Illini hockey stacking the lines with newfound depth after tryouts

Illinois teammates celebrate a goal against Michigan-Dearborn at the Ice Arena on Friday, November 14, 2008.

By Alex Paull

After a long summer break, the Illinois hockey team kicked off its season last week with tryouts held from Tuesday to Thursday.

Usually comprised of mostly freshmen, this year’s tryouts were the largest in recent memory, highlighted by a large number of transfers. Coming in all shapes and sizes from across the country, the new faces left a mark that excited the returning players and coaches alike.

“We had a really big turnout for tryouts this year, around 85 or 90 players, and we saw some incredible players,” head coach Chad Cassel said. “Some players we knew coming in were going to be good, but then some players surprised us with their skill.”

For some of the returning players, this was the first time hitting the ice since last season’s ACHA National Championship-game run. Along with a preview of what may lie ahead with the new wave of players, the tryouts were also a chance for the returnees to start getting back into playing shape and reigniting their chemistry.

“It feels good getting back out on the ice,” senior forward Matthew Jennings said. “I feel a little out of shape, but the week of tryouts definitely helps. It’s nice to see all the guys together again.”

For all the excitement this year’s tryouts have generated, the reality of the situation is that these tryouts are as close as some of the returning players will come to the quest for a return trip to the national championship. With so many talented players trying out, the limited roster space will leave some as the odd men out.

“We have a lot of tough decisions to make,” Cassel said. “Some of the guys who were with us last year are not going to make it again this year.”

However the roster shakes out, the team will still be pressed with important challenges — one of which is replacing the scoring power that graduated last season. While some of that load will fall on the shoulders of the new faces coming in, a bulk of it will be placed on the younger guys from last year who will be taking on larger roles for the Illini.

“Those younger guys were in and out of the lineup last year, and now they get a chance to play more,” senior goaltender Mike Burda said. “Some of the guys who were setting up the goals last year might have a chance to finish them now, so it’s exciting to see what happens.”

What could make the transition easier is the large group of seniors spread throughout the lineup, all of who seem to understand that it will be their responsibility as much as anyone to get the job done.

“We graduated a lot of goal scorers, so we are going to look for some guys to step up and pick up those points,” Jennings said. “We have 10 or 11 seniors this year, and it’s going to take every one of them to step up and lead them.”

With the first game a little less than a month away, there are still plenty of hard decisions to be made and work to be done. As Burda puts it, the team is now focused on the basics as the kinks get worked out.

But when the biggest dilemma involves having too much talent to choose from, things could be a lot worse.

“Though it’s tough to make the cuts, it’s a good thing because we have a lot of depth,” Cassel said. “I think we are going to be a lot deeper at the defensive position, and both are goalies are returning. So I’m excited for the season.”