October 3, 2017 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Hockey East Things to Watch, 2017-18

by Mike McMahon/Staff Writer (@MikeMcMahonCHN)

From teams up on the upswing to programs typically at the top potentially suffering some growing pains with new faces, there are plenty of storylines in Hockey East this season.

5 Things to Watch

How new will "New Mass" look?

There's a saying around the UMass program heading into the 2017 season. The Minutemen are calling themselves "New Mass," and with good reason. UMass brings in 15 newcomers, which is actually more players than the Minutemen have returning (13).

Sure, you can't teach an old dog new tricks. Luckily for head coach Greg Carvel, this is a completely different dog.

But the question remains how "new" this UMass team can be. With so many fresh faces, chemistry could be hard to find and freshmen historically are inconsistent. The talent is there for UMass to have the biggest turnaround in the country from last season to this one, but it remains to be seen whether or not this group can come together with so many new faces.

Regardless, Carvel is building a foundation for the future of the program, and the future starts now.

Dick Umile's Swan Song

The last time UNH played a hockey game without Dick Umile as its head coach, George H.W. Bush was just one year into his only term as President and James "Buster" Douglas had just knocked out Mike Tyson to become the Heavyweight Champion of the World.

This season will be Umile's last behind the Wildcat bench, with Mike Souza waiting in the wings to take over the program next season. For a team that enjoyed so much success under his leadership, can the Wildcats return to glory in his last season?

It will be a tough hill to climb, overcoming the losses of Tyler Kelleher and Matias Cleland. But the Wildcats are looking to pick up from last season's playoff success, where it beat Merrimack in the first round of the Hockey East playoffs, on the road, and then nearly clipped Lowell in the quarterfinals after winning Game 1.

Can BC Put it Together?

Boston College hasn't finished below sixth place since Jerry York's first season on Chestnut Hill in 1994. With so many early NHL signings depleting the Eagles' offense, the Hockey East Writers and Broadcast have them pegged fifth and the Hockey East coaches have BC picked fourth. While that's obviously about the sixth-place slot, it's flirting dangerously close with that line, and it's not a position BC typically finds itself in.

There's still a groundswell of young talent at BC — Logan Hutsko and Jacob Tortora are top-tier forwards — but relying on freshmen can be tricky. BC could be a team that goes on a tear in the second half, but how long will it take to come together?

Expansion on the Tip of Their Tongues

As long as Hockey East has 11 teams, expansion will be a topic of conversation. There isn't any program that seems to be on the verge of adding hockey that also falls within Hockey East's geographical footprint, but with the NHL sponsoring feasibility studies at five schools, the possibility remains that a big program in the northeast could look to start a program, and Hockey East is in a position to snatch them up.

Notre Dame's exit couldn't have come at a better time, you could argue. Hockey East is now in a position to pick and choose who it wants to add as a 12th member, and for now, the league can easily run as an 11-team conference.

An odd number of teams isn't perfect — especially when it comes to playoffs — but the tradeoff should be worth it.

Will the Olympics Affect Playoff Races?

With the NHL backing out of the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, there's the possibility that the Hockey East playoff race could be affected by players going overseas for a few weeks in February.

BU's Jordan Greenway tops the list of potential Olympic players from Hockey East. He has NHL size and is coming off his best collegiate season last year. Northeastern could be affected if Adam Gaudette makes Team USA's roster and there are several other NHL picks who could get picked, including Casey Fitzgerald (BC) and Brian Pinho (Providence).

5 Players to Watch

Patrick Harper, Soph., Boston University

It's hard to believe that a 37-point freshman season could get lost in the shuffle, but that was the case for Harper last season at BU. Despite finishing as the team's second-leading scorer, much of the buzz was around seventh-overall pick Clayton Keller. 

Harper, despite only being a sophomore, is going to be a go-to scorer for the Terriers this season. He returns with plenty of experience and should be in contention for First Team All-Hockey East come the end of the year.

Sami Tavernier, Soph., Merrimack

At Merrimack's Christmas break, Tavernier had one goal and three assists. However, when the calendar turned to January, Tavernier seemed to turn a page as well and the Finnish freshman was a point-per-game scorer in the second half of the season.

Tavernier led the Warriors with 104 shots on goal and he only shot 7.7 percent. If he continues to play with Brett Seney, Tavernier could be in line for a 30-point season.

Erik Foley, Jr., Providence

Like Greenway, Foley could be in position for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. After a 19-point freshman campaign, Foley showed why he was a third-round pick of the Winnipeg Jets last season, more than doubling his goal total (15) and finishing with 34 points. 

