by Andrew Garda

The Montclair Kimberley Academy ice hockey team finds itself in a tricky position entering the 2019-20 season. While the 2018-19 season was a very good one for the Cougars, who finished with a 13-4-2 record, building on that may be tougher than expected as they will field a very small roster.

 “We’re going to be light,” said head coach Tim Cook. “We knew we were going to be light, losing our senior class, which really drove us the last three years. Then we lost David Chen, who went to Milton Academy [a Prep School in Massachusetts]. He was a really great player and a super-smart kid, so we’re excited for him, but obviously that hurts.”

A dynamic playmaker, Chen had 31 goals and 27 assists for MKA, accounting for 18 percent of team scores and 12 percent of their assists.

That’s hard to replace on top of the seniors who graduated. The roster currently sits at 22, including four goaltenders, of which three are freshmen.

MKA still has junior goalie Sebastian Burns to rely on in net, but it’s a situation which highlights one at every position.

Not a ton of bodies, and a lot of inexperience.

“We’re really focused on sticking together, working hard and getting better,” Cook said. “Those are the three things that we can control and the three things we’re really going to measure our success on. But we’re being realistic about our lineup versus some of the others in the conference.”

More than anything, Cook is looking for constant improvement this season. What they will most need to improve depends on what they do over the course of the season, he said.

“It’s going to change throughout the year. Initially, just to start off the year, we’re going to have to really take care of the puck, move our feet, provide energy. Play within our systems and then be really good in the defensive zone. If we can do those things, that would be a mark of success to start,” Cook said.

Once the Cougars show they can do those things consistently as a unit, Cook expects them to begin to step up as individuals. 

Guys like Chen, or Oscar Worab, Alan Di Geronimo and Brian Schindler — all captains last year — could impact a game on their own as well as with other players. Cook is hoping the team can discover more players like them. 

“Those guys can get out there and really, like, take nothing and make something out of it. And that’s why they’re really good players, why they’re at least [Division 3] players, and Chen is for sure Division 1. That’s what makes them the caliber they are, but they got there because they worked really hard,” the coach said.

To that end, Cook is looking to his junior class to really take that next step.

“Danny D’Angelo is back on forward, and he can really provide some energy and physicality. Aron Dyadyuk [is] a fast player, and can also be can be physical. Justin Vasilopoulos is also a fast player.”

Junior Sebastian Burns is one of four goalies on the MKA roster, and the only Cougars netminder who is not a freshman.
Junior Sebastian Burns is one of four goalies on the MKA roster, and the only Cougars netminder who is not a freshman.

On defense, Cook will primarily look to juniors Matt McCann and Max Bock. 

“On the back end, [Matt] should be a real Rock of Gibraltar for us,” Cook said. “Max is a smaller player, but he’s smart and feisty.”

While it’s good to have some veteran players, with a small roster, Cook will need freshman and sophomore players to step up as well.

“Adam Zidlicky is a freshman defender, very skilled,” Cook said. “His dad’s a former Devil so he comes from a good pedigree and he’s a very skilled player. Anthony Zhang is another freshman defender, and he’s good.”

For Cook, another piece is getting his players to hone their basic concepts to the point to where they are automatic. If they can do that, Cook feels the Cougars can disrupt any system they come up against.

“I’m all about concepts,” Cook explained. “I think systems are overrated to be quite honest, and I think good players can break down systems if the players are doing concepts correctly. So we need to always do the little things we talk about.”

Things like protecting the scoring area and the goal, which Cook calls the “House” — not letting skaters get behind your net, getting ahold of rebounds at both ends of the ice, pursuing loose pucks. All those are small things which can add up to big success or big problems.

“If we stick to that and keep players out of our House, and really get to their House, anybody’s got as shot [to win],” he said. “But if you throw in being loose in front of your own net, with a short bench and not having game changers? You’re going to have a long night whether you’re an NHL team or a high school team.”

Cook said he thinks his team is ready for the challenge of the season, and that the Cougars did some good things during the preseason. They also made mistakes, but he said that’s not only to be expected, but it’s a good thing.  

“To me, that’s always a real positive, because we can identify those [problems] and get better. The real scary thing is when you’re doing everything you can do and you’re getting killed,” he said. “There’s only so much you can say when they’re trying their hardest. If they’re doing things the right way and they’re getting demolished then it is what it is, but I didn’t see that out of our group.”

MKA got their first shot to see how competitive they when they traveled to Belmar to face St. Rose High School.

Unfortunately, the Cougars lost to the powerhouse St. Rose team, 11-3. 

It’s difficult to really judge MKA based on this game, one that was a bit of a mismatch to begin with, but Cook and his team will approach the loss the same way they intend to approach every result.

Build on the good things and correct the bad things.

As Cook said, they just need to keep focused and keep working.

“I think the hard work and sticking to the way we want to play is going to be a big indicator of whether we’re going to be competitive or not in certain games.”

There's work to be done for sure, as the next three games resulted in three losses and now the Cougars face a tough task in crosstown rival Montclair High.

That game is Thursday, Dec. 12 at Clary Anderson Arena, starting at 3:45.