October 10, 2013 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Hockey East Watch List

Like the Rest of College Hockey, It's a Season of Change

by Nick Canelas/CHN Reporter

BU's Matt Grzelcyk is a player to watch in Hockey East this season.

BU's Matt Grzelcyk is a player to watch in Hockey East this season.

Hockey East's 30th season will be a year of many firsts.

It will be the first time a team not named Boston College, Boston University, New Hampshire, Providence or Maine comes in as the defending conference champion; the first time a team outside of New England is a member of the conference; the first time under a new 11-team postseason format – at least until Connecticut changes that next year; and the first time the legendary Jack Parker isn't behind the Terriers' bench since the league's founding.

Last season, Massachusetts-Lowell took home its first Hockey East Regular Season and Tournament title on its way to the program's first Frozen Four appearance before falling to eventual national champion Yale, 3-2, in the semifinal round.

Now the River Hawks come into this season with their sights set on a repeat, and even greater goals, but will have another set of obstacles to overcome, including Hockey East newcomer Notre Dame. The Irish join Hockey East this year as defending champions of the defunct CCHA and present a new set of changes throughout the conference in terms of its strength, travel situations and playoff formatting.

Hockey East's 30th season may have a different look to it from most years, but it still boasts that parity within the league and its unexpected nature. With UMass-Lowell and Boston College tied atop the preseason coaches poll and another national power in Notre Dame added to the mix, it could be another one of those years in the conference.

5 Things to Watch

Lowell goes for repeat

It took the River Hawks 29 years as a founding member of Hockey East to finally clinch its first conference title, and now Norm Bazin's team comes into this season trying to make that its wait for a second title shorter. UML comes into 2013-14 with the most first-place votes in the preseason poll despite being tied in the top spot. To many, it is one of the favorites to win the program's first national championship, and with good reason.

The River Hawks return a majority of their key contributors to last season's squad, including goaltender Connor Hellebuyck. As a freshman last season, Hellebuyck led all Hockey East goalies in goals against average (1.37), save percentage (.952) and win percentage (.870) and helped key UML's turnaround after a 4-7-1 start. Forwards Joseph Pendenza and Scott Wilson (38 points each) also come back after leading the River Hawks in scoring last season and could very well establish themselves as two of the premier scoring threats in the conference.

The key to UML's success this season, of course, is the presence of Bazin. Since taking over for Blaise MacDonald two seasons ago, Bazin has turned the River Hawks from Hockey East bottom-dwellers to a national power and prohibitive conference favorite. He's led the program to consecutive NCAA Tournament runs, but this year may be the team's best chance at a title yet.

David Quinn era begins

Boston University endured something this offseason that it hasn't gone through in 40 years: a coaching change. Former Terriers player, associate head coach and Colorado Avalanche assistant David Quinn takes over as the 11th coach in program history with Parker's retirement at the end of last season.

Quinn certainly has some big shoes to fill, however. Parker led the Terriers to nearly 900 wins, 11 conference tournament championships — seven in Hockey East — and three national championships.

Expectations aren't too high on the outside for BU, which is picked sixth in the preseason poll, but Quinn will have enough young talent coming back from last year's team that reached the Hockey East title game to make this year's team as competitive as any other. The return of Garrett Noonan, who flirted with the idea of signing with the Nashville Predators, was an important decision for the Terriers. The senior captain leads a young BU defense.

Gendron takes over at Maine

Quinn isn't the only new coach to take over a major Hockey East program. Dennis “Red” Gendron replaces Tim Whitehead, who was released from his contract in the offseason, at Maine in his first head coaching job after a stint as an assistant with the Black Bears under Shawn Walsh, and the last two years with Yale, including last year's national championship squad.

Maine was led by Whitehead for the past 12 years and led the program to a pair of national championship game appearances in his time. However, the latter half of his time as coach was not as successful. The Black Bears had three losing seasons in the past six years, including last season's 11-19-8 mark that led to an eighth-place finish.

Not much more is expected a out a young Maine team that is projected to finished at No. 8 in the conference for the second straight year. The Black Bears are loaded with underclassmen, including leading scorer Devin Shore, and have just five seniors led by goaltender Martin Ouellette, on their roster. So this may certainly look like a team in transition early on.