Foley was terrific down the stretch, scoring 15 points (7 goals, 8 assists) in his final 10 regular-season games. However, he was held scoreless in three playoff games, which were all losses for the Friars (they were shutout twice).

Nolan Stevens, Sr., Northeastern

There might not be a more under-the-radar player in Hockey East than Nolan Stevens. When people look at Northeastern's potent offense, they often bring up Dylan Sikura and Adam Gaudette, with good reason. But Stevens has been a vital member of the Huskies and comes into his senior season healthy after an injury-played junior year.

Remember, Stevens scored 42 points (20 goals, 22 assists) as a sophomore. Last season, he missed 21 games from late-October through early-February, but when he returned, scored seven goals and added 10 assists in 11 games.

Cale Makar, Fr., Massachusetts

Most NHL Draft pundits had Makar as a late first-round pick entering last season. But after 75 points in the AJHL as an 18-year-old from the blue line, Makar shot up draft boards and was selected fourth overall by the Colorado Avalanche. 

In two seasons with Brooks, Makar had a line of 35 goals and 100 assists (135 points) in 111 games. Those would be impressive numbers for a forward, let alone a defenseman who isn't an overager. 

There's no question that Makar is the centerpiece for Greg Carvel's rebuild of the UMass program. It's just a matter of how many seasons they can keep him on the Amherst campus.

5 Bold Predictions for 2017-18

UMass Lowell will finish in the top-three

Maybe this isn't "bold," but let's work our way into things. It doesn't seem to matter how many players UMass Lowell graduates or sees sign in the NHL, the River Hawks find a way to keep themselves among the upper-echelon of teams in Hockey East.

The reason for that is head coach Norm Bazin. Call it his "system," call it whatever you want. What Bazin does works. Lowell recruits players that fit their system and culture, and it has cultivated a culture of consistent winning.

Cale Makar will NOT be one and done at UMass

There were plenty of experts who never thought Makar would make it to the UMass campus to begin with. Now, he's there and has immersed himself in the team's culture. He's a big part of it.

Carvel has to find a sweet spot with Makar. If he blows up the league and scores 40 points as a freshman defenseman, he's good as gone, especially with a weak Colorado team that could use him. But if he believes he could use more seasoning prior to entering the NHL, I believe he'll stay. He's already proven that he doesn't care what "experts" think. Expect his name to come up in CHL rumors, because our friends north of the border seem to love stiring them up, but after talking to Makar at media day, he's 100 percent on board with the Minutemen.

So while I don't believe he'll be one and done, it's very likely he's two and through.

BC will have to play during first-round weekend

By BC standards, this year's roster could have a bumpy road. Much of the success will be dependent on Joseph Woll. I'm confident the Eagles will figure things out, but I question if there will be struggles out of the gate. Then, after getting things going into December, the Eagles have the potential to be without some players during the World Juniors (2 games) and then could be without more players (Fitzgerald?) during the Olympics.

BC also has a tough schedule to start the year, hosting much improved Wisconsin and Quinnipiac teams as well as Denver and Harvard in the first two months. At the same time, the Eagles will be on the road at Providence (twice), St. Cloud and Northeastern as well as a two-game trip to Vermont. Nine of BC's first 15 games will be on the road. Then, as the schedule turns to December, the Eagles will have two with BU and they'll host Northeastern.

The schedule is a little friendlier in January and February, which is when this team could really hit its stride, but will they be in a hole once we hit the new year?

Adam Huska will be an All-Hockey East goalie

Huska has a proven track record in the USHL and now that it appears he's the go-to starter, he'll settle into a groove and be one of the top goalies in the league alongside fellow sophomore Jake Oettinger (BU).

Dylan Sikura will be Northeastern's second Hobey Hat Trick finalist in as many years

Last year it was Zach Aston-Reese, and this year it will be Dylan Sikura.

Sikura is coming off a junior campaign where he scored 21 goals and added 36 assists for 57 points. Aston-Reese, who is almost the same size, scored 43 points as a junior (14 goals, 29 assists) before exploding last season for 31 goals and 32 assists as a senior.

Sikura will score, a lot, and after nearly clipping the 60-point mark last season, it's entirely possible he eclipses that as a senior. Granted it's an exhibition game, but he looked to pick up where he left off over the weekend, scoring two goals and adding two assists in Northeastern's 9-1 route of P.E.I. Sikura was also said to be one of the best players at Chicago Blackhawks development camp over the summer.

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