Freshmen Help Lead Lowell Resurgence
by Scott McLaughlin/CHN Writer
LOWELL, Mass. Norm Bazin faced plenty of challenges entering his first season as the Massachusetts-Lowell head coach. One of the biggest was how young the River Hawks were and how much they were going to have to rely on contributions from freshmen if they hoped to be successful.
That youth was one of the reasons most outsiders expected this to be a rebuilding year. Expecting anything more from a team that was coming off the worst season in program history would've been seen as greedy.
Maybe Bazin is just greedy then, because one of the first things he told his players in preseason practices was that this would not be a rebuilding year. He acknowledged the River Hawks' youth, but said the team owed it to the seniors to go for it right now and not settle for marginal improvement.
That "anything is possible" attitude is a big reason the River Hawks currently find themselves atop the Hockey East standings. And it's a big reason they, unlike those cautiously optimistic outsiders, aren't surprised by it.
"Coming into the year, Coach realized that we had a lot of freshmen coming in, but we’re not in a rebuilding season at all," said freshman phenom Scott Wilson, who is tied for the team lead in points. "We’re going to the top. You always gotta look forward. All we can see is the top right now, so we’re just gonna keep going and keep banging away. Hopefully we can get to the tournament and be as successful as possible."
Wilson and his freshman classmates have been a key part of that success. Bazin has put his rookies in top-six forward roles and top-four defenseman roles since Day 1, and with the exception of a few expected speed bumps here and there, they've been up to the challenge.
Wilson, a seventh-round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins last summer, headlines that group, as he leads Hockey East freshmen with 13 goals and 28 points and ranks second nationally among rookies with 1.08 points per game.
Wilson, who was recruited by previous head coach Blaise MacDonald, said he never really considered decommitting when MacDonald stepped down because everyone he talked to who knew Bazin said he would be in good hands. Wilson is glad he kept his commitment and said he probably wouldn't be having the season he is if it weren't for Bazin.
"Norm's given me all the confidence in the world," Wilson said. "He's put me in every situation for me to succeed. He's even got me killing penalties, and I've never really been a kill guy. He's put me on the first power play. He has me playing with [Riley Wetmore and Derek Arnold], who are great players. I gotta give all the credit to Norm."
Wilson isn't the only freshman who's been a big part of Lowell's success, though. Terrence Wallin has earned a spot on the second line by posting 20 points and leading the team in plus/minus, while Stephen Buco has settled in as the third-line center with 13 points.
Just as important as the offensive contributions from Wilson, Wallin and Buco have been the defensive contributions from Jake Suter, Zack Kamrass and William Eiserman.
Suter, the son of former NHLer Gary Suter and cousin of current Nashville Predator Ryan Suter, has played in all 27 games for Lowell. His two points don't jump out at you, but his team-leading 44 blocks certainly do. That defensive prowess is why Suter has been seeing top-four minutes for much of the season. Kamrass and Eiserman have played 22 and 20 games, respectively, and have also been good fits in Lowell's defensive system.
"It's been baptism by fire," Bazin said of his young defensemen. "Suter, that kid has got bruises every day. He pays the price. I really think [goalie Doug Carr] should buy those guys dinner at some point. They're paying the price in front of him, and that's part of being a team."
Suter credited Carr as a key to the defense's success. The sophomore netminder leads Hockey East with a .935 save percentage, and Suter said that has given everyone in front of him confidence. Carr, meanwhile, said his defensemen have made things easy for him by consistently outworking opponents and blocking so many shots. Suter, Kamrass and Eiserman have been a big part of that.
"At this stage in the game, I wouldn't even call them freshmen any more," Carr said. "They've gotten such great experience and they've been good all year. The whole unit in front of me has been great. I think a lot of that has to do with the coaches. I really think that every week, we're here and we work hard, and that's why they've come a long way."
The freshmen have come a long way, and so has Lowell. The River Hawks have already made sure this is more than a rebuilding season, and now they're in the midst of seeing where they stack up against other championship contenders. They beat Merrimack 3-0 on Friday before coming up just short in a 2-1 loss to Maine on Saturday. This weekend, they face perhaps an even tougher challenge when they take on Boston University in a home-and-home series.