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October 10, 2013 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

Hockey East Team Preview Capsules

by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer

Boston College

Head Coach: Jerry York
2012-13 Record: 22-12-4 (15-9-3 Hockey East)

Changes: York is accustomed to losing high-end talent yearly. This season is no different. A senior class full of productive and important players is gone. Replacing Pat Mullane as a first-line center, Parker Milner as a reliable goaltender and Patrick Wey as a solid defenseman will prove challenging for York, especially in the season's first few months.

The loss of associate head coach Mike Cavanugh, who moved on to become Connecticut's head coach, is equally pressing. Cavanaugh was the architect of a BC penalty kill that was annually among the nation's best.

Mike Ayers joins York's staff to replace Cavanugh and provide a practiced hand for the development of BC's goaltending wunderkind Thatcher Demko. The 17-year-old netminder ranks among the top freshmen in the nation. His role as the starter isn't exactly a certainty with junior Brian Billet anxious for some playing time.

Strengths: Even with a roster that looks thinner than it has in years past, Boston College is still among the nation's most talented teams. Johnny Gaudreau is back after another marvelous season as a sophomore. The Hobey Baker finalist leads a strong top six that also includes center Bill Arnold and winger Kevin Hayes. The three have diverse skill sets and could make up a prolific top line.

Defensively, sophomore defenseman Michael Matheson is already among the best in the country. The first-round pick of the Florida Panthers emerged as BC's best on the blue line a season ago. He leads a young group that welcomes in even more talent in freshmen Ian McCoshen, Steven Santini and Scott Savage. Matheson and senior Isaac MacLeod figure to see major minutes with the final four spots filled by the freshmen and sophomore Teddy Doherty.

Weaknesses: Despite a talent-laden roster, experience is an issue for BC. A year ago, the Eagles' defensive unit struggled, especially after senior Patch Alber suffered a knee injury in late-December. Matheson stood out at both ends, but the group's youth led to problems in its own zone.

Up front, the Eagles' talented forward group has a similar issue. Gaudreau, Arnold and Hayes are as dangerous as any trio in the nation. Six freshman forwards arrive at the Heights and will battle for playing time. Upperclassmen role-players, such as Quinn Smith and captain Patrick Brown, offer some additional scoring, penalty-killing experience and leadership. However, consistent production from either is unlikely. Led by Chris Calnan and Ryan Fitzgerald, the Eagles' young forwards will need to get going quickly to add to the scoring of Gaudreau, Arnold and Hayes.

2013-14 Outlook: Doubting Boston College is never a good idea. There are questions, of course, but BC should still find itself in the race for every trophy available to it this year. BC should finish in the top third of the league standings and challenge in the Hockey East Tournament and beyond. There are some problems that may could emerge and doom the Eagles, like they did a year ago.

Even with a full season playing together, the Eagles' defensive unit remains young with McCoshen, Savage and Santini joining the group. Defensemen are perhaps the hardest players to project in the early stages of their career. Furthermore, the Eagles have limited experience in goal. There's talent everywhere, but it will take time to put it all together.

York is, simply, a mastermind. If there's any coach that can get the most from a young team, it's him.

Prediction: 2nd

Boston University

Head Coach: Dave Quinn
2012-13 Record: 21-16-2 (15-10-2 Hockey East)

Changes: Most notably, BU enters its first season in more than four decades without Jack Parker running the show. Dave Quinn, Parker's former top deputy, replaces his mentor with the goal of building on a team that nearly won the Hockey East Tournament a year ago.

Quinn will have to make do without Matt Nieto, who forwent his final year of eligibility to sign with the San Jose Sharks — Nieto made the Sharks' roster out of training camp. Playing on the left wing of BU's most productive line, Nieto led BU in goals (18) and finished second in scoring behind linemate Danny O'Regan.

O'Regan and right wing Evan Rodrigues will have a new left wing this season and will need to produce just the same without the space created by Nieto's speed. Wade Megan is also gone from the club. The club's captain did it all for BU, killing penalties and dominating along the walls and in the corners.

Aside from talent, BU lost important depth pieces as well with penalty-killing ace Ben Rosen and bottom-six sparkplug Ryan Santana graduating.

Strengths: Defenseman Garrett Noonan returns for his senior season. BU's defensive group isn't quite as experienced as it was a year ago, but its talent is unquestioned. Noonan ranks among the nation's best on the blue line. His offensive production fell significantly last year after scoring 16 goals as a sophomore.

