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October 7, 2011 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

Hockey East Watch List

by Joe Meloni/CHN Staff Writer

Last season, while the college hockey world turned its eyes to St. Paul, Minn., for the Frozen Four, the 10 teams of Hockey East sat at home. Scattered throughout New England, they watched as Minnesota-Duluth knocked Michigan off to end Hockey East's streak of three consecutive national championships officially.

Weeks ago, these 10 teams took the ice again.

Nyquist, Muse, Cronin, Kessel.

Names that came to define the league in recent years.

MacLeod, Thompson, Da Costa, Atkinson

These names have moved on, while new ones look to earn the same levels of esteem as their careers begin. From the coaching bench at Matthews Arena to the crease in Chestnut Hill, departures have made 2011-12 a season rife with opportunities for new faces to become the league's best. Days from now, these faces, unfamiliar to many, will begin their journey to make us all forget about those before them.

Perhaps fittingly, Boston College, winner of three of the last four Lamoriello Trophies, takes on Michigan State in the Icebreaker to kick off Hockey East action before Northeastern hosts Massachusetts and Maine welcomes Merrimack later in the evening. When those three games end, the questions raised at the close of 2010-11 will still be unanswered for the most part. But we'll have better idea of what the resolutions may look like.

Key changes

Coaching

Jim Madigan, Northeastern

Despite advancing to the Hockey East Semifinals for the second time since taking the program over, former Northeastern coach Greg Cronin's final few months in charge were hardly stable. His suspension in February for recruiting violations highlighted a difficult relationship with his administration that culminated with his resignation in June to take a job as an assistant coach with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

More than one month later, Northeastern finally settled on Cronin's replacement in Jim Madigan — a former Husky defenseman.

Involved with the program for years, Madigan still came as a surprise to many involved with the program. Not since 1993 has he served as a coach at any level.

The way last season ended, many expected Cronin to begin the 2011-12 hockey season elsewhere. However, the incoming Northeastern roster eased some of the concern. That was before Brodie Reid signed a professional contract. Then the Dallas Stars drafted Jamie Oleksiak and not so subtly guided him to the Saginaw Spirit of the Ontario Hockey League. Northeastern recruits and 2011 NHL Draft Picks John Gaudreau and Garrett Harr opted against a career on St. Botolph Street after Cronin left. Although, Northeastern will get to see a fair amount of Gaudreau in the coming years, beginning on Oct. 22 when Gaudreau takes the ice for Boston College against the Huskies.

Madigan's commitment to the success of the Northeastern program cannot be questioned. His 18-year absence from coaching at any level, paired with the task of replacing 63 of the 108 goals NU scored last season, certainly welcomes some skepticism, though.

Nate Leaman, Providence

While Northeastern welcomes an alumnus behind its bench, Providence will move forward without one of its most decorated former Friars after Tim Army resigned following a third consecutive absence from the Hockey East Tournament.

Almost immediately, the speculation began. Nate Leaman, weeks removed from guiding Union to the NCAA Tournament, ultimately accepted the job and the task of rebuilding a program that struggled to regain its position as a Hockey East power.

The 2011 winner of the Spencer Penrose Award for Division I Men's Coach of the Year, however, has no easy task on his hands.

Since finishing fifth in Hockey East in 2007-08, the Friars have missed the Hockey East Tournament each season and struggled to find anything resembling consistency at any position. In the last three seasons, Providence has finished no higher than ninth in Hockey East and 48th nationally in scoring. Defensively, Army's final three seasons weren't much better. Despite finishing fifth in the league in scoring defense in 2009-10, PC allowed more than 3.5 goals per game in three of the last four years.

Leaman pieced together a winner at Union in his eight seasons by accepting his and his program's role as the underdog and winning the hard way. The Dutchmen, under Leaman, won games in the corners, on the walls and on special teams. However, his final game as Union coach may have signaled that it was time to move on, after eight years in Schenectady, N.Y.

Recruiting within Hockey East is never an easy task, but Leaman's ability to lure gifted, heady players to Union should help him in Hockey East.

