College Hockey’s most enigmatic conference opens play this weekend. Last season provided a perplexing conclusion in the standings, a fun tournament, three NCAA Tournament teams, and some of the sports’ top talent. Let’s preview the new season for the 11 New England teams competing for the Lou Lamoriello Trophy.
11. Merrimack College Warriors
No school had a harder offseason than Merrimack. The Warriors finished in 10th place before landing a major upset over the UMass Lowell Riverhawks in the opening round of the playoffs. Then, Merrimack pushed Boston College to overtime twice but lost both games at Conte Forum. Despite the strong playoff showing, Mark Dennehy was told the night of the last BC game that he would not be back for another year. In addition, seven seniors graduated.
Fortunately, Scott Borek has head coaching experience from his days at Lake State and worked under Dick Umile and Nate Leaman as a Hockey East assistant coach. He knows the conference and can lead a team to success. Merrimack also has two talented goaltenders in Drew Vogler and Craig Pantano, both of whom can anchor the team and steal games. The questions come with the skaters and how Ryan Carle, Ryan Cook, and Jonathan Kovacevic develop on the blue line, along with Derek Petti and Tyler Irvine up front. Borek has to turn around a losing culture and might be fighting an uphill battle his first year.
10. University of Connecticut Huskies
Mike Cavanaugh’s team had a breakthrough season last year. They finished fifth in Hockey East and pushed BU to the limit in their first second-round playoff series since joining the conference in 2014. Unfortunately, Max Letunov departed after last season and UConn has to re-work the offense and deal with one of the craziest travel schedules in all of college hockey. UConn is going to Belfast, Northern Ireland, for the Friendship Four over Thanksgiving. Then they travel to Las Vegas for the Ice Vegas Invitational over New Year’s.
Max Kalter and Benjamin Freeman anchor the forward corps and welcome new arrivals Johnny Evans and Carter Trumbull to the front unit. Miles Gendron, Adam Karashik and Philip Nyberg pace the blue line. All Husky skaters have plenty of room for growth and need to develop to fill Letunov’s absence. Fortunately, Adam Huska returns to the UConn net and brings size and mobility to the goaltending spot. He will provide a bedrock to the Huskies. It does appear they will take a step back, but they can surprise people this year.
9. University of Vermont Catamounts
Kevin Sneddon’s Catamounts struggled mightily in the first half of the last season. Stefanos Lekkas helped push Vermont’s season around, and the Catamounts pushed the Minutemen to a scintillating playoff series. Leading scorer Ross Colton departed for the Tampa Bay Lightning organization, but Liam Coughlin and Alex Esposito return with a potential for an improved season in the Gut. Jake Massie and Matt O’Donnell anchor the blue line and Lekkas has proved capable of stealing games in the past. The problem? Kevin Sneddon’s scoring has to put more pressure on opponents to make noise and avoid falling out of the Hockey East playoffs in the revamped format.
8. University of New Hampshire Wildcats
Last season was a strange one for UNH. The Wildcats opened up 5-1 before stumbling into last place and seeing Dick Umile off with another great battle with the Maine Black Bears. Mike Souza takes the helm in Durham and leads an intriguing unit onto Lake Whit’s fabled ice. Max Gildon and Benton Maas are the two most notable stars on the blue line and overall. Gildon played on the US’s World Junior Showcase team and promises to be one of the conference’s best blueliners. Ara Nazarian and Marcus Vela provide stability on the forward unit and Charlie Kelleher and Kohei Sato have gobs of untapped potential. Those two, along with newcomers Angus Crookshank and Eric Esposito, lead a forward unit with plenty of opportunities to impress and entertain. The question of how to succeed Danny Tirone in net falls to Mike Robinson, Joe Lazzaro, and Ty Taylor to sort out with Robinson being the likely starter to open the year. UNH has questions to answer everywhere except their special teams and blue line, which under energetic new leadership, should be enough to keep UNH in virtually every game they play this season.
7. University of Massachusetts-Lowell Riverhawks
Lowell reached five consecutive Hockey East Championship games from 2013-2017, winning three of them. Their run of dominance came to an end last year with a .500 season and an upset to nearby rival Merrimack. This year, Norm Bazin’s squad is something of a wild card. Christoffer Hernberg had a strong season in net while Tyler Wall hit a painful sophomore slump between the pipes. If Lowell can sort out their net-minding situation, Hockey East has to worry about Connor Wilson, Kenny Hausinger, and Ryan Lohin from the last championship team. Mattias Goransson anchors a young blue line with skilled freshman potential like Cale List, Nolan Sawchuk, and Jon McDonald. Norm Bazin has something to work with if his young blue line can develop and if the goaltending situation sorts itself out.
6. University of Maine Black Bears
Jeremy Swayman’s arrival to the Alfond Arena helped the Black Bears to their first winning season since 2014 and their first playoff series win since 2012. Swayman returns for another year in Maine’s net and will be the last line of defense behind an experienced blue line. Keith Muelhbauer and Rob Michel captain the team with returners Alexis Binner and Brady Keeper poised for strong sophomore campaigns. Patrick Holway is departing from Orono, but Red Gendron still has plenty of depth up to work with. His scoring potential is also strong. Mitchell Fosseir and Chase Pearson conduct themselves with wisdom beyond their years as college students and Brendan Robbins and Sam Renneker add to the veteran guile of the forwards.
New arrivals Edward Lindelow and Jacob Schmidt-Svejstrup might struggle to crack the lineup, but still, provide some young talent for Red Gendron’s team to work with. Maine is poised to return to top contention in Hockey East again.