Rodrigues, O'Regan and junior center Cason Hohmann should continue where they left off a season ago. Hohmann and Rodrigues emerged as a sophomores, while O'Regan quickly became one of Hockey East's best playmakers as a freshman. Fellow rookies Matt Grzelcyk and Ahti Oksanen became reliable sources of offense from the back and improved consistently in their own zone as the year progressed.

In goal, the Terriers began last season with a pair of freshmen charged with replacing Kieran Millan. Sean Maguire and Matt O'Connor both showed promise. O'Connor was fantastic in the first half before Maguire took over late in the season after O'Connor suffered a collapsed lung. The pressure of playing goal at the Division I level never seemed to bother either player.

Weaknesses: BU's biggest weakness is the unknown. Quinn's track record demonstrates success in developing young players and winning. He has never been a head coach at this level, though, and it's impossible to tell if he'll have the same influence Parker did.

Additionally, Quinn will have to see his players through the transition as he brings his own brand of hockey to his alma mater. The losses of Nieto, Megan and the others bring up similar bits of the unknown. O'Regan, Rodrigues and Hohmann can't handle all the scoring on their own. The Terriers need sophomores Matt Lane and Sam Kurker to be more than they were a season ago. Freshmen Robbie Baillargeon and Brendan Collier, both 2012 NHL Draft picks, must step in quickly. Similarly, Doyle Somerby must adjust to the college game quickly to fill one of the two open spots on the BU defense.

2013-14 Outlook: It's already been a year of change at BU with Parker retiring from his head coaching duties. However strong a hire Quinn seemed at the time, it's impossible to gauge his true influence and fit for the job until the Terriers begin play. BU is a talented team. The Terriers should challenge for a first-round bye and into the postseason.

Goals won't be an issue for the Terriers. The issue is going to be keeping the puck out of their own net. Again, the tools for a great defensive team are there. This is where BU may miss Rosen, Santana, Escobedo and Ruikka even more than Nieto and Megan. There's no improvising on defense. Skill can only take players so far.

Quinn was the leader of the defensive unit, led by Hobey Baker winner Matt Gilroy, that won BU a national championship in 2009. He'll need to construct another excellent defensive identity for the Terriers to compete in 2013-14.

Prediction: 4th

Maine

Head Coach: Red Gendron
2012-13 Record: 11-19-8 (7-12-8 Hockey East)

Changes: After an up-and-down career in Orono, Tim Whitehead was relieved of his duties in early April. While he never really received a fair shake from the Maine faithful, there's no doubting Maine isn't what it used to be, for whatever reason. To recapture the glory of Shawn Walsh's era, Maine hired long-time college hockey assistant Red Gendron, fresh off winning a national championship as Keith Allain's top assistant at Yale.

Gendron served as an assistant under Shawn Walsh from 1991-93 before moving onto the New Jersey Devils and coaching them to a Stanley Cup. With success at every level, Gendron's hire was still an interesting one with former Maine star Jim Montgomery, who eventually became head coach at Denver, available.

Gendron leads a very young team that struggled mightily a year ago, especially in regard to goal-scoring. A second-half resurgence, led by goaltender Martin Ouellette, was enough to push Maine into eighth in the Hockey East standings. Joey Diamond, the lone Maine player to reach double figures in goals last year, graduated after a successful, albeit turbulent, career in Orono. Six other seniors are gone, handing the roster over to 18 underclassmen.

Strengths: Tangibly, the Black Bears have few true strengths as a team. Their talent is sufficient to compete in Hockey East, but much of it is largely unproven. Ouellette morphed into a very good collegiate goaltender after taking the No. 1 job from Dan Sullivan midway through last season.

Throughout the roster, Maine has major potential, and Gendron's demonstrated a knack for putting his players in the best position to win games. A number of sophomores enjoyed successful freshman years for Maine, including Will Merchant, Devin Shore and Ben Hutton. Their contributions weren't enough to lift the Black Bears too far from the league's cellar, but it's clear Gendron has a solid core to build on in his first year leading the team.

Weaknesses: The same things that give Maine hope for the 2013-14 season could be their undoing. Little on their roster is determined at this point with a new coach watching over a young roster. Without legitimate progress from last year to this year, Maine has little chance to contend within Hockey East.

