October 4, 2012 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Challenges Ahead

Maine Looks to Re-Tool After Losing Key Players

by Jillian Saftel/CHN Reporter

It’s no secret Maine has big skates to fill, but those skates don’t just belong to Spencer Abbott and Brian Flynn. Maine’s 2011-12 season fulfilled expectations that hadn’t been met in four years, and now the Black Bears enter a new season with the pressure that comes following an appearance in the NCAA Tournament.

The problem with that pressure is Maine isn’t returning to the ice with the same dynamic lineup that left the Black Bears one of the nation’s top 16 college hockey teams when the regular season came to a close. Last season’s team included the highest-scoring line in NCAA Division I men’s hockey, and now two-thirds of that line have graduated.

Without Spencer Abbott and Brian Flynn, the lone man left of Maine’s first line is 2012-2013 co-captain and last year’s leading goal-scorer Joey Diamond, but Maine coach Tim Whitehead isn’t worried about Diamond continuing to succeed without Abbott and Flynn, even if it means fewer goals.

"They had a great year," Whitehead said of his top line, "but, having said that, Joey brings a lot of other things besides just putting up points. I mean, he was a top goal scorer on our team but again, he set up a lot of goals and is such a fierce competitor, won so many loose pucks, so he can contribute in a lot of ways. It remains to be seen if we're going to have a dynamic first line the way we had for the past two years, but I'm not worried about Joey."

Abbott and Flynn both signed professional contracts, Abbott with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Flynn with the Buffalo Sabres. On the surface, the loss of these two top scorers is Maine’s biggest hurdle. After all, Abbott closed the season as the nation's leading scorer, while Flynn wasn’t far behind tied for 10th. But Maine’s losses go far deeper than top scorers, including an early departure from Matt Mangene and the loss of a leader and defensive standout in former captain Will O’Neill.

Mangene, a junior last year, signed with the Philadelphia Flyers in April and left Maine without one of their most versatile players. With 16 goals and 18 assists last season, Mangene may not have put up the numbers of Abbott or Flynn, but his speed made him an asset.

According to Whitehead, Maine will feel the loss of O’Neill, who signed with Winnipeg following his senior season, on and off the ice. He finished the season with 33 points, sixth among defensemen in the country.

"He's a 100-point defenseman, that's very unusual in college hockey these days. And he was a great leader too, it wasn't just his offensive production. He was a great two-way guy, an excellent penalty killer, and a guy that you want on the ice in the last 30 seconds of the game even if you're ahead, he would protect it," Whitehead said. "So yes, he's hard to replace. As coaches often say, it's got to be a group effort and that's definitely the case with us this year."

It’s clear Maine isn’t the same team they were last year, and any success they see this year won’t come the same way it did a season ago. However, Whitehead said, with junior goaltender Dan Sullivan, and two other goaltenders ready to challenge for time, he’s the most confident he’s been in Maine’s goaltending since the 2007-2008 season and thinks they’ll allow his team to win games.

"Danny did a tremendous job of improving and focusing on developing his game, and he's our No. 1 guy," Whitehead said of Sullivan, who finished the 2011-2012 season 22-11-3 with a .909 save percentage and 2.59 goals against average. Sullivan also made a career-high 39 saves in Maine’s Hockey East Championship loss eventual NCAA champion Boston College.

"Having said that, Martin Oullette came back in tremendous shape," Whitehead said "He's definitely going to challenge Sulliivan, and Matt Morris is a great goaltender coming in, so it's a good feeling to have three legitimate guys between the pipes."

Not to be left out from the equation are a new crop of freshman donning Black Bears jerseys ready to make an impact. Among those newcomers are forward Devin Shore and defender Ben Hutton, two players Whitehead compared to Abbott and Flynn, respectively.

Both Shore and Hutton were drafted this summer, Shore a second-round pick to the Dallas Stars and Hutton to the Vancouver Canucks in the fifth round, and Whitehead said he’s excited to be working with such elite young players.

“Those are two guys that I would expect right away to contribute quite a bit,” Whitehead said. “They remind me a bit of last year's seniors, when they came in they needed them to help out and they did, so I'm looking forward to them."

Freshman left wing Will Merchant should make an impact as well. Draft eligible next summer, Merchant should add some depth to the Maine lineup as he catches up to the college game.

Regardless of who steps up for Maine this season, it’s almost certain big numbers will come from several sources rather than a single line. Even with the changes rocking the Black Bears' lineup, Whitehead isn’t letting up on expectations. On the contrary, he’s setting his sights higher.

"Some of us were spoiled in the 2000s when we had those three Frozen Fours in four years. You get used to that and you expect it," Whitehead said. "We want to get back and do more damage this year."

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