Hockey East Preview
BC Still the Team to Beat, but Top 7 is a Logjam
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
1. BOSTON COLLEGE (coach: Jerry York)
The offseason was most noteworthy for two reasons at BC, neither of them good. First, most importantly, coach Jerry York was diagnosed with cancer. That was treated, and he is ready to start the season. Of further note, top player Patrick Eaves decided to leave and turn pro with the Ottawa Senators, though he didn't make the big club and is performing in Binghamton of the AHL.
Though the Eagles have traditionally been strong defensively, they lose four top-four defensemen. Senior Peter Harrold leads the way there, a group that includes four freshmen, including highly-touted Anthony Aiello. They figure to be solid again, but young.
"Peter's gotten stronger each year and he's become a better player each of his three years," York said. "He's an exceptional leader who is very appreciated by our coaching staff and by his teammates. He's certainly one of the top defensemen in college hockey."
The offense only features two seniors — Stephen Gionta and Chris Collins. Junior Brian Boyle will be looked upon to keep going what was a tremendous second half. The 6-foot-7, 235-pound Boyle had lumbered through his first year and a half in college hockey, before heeding a wake-up call. Sophomore Dan Bertram has great touch, and freshman Brock Bradford will be relied upon immediately.
"Brian has developed into a true power forward. He's very confident in his ability," York said. "I think he'll have a real impact on games. His physical strength is impressive. His skating has come on. He's quicker and more agile on his skates, and mentally he's made great strides in his approach to the game."
The goaltending is on the shoudlers of sophomore Cory Schneider, a former first-round pick who is the heir apparent Team USA World Junior goalie. He had great numbers last year, but could lead his team very far in the NCAAs.
2. MAINE (coach: Tim Whitehead)
The Black Bears have relied upon Jimmy Howard to save them the last few years, but with him leaving a year early for the pros, Maine believes its offensive spark has finally returned and can win games that defense alone won't be able to.
Players like Jon Jankus, Mike Hamilton, Rob Bellamy and Billy Ryan, are players that all fill a role in that whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-the-parts kind of way. They complement talented Michel Leveille, who is healthy now after a 12-goal season last year, and Greg Moore, a senior two-way player who has developed a great shot and is ticketed for a good pro career.
Also in attempting to boost their offensive production, Maine has focused on recruiting offensively-talented defensemen, and it's paying off with sophomore Bret Tyler and freshman Simon Danis-Pepin, among others. Ben Bishop is the prize recruit, however. The freshman goaltender — out of that sudden junior hotbed of Texas — has the potential to be just good enough, combined with the higher scoring output, to make Black Bear fans stop lamenting the loss of Howard.
3. NEW HAMPSHIRE (coach: Dick Umile)
Though New Hampshire has focused more on defense in recent years, don't let it fool you. The Wildcats can still put the puck in the net. And despite the loss of Preston Callander and Sean Collins to graduation, and over 100 points between them, they still return the top three remaining scorers in Hockey East.
Of bigger importance will be the goaltending, which wound up in Kevin Regan's hands down the stretch. Now a sophomore, he will continue to split time with senior Jeff Pietrasiak, but seems to have a bee-line to the top games.
The defense will be hurt from losing stalwarts Tyson Teplitsky and Robbie Barker, but the team solidified down the stretch last year, and those that remain, were part of that revitalization. Brian Yandle scored 35 points from the backline.
The Wildcats escaped a first-round NCAA game against Harvard before losing to Denver in the regional final. Getting back to a similar spot is more than possible again, but getting beyond there will be a challenge.
4. BOSTON UNIVERSITY (coach: Jack Parker)
The Terriers got a great infusion of talent and moxie in last year's freshman class, but its signature member is gone. Chris Bourque decided school wasn't for him, and skipped out last April.
But there's plenty left behind, including classmates Peter MacArthur, Brian Ewing, Brian McGuirk and Ryan Weston. Five more freshman forwards join the mix, including highly-touted Brandon Yip and Jason Lawrence. The offensive talent is clearly in the underclassmen, especially with David Van der Gulik out with injury. The upperclassmen have been inconsistent in recent years, but have shown enough grit and are finally ready to contribute regularly.
"It's the first year in a long time that we'll have a group of forwards where anybody could play on any given night in any one of the positions," said Parker. "There's going to be healthy competition to get in, and stay in the line-up."
With very little lost to graduation, the talented youngsters, and the more experienced defense, BU believes it is primed for its best season in years.
"We need to be able to create offense by getting the puck quickly out to our forwards and by having the defensemen jump in the play a little bit more," said coach Jack Parker. "I think we have enough talent and confidence in those skill areas to be able to do both those things, and that should be a big plus for us."
The key of course is in goal, where second-team All-HEA player John Curry came out of nowhere last year, but is back for his junior year. Stephan Siwiec is a senior, but coach Jack Parker is looking for sophomore Karson Gillespie to take the ball and run with it. He was recruited to be a No. 1 goalie, but it hasn't happened yet.
"We're certainly deep and experienced now in goal with Curry playing as well as he did last year," said Parker.