On defense, the club is especially young. Jake Rutt and Brice O'Connor are the lone upperclassmen on the blue line. Hutton, Conor Riley and Kyle Williams all played major minutes as freshmen, and the group improved as the year progressed. However, the losses of Mark Nemec and Mike Cornell to graduation will force the underclassmen to play even greater minutes as sophomores.

2013-14 Outlook: Maine improved rapidly from the first to second half a season ago, but it still never looked like much of a threat to compete within the league. The 2013-14 season should be another year of transition for the players and the program itself. Young teams have overcome their presumed inexperience to succeed in Hockey East before. Maine absolutely has the skill to do this.

Prediction: 8th

Massachusetts

Head Coach: John Micheletto
2012-13 Record: 12-19-3 (9-16-2 Hockey East)

Changes: Not much changed for the Minutemen after a disappointing first year for coach John Micheletto, who took over for Cahoon last summer. Conor Allen forwent his final year of eligibility to sign with the New York Rangers as a free agent. Most of the club's best players are back from a season ago, save for Allen and forward Rocco Carzo.

Micheletto did some roster maintenance during the year, cutting goaltender Kevin Boyle and some others to make room for his own recruits between this season and next. The loss of Carzo and fellow seniors Eddie Olczyk and Kevin Czepiel will be felt mostly in the locker room. Micheletto also brought in Ryan Miller as an assistant to replace Len Quesnelle, a holdover from the Cahoon staff. Miller served as head coach at Culver Military Academy (Ind.) and Kimball Union Academy (N.H.) prior to joining Micheletto at UMass.

Perhaps the biggest difference for the Minutemen this season is another year under Micheletto. He arrived fairly late in the summer from Vermont a year ago, forcing his players to get to know a new coach and system just weeks before the season began.

Strengths: UMass boasts one of the best first lines in the league even with their struggles from a year ago. Wingers Conor Sheary and Mike Pereira along with center Branden Gracel contribute offense consistently. All three enter their final season this year with the motivation to erase three strong individual seasons that did little to help UMass win. Joel Hanley, Adam Phillips and others join the trio as a seniors. The group arrived in Amherst in 2010 with great expectations that have yet to lead to anything.

Experience is certainly the biggest strength of the team that welcomes eight newcomers, including sophomore Ohio State transfer Ben Gallacher.

On the ice, the Minutemen receive praise from their opponents for their speed. Offensively and defensively, the Minutemen can move with any team in the country.

Weaknesses: The presence of a handful of talented players aside, the Minutemen just don't have enough talent at any position to compete in Hockey East. At times, their offense clicks well only to see defensive breakdowns and poor goaltending fail them. The opposite is true as well.

Junior Stephen Mastalerz enters the year as the likely No. 1 starter with Boyle no longer on the roster. Jeff Teglia is also gone from the roster after struggling with concussions. In his first two years, mostly sharing duty with Boyle, Mastalerz is yet to finish with a save percentage above .900. His problems are hardly of his own doing. Regardless, lacking a reliable goaltender has cost UMass dearly since Paul Dainton graduated in 2011.

Micheletto has managed to land solid commitments in his time with UMass. However, the highest profile players have not arrived just yet. Additionally, Boston College transfer Frank Vatrano remains ineligible and will not be available to UMass until the Hockey East Tournament.

2013-14 Outlook: The Minutemen missed the Hockey East Tournament last season in its final season of eliminating the ninth- and 10th-place teams. They'll get at least one playoff game this year, but the results shouldn't change much. Another bottom-of-the-league finish and early ending to the season is likely.

Even with some nice additions, UMass relies heavily on upperclassmen that have never shown an ability to play well consistently. Getting Troy Power back from an ACL injury and Pereira's recovery from late-season concussion problems will help. Micheletto will need major improvements throughout his roster for his second year in Amherst to be better than his first.

Prediction: 10th

Massachusetts-Lowell

Head Coach: Norm Bazin
2012-13 Record: 28-11-2 (16-9-2 Hockey East)

Changes: Not much changed from a UMass-Lowell team that won both Hockey East Regular-Season and Tournament championships a year ago. Leaders Chad Ruhwedel and Riley Wetmore are now playing professional hockey, Ruhwedel opting to leave UML a year early to sign with the NHL's Buffalo Sabres.

