PAWTUCKET — Should we stay or should we go? That was the question facing Lincoln head coach Jim Riel during the offseason when the RIIL was getting ready to realign its teams for the 2012-13 campaign.
Stay in the Division I-Eccleston and the Lions would have been competitive night in and night out against the other five public schools in the division. Drop down to Division II and also face a drop in competition, but the Lions would have been one of the clear favorites in the running for a lower state championship.
Riel chose the latter, and he only had to look at the future of youth hockey in Lincoln to make his decision.
Twenty-two players make up this year’s roster, and while that may seem like more than enough players for most programs, it’s one of the smallest turnouts in recent memory for the Lions, who the head coach noted have traditionally welcomed 28 or 29 players to the team each year.
And according to Riel, that number doesn’t figure to increase any time soon – if ever. With a steady drop in town players competing in local youth leagues, the decision to move down to Division II was a no-brainer.
“I would have loved to stay in (Division) I this year,” Riel said before a midweek practice at Lynch Arena. “But it’s not a one-year realignment. It’s a two-year realignment, and that’s not a guarantee.
“This was the one year where we could have either been in I or II, but we made the decision to not stay up in I, be competitive this year, and probably take a beating the next year, and also take the risk of not being able to drop down the year after that when our numbers really drop.”
Of the 22 players on the Lions, which sit atop the Division II-North with an 11-0 record, seven are seniors and seven are juniors. After that, the dropoff begins, with five sophomores, three freshmen, and who knows what will join the program from the Classes of 2017, ’18, and so on.
“Our senior class is probably our last (class) that played for the old Lincoln Youth Hockey (Association),” added Riel. “And although it wasn’t your elite hockey, it gained a lot of attention from the kids in the town to go play a little bit, so then by the time they hit high school, they were been involved in hockey and they understood the game.”
Speaking of the Lions’ seniors, it’s a battle-tested group that has been with Riel since he took over the head coaching job three years ago, and they’ve seen it all in their careers. They played in the Division I-A state finals as freshmen, endured a rough three-win season in a 10-school Division I as sophomores, and went 5-11-2 in the new Division I-Eccleston circuit last year.
“We hit the ground running when we hit the ice in November,” added Riel. “I have seven seniors who have been exposed to me for four years, as well as juniors who have been with me for three. When we hit the ice, there’s not a lot of teaching or strategy. It’s like, ‘Let’s go and practice that strategy and perfect the basis of (that strategy).’
“I think that more or less has been the bigger story of the first half of the year. I’m getting a consistent five-man effort from these guys because they all understand their responsibilities. They are all playing together, and they’re not trying to do too much or unaware of what they should be doing.”
The Lions’ first two lines contain some of Riel’s top veterans. One has hard-working junior Griffin Hevey centering a pair of seniors, speedy Ryan Krohto (the team’s leader in scoring with 15 goals and nine assists) and nifty Tyler Rego, and the other is an all-senior line that grew up playing hockey together and has Jerzy Polak centering Drew Wood (14 goals, seven assists) and Nick Moreau.
“The (Hevey-Krotho-Rego) line is more of a creativity line,” Riel admitted when explaining the differences between the two lines. “The other line has our two captains, Jerzy and Drew, and they play a tight-checking game. I would anticipate having them against other teams’ first lines as we head into some of our tougher games in the second half of the season.”
The third line, which Riel notes plays as “a mix of the first two lines,” features junior Mike Enos centering his classmate, Josh Hayes, and a combination of junior Michael Strain and freshman standout Ben Hevner at the other wing.
A strong aspect of the Lions may lie in their defense, especially their defensemen, which each stand tall at six feet and over and feature two physical presences in seniors in Anthony Mancini and Mike Sullivan and two offensive-minded juniors in Tyler Duquette and Robbie Lake. Sophomore Matt Carmichael is the fifth defenseman.
Back in net is a pair of sophomores, Chris Leclaire, who led all Division I goalies in saves last season with 549, and David Jessey. This year, Leclaire has again seen the bulk of the time between the pipes, sporting a 1.50 goals-against-average and .931 save percentage in 270 minutes, but Jessey has been equally excellent with a 1.14 GAA and a .939 save pct. in 197 minutes.
“Last year, Chris had the majority of the ice time, but they’re been going back and forth this year,” offered Riel. “That’s every high school coach’s dream – to have two really strong goaltenders. I don’t have a single issue with either of them, and I have all the confidence in the world that as we finish the season, either one of those goalies can be our top goalie.”
Speaking of finishing the season, these final four weeks promise to be not-so-easy for the Lions, who have outscored their opponents by a 66-14 margin, and that tough stretch starts with today’s 3 p.m. showdown at Portsmouth Abbey’s rink against the Division II-Central leading Prout School (8-1).
“I don’t think we’re head and shoulders above everyone else,” added Riel. “Right now, we’re playing very well. There are some teams that have played us tough, but I think we just outplayed them. North Smithfield has actually played us tight in the two times we played them, and Middletown played us into overtime.
“The tough part of our schedule is going to come in the second half. We have Cumberland again, and that’s always a tough battle. Portsmouth’s playing really well. We have to play East Greenwich, which we have always had tough games against, and there are a couple of other tough teams we have to play. I don’t think you’re going to see the scores being 8-0 on a consistent basis; there are going to be a lot tighter games.”