5. MASSACHUSETTS (coach: Don Cahoon)
The Minutemen come off a disappointing season, taking a step back after the HEA championship-game appearance in 2004. In particular, going 3-13-1 down the stretch didn't help.
This year, there is a good group of upperclassmen to lead the way, assuming they stay healthy. But how well 16 sophomores and freshmen get integrated will be essential to the team's chances.
"My goal is for this team to be looked at by the end of the year as the most improved team in all of college hockey," said coach Don Cahoon. "I expect that we'll win some big games and I'm sure we're going to have our struggles."
The forwards are deep, especially so if Matt Anderson returns healthy, which is expected. He was lost from December on last season. He joins fellow senior Stephen Werner, P.J. Fenton and Kevin Jarman to form a solid core.
The defense has an experienced top four, including gifted offensive-defenseman Marvin Degon.
"Marvin is central to what our defensive corps is all about," said Cahoon. "I'll say there isn't a better skating defensemen in college hockey than Marvin, and there won't be a player in Hockey East in his position that will get more minutes. He has tremendous edges, a great ability to maneuver on his skates, and has both offensive and defensive strengths. With the whole package, we expect that he will be an All-America candidate."
And in goal, Gabe Winer has been the No. 1 guy for four years running. This has the potential to come together well for the Minutemen, but without a lot of experience being a top-echelon team, it remains to be seen whether it can sustain that level for a whole season.
6. MASSACHUSETTS-LOWELL (coach: Blaise MacDonald)
This may not be the year for the River Hawks, but if it isn't, when will it be? They return stacked with seniors, and stacked with talent, a process four years in the making. But they did take a blow to the gut when Ben Walter decided to turn pro late in the summer.
Last year looked like it might be Lowell's season, as it ran off a long unbeaten streak near the end of the season, and looked unstoppable, before flaming out against Maine at the end of the regular season and in the playoffs.
Considering the losses inflicted by the other top HEA schools, Lowell could have been a favorite if not for Walter's departure. The other 11 of the team's top scorers return. The forwards, without Walter, are more about depth, but the defense is led by a signature performer in Clive Kinley, who had 29 points last season.
Peter Vetri returns as the Hockey East all-Rookie goalie last year. He will play as many games as he wants, most likely, with both other goalies gone.
7. VERMONT (coach: Kevin Sneddon)
The Catamounts are the wild card this season. They showed flashes of being able to play with anyone last season, and didn't miss the NCAAs by all that much. Gutterson Fieldhouse, a raucous place even during mediocre seasons, is back hopping full bore once again. And all of Burlington is excited about their new home in Hockey East.
Gone is top scorer and all-around stud Scott Mifsud, but the Catamounts have plenty in the pipeline. It starts in goal, where Joe Fallon emerged as a standout during his freshman season.
Defenseman Jamie Sifers, though, is the guts of the team. He assumed the role of captain as a sophomore, and has done nothing to disappoint since. He won the ECAC's defensive defenseman award last season. He has a solid supporting cast on the backline.
Up front, Torrey Mitchell was huge as a freshman last season, and has added strength this year. The Cats also get a big boost from Brady Leisenring, who had 36 points as a junior, but missed most of last season as a medical redshirt.
Vermont can play with anyone, but whether they can withstand the more challenging grind of the HEA schedule remains to be seen.
8. PROVIDENCE (coach: Tim Army)
New coach Tim Army, a member of the last Providence HEA championship team (1985), wants to bring up-tempo hockey back to Schneider Arena, but he may not have the horses to accomplish the task just yet.
He'll try to accomplish that task through his young players, particularly on the backline. If they do add offensive flash, it may mean a struggle defensively, at a spot that is never easy for young players to adjusted to in the first place.
Sophomore Tyler Sims and his 2.80 GAA last year, is the No. 1 goaltender.
9. NORTHEASTERN (coach: Greg Cronin)
Expect new coach Greg Cronin to change the tone at Northeastern, but whether that translates into wins remains to be seen. It will be a difficult task, especially at first, with the loss of first-team All-HEA players Keni Gibson and Jason Guerriero from a sixth-place team.
At least second-team All-HEA performer Mike Morris returns, but after that, things get thin, particularly on defense. A number of freshman will be in the lineup each night on defense, which may bode well for the future, but not for now.
10. MERRIMACK (coach: Mark Dennehy)
The last time new Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy took over a one-win team, it won three games during his first season, he left, and the program soon disbanded.
The Warriors will be trying to avoid a similar fate, but if you listen around, a lot of people wish they would go away. Last year's one-win season was not just a stain on the ice, but indicative of a cloud that hung over the entire program, one which didn't enamor it to the hockey world. There are signs of systemic problems with the school, ones that go beyond the player revolt that took place last season, when the team tried to get coach Chris Serino removed before he resigned himself.
Thing is, for all the ensuing turmoil, the school made a great hire in Dennehy, a Boston College graduate who was instrumental on Don Cahoon's staff at both Princeton and UMass, in helping leads those programs to new heights.
Brent Gough, back from injury, and top scorer Bryan Schmidt, a second-team All-HEA pick last year, will lead the way. But the talent is otherwise thin.