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October 7, 2013 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

Taking a Look at Coaches to Watch in 2013-14

by Dave Starman/Columnist

In the preseason, there is a constant thinking about who you want to keep an eye on this year. Top 5 this, top 10 that. Yet no one ever talks about the coaches.

Red Gendron, now the coach at Maine once joked with me, “The team that gets off the bus with the best players generally wins.”  Should that have been the case in the NCAA tournament last year, Gendron, then an assistant at Yale, would not have that fancy ring he now owns as part of a national championship team. Coaching can often be overlooked, but at the NCAA level it is more important than people think.

There are a lot of terrific coaches in the NCAA. Two, Mark Osiecki and George Gwozdecky, suddenly find themselves behind pro benches as assistants after tumultuous departures from their schools (Osiecki with Rockford in the AHL and Gwozdecky with the Tampa Bay Lightning). Going into this season there are a few coaches with unique challenges, things to prove, or good seasons to follow up on.

Here’s my look at some of the ones most worth keeping an eye on in 2013-14.

Rick Gotkin, Mercyhurst

After a 19-17- 5 season and a trip to the AHA title game, the Lakers are picked as the top team in the league's preseason poll. The one thing about Gotkin’s program is that it is always in the hunt. A lot of that is Rick and his positive upbeat style and another part of it is recruiting. That part has been handled flawlessly by Bobby Ferraris.

Gotkin’s strength is the way he handles his people. Very few can balance the unvbelievable sense of humor he has with a no-nonsense attitude that is needed to hold people accountable and produce winning hockey. Gotkin knows how to delegate authority to his assistants while keeping a firm grip on the big picture. This year he has skill, speed, and a team that knows it left something on the table at the AHA championship weekend.

Mike Cavanaugh, Connecticut

I could take up 10 pages writing about “Cav” — he is one of the assistants who I talked to a lot over the years. A fellow Long Beach, N.Y. native, Cavanaugh is one of the up-and-coming head coaches that keep college hockey a place to develop future pro players.

Sifting through 10 years of conversations we have had, one thing I can say about UConn's new bench boss is that he's thorough. Cav posseses a great hockey mind and doesn’t leave out details. Whether it is breaking down a team, a system, a player, a situation — Cav has that ability to know what he is looking for and how to counter it.

BC is powerhouse in college hockey and Cavanaugh was a huge part of it. He can teach, he can recruit, and he can relate to the hockey players of today. He doesn’t guess, rather he trusts his instincts and the things that have gotten him this far. UConn is a couple of years away from being a bigger player in the landscape in New England from a recruiting standpoint, but with the amount of really good players coming out of the Connecticut, from prep to junior hockey, the Huskies are now poised to win some recruiting battles. 

Tom Anastos, Michigan State

Anastos enters his third season at MSU and already has a national tourney appearance under his belt. Last year was not a great season, but his inexperienced a defense corps will be a year older. Combine that with a pretty good goaltender and MSU could have something cooking.

I’ve know Tom a long time. Last year in March, we were the co-analysts for the studio show ESPNU did during the regionals. In those couple of days, I saw a different Anastos then the one I knew and respected as commissioner of the CCHA. I always felt TA was the most progressive conference boss out there and I saw some of that in how he was setting up the MSU program for the future.

What also came out was his vision of what MSU can be and how they can get there. The combination of high-level technology and solid fundamentals was evident in what he was trying to accomplish, making MSU into what it was in his days as a player there under the legendary Ron Mason. Year three in the Anastos regime could tell a lot about where the program is heading, but the general theme at MSU is that they are Michigan State and that they matter in college hockey.  

Guy Gadowsky, Penn State

OK big brother, it’s showtime for the Nittany Lions.

Keep this in mind. Gadowsky took Princeton to the national tournament and barely missed with Alaska in the early 2000s. Alaska and Princeton are two places where it is not easy to recruit, for two very different reasons, and yet Gadowsky was able to win at both places. That says something for the Edmonton-area native who had a lot of his playing and coaching philosophy shaped by watching the high-flying Oilers of the 1980s.

Gadowsky believes in offensive hockey but also believes that hockey is a game played by tough people who can play. He recruits ultra-competitive players that can think on their feet. One thing I learned from him very well as we did our USA Hockey Masters certification together in 2001 was, he knows the importance of a team that has the right mix of character and talent.

It could be a couple of years before Penn State can fully take on the personality of its dynamic head coach.  Gadowsky has laid the groundwork for the program in the way he and his staff have recruited but he is still a couple of seasons from a top-to-bottom roster that reflects the skill level and mentality he needs to win the Big Ten and challenge for the National Title.

Mike Schafer, Cornell

Personally there is no one in college hockey that answers questions with the candor that Schafer does. Whether it be on the record or off, the answers he gives you are ones you tend to remember 10 years later. Some are flooding back to me as I write this.

