OXFORD, Ohio - It's that time of year again, when the trees ignite with color and the cold bite of winter flavors the air. The changing of the seasons marks the beginning of the NCAA hockey season, when RedHawk fans will once again flock to Steve Cady Arena to see Miami's hockey team in full flight.

As the seasons change, so too has Miami's roster. This year Miami welcomes 13 new players into The Brotherhood, 11 of which are freshman. The RedHawks return a total of 13 players from a season ago, including 10 letterwinners.

The departure of Miami's fourth winningest class in school history marks a changing of the guard for the RedHawks as they begin the season with one of the youngest rosters in recent memory. While the newcomers certainly have big skates to fill, head coach Enrico Blasi is confident about his team's season.

"I think it's an exciting time for our program. It's been a while since we've had this many new faces," Blasi said. "This is an exciting group. They are very energetic and willing to learn. They are eager to get after it. The attention to detail and the closeness of the team in a short period of time has been somewhat refreshing to see happening. We're ready to go and excited to get things rolling."

The class of 2012, which consisted of 10 seniors, was a class of firsts for the Red and White, helping Miami make its first two trips to the Frozen Four, appearing in the 2009 national championship game, winning the program's first Mason Cup in 2011 and winning a CCHA regular-season title in 2010.

While the loss of these leaders is tough to replace, Miami boasts one of the strongest recruiting classes in the country, gathering talented players from coast to coast. Even with a young roster, the RedHawks open the season ranked ninth in both national polls (USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine and USCHO.com). Blasi said he expects some growing pains, but also expects great things for this young core.

"You can't have that many new guys and not go through a little bit of adversity. We have to figure out who we are and who the line combinations are going to be and all that stuff," said Blasi, who begins his 14th year at the helm of Miami Hockey. "I would suspect (there will be) a little bit of a learning curve but I do believe we have the talent and the right chemistry in the locker room to get the job done and give ourselves the best chance to win."

In addition to the 10 seniors, the Red and White lost prolific scorer Reilly Smith to the Dallas Stars following his junior campaign. Last season Smith led the team with 48 points and notched 30 goals, which was second nationally and marked only the seventh time in school history a player has recorded 30+ goals. Smith's goal production last season accounted for almost a quarter of Miami's offensive numbers.

Miami also lost Tyler Biggs, as the power forward signed a contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs after one season donning red and white. Despite a short career in Oxford, Biggs was productive for the 'Hawks, posting 17 points in 37 games. In addition, Biggs was a physical presence on the ice that Miami will have to replace.

Despite the losses up front, the RedHawks enter the season with a deep forward group that features both skill and grit. Sophomore standouts Austin Czarnik, Jimmy Mullin and Blake Coleman return for their second campaign after posting great freshmen numbers last year. Czarnik led Miami in assists last season, notching 27 helpers in only 40 games, while leading all CCHA freshmen with 37 points. He was named to the CCHA All-Rookie Team a year ago and landed on the Preseason All-CCHA Second Team this year. Mullin was the 'Hawks third leading scorer, recording 26 points in 37 games while playing on the top line with Smith and Czarnik. Coleman also had a productive year, with his 12 goals good for second on the team.

"I think the freshman class from a year ago is now a year older and knows what they need to do and understands the different looks they will get from different teams." Blasi said. "I think that will help a lot. When you have a guy like (Reilly) Smith, you always look for him and now that he's gone, other guys will step up."

Along with Czarnik, Mullin and Coleman, classmate Cody Murphy, who missed the first half of last season due to an injury in his very first game, will also be looked to for scoring. Murphy caught fire late in the season, finishing off the year with five points in 18 games. With a whole season to look forward to, Murphy will be a valuable contributor offensively for the Red and White.

Fellow sophomore Alex Wideman also has a promising season ahead of him, after he contributed nine points, including five goals, for the RedHawks last year in 29 games. Wideman should see his ice time increase for Miami this season. In all, last year's freshmen accounted for 40.2 percent of the team's goals and 37.8 percent of the team's points.

In addition to the sophomores, Miami still has veterans up front, including seniors Curtis McKenzie and Steve Mason and juniors Bryon Paulazzo and Max Cook, who not only provide intangibles for the team but also a healthy amount of grit. McKenzie leads the upperclassmen forwards after notching 17 points last year and is tops among active RedHawks with 56 career points, while his physical style of play will also help fill the void left by Biggs. Cook will provide depth at center after being injured some of the year last season while Paulazzo is a self-described grinder who has a knack for big goals.