Little else is different for the River Hawks. After a successful 2011-12 season, UML entered last year as a favorite in Hockey East. This season, they are the favorite, the clear team to beat in the league and a legitimate contender for a national championship. As it stands, the greatest change for UML may be the expectations it has for the season.

Strengths: Returning most of a team that advanced to the Frozen Four, there are few things Lowell can't call a strength entering the year.

Junior winger Scott Wilson and senior center Joe Pendenza lead an offense that averaged three goals per game. The pair can match up with any duo in the nation. Depth, however, remains a hallmark of Bazin's UML teams. Known for hailing his club's "four second lines," Bazin relies on every skater to contribute in all three zones. Five players scored at least 10 goals a year ago, and eight reached double figures in points.

The commitment of the UML forwards in all three zones leads an especially strong penalty kill as well. At more than 85 percent a year ago, the River Hawks finished the year 11th in the nation down a man. In general, the River Hawks do well in the each of the areas coaches often dwell on when their teams struggle.

Weaknesses: On paper, there isn't much that should concern Bazin entering the 2013-14 season. However, a slow start put UML is a difficult position last season. The River Hawks began the season 4-7-1 before ending the season on an 18-3-1 run that led to the program's first league regular-season championship.

The loss of Wetmore's off-ice influence makes a strong start a bit more important for UML. Bazin believes Holstrom to be the same kind of leader Wetmore became. Should the River Hawks stumble in the season's first few weeks, though, Holmstrom's influence will be important to the club's resiliency.

In every way, sophomore goaltender Connor Hellebuyck appears to be a strength for UML. The same was though true of Doug Carr a year ago, however. Hellebuyck ended his freshman year with a .952 save percentage. The sophomore is obviously talented, but some regression has to be expected, especially without Ruhwedel manning the blue line anymore.

2013-14 Outlook: UML is as deep as any team in the country. Again, some regression is expected in certain circumstances, but wins should be common for the River Hawks once again. Hockey East is a deep league, and every title UML wants will be contested by multiple worthy opponents. At least at the moment, the River Hawks are the favorite for all of them.

Despite their success last season, many positions will begin as competitions that Bazin credits for much of UML's improvements. Expect Carr to start some games early in the season and a few different line combinations. Bazin wants to win, and his players share the sentiment. Complacency will not be tolerated in Lowell. Bazin will do whatever is required to make sure it doesn't seep in.

Prediction: 1st

Merrimack

Head Coach: Mark Dennehy
2012-13 Record: 15-17-6 (13-11-3 Hockey East)

Changes: Merrimack graduated just four players from last year's team that finished sixth in Hockey East. The Warriors' season ended with a sweep at the hands of BU in the first round of the Hockey East Tournament. Big defenseman Kyle Bigos is gone and figures to be the greatest loss for the Warriors. A reputation for the occasional less-than-legal hit clouded the true contribution Bigos offered MC. He was a talented, reliable defender that generated offense and played well in his own zone more often than not.

Strengths: Under Dennehy, Merrimack's ability to fill the lineup with unremarkable players that just seemed to play well together has sustained them. It appears that this will be the case once again. Led by senior defenseman Jordan Heywood and senior forward Mike Collins, the Warriors need solid play from all four lines and defensive pairings.

Heywood is as reliable as any defenseman in Hockey East, regularly playing more than 25 minutes a night for Dennehy. His eight goals and 13 assists were both second on the team a year ago behind Collins, who was the club's leading scorer by a wide margin. His 17 goals and 21 assists were clearly the most on the team.

Weaknesses: MC's general lack of firepower is a problem. The Warriors scored just 15 goals in their final 10 games a season ago and ended the year 44th in the country in offense at 2.39 goals-per game. Now, they don't need to score like some others to win games, but the offense simply wasn't good enough a year ago. Freshman Chris LeBlanc figures to add some punch. In general, goals will be at a premium for the Warriors all season. The power play is also troublesome. At just 14.4 percent last season, the Warriors ended the year eighth in Hockey East.

2013-14 Outlook: Merrimack is a difficult team to play against. Even for the league's best teams, easy wins against the Warriors are rare. They seem to play better in Hockey East than out of the league with Dennehy constructing his lineup and adjusting it in line with their conference opponents.

