gone to Providence, but I was only 155 pounds when I got to Yale," said Giroux. A native of North Bay, Ont., he was only 135 pounds as a 16-year old, which ruled out major juniors.
"Other schools wanted me to go to juniors first. It was a tough decision, but in the long run, if hockey doesn't pan out, if you can get a Yale education, you're not doing too badly. The entire financial thing has been quite a burden, but my parents realize the value of it."
Yale has never forgotten the value of having Giroux, even if it's taken a while for the rest of the league to catch on. Teamed with Daryl Jones, the tandem has become one of the best in the nation — never mind the league — and a large reason why the team has allowed just 17 goals in 10 games this year. They play power play, shorthanded and five-on-five together, and get over 30 minutes a game.
"They are as strong a tandem as I've seen on any team. I use them to death," says Taylor.
"I don't think, ideally, they're suited for five-on-five [together]; if you're gonna pick the ideal combination, I don't know if they fit that bill. But they like playing with each other and they've learned to complement each other very well. As long as I can afford to play them together, I will."
"I think we're doing all right together," says Giroux. "[Francois] Magnant and James Chyz are guys that don't get very much mention, and they play well together too. So, for now, that's the way it's going to be."
Part of what has made Giroux into a force is learning when it's OK to rush the puck and when it's not.
"I've learned over the years, it depends who you're out there against," said Giroux. "Against [Eric] Perrin and [Martin] St. Louis, it's never a good time to try something different. Against the other team's fourth line, you can take a chance."
The maturation of the defense, combined with the progression Westlund has made, has created a team that's extremely tough to score against.
"The team defense has gotten better, but also Alex is better," says Giroux. "He's a hard worker. He's one of the last guys off the ice. He never gives up on a puck, and that's made him such a better goalie."
Says Westlund, "The defense is making my job very easy. They're not giving up many shots, not giving up great quality chances.
"[Jones and Giroux] are a tremendous anchor. They're two senior defensemen. As a player, Ray is phenomenal. He's so smart with the puck, so poised. To have that as a captain, he's terrific for the younger guys.
"They're leaders by example. I don't think we have too many vocal leaders, but I don't think that's what the players on this team need....There's no surprises in the league anymore for us."
And now, it appears, no surprises for the rest of the league either. They are learning that Yale is a team not to be taken lightly anymore.