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Men’s hockey preview: Can the new-look Rams get over the hump?

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By Daniel Rocchi

On Thursday night, for the first time in six seasons, the Ryerson men’s hockey team will open their season without the Monster.

Troy Passingham graduated last year after playing 117 regular-season and playoff games in five seasons as a Rams goaltender, amassing more than 6,600 minutes of action as the most-played goalie in Ryerson hockey history. But this year, for the first time since the 2010-2011 season, the Ryerson crease will be without the familiar silver pads and towering six-foot-five frame that earned Passingham his nickname.

It’s a major shake-up for the team, but this men’s hockey season is all about change.

Passingham is one of several core members of the men’s hockey program who departed after last season. Those departures include that of head coach Graham Wise, who retired after 10 seasons with the Rams. Wise’s retirement marked the end of a 35-year Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) coaching career, and the start of a new chapter for Ryerson men’s hockey.

After three seasons as an assistant and associate coach with the Rams, Johnny Duco has assumed the team’s head coaching position on an interim basis. Along with third-year assistant Nathaniel Brooks, Duco leads a new-look coaching staff that includes former Ryerson skate training specialist Kori Cheverie, who became the first full-time female assistant coach of a CIS men’s hockey program in August.

For Duco and his staff, the goal this season will be to advance the Rams to the third round of the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) playoffs for the first time in team history. Last season, the Rams finished the regular season with a 14-13-1 record for 29 points and sixth place in the OUA West. Ryerson upset third-place Waterloo in the first round of the postseason with a two-game series sweep, setting up a second-round clash with defending champion Guelph. After they tied the series at one game apiece with a thrilling 2-1 overtime win at the Mattamy Athletic Centre, the Rams’ season came to a disappointing end with an 11-3 game three loss in Guelph.

But to get out of the second round, Ryerson will have to win without several key players that got them there last season.

Passingham is one of five fifth-year players who suited up for Ryerson for the final time last season. That class also includes shut-down defenceman Brian Birkhoff and forward Mitch Gallant, who spent time on the team’s first line and finished third in team scoring with seven goals and 10 assists.

Other notable departures include defenceman Keevin Cutting, a former Ontario Hockey League (OHL) champion, and forward Kyle Blaney, who had 13 points in just 11 games last year and 48 points in 45 career games for Ryerson.

After losing a number of key roster pieces, the Rams spent the off-season building a large recruiting class that will see 10 new players suit up for Ryerson. Matt Mistele, a 2014 draft pick of the Los Angeles Kings who amassed 125 goals in 273 OHL games, headlines five new forwards who are expected to give the Rams a more balanced offense than last season. He should be a top-six forward, along with returning players like team captain Michael Fine, who led the team in goals (12), assists (15) and points (27), and Daniel Clairmont, Ryerson’s second-leading point-getter last year.

The Rams blueline, which already boasts offensively-minded, puck-moving defencemen like Alex Basso and Brandon Devlin, added defensive depth with players like Josh Chapman, a former member of the Sarnia Sting who played one game with the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League (AHL) last year.               

According to Duco, with a recruit class focused mostly on offensive skill, the Rams are looking to play a more up-tempo, offensively-minded style than in previous years. There will also be an emphasis on puck possession and quick transitions between the defensive and offensive zones.

How effective that style is for Ryerson, though, will depend largely on the reliability of Passingham’s successor in net. Taylor Dupuis and Brodie Barrick both return for their second season and are joined by 2016 recruit Charlie Graham. All three have OHL experience with the Sarnia Sting, but Dupuis looks to be the front-runner for the starter’s position. Dupuis made 13 starts for Ryerson last season when Passingham was out with an injury, going 6-7 with a .903 save percentage, a 3.10 goals against average and one shutout.

The Rams open their season at home against the Laurier Golden Hawks on Oct. 6 at 7:15 pm.

 

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