This weekend signals the start of a brand new college hockey season. 60 teams from Orono to Anchorage begin a grueling gauntlet of difficult opponents that will see one team claim the title of National Champion in April. Within this sport, few conferences are as brutal as Hockey East. Eleven teams make up the East’s premier conference and all of them have quality NHL talent. With Notre Dame departing for the Big 10, Hockey East changes its playoff format, but the talent remains high caliber and the competition gets tighter. Let’s take a look at the teams and see how the season should shape up. I’m going to group the teams into one of four categories: Caboose, Wild Card, Contender, and Favorite(s). Let’s get started.
Maine Black Bears
The 1990’s and early 2000’s are starting to be a distant memory in Orono. The Black Bears have not made the NCAA Tournament since 2012, won a Hockey East Tournament since 2004, or reached the Boston Garden for the conference’s final weekend since 2012. This is a staple program of the sport that is in rebuilding mode. Maine will win some games this year, as they have the best home ice advantage in the conference at the Alfond. Nolan Vesey and Chase Pearson will headline the offense for the season, along with newcomers Eduards Tralmaks and Jack Quinlivan, and Rob McGovern will backstop the team in net, but Head Coach Red Gendron has a huge task in front of him. Maine will entertain, but they will finish near the bottom this year.
It says something that the least successful program in Hockey East has featured NHL talent, like Jonathan Quick, and stars quality pieces on the current team. There is some real promise for the Minutemen. Greg Carvel has a chance to craft a team in his own image and build the program up. Austin Pleavy, Kurt Keats, and Ivan Chukarov will try to leave UMass with a stronger hockey culture for newcomers Marco Bozzo, Mitchell Chaffee, Oliver Chau, and John Leonard to build on. Ryan Wischow will backstop the team and he’s backed up by promising freshmen Brad Arvantis and Matt Murray. But this year is about Carver trying to lead the Minutemen out of the wilderness and into the competition. He went 2-1 as the coach of last season’s Minutemen at the end of the year and has found success in other coaching gigs. He helped the Anaheim Ducks and Ottawa Senators to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2003 and 2007 respectively and turned his alma mater, St. Lawrence, into a highly competitive squad. UMass will not finish that high on this year’s standings, but they will plant important seeds for the program.
For most of the summer, Merrimack would have deserved a ranking at least one category higher. Sadly, the Warriors fell behind when their starting goaltender, Colin Delia, signed with the Chicago Blackhawks. Without the reigning Goaltending Champion, Merrimack will take a giant step backward. Drew Volger and Craig Pantano are not bad goalies, but Delia was one of the best and very suddenly left. Jared Kolquist, Mathieu Tibber, and Alfred Larsson will thrill the North Andover campus. Newcomers Simon Loof and Evan Bell will give people issues as well. And Lawler Rink will be a hard place for the main contenders to play. But Delia leaving the team is, on paper at least, a death knell for their upset chances. Unless Pantano or Volger succeed spectacularly, this team will take some steps backward.
The Ice Bus is gaining traction, but there is plenty more to go. Adam Huska promises to develop into a top flight goalie. The top line of Leutenov and Ojantekanen will give the conference many bad dreams. And Derek Pratt and David Drake will spearhead a strong defensive unit. The problem is that beyond the top line, UConn will have some trouble scoring regular goals and generating offense. Teams without depth on the forwards will struggle in Hockey East. And UConn is close to breaking through to the next level of competition. It likely won’t be this year unless the young arrivals can give some offensive spark. Brian Rigali, Zac Robbins, and Evan Winsocky will be the players to watch there. The XL Center will field a fun team that will try to push the top teams this year.
New Hampshire Wild Cats
Dick Umile’s final season gives him a perplexing but promising young team. Danny Tirone got lit up like a Christmas tree in the first period of the final game of the year against UMass Lowell, giving up six goals in the period. But he stayed in net and made it his game to play. That earned him respect from the team and coaching staff. He’s back in net to play another year and promises to improve with the program behind him. They forwards lost some punch when Tyler Kelleher and Mattias Cleland graduated. But Jason Salvaggio, Michael McNicholas, Patrick Grasso, and Shane Eiserman return. New Hampshire had plenty of punch last year and that will be no different this year. The question is if their mental focus and defensive ability will be there. With Dylan Chanter taking up the captain’s C, Cameron Marks improving in the offseason, and Max Gildon and Benton Maass joining the blue line, the back end will be improved this year. With Umile’s retirement imminent, UNH will have an emotional push that no one else will have. They’re the most curious unit in this category.
Vermont is the most frustrating of the teams in this category. The first half of last season saw Vermont climb in the rankings and dominate at home. However, the team cooled off badly in the second half of the season, struggling mightily to win on the road. They went 13-6-1 at Gutterson Fieldhouse in Burlington, and went 5-7-4 on the road. They ended the season with 7-0 and 7-4 losses at Conte Forum against Boston College in the Hockey East Quarterfinals. Stefanos Lekkas is back after a hot start to his freshman year. He cooled off, partly because backup goalie Pat Feeley was injured and Lekkas got no rest. Ross Colton made the All-Conference third team as a freshman and promises to improve this year. Anthony Petruzzelli, Travis Blanleil, and Rob Darrar will provide veteran leadership for newcomers Ace Cowans, Max Kaufman, and Brian Kelly. The ultimate questions about this team are pacing and road play. If they can maintain their play into the second half of the year and win outside the Green Mountain State, they’re dangerous. If not, they’ll be a mediocre Hockey East team and be out in the Quarterfinals again.