Merrimack won't allow many goals this season. They need to score more, though. Collins should contribute at the point-a-game pace he maintained a season ago. Outside of the gifted winger, it should be offense by committee again. Despite Heywood and Collins ranking among the best in their positions in Hockey East, MC's success will come from strong play throughout its lineup. Senior Shawn Bates is a reliable scorer. There isn't anything explosive about Merrimack's lineup, and that's not likely to change this season.

In goal, senior Sam Marotta emerged as a quality Hockey East goaltender in his first season as the No. 1. He split time with junior Rasmus Tirronen early last season. However, Marotta claimed the unquestioned job and helped his club compete.

Prediction: 7th

New Hampshire

Head Coach: Dick Umile
2012-13 Record: 20-12-7 (13-8-6 Hockey East)

Changes: Gone are the 30 goals contributed from Austin Block and John Henrion. The biggest issue for Umile may be replacing Connor Hardowa and Brett Kostolansky, however. The duo provided strong play on the blue line in front of goaltender Casey DeSmith. It's not uncommon for the Wildcats to rely on on the upperclassmen and last season was no different. Block and Henrion offered more offense than most expected.

The losses obviously hurt. Most importantly, though, the Wildcat seniors were part of a penalty kill that ended the year at 90.1 percent. Defense led the way for UNH a year ago, which represents a bit of a change from the high-powered offenses of seasons' past.

Strengths: Despite the losses, the Wildcats have depth at most positions along with a strong recruiting class. Kevin Goumas leads the offense a senior and has proven one of the league's best playmakers. Replacing goals isn't easy, but having a dynamic winger like Goumas will help open some space.

Dalton Speelman and Grayson Downing, among others, lead a well-rounded forward group. The days of one line carrying the weight for UNH appear to be over. And it's likely a good thing for the Wildcats. Goumas is the unquestioned catalyst for UNH offense. There are plenty of other options, though, to generate chances and goals.

Defensively, Trevor vanRiemsdyk figures to continue his play as one of Hockey East's best defenseman along with sophomore Brett Pesce. Seniors Justin Agosta and captain Eric Knodel are stalwarts as well.

Weaknesses: Positionally, UNH has few holes. The issues are less about bodies and overall talent than they are about players performing as well as they can.

Downing and Speelman have demonstrated an ability to score goals. Additionally, the Wildcats welcome a gifted freshman class to Durham. Finding the rhythm that generates offense will take time, and any prolonged issues could set UNH back in the early portion of the season.

A year ago, the Wildcats wasted a fantastic start to the season. Regression caught up with the team's defense and DeSmith's numbers suffered as a result. Their hot start helped them earn an at-large bid the NCAA Tournament and advance to within a game of the Frozen Four. Still, their road in the NCAA Tournament was harder than it should've been because of their struggles in the second half.

2013-14 Outlook: The Wildcats are an interesting team within the Hockey East landscape. Any finish between No. 1 and No. 6 is a possibility, while anything worse than that would be a devastating finish after last season's recovery. Losing a class full of contributors like UNH did will likely lead to some issues in the early season. Even with great players ready to step in, it's going to take time to find the right mix.

UNH's saving grace may be its overall strength defensively. The Wildcats' top four should be dominant, and a reliable goaltender will make the saves he needs to. If UNH's offense finds it stride, the team could be a serious challenger in Hockey East.

Prediction: 6th

Notre Dame

Head Coach: Jeff Jackson
2012-13 Record: 25-13-3 (17-8-3 CCHA)

Changes: The changes under way in South Bend are well documented. The Fighting Irish enter their first season in Hockey East. With it comes a flurry of new opponents and experiences for a team that is largely unchanged from a year ago. Despite the early departure of leading-scorer Anders Lee, Notre Dame returns a majority of its leading scorers and a defensive corps capable of winning championships.

Lee's departure for professional hockey hardly came as a surprise. Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson's club is more than capable of replacing the dominant forward.

Strengths: As freshmen, Notre Dame's large senior class advanced to the Frozen Four. With 10 of those players remaining, there are few situations this team hasn't experienced. Led by captains Stephen Johns and Jeff Costello, the class is a diverse group of players that make Notre Dame a legitimate threat for championships.

After winning the final CCHA Tournament last season, Notre Dame joins Hockey East with a team expected to compete immediately. Goaltending is in great supply in the league, and the Irish are no exception. Steven Summerhays put together a strong season in 2012-13, finishing with a .919 save percentage. His consistency, aided by a deep and talented defensive group, help the Irish quickly transition to their dynamic forwards.