Norm Bazin, UMass Lowell

When Blaise Macdonald and the university reached an accord that resulted in the end of his 10-year reign as head coach, fans and alumni clamored immediately for the return of Craig MacTavish to Lowell.

While the rumors seemed outlandish at first, and MacDonald accepted a position as an assistant at Massachusetts, they started to gain some traction in the days following. The administration quickly put a stop to all mentions of MacTavish, though, hiring Norm Bazin on April 21. After spending three seasons at Division III Hamilton and winning the 2009-10 NESCAC coach of the year award, Bazin accepted the position at his alma mater.

Aside from his strong resume, Bazin often cites his positive outlook as a reason for his success. Last season, the RiverHawks won five games, so a positive man behind the bench may be exactly what UML needs. Still, Bazin faces a season without any clear No. 1 goaltender and a serious lack of scoring depth. Senior David Vallorani and junior Riley Wetmore are among the premier players in the league. Beyond that, things are certainly unclear in Lowell.

Perhaps the most important position for Bazin to improve in the future is goaltender. Then-freshmen Doug Carr and Marc Boulanger shared a majority of the time in net last season and allowed a league worst four goals per game.

Junior T.J. Massie opted to return to Lowell in the second half of 2010-11 after leaving the program for the USHL's Tri-City Storm following his freshman year. The Lowell defense certainly did not help its goaltending much. But the situation may be equally problematic for Bazin with seven of nine defensemen on the roster underclassmen.

Developing Storylines

Early exits do BC some good

While most teams in Hockey East have dealt with early player departures in recent years, Boston College coach Jerry York pointed to the decisions of some players to stay as a primary factor in the success of his team last season.

Among those players were Cam Atkinson, Jimmy Hayes and Chris Kreider.

After winning a second consecutive Hockey East Championship — and flaming out in the NCAA Tournament in an 8-4 loss to Colorado College — both Atkinson and Hayes opted to sign professional contracts. Kreider, a New York Rangers draft pick, chose to remain in Chestnut Hill for his junior season.

York expects the gifted winger to piece together his best season at BC to ease the loss of Atkinson and Hayes. Also, BC has to deal with the departure of defenseman Philip Samuelsson, who signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins, but will spend this season playing in Sweden.

Samuelsson's decision, however, resulted in a major pickup for the Eagles. The open scholarship allowed the Eagles to pursue John Gaudreau once he received release from his letter of intent at Northeastern. Gaudreau, a third-round draft choice of the Calgary Flames, is an early contender for Hockey East Freshman of the Year.

Other big names to leave early around Hockey East include Jamie Oleksiak (D, Northeastern, OHL), Stephane Da Costa (F, Merrimack, NHL), Gustav Nyquist (F, Maine, NHL), Blake Kessel (D, New Hampshire, NHL), Brodie Reid (F, Northeaster, NHL) and David Warsofsky (D, Boston University, NHL).

Goaltending battles open

Based on his numbers, the loss of Paul Dainton may not seem too devastating for Massachusetts. Ask UMass coach Don Cahoon, though, and you'll get an entirely different answer.

Both in the locker room and the ice, Dainton was the unquestioned leader of the young Minutemen last season. As difficult as last season was for everyone involved in the program, replacing Dainton is a similarly difficult challenge heading into 2011-12. Off the ice, senior forward Danny Hobbs has showed Cahoon enough to warrant a comparison to Nick Kuiper.

On the ice, though, a trio of unproven underclassmen will enter the season as the platoon until one emerges as clear No.1.

Sophomore Jeff Teglia won a championship in the USHL before moving to Amherst. However, injuries severely cut into his playing time and wounded his confidence throughout his freshman season. The unorthodox goaltender has impressed the UMass coaching staff in early workouts, but Cahoon refuses to name a starter to this point.

Challenging Teglia will be freshmen Kevin Boyle and Stephen Mastalerz. Both experienced success prior to their careers in Amherst, and have impressed Cahoon with their size and positioning. Mastalerz will miss some time to start the season, though, due to a groin injury.

Outside of Amherst, similar battles are emerging at UMass Lowell and Maine.