Notre Dame makes Hockey East debut

For the first time in its history, Hockey East will have a school outside of New England in its conference, and the program hails all the way from South Bend, Ind. The Irish may be entering a new league, but the expectations are just as high. Notre Dame is tied for third with New Hampshire in the preseason poll coming off a CCHA Tournament championship in the league's final season before being eliminated by St. Cloud State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

The Irish have plenty of talent returning from last year's team and should fit right in among Hockey East's elite, especially with traditional football rival Boston College. They play on the road twice this season, including at Frozen Fenway on Jan. 4. Notre Dame brings back four of its top five scorers from last season as well as starting goaltender Steven Summerhays, who finished last season with a 2.01 goals against average and .919 save percentage in 36 appearances.

Arguably the biggest change the Irish bring to Hockey East is the travel schedule. The Irish don't have any of the traditional home-and-home weekend series that Hockey East teams typically have on their slate due to obvious travel arrangements. It could be interesting to see what kind of impact that has on Notre Dame as well as other teams throughout the season.

New playoff system

Another change the addition of the Irish brought to Hockey East comes in the form of a new playoff format. For this season, all 11 teams will qualify for the postseason with the top five teams earning first-round byes. The teams in the bottom six will have a one-game playoff to set up the field of eight teams for a best-of-three quarterfinal series.

While its impact may not be immediately noticeable early in the season, come February it could very well change the way teams approach the final month of the season. For the top-tier teams, it'll be about securing that first-round bye and avoiding a dangerous winner-take-all scenario. UML, BC, BU, Providence, Notre Dame and UNH figure to be those five teams.

What may be more intriguing is what effect this system has on some of the annual bottom-dwellers, such as Massachusetts and Northeastern, the two teams that missed last year's playoffs under the old eight-team system. Coaches will have more time to experiment and develop their teams and prepare them for the postseason over a gradual process rather than having to battle until the final weekend just to make it, as was the case for Maine last season. This system could serve especially beneficial to some of those younger teams.

5 Players to Watch

Jon Gillies, Sophomore, Goaltender, Providence ... It should be interesting to see what Jon Gillies has planned for an encore performance after a stellar freshman campaign last season. Gillies essentially led the Friars to within one win of the Hockey East regular season title after a seventh-place finish the year before and has them primed to make another conference tournament run this season. He fell second to Connor Hellebuyck is nearly every statistical category last season. He finished last season with a 17-12-6 record with a 2.08 goals against average, .931 save percentage and five shutouts while playing in 11 more games than Hellebuyck and having a younger, less talented team in front of him.

Matt Grzelcyk, Sophomore, Defenseman, Boston University ... Grzelcyk made quite the first impression to start off his college hockey career, leading all Terriers defensemen in points (23), assists (13) and plus/minus (plus-12) on his way to a spot on the Hockey East All-Rookie Team. With defensemen Sean Escobedo and Ryan Ruikka graduated, Grzelcyk will likely be called upon to lead a relatively young defensive corps. His skating ability and his speed and skill with the puck can change the pace of the game on the offensive end, and although he's a little undersized at a listed 5-foot-9, 175 pounds, can still make plays defensively.

Joseph Pendenza, Senior, Forward, Massachusetts-Lowell ... Pendenza was tied for the River Hawks' team lead in points (38) last season and was a significant contributor to their trip to the Frozen Four last season. He established himself as a strong two-way player for UMass Lowell in a breakthrough 2012-13 season and has continued to progress with each season. Pendenza was equally productive during the postseason, and if the River Hawks hope to take that next step forward and play for a national championship, he'll not only be called upon to replicate that success, but possibly be among the best in Hockey East.

Bill Arnold, Senior, Forward, Boston College ... Johnny Gaudreau seems like the obvious choice out of all BC players to make this list, but that probably goes without saying at this point. Bill Arnold may fly a little more under the radar, but he could be equally pivotal to the Eagles' success this season. Outside of Gaudreau, Arnold is BC's leading scorer returning from last season with both Pat Mullane and Steven Whitney gone, and his role will be more significant on the Eagles' potential top line. He finished last season with 35 points on 17 goals and 18 assists and notched a goal and assist in the Hockey East Tournament.

Connor Toomey, Junior, Forward, Merrimack ... If Merrimack wants to succeed this season, it's going to need production from more than just Mike Collins this season. The Warriors will need some unlikely sources, most notably Connor Toomey, to come in and contribute to the threat. Toomey was fourth on the team in scoring as a sophomore last season with 17 points on five goals and 12 assists, which was just behind Collins, Jordan Heywood (21 points) and Shawn Bates (18). If he could put together a breakthrough 2013-14 season it could potentially add more balanced scoring and take the load off of Collins' shoulders.

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