Hockey: Defending champion Redmen winless on opening weekend

The 2012-13 McGill Redmen are the defending national champions in little other than name.

Francis Verreault-Paul and Alex Picard-Hooper, the dynamic duo that scored more points over the last three seasons than any other CIS players, are gone. So are two-time CIS defenceman of the year Marc-Andre Dorion and the three players who made up the remainder of the team’s top-six scorers last season: Evan Vossen, Maxime Langelier-Parent, and Andrew Wright.

So to expect a repeat of the 2011-12 season that culminated with the school’s first University Cup would be foolish. The 2012-13 Redmen are akin to a cousin of the team that came before them. They share some of the same traits—speed, mobility, and capable coaching—but little of the substance.

The necessity of tempered expectations was on display this weekend, as McGill opened their season with back-to-back losses: a 6-5 defeat at the hands of the Concordia Stingers and a 5-2 loss to the UQTR Patriotes.

Ten players dressed for the Redmen for the first time this weekend. A keen observer would not have needed a roster to notice.

The dynamism of recent years was noticeably absent. The systems work, especially on the penalty kill, needs improvement. And the goaltending was poor.

The results were ugly, but worrying over a 0-2 start would be premature. McGill vastly outplayed Concordia on Friday night, outshooting the Stingers 48-22. And although the Redmen were outclassed on Saturday, they faced a UQTR team that should be considered one of the favourites for this year's championship.

Things will get better. The Redmen have an abundance of speed and some promising young talent. But this is team that should be assessed as a rebuild-in-progress, rather than burdened with the expectation of defending the school’s first University Cup.

A group of six rookie forwards are vital to the team’s success. Of the veterans that remain from last year, the majority are role players: two-way forwards or crash-the-net grinders.

The exception to the above is skilled returnee Marc-Olivier Vachon. For the Redmen to be good this season, Vachon will likely have to be great. The sophomore centre registered 185 points over his last three QMJHL seasons and notched 18 points in 23 contests for McGill last year. If he can’t develop into an elite point producer, the Redmen will be unable to keep up in the high-scoring OUA East.

There is some pedigree among the rookie recruits to ease the burden on Vachon. Former Cape Breton Screaming Eagles captain Jonathan Brunelle scored twice against Concordia and former Moncton Wildcat Patrick Delisle-Houde picked up a goal and two assists on the weekend. QMJHL veterans David Rose and Maximilien Le Sieur also looked promising in their CIS debuts.

Defensively, there may be less reason to worry. The Redmen quietly allowed the second-fewest goals against of any CIS team over the last two seasons and, with the major exception of Dorion, return most of their key players on the blueline and in goal.

Two-time OUA East All-Star Hubert Morin is back as the team’s number-one netminder, and although he and RMC transfer Andrew Flemming were shaky in the opening contests of the season, he should provide capable goaltending for McGill.

Versatile veterans Hubert Genest, Ryan McKiernan, and Nicolas Therrien anchor a mobile defence core. Newcomers Guillaume Monast, who red-shirted last season after previously spending time in the AHL and ECHL, and Jean-Philippe Mathieu will be counted upon to patch the massive hole left by the departure of Dorion.

McGill has been an elite men’s hockey program for the better part of the last decade, having appeared at nationals six times in the last seven seasons. A rebuilding year was overdue. The 2012-13 Redmen will play in the shadow of the team that won the championship, which is a shame for the players under the added pressure. Given time, and the relative ease of competition in the OUA East, the program should return to national prominence again.
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