Maine coach Tim Whitehead believes that Martin Ouellette, a teammate of Mastalerz at Kimball Union Academy (N.H.), will avoid the struggles he experienced a season ago. Fellow sophomore Dan Sullivan became the de facto No. 1 for a Maine team desperate for some semblance of consistency. Sullivan's numbers were hardly impressive to end the season — .890 save percentage and a 2.73 goals-against average — but he ended the regular season with a 5-0-1 stretch that included three consecutive shutouts.

Whitehead expressed optimism regarding his young goaltending tandem. However, the loss of three regular defensemen — Josh Van Dyk, Jeff Dimmen and Mike Banwell — to graduation isn't helping. Still, gifted newcomers on the blue line, including freshman Jake Rutt, and a finally healthy Nick Pryor have convinced Whitehead the losses won't been too severe.

Player losses, meanwhile, are hardly the problem in Lowell, where first-year coach Norm Bazin must find something between T.J. Massie, Doug Carr and Marc Boulanger. None of the three have demonstrated an ability to compete at the Division I level, and the Lowell defensive unit is equally poor.

Saponari's second chance

In May 2010, a little more than a year following his role in a national championship, Vinny Saponari learned he would no longer be a member of the Boston University hockey team. BU coach Jack Parker kicked Saponari and his brother, Victor, from the team for a series of rules violations and general disregard for team policy.

While Saponari defended himself against the allegations, he conceded and spent last season playing for the Dubuque Fighting Saints in the United States Hockey League, where he won a Clark Cup with the club. In October 2010, Saponari reportedly committed to Boston College to play for the Eagles. However, Saponari's application for admission was rejected by Boston College.

Eventually, Saponari committed to Northeastern and coach Greg Cronin. When Cronin left for the National Hockey League, it seemed like another shift in the saga for Saponari. However, he decided to remain at Northeastern and will play for the Huskies this season.

NU coach Jim Madigan has been impressed with the experienced forward in his limited exposure. On the ice, Saponari presents one of the rarer skill sets — a sizy winger with remarkable hands and speed — so the early returns are as expected. As the season progresses, though, Madigan expects the well-traveled Saponari to develop into a leadership role with the new-look Huskies.

Players to Watch

Bill Arnold, Sophomore, Forward, Boston College

Overshadowed for most of his freshman season by BC's typically dynamic top six forwards, Bill Arnold quietly pieced together a 20-point campaign in Chestnut Hill. His 10 goals and 10 assists placed him ninth in the league in freshman scoring, but his development on both ends of the ice has the BC coaching staff excited about future.

The Eagles are among the deepest teams in the country in terms of scoring threats, so Arnold will likely be ignored while Chris Kreider, Pat Mullane and Paul Carey draw most of the attention. However, Arnold will see consistent minutes on the power play and penalty kill for BC, while excelling his normal role as the pivot on BC's second or third forward line.

Nick Bruneteau, Sophomore, Defenseman, Vermont

UVM coach Kevin Sneddon will look to his gifted second-year defenseman to become more of a threat this season after a strong one-goal, 15-assist freshman year. The puck-mover did not surprise Sneddon with his consistent offensive contributions. The steady, responsible play he exhibited in his own zone, though, did boost Sneddon's confidence in Bruneteau.

A year ago, goals were at a premium in Burlington. This year, offense will still be a concern, but life will be a little easy for the Catamounts should Bruneteau continue his growth as a puck-mover and power-play point man. The graduation of three experienced blue liners will likely boost Bruneteau's minutes on a young, but wildly talented UVM defense.

Alex Chiasson, Sophomore, Forward, Boston University

Drafted by the Dallas Stars in the second round before his freshman season, Alex Chiasson has demonstrated his talents as a diverse offensive threat since arriving on Commonwealth Avenue. The winger appears to have grown into his rangy frame — enough for many to consider him a legitimate threat as conference player of the year.