"It's a good group of forwards that can get up and down the ice and have a lot of skill. They have a little bit of grit too." Blasi said. "They have everything you could want from a group of forwards. I think, at the end of the day, that they will be scoring by committee."

Miami also gained an outstanding rookie class of forwards, with six new faces joining an already deep core. Riley Barber, Sean Kuraly, Kevin Morris, John Doherty, and Alex Gacek enter their first year as RedHawks, while senior Marc Hagel, a transfer from Princeton, promises to bring veteran leadership to a young team after serving as the Tigers' captain last year.

One freshman to watch for is Kuraly, whose father, Rick, played hockey at Miami from 1979-83 and is the program's all-time leading goal-scorer with 101 and ranks third on the all-time scoring list with 179 points. Kuraly, who was drafted in the fifth round of the 2011 NHL Draft by San Jose, brings both size and skill in his game, making him a dangerous offensive weapon for the RedHawks. He is coming off a stellar showing at the U.S. National Junior Team Evaluation Camp back in August. Barber is another newcomer who will be counted on heavily after coming out of the U.S. National Team Development Program and being drafted by Washington in the sixth round of the 2012 NHL Draft.

"I do like the roles. They are clearly defined of who they are as players, and it makes our job easier as far as putting lines together and the guys knowing exactly what they can and can't do," said Blasi. "If we can put a good mixture of the different pieces together I think we can put together some pretty good lines. We want lines with depth that can hurt you offensively but also do a good job defensively. That, I think, will be a major plus for our team."

On the other end of the ice, Miami's blueliners are a mix of seniors and freshmen. The RedHawks lost their top D-pair in Chris Wideman and Will Weber, who both signed NHL contracts following their senior season, as did classmate Cameron Schilling, but added four freshmen to an already senior-heavy D corps.

Seniors Steven Spinell, Joe Hartman and Garrett Kennedy look to be the first line of defense for the RedHawks, as their veteran leadership and experience will be indispensible for a young blue line. Hartman's 122 career games played are the most of any Miamian on the roster while Kennedy provides good shot-blocking ability and isn't afraid to sacrifice his body for the team.

Spinell is coming off his best season as a RedHawk, tallying a goal and 11 assists while playing all 41 games. He was recently named Miami's captain and Blasi couldn't be happier with the pick.

"Steven has got a good pulse of the team and has the respect on the ice with his work habits and the way he plays and the way he conducts himself off the ice. Even before we announced him as captain he really took it upon himself to make sure everyone is on the same page," Blasi said.

Another defenseman who looks to have an expanded role on the team this year is sophomore Ben Paulides. The native of San Jose, Calif. appeared in 24 games for Miami as a rookie, most of which came in the second half of the year, while recording five assists for the RedHawks. Paulides was also bestowed the team's Most Improved Player Award for his performance last year and should be a regular in the lineup for this upcoming season as he carries his momentum into 2012-13.

The Brotherhood brought in freshmen defensemen Matthew Caito, Chris Joyaux, Michael Mooney and Taylor Richart to help replace the void left by Schilling, Weber and Wideman. Blasi hinted they could be paired with the elder Hartman and Spinell to provide experience among all the D pairs.

"I like the way they play, I like the way they skate. They are good puck moving defensemen," Blasi said of his new blueliners.

Special teams play was one of Miami's strengths and weaknesses last season, as the team's penalty kill was seventh in the NCAA (85.2 percent) while its power play was 45th nationally (15.1 percent). The RedHawks will look to change up the power play this year, especially with Smith departing after tallying nine of Miami's 25 power play goals last year, while keeping their strong penalty kill unit rolling.

"When you have a guy like Reilly Smith, you always look for him and now that he's gone, other guys will step up and start to use the power play for what's it's intended to do, which is create some odd man situations and share the wealth a little bit," Blasi said.

Despite the team's successful penalty kill, Miami was also one of the most penalized teams in the country as the RedHawks killed 179 penalties in 210 opportunities, both of which led the NCAA in 2011-12. The 'Hawks took several undisciplined penalties the first half of last year, something Blasi knows the team must cut down on, as they did the second half of last year.

"There's a pretty good correlation to the success of a program and the success of a season with your penalty kill. That will need to be another important part of the puzzle," Blasi said.

Perhaps the biggest question surrounding the RedHawks this season however is in goal, as the team lost staples Connor Knapp and Cody Reichard to graduation, both of whom were elite netminders for the RedHawks. They each finished their career in Miami's top three in goals-against average and save percentage with Knapp setting the career GAA mark and career shutouts standard. The dynamic duo combined for 24 wins and seven shutouts in their final season in Oxford.