Schafer gets a bad rap from people who say that all he wants is big players who can clog up the ice and then pound the puck back at you when they get it. But Cornell has had some really good players at the NCAA level in his tenure, guys who were pretty electric offensively. Current assistant Topher Scott was one of them, along with current Isles’ star Matt Moulson. Byron Bitz, Colin Greening, Ryan Vesce, Tony Romano, Greg Miller and Bryan Ferlin are among others.

Schafer’s squads are always in the hunt. Teams gear up for Cornell whether it be a visit to Lynah Rink, one of the best buildings on the circuit, or when Cornell comes to town. The Big Red always have a bullseye on them. Schafer has an ability to keep his team grounded and focused on the next game despite being everyone’s rival.  His teams play hard and they can play offensively.

Rand Pecknold, Quinnipiac

A trip to the FF generates a lot of excitement, a lot of expectations, and a lot of spotlight on your program. However, losses of key vets and being on everyone’s radar can take its toll in a long season and that is the challenge Pecknold and the Bobcats face.

Losing a dominant goalie and key offensive players are part of college hockey, but he lost the core group that got them to the NCAA title game. How Rand and the staff handles the new kids in the program and the newly-found expectations is a challenge and one that he has not faced at QU.

What Quinnipiac has in its favor are the good vets that remain, and a newer building with modern amenities and a great recruiting pitch. They can get older players who might have been overlooked as 18-year olds and bring them to a great place to play. Pecknold is an excellent teacher, tremendous communicator and is underrated for his grasp on the Xs and Os. The guy is real smart and a can think on his feet.

David Quinn, Boston University

I can’t wait to watch this. Count me as a huge Jack Parker fan and I will miss him tremendously. I loved doing BU games just to hang out and chat with Jack. However, if entertainment value is important as well as a top-notch coach, then BU replaced the excitable Parker with a guy who is off-the-charts intense. I was in the AHL when Quinn made his pro debut as a player, but his career was cut short due to a condition known as Christmas Disease. What he couldn’t do as a player he has channeled into being a terrific coach and one who is not shy to express an opinion via the media or from behind the bench.

Quinn is a student of the game and really understands the defensive aspect. He can teach defensemen to play the way an elite level defenseman need to play. His experience at the pro level and working under both Parker and Mike Kemp in his days at UNO will be a huge asset for his young team at BU. Quinn is no stranger to Hockey East and his arrival should amp up some old rivalries. While BU was never dull, the arrival of the intensity of Quinn should make for an interesting season.

Mike Hastings, Minnesota State: The Purple Bull were a great story last season in the old WCHA. In the new WCHA, they could be the talk of the league.

Hastings' first year was a great success. They made the National Tournament, secured a place in the prestigious WCHA Final Five, and established a new culture in the program. The next challenge for Hastings is to keep it going.

Hastings won’t have to deal with some of the former powerhouse programs in the WCHA. However, the WCHA is a conference with good teams and really good coaches so, much like the NCHC or Hockey East, there are no easy weekends. This will once again challenge Hastings and his Mavericks to be on their game every weekend.

Hastings is a great coach and this program should continue to be in the hunt for a spot in the National Tourney while he is at the helm.

Red Gendron, Maine

Gendron is a first-year head coach in college hockey who probably has forgotten more about hockey than most coaches ever know. The mind of the man is a hockey goldmine and the Black Bears will be the happy recipients of what he brings.

Gendron is a straight-ahead, no-nonsense guy, but is also a teacher first and foremost. Winning is important and he has recruited several elite level NCAA players that have had great careers in each of his stops in college hockey. He brings an NHL pedigree and had a ton of experience working within USA Hockey. He's also written several of the manuals we often use in the Coaching Education Program. Maine was always a team whose fundamentals were good and that will only get better under Gendron.

Red doesn’t tell you what you want to hear. He tells you the truth and then helps you sort through it to become a better player and a better hockey team. He makes Maine a legit threat and has some good players on the roster. Give him a half a season to get his system in place and then sit back, watch, and enjoy the style you will see in Orono.

Enrico Blasi, Miami

The RedHawks were picked first in the pre season NCHC poll. That is not what you want in that conference, to be the hunted team with seven good teams after your top spot. The competitive nature of Blasi and The Brotherhood make them the perfect team to have the preseason No. 1 hanging over them. They won’t run from it, they’ll embrace it.

Blasi is a couple of seasons removed from back-to-back Frozen Four appearances. He was within one minute of a title in 2009 and lost a national semifinal in 2010. Since then, he had a couple of real good teams that fell short of expectations. With a new conference and a lineup that is deep and offensively prolific, this could be a big season in Oxford.

Knowing him as well as I do, I know he is always looking for something that gives him an edge, whether it be on the ice or off it with the variety of programs he has installed into the Redhawks culture. The challenge here for Blasi is getting his team to the finish line without having peaked emotionally or physically. Blasi is sly as a fox and is good at not emptying the vault of tricks too early. In the NCHC, that will be important. This will be a new year for the program with new teams to face and new challenges. The newness of it all could play into Blasi’s favor.

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