He led the Terriers with 34 points on 14 goals and 20 assists last season and should continue this growth playing with BU's other top upperclassmen. Sophomore Charlie Coyle draws most of the attention — after being drafted by San Jose in the first round two years ago before being traded to the Minnesota Wild — but Chiasson possesses the size and skill to be a dominant force in Hockey East. Staying out of the penalty box will be a start — his 75 penalty minutes were tops among BU forwards last season.

Ryan Flanigan, Senior, Forward, Merrimack

Stephane Da Costa and Chris Barton are gone from last season's NCAA Tournament team, prompting many to wonder if Merrimack can remain relevant for a second consecutive season. Ryan Flanigan is one reason some believe the Warriors' ascent to the top of Hockey East was not an anomaly.

Coming off a 16-goal, 18-point junior year, Flanigan needs to continue his success for Merrimack to win. Equally important for the Warriors is Flanigan's status as one of their best two-way players. Along with defenseman Jordan Heywood, Flanigan led the Warriors with a plus-24 rating. His postseason performance earned him a place as one of the best Hockey East tournament performers as well, scoring five goals and assisting on four others during MC's four-game run, which ultimately ended in a 5-3 loss to BC in the conference championship game.

Kevin Goumas, Sophomore, Forward, New Hampshire

Senior forward Stevie Moses drew the task of replacing Paul Thompson from a season ago. But Kevin Goumas — Moses' linemate for the second half of the season — made life easy for Moses and center Mike Borisenok with his speed. The diminutive left winger flourished when UNH coach Dick Umile placed him alongside Borisenok and Goumas.

While he'll need to finish plays this season to remain a primary option for Umile, his skills in winning races and battles for pucks propelled UNH to the Hockey East semifinals and Northeast Regional final last season. In Durham, the No. 1 line typically handles a majority of the scoring. Most think depth will be the answer for the Wildcats this season, and Goumas is a big reason.

Steve Quailer, Junior, Forward, Northeastern

Being supremely talented and highly regarded means a lot before a player arrives on campus. Staying on the ice and producing when you're there is all that matters after that, though. After a 25-point freshman season, Quailer missed his entire sophomore year with an ACL tear and failed to regain his freshman form last year, scoring three times in 38 games. New coach Jim Madigan said it plainly last week at the league's media day, when he pointed to Qualier as a player the Huskies need to win in 2011-12.

The lanky winger is among the most gifted players on the Huskies' roster. The departure of Greg Cronin may serve Quailer well. Still, anything short of 20- to 30-point season will mean little for Quailer and Northeastern. The Huskies lost more than half of their goal-scoring from last season, and Quailer is among the most capable of making NU fans forget that statistic.

In the early going, though, Northeastern will be without Quailer, while he serves a suspension for a violation of team rules.

Joel Hanley, Sophomore, Defenseman, Massachusetts

One of 14 freshmen Minutemen a season ago, Hanley missed time due to injury and personal issues but still managed an 18-point season on a team that struggled to do much of anything consistently last season. As UMass' sophomores go, so will go the Minutemen.

Forward Mike Pereira, Conor Sheary and Branden Gracel project as top scorers for the Minutemen, but Hanley and their other classmates on the blue line are players UMass coach Don Cahoon expects to contribute. Hanley is among the most skilled defensemen in the league with the puck — his 15 assists from a season ago are clear proof of that. While Conor Allen and Adam Phillips will be equally important to the future of the UMass power play, Hanley can be the type of offensively productive defenseman UMass has churned out for most of Cahoon's tenure in Amhest.

Tim Schaller, Junior, Forward, Providence

Schaller will be one of many Providence forwards new coach Nate Leaman hopes can improve on what has been one of the league's worst offenses in recent years. Providence's leading returner in terms of assists will likely center one of its top two forward lines.

While Leaman doesn't have much to work with, Schaller managed to make plays last season without much support. For the Friars to earn their first Hockey East tournament berth in four years, it will take more than a few more goals. But scoring more is certainly a start, and players like Schaller are those drawing that burden.

Dan Sullivan, Sophomore, Goaltender, Maine

Maine coach Tim Whitehead expects both Dan Sullivan and Martin Ouellette to battle for playing time this season. The success of the Black Bears depends on one of them becoming a true No. 1 goaltender in Hockey East. Sullivan pieced together some masterful performances a year ago, including three consecutive shutouts as Maine battled for home ice, ultimately landing fifth in Hockey East.

