From NYHJ: Laliberte finds groove at RPI
by Adam Wodon/NYHJ Writer
When you score 133 points in your final year of junior hockey, it’s hard not to raise expectations.
That’s what Jacob Laliberte faced last year as he came to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for his freshman season.
But it wasn’t great timing. RPI, coming off a terrific 2010-11, had lost a strong senior class and was further depleted by players who left early for the pros.
Laliberte was left without a lot of scoring support up front. Between that, his adjustment to college hockey and a broken finger that hampered him for much of the season, he struggled offensively, finishing with just five goals and 14 assists in 31 games.
“He came in with such high expectations from the fan base and the media; it was really tough,” said RPI coach Seth Appert.
But one person who was not disappointed in Laliberte’s freshman campaign was his coach.
“I liked Jake’s freshman year,” Appert said. “We saw that he was a winner, (that) he was willing to learn, willing to listen, willing to buy in. Even though his points weren’t as high as people hoped, I saw things that I thought were going to help us be a winning team in the future.”
Laliberte then went to work in hopes to back up Appert’s faith. Not being a strong skater, he focused on his conditioning to compensate.
“He had a great summer,” Appert said. “It’s a big step between freshman and sophomore year. He has more understanding now of how he needs to be in order to excel in college hockey.
“His great strength is his mind and his stick and his shot; he has a world-class shot. His weakness is his size and skating ability. ... He needs to be at optimal conditioning shape to be as successful offensively.”
Laliberte is a bit of an oddball. He’s 5-foot-7, but he’s not a small, waterbug, prototypical college hockey player, like former RPI forward Chase Polacek or, say, Boston College’s Johnny Gaudreau (Carneys Point, N.J.). He doesn’t skate as well as them, yet he possesses the type of powerful, accurate shot you’d find in a bigger player.
“You can improve your skating but, at the end of the day, it’s like running; you’re either fast of you’re not,” Appert said. “He’s not built to be a fast skater, but he is more powerful; he’s better on his edges. He’ll have to make his living in hard, tight areas.”
This season, the efforts are clearly paying off for Laliberte. Midway through the season, despite missing two games with a concussion, he is RPI’s leading scorer (seven goals, 15 points in 15 games) and the team (6-7-4, 1-5-2 ECAC Hockey) has been improved over last season. In both measures, there’s still a ways to go, but it’s headed in the right direction.
For Laliberte, it’s a long time coming. The 133 points in his final year of juniors wasn’t the only thing that built expectations in Troy, N.Y. Laliberte was tearing up junior hockey for years and had expectations building all along. He originally committed to RPI in 2008 and was ready to come in 2010, but then a series of issues arose between Laliberte and the coaching staff — some unspecified miscommunications and/or changes of expectation. Neither party went into the details, but the result was Laliberte — who could not be reached for this article — arrived one year later than originally expected.
“I never went through things with a recruit that I did with Jake,” Appert said. “At points in time, a coach’s relationship with a player hits adversity. Most of the time, it’s about a player not listening, you bench him, you take time away. Jake and I have already been through a lot of adversity and we stuck by each other. And he stuck with our hockey family, and we stuck with his family, and we came out stronger on the other side.
“It was a 3½-year recruiting process. There were times he wasn’t sure he would come, and times we weren’t sure he’d show up.”
Appert, however, believes the situation made the relationship stronger in the long run.
“Sometimes, a player and coach implicitly trust each other from day one,” Appert said. “Sometimes it takes until their senior year and sometimes it never happens. But I think Jake and I are fortunate enough to have that because of what we went through.”
Now, Appert sees a player committed to RPI, committed to his teammates and committed to winning ... and it’s only a matter of time before it all comes together.
“I look back to last year and how miserable our first half was, and we had a lot of growing up to do as a team,” Appert said. “And I saw the way he bought into how we needed to play. It wasn’t the way he was used to. He was used to playing loose and casual and getting tons of points. We needed to lock it down. And his commitment level to that was really high.
“And at our year-end meeting, it was impressive to see his level of disgust with the season we had as a team and his will to want to change it. He comes to practice to do the right thing. He’s not perfect. He’s got to get better still, but the way he shows up every day ... I think he’s going to be the kind of player that gets better every year and be an elite senior.”
This article originally appeared in the January 2013 issue of New York Hockey Journal.