Brown University season preview

By DJ Powers

The Brown University Bears will open their 81st regular season on November 4th when they host conference rival Colgate at the Meehan Auditorium.

Despite losing a number of key players following the 2003-04 season, Brown fared remarkably well last season, finishing sixth in the ECACHL. A big key to the Bears’ success last season was the stellar performance of their underclassmen. This season, those underclassmen return to lead what is shaping up to be a better and more exciting Brown Bears team.

“We want to take the next step,” said head coach Roger Grillo in an offseason interview with Hockey’s Future. “For us, the next step is to get into the NCAA Tournament. That’s going to be critical. We’re really focusing in on that and part of that is to finish higher in our league and win our league. We’re working hard to get there and our guys are focused on that and hopefully within the next year or two, we’ll be able to achieve that. We feel that getting to the NCAA Tournament this coming year is attainable. We should be pretty solid. If we get a little better in certain areas then I think we have a real shot at it.”

One player who’ll be vital in the Bears run for the ECACHL title and an NCAA Tournament berth is sophomore goaltender Adam D’Alba. He enjoyed a sensational freshman campaign last season posting a 14-10-2 record that included three shutouts. His .924 save percentage ranked tied for seventh in the nation, while his 2.26 goals against average ranked 18th.

Battling for ice time behind D’Alba are returning senior >Kevin Kliman and incoming freshman Mark Sibbald. Kliman posted a 1-1-0 in three games last season. Sibbald comes to Brown from Vernon (BCHL), where he posted a 24-11-2 record in 39 games last season. Sibbald is noted for his reliability.

One area where Grillo would like to see the Bears improve this season is offensive production. The task may be a bit more challenging to accomplish with the loss of the team’s top two scorers from last season in Les Haggett and Mike Meech, both of whom have graduated.

“We played eight freshmen on a regular basis,” noted Grillo. “Replacing some of the offensive guys that we lost the year before was an area of concern this past year. Some of these (freshmen) guys stepped up and had good years, but it’s definitely something that we need to work on. We definitely need to be a better offensive team. Yeah, we lost Haggett and Meech and they’re going to be big misses, but I think we’ll be a much, much, deeper team offensively without question this coming season.”

Among the returning players that Brown will be relying upon to help lead the offense are junior Brian Ihnacak (PIT) and sophomore Jeff Prough.

Despite finishing third on the team in scoring last season with 23 points (12 goals, 11 assists), Ihnacak saw his overall numbers dip slightly from his freshman season. One reason could be attributed to his struggles with offensive consistency. He is one player that Grillo is expecting to help pick up the slack left by Haggett and Meech this season.

“He struggled this past year to be honest with you,” Grillo said of Ihnacak. “He needs to step up and get a little bit stronger. He also needs to play with a little more intensity and then he’ll be fine. He’s definitely a gifted a kid who will help our team but it’s something that he’ll need to focus on this summer. A lot of what contributed to his struggles was himself. He was a little frustrated and probably was not in the best of shape (physically) as he could be. For him it’s just a mental approach. He just needs to be ready for the grind of the season.”

The small but shifty Prough enjoyed an outstanding rookie campaign, finishing fifth on the team in scoring with 20 points (nine goals, 11 assists) playing in 32 games. One area where Prough excelled in last season was scoring timely goals. Of his nine goals, three came on the power play, one came short-handed and three were game-winners.

“Jeff is a special player. He’s fast and plays with a great deal of tenacity. He just needs to get a step quicker. If he can do that he’ll be that much more dangerous,” said Grillo of Prough.

In addition to the returning players, Brown welcomes a superb group of incoming freshman forwards led by Matt Vokes, and Ryan Garbutt.

Vokes comes to Brown from the USHL Champion Cedar Rapids Roughriders, where he amassed 52 points (27 goals, 25 assists) in 58 games. While he was outstanding in regular season play, he was sensational in the postseason, posting 13 points to help lead his team to their first ever Clark Cup Championship. He is noted for his excellent hockey sense, great hands and ability to score clutch goals.

Garbutt comes to Brown from Winnipeg (MJHL), where he amassed 81 points (47 goals, 34 assists) along with a whopping 303 penalty minutes in 63 games. He brings grittiness and some superb offensive ability to the Bears team this season.

Defense was one of Brown’s strengths last season, and it is one area that should be even better this season. The Bears had the 20th ranked team defense in the nation last season, giving up an average of just over two and a half goals per game.

A trio of talented blueliners in senior Paul Crosty, and sophomores Paul Baier (LA) and Sean Hurley lead Brown’s sizeable defensive corps this season.

Crosty makes his return to the Bears lineup this year after injury forced him to miss the entirety of the 2004-05 season. As one of the team’s co-captains this season, he’ll help provide leadership and experience.

Baier enjoyed a stellar rookie campaign as perhaps the Bears most imposing and best all-around defenseman. While size and strength are two of Baier’s biggest attributes, his excellent skating and his offensive capability are also noteworthy. He saw playing time in virtually every type of situation and as a result Brown benefited greatly from his continuing improvement in his overall development. Baier finished last season with ten points (two goals, eight assists) in 32 appearances. Both of his goals came on the Bears power play.

“He’s a big, strong kid who is a little bit raw,” said Grillo of Baier. “He’s a special player who has got a lot of potential to play at the next level. He stayed here this summer to work on his game and his off-ice training. He needs to get a little bit stronger. He’s a big kid and he has the potential to be a very big kid. We’d like to see him make better use of his large frame. I think having a year of college hockey under his belt has definitely helped him. He learned a lot this year and it made him that much better.”

Like Baier, Hurley enjoyed an excellent freshman season and became a significant contributor to the Brown defense as well as offense last season. Hurley, an offensive-minded defenseman, led all Bears defensemen as well as rookies in scoring last season with 21 points (three goals, 18 assists) playing in all 33 games. His performance earned him numerous honors including a selection to the ECACHL All-Rookie team and an honorable mention to the All-Ivy League team.

Brown will welcome two newcomers to their defensive corps this season. The one that will likely capture the most attention is the 6’6/230 lbs. behemoth Mike Stuart. Stuart comes to Brown from Indiana (USHL), where he had two points (both assists) in 26 games. He also led the team in plus/minus (+8). Prior to Indiana, Stuart played with the U.S. National Team Development Program.

In addition to his enormous size, Stuart is noted for his strong character, work ethic and very sound defensive play. He was a much sought-after defenseman who was heavily recruited by many ECACHL teams and will be closely watched by many scouts for the 2006 NHL draft.

(Number of NHL prospects on 2005-06 roster: 2)

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