In general, consistency plagued his season, as it so frequently does for freshman goaltenders. Losing their top three defensemen won't help the Black Bears, either. Still Sullivan is capable of emerging as good goaltender as this level, and he'll need to. After missing the NCAA tournament for four consecutive years, fans and some others with sway in Orono are growing restless. They want wins and they want championships, and they aren't getting either of those things without a reliable No. 1 goaltender.

Riley Wetmore, Junior, Forward, UMass Lowell

We learned last year what many expected when Riley Wetmore's freshman season ended. Not only is he the best forward in Lowell, but he is one of the premier scorers in the conference. Paired with David Vallorani, Wetmore is a truly dynamic force. His 14 goals and 16 assists last year placed him just behind Vallorani on a team that may considered to be one of the worst the league has seen in recent years.

Still, Wetmore could easily improve upon his 30-point campaign. The River Hawks look to be a littler stronger than last year's five-win team. While collective success is unlikely in Lowell, Wetmore is certainly a candidate for Hockey East First Team.

New Faces to Remember

John Gaudreau, Forward, Boston College

Northeastern fans have known this name for years, as his initial commitment signified the work of Greg Cronin to improve the program. However, Cronin's departure made Gaudreau reconsider, and Jerry York's outfit in Chestnut Hill was the ultimate alternative for the small but gifted Gaudreau.

Receiving contributions from freshman is something York never demands but rarely goes without. Gaudreau finished last season with 36 goals, 36 assists and a plus-21 rating while playing for the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the USHL. Another note for Gaudreau was the Clark Cup he won with Dubuque. Moving to Chestnut Hill will likely mean a few more championships for the Calgary Flames' third-round pick.

Michael Paliotta, Defenseman, Vermont

It's certainly not unusual to see a Vermont defenseman stand well north of 6 feet. But Michael Paliotta is more than just a big body. Kevin Sneddon alerted the league of the blue liner's ability to contribute throughout the rink, and the offensive contributions will have to come from everyone for the Catamounts to make last season's disappointment a distant memory.

Curbed by Drew McKenzie's steady presence and the improved development of Nick Bruneteau were the losses of Dan Lawson, Kevan Miller and Kyle Medvec. However, UVM hopes Paliotta can quickly become one of the league's premier shutdown defenseman to make the life of senior goaltender Rob Madore a little easier.

Alexx Privitera, Defenseman, Boston University

When David Warsofsky opted to begin his professional career, the Terriers lost their most mobile body on the blue line. BU coach Jack Parker views Privitera as a viable replacement for Warsofsky. The right-shot defenseman is aggressive and illusive with the puck, capable of burning even the staunchest neutral zone formations with a pass or quick step.

Like most young puck-movers, though, Privitera must find the balance between aggression and responsibility. In his first collegiate action, an exhibition game on Saturday night, his aggressive demeanor resulted in a bad giveaway and a two-on-one the other way. There's little doubt that the speedster will be an impact player as this level. He'll just need to find balance to do it.

Destry Straight, Forward, Boston College

Like Gaudreau, Straight is a young forward that could quickly become one of the Eagles' most consistent contributors offensively. Playing with Coquitlam of the BCHL last season, Straight was good for more than a point a game. Unlike Gaudreau, his 6-foot-1 frame provides him with some more strength and room for growth with the Eagles.

The loss of its entire top line and a few others is a bit of a concern for the Eagles. Players that rely on size can struggle in the beginning of their careers as their strength takes some time to match their height. Straight can develop without pressure, though. His 41assists in Junior-A show an ability to create for his teammates, who, in the grand tradition of BC forwards, don't struggle much at finishing.

Trevor vanRiemsdyk, Defenseman, New Hampshire

At Hockey East Media Day, vanRiemsdyk was the one freshman UNH coach Dick Umile named as someone the Wildcats need to reach their ultimate goals this season. While the other kids in Durham will look to impress their coaches and teammates, vanRiemsdyk needs to provide depth and consistency to a UNH blue line stripped of Blake Kessel and Matt Campanale.

