Fans will notice a different look to the 2015-16 Merrimack College Warriors when they hit the ice for their season opener Friday night at Lawler Arena against Clarkson.
The change is part of a continued emphasis Mark Dennehy and his coaching staff are putting on speed, skill and puck possession. It's a switch in the recruiting philosophy that began to take shape over two years ago when the Warriors' coaching staff made a concerted effort to go after faster and more skillful players.
"We needed to get better in certain areas, for sure. A couple of years ago, that was a decision we made. We needed to get better puck possession skills," said Dennehy. "We wanted to improve our skills overall."
It's a trend that began to take form last year with freshmen such as Brett Seney, Jace Hennig and Mathieu Tibbet up front, and Jared Kolquist, Danny Biega and Aaron Titcomb on defense. The speed of the six rookies allowed the Warriors to move the puck better than they had since Stephane Da Costa left North Andover.
"We had a better defensive corps last year. We had three freshmen last year, Biega, Titcomb and Kolquist, all of whom are puck-moving defensemen," said Dennehy, who is beginning his 11th season behind the Warrior bench.
Dennehy and his staff are bringing in two more puck-moving defensemen, Ethan Spaxman and Alex Carle, in this year's class that will add to the team's ability to maintain possession and break the puck out of its own zone.
Spaxman is a big blue liner that drew attention from NHL scouts last year in the USHL. He's very mobile for his frame and should make an impact at both ends, especially once he bulks up.
"Spaxman is someone who is rangy and has a good stick," Dennehy commented.
Carle comes to Merrimack with good lineage as his older brother Matt, currently with the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning, is a former Hobey Baker Award winner at Denver. His other older brother, David, is the assistant coach for DU.
"Carle, before he had some minor injuries, was as efficient of a puck mover as you're going to find in prep school. I remember watching him at KUA and all he did was go back and retrieve pucks and move them up to the forwards almost effortlessly. He looks like he's back in good form," said Dennehy.
This year Merrimack will add another skilled freshman forward in Mathieu Foget, who put up 24 goals and 58 assists in 61 games with the Gloucester Rangers in the CCHL last winter.
"He's got really good offensive instincts and offensive ability," said Dennehy. "I think he's a little bit different from Seney in terms of that explosive quickness, but I think he possesses certain intangibles on the power play. I think he can be a very productive player for us."
Joining Foget are three other incoming forwards, Ludvig Larsson, Mike Babcock and Derek Petti.
"Ludvig Larsson is someone who's going to come in and be incredibly productive for us," said Dennehy of the fourth Swedish native on the Merrimack roster.
"Mike Babcock and Derek Petti really fit into our mold and are going to be able to come in and be Warriors right away for us, understanding what that means," added Dennehy.
This renewed concentration on team speed is something Dennehy noted his program needed to stay competitive, but he also won't shy away from the strong, physical brand of hockey the Warriors are known for.
"I don't know that we'll be as big and strong as Merrimack teams in the past, but we'll have enough sandpaper in our game," said Dennehy. "We want to get [recruits] who understand how Merrimack needs to play, especially since we play half our games at Lawler. You've got to be willing to be physical and win battles."
"It's a balance, but we definitely wanted to get faster and improve our skill set. I think we'll score more goals. I know we're faster." Dennehy added.
After hosting the Golden Knights Friday, the Warriors will welcome St. Lawrence to town Saturday for a 7:30 p.m. start. The two games, on the college's homecoming weekend, will be a good test for the Warriors as both teams are currently undefeated.
"We got to the final eight of our league last year and didn't lose much. I'm really excited about this team," said Dennehy.
Jeff Cox covers college, junior, high school and prep hockey, NCAA recruiting and NHL Draft prospects. Follow him on Twitter @JeffCoxSports.