T.J. Tynan remains one of the nation's premier playmakers, while Costello, Bryan Rust and sophomore Mario Lucia make up a forward group that can quickly turn games into wins for Notre Dame.

Weaknesses: On paper, there aren't many weaknesses for Notre Dame. The move to Hockey East may be the only thing that can slow it down. The CCHA wasn't exactly a weak league, and Notre Dame excelled there. The move comes with new opponents, though, and much of the experience gained on this older team won't help them this year.

Summerhays offered good goaltending a season ago. They'll need more than that to reach their goals this season, though. Hockey East's crop of goaltenders is remarkably deep.

2013-14 Outlook: The Fighting Irish, like others in Hockey East, have the loftiest of expectations. They should compete for a top spot in the league standings with postseason glory a very real possibility. Jackson doesn't seem concerned about his team learning new opponents, especially since the Fighting Irish don't begin league play until early November.

Summerhays' play will be especially important this season. At the forward and defense positions, Notre Dame can match up with anyone. It really took off last year, however, when Summerhays started shutting teams down. Repeating this performance in 2013-14 could likely be the difference between a good year for Notre Dame and a great one.

Prediction: 3rd

Northeastern

Head Coach: Jim Madigan
2012-13 Record: 9-21-4 (5-18-4 Hockey East)

Changes: The Huskies haven't had much success since Jim Madigan took over two summers ago. Many of the players who underachieved in those first two years are now gone. Mike Szmatula, Zach Aston-Reese and Nathan Ferriero (brother of teammate Cody) make up the gifted group of new forwards. On defense, Boston Bruins draft pick Matt Benning lead the three new faces.

There has been a lot of turnover on St. Botolph Street since Greg Cronin left for the NHL in 2012. New faces may be exactly what the Huskies need to reverse some of the problems they've experience.

Strengths: From a raw talent standpoint, Northeastern is in very good shape. The freshmen join Kevin Roy, who led the team in scoring last year (17 goals and 17 assists), to make up a team that should threaten with the puck more than it did a season ago. Roy is among the league and nation's best players. Even with teammates that often looked disinterested last year, Roy enjoyed a strong freshman season. Welcoming a youthful group may help Roy and his returning teammates forget about the disappointment of year ago and move forward. Senior forwards Braden Pimm and Cody Ferriero should build on last year as well.

Weaknesses: The graduation of inconsistent senior Chris Rawlings opens an interesting competition in goal for Northeastern. Bryan Mountain is back for a fifth season after earning some starts last year. Clay Witt also figures to get a look after languishing with injuries and his own inconsistencies early in his career. Derick Roy (brother of Kevin) may also see some minutes.

No matter the direction Madigan goes, goaltending will not be a strength for Northeastern in the early portion of the season. The defensive unit isn't exactly solidified either, so it could be challenging early. Junior defenseman Josh Manson is among the league's best, but none of his partners on the blue line have shown they can avoid the type of mistakes that plagued the Huskies a year ago.

2013-14 Outlook: Despite the fresh start offered by substantial roster turnover, Northeastern will struggle to compete with Hockey East's best consistent. There will be some big wins against top competition, but a bottom-table finish in the likely result for the Huskies. Avoiding another disappointing year will require some special season from players without much of a track record.

Prediction: 11th

Providence

Head Coach: Nate Leaman
2012-13 Record: 17-14-7 (13-8-6 Hockey East)

Changes: The losses of a handful of important contributors will test Nate Leaman in his third year with Providence. The transformation of the program since his arrival is more visible every season. This year, renovations to Schneider Arena should help the upward trend with a more modern building.

On the ice, replacing steady defensemen Myles Harvey and Alex Velischek will take some doing. Neither was brilliant for PC, but sound, veterans on the blue line are invaluable at every level of hockey. Up front, Tim Schaller is gone, leaving the Friars with a big hole. Schaller was among the league's best three-zone centers in his time.

Strengths: Jon Gillies. The sophomore goaltender was among the nation's best last season and enters his second year considered the best college hockey has to offer. His .931 save percentage and 2.08 goals-against average were especially impressive given the number of shots he faced. There isn't much more desirable in this sport than a truly brilliant goaltender, and Gillies is exactly that.

