Clarkson Is Here to Stay
It has been a while since Clarkson has been among the top teams in the country, but this year is changing that.
The Golden Knights are on a 14-game winning streak, have risen all the way to second in the Pairwise and are undefeated nearing the midway point of their ECAC schedule.
Getting to this point is the result of seven years of building by head coach Casey Jones, with some fits and starts along the way. Despite the good times today, the road hasn't always been an easy one for Jones and the Golden Knights.
The three losing seasons in his first four years, were a difficult pill to swallow for a fan base as passionate as Clarkson's. A 9-20-7 season in 2012-13 was a low-point. Two years after that, a 12-20-5 year had many wondering if the program was going in the right direction.
After the 2014-15 season, a reset button was hit.
"We were able to put our heads down and just knew we had to go about building a culture," Jones said. "We had to work hard, get better and be committed each day. We spend a lot of time recruiting the right players; we just needed to stay the course with it. There are high expectations here but we knew we just had to get the right guys in to get the foundation set. We trusted the process."
The next two seasons put Clarkson on the brink of moving forward, but it struggled to do so. Each season, the Golden Knights played in a hard-fought ECAC quarterfinal series but was unable to make it to the league championship weekend in nearby Lake Placid.
The 2015-16 season was much of the same and the frustrations had seemed to set-in, which is why this season has come as such a relief, as much as anything.
"One of the big things for us has been continuity in recruiting," said Jones. "We were always targeting players, but it just took a couple of years for people to trust the process that we were going to win. Good players want to play with good players and they want to win. Once they saw the trend here, three of our last four years have been winning seasons, we were just lacking a signature wins. We have to continue to work hard, because consistency is a hard thing."
First, there was goaltender Jake Kielly, who last season made a position of weakness in recent years into a position of strength. His play this season has been on another level. Kielly leads the nation in GAA (1.33) and is second in the country in save percentage (.950), and played every minute of every game before taking a rest last Saturday against Rensselaer (a game Clarkson won in a shutout anyway).
Second, a talented group of sophomores that includes Sheldon Rempal, Nico Sturm and Devin Brosseau gained a year of experience. Those three have become the best line in the ECAC and one of the better ones in the country. Rempal is fifth in the country in goals with 16 and the three have combined for 73 points.
Third, this was the unexpected part, another talented group of freshmen have come in and made an immediate impact. Josh Dickinson is second, among rookies, in goals scored with 10 and Jack Jacome has 17 points. As a class, Clarkson freshmen have scored 24 goals and added another 28 assists. This is only helped the depth of a squad that was expected to struggle finding secondary scoring.
Those two classes together have combined for 55 goals and 81 assists. The 136 points is fifth in the nation and the 55 goals is third. This should mean that although the present is bright, the future should also be.
"We thought we were going to need some time to find our offense but to get the production from our freshmen has been (surprising)," Jones said. "We knew we had some good players in the group but you never know. We felt our first line was going to be really good coming into the year, so to get that second wave of offense has propelled us."
ECAC teams are always under the microscope because of a perceived weak schedule but the Golden Knights have played some of the best teams in the nation and have flourished. They have more non-conference wins against top-17 pairwise teams than the entirety of Hockey East. It has five such wins with victories over Western Michigan (8th), a pair over Providence (9th), Penn State (12th) and Michigan (16th). Two losses at Minnesota are the only blemish, but the Golden Knights haven't lost since.
"One of the biggest things for us was that we came out of the summer healthy," said Jones. "More importantly, though, we came out of last season healthy and had a full offseason of good training. People don't think about that much, but if you don't get the full summer you might not get the gains. A lot of our key guys had fantastic summers."
Taking the next step and making it to Lake Placid has been a goal of Jones of the Golden Knights for some time, but the start of this year has them thinking much bigger than that. The depth will let it compete on the national stage and there is no question it is the top dog in the ECAC, right now.
"We are aiming for championships now," Jones said. "We have been knocked out in the (ECAC) second round three straight years and two of them in overtime. We are trying to win a regular-season championship, a tournament championship. We talk all the time to the guys about leaving their legacy. We have put ourselves in a great position and have a great balance in our team."
Clarkson has gone from the hunter to the hunted. This in itself is a challenge for a team that hasn't been in this position before but this moment has been coming for a while.
"We are learning new things every year," Jones said. "We have learned how to play with consistency and we are learning how to play with a target on our back. This year we are finding ways to win games. Even though we haven't been at a level where we need to be at the end of the year, we will work on that. We have been in a little bit of a lull in terms of attention to detail. We need to get back in sync to be the team we think we can be."
Clarkson supports its hockey program and the community does as well. These times are fun in the North Country and poor seasons like the nine win season puts any coach under the microscope.
"That is what we are as a program — a community," said Jones. "We are close-knit and everyone is going to feel part of the family. It is what it is, though, when it's not going well it can wear on you and when it is going well, like now, it is a fantastic environment to be in."
Another tool should be coming in the very near future, as Clarkson is raising money for a renovation of Cheel Arena. This should be coming sooner, rather than later.
It is always good when an old, traditional program regains the once magic it had. The Clarkson story has a feel-good nature to it, paying its dues over two decades. No one can question at this point whether the Golden Knights are heading in the right direction. Its youth sets it up well in the future. It also has solid recruiting classes on the way, which means the good times should be back to stay.