5. Northeastern University Huskies
2018 was a magical year on St. Botolph Street. Jim Madigan’s Huskies rode the best scoring line and one of the best power plays to their first Beanpot Title in 30 years, and second Hockey East Semi-Finals and NCAA Tournament in three years. Unfortunately, the entire top line is now playing on NHL rosters and the Huskies have to reorganize. Jerry Keefe will work the special teams into form again and make the most of Zach Solow and Grant Jozefek now that they can’t hide behind Gaudette, Sikura, and Stevens. John Picking and Austin Goldstein also have big opportunities to score more up front.
On the blue line, Jim Madigan returns All-American Jeremy Davies who still has potential to improve on a magnificent campaign from the year prior. He wants to make the World Junior team and help lead the Huskies back to the Beanpot and NCAA Tournament. Also returning is Eberly Award winner goaltender Cayden Primeau, who was forced into the starting job after Ryan Ruck was concussed and performed well. He has more room to grow and promises to contend for the Richter Award. Northeastern has turned an important corner and has the potential to become a mainstay atop the Hockey East Standings this year.
4. University of Massachusetts Minutemen
Amherst was a long time College Hockey ghost town. Two years ago, Greg Carvel arrived at the Mullins Center. Last year, the playoffs and loud, boisterous crowds returned to Amherst. This season, the Minutemen are poised to take another step up the standings. Cale Makar and Mario Ferraro anchor a skilled blue line and are joined by new arrivals Ty Farmer and Marc Del Gaizo. All can move the puck, shoot, and play quality defense. John Leonard leads the forwards and is joined by Brett Boeing, Niko Hildenbrand, transfer arrival Jacob Pritchard, and Mitchell Chaffee. UMass has produced good players, but now has a surplus of talented players.
The only spot to sort out is the goaltending job. Matt Murray is the likely starter but Brad Arvanitis and Filip Lindberg will get looks for the starting job. Carvel’s challenge is to get his team to live up to expectations, something new for the Minutemen.
3. Boston College Eagles
The most successful Hockey East program has been confusing for the last two years. In Hockey East play, the Eagles have won at least a share of the Hockey East regular-season crown and reached the TD Garden for the conference tournament. Outside of conference play, the Eagles have struggled. They haven’t won a non-conference game since beating Arizona State in December of 2016. As a result, the Eagles have missed the last two NCAA Tournaments.
This year’s vintage of Eagles has enough talent that they should not struggle as much out of conference. Logan Hutsko was dynamic in his freshman year and promises to be even better this year. Christopher Brown, JD Dudek, and Julius Mattila have chemistry built through battles that is waiting to result in championships. Casey Fitzgerald, Michael Kim, and Luke McInnis anchor a veteran blue line that plays responsibly and makes opponents pay. Joseph Woll is a game stealing and World Junior caliber goaltender. Jerry York and the BC Eagles have no excuses for not making a deep postseason run this season.
2. Providence College Friars
The Friars reached the Hockey East Semi-Finals for the first time since 2001 and the NCAA Tournament for the fifth straight season. However, Providence struggled for offense the last three games, with only two goals between games against BU, Clarkson, and Notre Dame. The only major loss from last year’s team that was a game and a goal short of the Frozen Four was Captain Brian Pinho, the last remaining big piece of the Friar’s 2015 National Championship squad.
Returning are NHL draft picks Kasper Bjorkqvist and Brandon Duhaime up front. They’re joined by the exciting skill of first-round pick Jay O’Brien and Jack Dugan. Both are highly skilled skaters and shooters who help counter Providence’s biggest problem from last season: an at times absent offense. And still, the Friars feature a skilled defense. Hayden Hawkey sports the best name in the sport and talent befitting it. He almost lifted the Friars to the Frozen Four and has another year under his belt to contend for the Richter. Ben Mirageas, Vincent Desharnais, and Spenser Young give him defensive help while also helping the power play and special teams play. Nate Leaman’s unit is one of the best in the country and should challenge for a Frozen Four spot this year.
1. Boston University Terriers
The reigning conference tournament champions enter the new season with high expectations and important questions to answer. Brandon Hickey, Jordan Greenway, Drew Melanson, Brady Tkachuk, Chase Phelps, Nikolas Olsson, and John MacLeod all departed Commonwealth Avenue in the summer. More notably than the players, David Quinn left to become the New York Ranger’s new head coach. Despite the remarkable transition of players and program face, there is still plenty of reason to be optimistic. Albie O’Connell ascends to the head coaching spot to coach a team he worked to recruit to Agganis Arena as Quinn’s primary assistant.
O’Connell returns big pieces of his Hockey East team, starting with Jake Oettinger. The junior alternate captain brings a first-round draft pick reputation and big game potential with impressive performances in the last two Beanpot, Hockey East, and NCAA Tournaments. He gets helped on the blue line by Dante Fabbro, Chad Krys, and Kasper Kotkansalo. All can shoot, defend, and skate with the best of the conference. Patrick Harper was knocked out of the rotation last year with injury and returns with the potential for significant offensive punch. Logan Cockerill and captain Bono Carpenter bring experience and will help guide newcomers Jake Wise, Joel Farabee, and Jack DeBoer through the ropes of the sport. BU features starring talent, experienced leaders, a talented goaltender, and a head coach with a decorated assistant career with a chance to become the face of a blue blood program. BU has no excuses for not making another run at championships.