Aside from Gillies, Providence returns eight of its 10 top scorers from last season. Junior Ross Mauermann had another strong season (12 goals and 12 assists) as a sophomore. Junior Derek Army, the team's leading goal scorer (13), is also back and should build on a strong year.

The Friars received major contributions from their freshman class a year ago, most notably Nick Saracino, Calgary Flames first-round pick Mark Jankowski and defensemen John Gilmour. Each of these players is a year older and should help the Friars improve on last year's strong finish.

Weaknesses: PC isn't as deep as the other Hockey East teams fighting for championships. Leaman's coaching and the play of Gillies can only get them so far. The Friars need more from the young players they relied so heavily on last season. Even Gillies was prone to the occasional mistake borne from inexperience a season ago.

There's no questioning the improvements Leaman's made since taking over at Providence two years ago. Whether those positive changes can lead to championships just yet is the question.

2013-14 Outlook: Doubting Leaman's Friars is never a safe bet. However, the Friars are the least talented of the teams expected to compete for championships in Hockey East. A finish in the top half of the league is expected out of PC. Gillies is the ultimate equalizer, though.

Leaman's teams aren't as explosive as the other teams likely to contend for a Hockey East Championship. They have the player most likely to change games, and that could take them as far as anyone. In front of Gillies, Jankowski is an interesting player given the potential Calgary saw in drafting him in the first round in 2012. Leaman wanted him in Providence last year despite being just 17 when he arrived on campus. His seven points and 11 assists last year made for a fine freshman season, but he'll need more than that this season if the Friars plan to have the type of season Leaman thinks they can.

This season also represents an important benchmark in Leaman's career. PC advanced to the Hockey East semifinals in each of the last two seasons. However, they weren't a favorite to do so in either situation. Now, with a more talented roster and the hype surround Leaman's influence rising, the Friars are a marked team. They've made steady improvements the last two seasons and must deal with those expectations as a result.

Prediction: 5th

Vermont

Head Coach: Kevin Sneddon
2012-13 Record: 

Changes: Little has changed on the roster from last season for Vermont. The Catamounts lose some experience, mostly in form of captain Brett Bruneteau, but a majority of last year's team is back.

Having Jake Fallon back for a second season means fewer adjustments for the Michigan transfer. Meanwhile, Connor Brickley looks to get back on the ice and enjoy a truly healthy season for the first time since his freshman year. UVM coach Kevin Sneddon said he's most happy that the club didn't lose any of its players to the professional ranks.

Vermont did, however, suffer a blow recently when Kyle Reynolds was lost for the season with a knee injury suffered during the team's exhibition game.

Strengths: Perhaps the greatest strength for UVM is the sheer number of returning players. Nine of their top 10 players are back, including their top four scorers. The Catamounts have a talented roster and should see improvements at both ends of the ice.

Junior defenseman Michael Paliotta and classmate Nick Luukko lead a defensive corps that impressed a year ago in front of freshman goaltender Brody Hoffman. The unit, as a whole, was unproven last season but steadily raised its game as the year progressed.

In goal, Hoffman provided a major improvement for the Catamounts from two seasons ago. The defensive unit certainly performed better as well, but Hoffman's freshman year has Sneddon excited for his sophomore season.

Weaknesses: The Catamounts have struggled with health issues as much as any team in the league in the last couple seasons, and it happened again with Reynolds. Brickley hasn't played a full season since his sophomore year. Meanwhile, Colin Markison missed most of the first half with an injury last year. No matter the talent level, young teams take major setbacks when players are forced to deal with injury.

Scoring woes have also hurt UVM. Even as the defense improved a year ago, an inability to generate offense and possess the puck meant more and more pressure. Only Chris McCarthy ended last season in double figures in goals (13). This needs to improve for Vermont this year no matter how well they play defensively.

2013-14 Outlook: Vermont was a better team last year than it was two years ago. This progress should continue. Even with another step, it's unlikely that UVM can crack the top half of the league standings.

Sneddon expects some improvement, especially with Brickley and McCarthy desperate for successful years as seniors. The talent on the UVM roster is unquestioned. There just isn't enough of it to take points from the best teams in Hockey East frequently. The Catamounts aren't an easy out. They make it difficult for opponents, and Hoffman showed he can steal games for UVM last season.

He can't do it alone, though. UVM goes through scoring droughts, and defensive lapses are all too common. Again, the Catamounts will be better, but they won't be good enough.

Prediction: 9th

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