With the New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs of the Eastern Junior Hockey League last year, vanRiemsdyk earned a reputation as a skilled puck-mover as well as capable defender. Umile welcomes Damon Kipp, Conor Hardowa and Brett Kostolanksy back to Durham, but only Kostolansky has shown any real offensive slant to his game. Stepping in early and contributing to the UNH power play will go a long way to prove that Trevor is more than James vanRiemsdyk's little brother.

Scott Wilson, Forward, UMass-Lowell

Wilson amassed a cool 59 points in the OJHL last season and heard his named called by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the seventh round of June's draft. Life in Lowell may be a bit less interesting for Wilson, as the River Hawks are likely looking at another tough season ending the league's basement. Still, there is a lot of the skill in UML's top six forwards, and Wilson should quickly fit into that mix.

New UML coach Norm Bazin will likely try new forward lines frequently in the season's early stages, but finding Wilson alongside Riley Wetmore, David Vallorani or both would hardly be surprising.

Conference prediction

1. Boston University

The Terriers appear to have the perfect balance of experience and depth through their forward and defensive corps. Not only does BU have one of the league’s top goal-scorers (junior Alex Chiasson), the team has a four-year starter in goal who's won a national championship (senior Kieran Milan).

2. Boston College

The Eagles lost substantial production to graduation and early departures, but have adequate replacements ready; juniors Brian Dumoulin and Chris Kreider are among the best in Hockey East. The team shouldn't notice much as the goaltending load shifts to junior Parker Milner from graduated four-year starter John Muse. Any struggles from Milner, though, could force Jerry York to turn to freshman Brian Billett — and York won't wait too long if pressed.

3. Maine

The Black Bears arguably have the most talented senior class in Hockey East, led by forward Brian Flynn and defenseman Will O'Neill. With excellent scoring and defensive depth, Maine could win the league if it can overcome questions at goaltending. Dan Sullivan made the All-Rookie Team last season, but a .890 save percentage demands caution.

4. New Hampshire

Annually, the Wildcats are seemingly forced to replace a group of senior forwards who are among the national leaders in scoring. This year the burden falls on Mike Borisenok, Kevin Goumas and Stevie Moses. The Wildcats also need to overcome lack of proven defensive depth through the work of dependable senior goaltender Matt Di Girolamo.

5. Merrimack

Dynamic forward Stephane Da Costa left for the NHL in the offseason, but returning are forwards Jesse Todd, Ryan Flanigan and Mike Collins — as well as nearly their entire defensive groups, including senior Kyle Stollery. Look for the Warriors to take a slight step back after enjoying several years of unprecedented program success.

6. Massachusetts

As the Minutemen's strong sophomore class grows into form, the team should climb the standings. Two of the league's better forwards, senior T.J. Syner and sophomore Michael Pereira lead the team's scoring. The biggest obstacle for UMass will be its goaltending, with unproven sophomore Jeff Teglia and two freshmen vying for the starting role.

7. Vermont

The Catamounts' circumstance this season appears to be the same as last: strong defensive depth and goaltending coupled with a lack of goals. Vermont could finish higher, but it will need to rely on its defensive system to win many 2-1 games. A strong recruiting class lends hope toward returning to Frozen Four form from three years ago.

8. Providence

In recent years, the Friars have frustrated other teams with their physical play and towering defensemen. New coach Nate Leaman may change that style in time, but Providence will need to develop scoring if it hopes to climb the standings in 2010-11.

9. Northeastern

The Huskies relied heavily on the production of their senior class last season. The rebuilding job becomes even more challenging for new coach Jim Madigan as star recruit Jon Gaudreau defected for BC during the offseason turmoil. Though, BU transfer Vinny Saponari could be the difference for the Huskies.

10. Mass.-Lowell

Although the River Hawks boast one of the best forwards in Hockey East (junior Riley Wetmore), 2011-12 will be another rebuilding season. The difference is new coach Norm Bazin gets to break-in his system.

-Michael King

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