If the freshmen forwards and defensemen have big skates to fill, freshmen goalies Ryan McKay and Jay Williams have a whole net to fill. Blasi said while that task won't be easy, he is encouraged by what he has seen from the young netminders.

"It's been really tough to have any evaluation on any of our players (with limited practice), but we have been on the ice with them a little bit. I like what I see," Blasi said. "Both of them are going to push each other to be better, which has really been our MO for eight years now."

McKay stands at six feet and an imposing 225 pounds. The Palatine, Ill. native led the Green Bay Gamblers last year with an outstanding season, winning the Clark Cup for the second time in his USHL career. McKay posted a 27-5-3 record, a league-best 2.18 GAA and second-best .920 save percentage a season ago. McKay was also named USHL Co-Goaltender of the Year and USA Hockey Goaltender of the Year following the 2011-12 season.

Only time will tell whether the RedHawks revert back to splitting goaltenders or sticking with one netminder, while McKay would appear to have the upper hand entering the season.

"We take it one day at a time and see what goes on. If we have to go with one, we will. We've proven that in the past. If we have to go with two, we will and we've proven that in the past as well," Blasi said of the goaltending situation. "We don't go in with a preconceived schedule as to who's going to play where and all that."

With such a young team, the RedHawks' schedule will prove to be a tough challenge. It will be hard for Miami fans not to look forward to President's Day weekend when the 'Hawks travel to Chicago to square off against CCHA rival Notre Dame in the Hockey City Classic at Soldier Field Feb. 17. Blasi said the entire hockey program is excited about their first outdoor game.

"First of all it is an honor to be playing in such a historic building, outdoors in a great city. Many of our alums are there. For the program to be invited, to be asked to be a part of something like this really, when you take a step back, it makes you understand where the program has been and where it is today," Blasi said. "Obviously there are a lot of people who have put a lot of work into that. It's really exciting for us that are here. For me, as the coach, I've been able to see the program grow from its start. It's nice to be involved with it and to see the community and all of our alums so excited about it and so are our players."

The RedHawks have a tough opening schedule to get through before they can enjoy the great outdoors however. The 'Hawks kick off the season with difficult out of conference games against Colgate of the ECAC (Oct. 12-13) and Providence of Hockey East (Oct. 19-20) in Oxford. Miami also plays at Wisconsin of the WCHA and in the Three Rivers Classic in Pittsburgh for its other non-conference games.

"Hopefully we will find out what kind of team we are going to have and what we are going to have to work on (in those four games) before going into our league play." Blasi said. "They all come in here very hungry and ready to go. That will help us grow our team and gain some experience going into league play. We'll try to put our best foot forward and see what happens. It's going to be a tough couple of weeks and then we get into league play."

Miami opens its 32nd and final season of CCHA play in Ann Arbor Oct. 26-27 when the RedHawks take on the rival Michigan Wolverines in a marquee matchup. The 'Hawks then travel to Ferris State before returning home to the friendly confines of Steve Cady Arena for a four-game home stand against Northern Michigan and Michigan State.

"We'll have to pay special attention to our young guys and make sure they don't get ahead of themselves or run down, but you know it's a challenging schedule, one that will help us grow and mature," Blasi said.

This year has a special meaning for Blasi, who also played in the CCHA for Miami from 1990-94, as the CCHA prepares to close its doors. Next year Miami will join the newly formed National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC).

"It's tough to see the league you played in and the league you've been a part of for 18 years now (end) and there are a lot of guys who have been part of the league much longer than me. It's sad. Nobody likes to see that happen, but change is inevitable I guess," Blasi said. "We'll see if we can make it a good year and honor some of the good things that happened for us as a program in (the CCHA). We have to thank the Steve Cadys of the world, the Ron Masons, all the commissioners that the league has had, and all the people who supported Miami even when it was moving from club to varsity. Those are things you don't forget. We are very grateful for that. It's allowed us to grow as a program, and like I said, do some great things. It will be sad to put an end to it."

Miami would like nothing better than to bring home the final CCHA title and keep the Mason Cup for good. The RedHawks quest for that grail starts Sunday, Oct. 7 when the RedHawks take on Western Ontario in the team's only exhibition game of the season. The puck drops at 4 p.m. at Steve Cady Arena at the Goggin Ice Center. Tickets can be purchased here. Miami will hold its first official practice, per NCAA rules, just one day earlier on Oct. 6.

--MURedHawks.com--