Northeastern is right on the edge of getting into the contender category. I put them in the Wild Card because they lost two critical scorers from last year and one of their forwards missed much of last season. Zach Aston-Reese was the nation’s leading scorer last season and he’s now with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Sam Kurker and John Stevens also graduated from Huntington Avenue. The returning pieces are excellent, though. Ryan Ruck is among the most experienced goalies in the conference, leading the Huskies to the Conference Title in 2016. He had a down year last year, with a 3.25 GAA, but promises to improve this season and get back to 2016 vintage. Dylan Sikura, Adam Gaudette, and Garret Cockerill are all popular choices for preseason all-conference selections and will pace the team. Nolan Stevens is back to healthy for a full season after missing over half of last year. He still played great hockey, getting 22 points in 17 games. Drew Blackmun, Billy Carrabino, and Zach Solow will give an already loaded offense more punch. The question for this team is whether or not they will improve the defense and whether Ruck can be a top flight goalie again. Both are possible, but until the Huskies show it, I’ll keep them in the Wild Card category.
Boston College Eagles
Of all the teams, Boston College is the most interesting team situation to examine. They were expected to finish sixth after a chaotic offseason last year. Yet Jerry York pulled maybe his greatest coaching job ever and led the Eagles to the conference championship game. They lost to Lowell and fell one game short of making the NCAA tournament, but considering the circumstances, the Eagles had a successful season. Now they are back after a consistent offseason and a few new additions. They’ve reloaded and promise to compete for the title again. Joseph Woll had a great freshman season in BC’s goal and is back for round two. Jesper Mattila, Michael Kim, and Casey Fitzgerald return on the blue line, and Christopher Brown and JD Dudek look to improve their scoring output after a summer of work. The question with BC is how well the freshmen will mesh into the unit. York can coach any unit to a championship, but this is a remarkably young team. There is not a single senior on this roster. Youth and inexperience could do them in. But that’s about it.
Providence College Friars
Jack Leaman led his Friars to a surprising National Championship in 2015 and the Friars have been consistently competitive ever since. Not many pieces remain from that team now. Captain Brian Pinho, Bryan Lemos, Alex Cromwell, Robbie Hennessey and Truman Reed are the only seniors on this team. That championship experience will be counted on to lead a talented group. Last year’s team got a taste of the NCAA tournament, losing 3-0 to Harvard, and they return eight sophomores, namely Kasper Bjorkqvist, Jacob Bryson, and Josh Wilkins. East Providence native Bryan Lemkos is also back and helps a forward line that at times struggled in big games. Hayden Hawkey returns as the starting netminder. He at times led the team singlehandedly last year and with some new players, he will have some more help offensively. Jeff Baum, Ben Mirageas, and Jason O’Neill join the team as freshmen and should help the Friars to a deeper run. The questions remain about how the team will score goals in big games. They were shut out and only got 18 shots against the Crimson in the Providence Regional last year. Leaman is a championship coach and Hawkey is a top goalie. But the young forwards will need to score for the Friars to have a shot at the crown this year.
This ranking is almost entirely due to the influence of one man: Head Coach Norm Bazin. The Lowell alum has transformed his alma mater from a struggling fringe team into a regular contender. Lowell has been to five consecutive Hockey East championship games and won three, including last year’s. They were in prime position to make the program’s second trip to the Frozen Four and contend for their first National Championship. Unfortunately, Cal Petersen and Anders Bjork shattered Lowell’s dreams with a stunning upset in the Northeast Regional Final. Since then, the Riverhawks have changed rather dramatically. Two-thirds of the top line from last year’s team are now in the pros. CJ Smith joined the Buffalo Sabers and Joe Gambardella signed with the Edmonton Oilers.
Only John Edwardh is left. He looks to spearhead the offense this year. He has help. Returning sophomores Kenny Hausinger, Ryan Lohin, and Colin O’Neil will take a bigger role in the offense and Ryan Dmowski and Jake Kamrass will bring veteran guile and matured skill. The blue line is strong, featuring senior captain Tyler Mueller, assistant captain Chris Forney, and Tommy Panico return to lead a tough unit that can skate and score. The new players are promising too. Winnipeg Jets draft pick Croix Evingson brings size and strength at 6’5″, Anthony Baxter will help the blue line unit with hard hits and strong stick work, and Connor Sodergren will learn the tricks of the college game from the older forwards. Tyler Wall returns after his stellar freshman season and promises to be among the top goalies in the conference again.
Lowell finished second in the conference’s Coaches Poll and got the most first place votes. Bazin has earned the respect of every coach and college fan in the country. This will be one of his toughest coaching jobs. Lowell is recovering from a shocking end to one of the best seasons in program history and may well take a slight step back. The Tsongas Center will still be a hard place to play and the Riverhawks will be a hard opponent to play.
Boston University Terriers
The Terriers were voted first place in the Hockey East Coaches and Media polls and are the second-ranked team in the country behind the reigning National Champion Denver Pioneers. They return their starting goaltender in Dallas Star’s first-round draft pick Jake Oettinger. They return major offensive pieces in Bobo Carpenter, Jordan Greenway, and Patrick Harper. They bring back defensive stalwarts in John MacLeod, Brandon Hickey, and Dante Fabbro. And the Terriers reloaded in a big way. Brady Tkachuk and Shane Bowers bring size and strength to the forward lines, Jake Witkowski, Hank Crone, and Logan Cockerill bring speed and wicked shooting, and Cam Crotty, David Farrance, and Kasper Kotkansalo give more physical prowess on the blue line. David Quinn has acknowledged that this is his most talented team. BU is not only a top team in Hockey East but a top team in the nation that will contend for a national championship. Only time will tell if they can shake the mantle of college hockey’s “Almost Champions”. On paper, though, BU is the best team in the conference and is the favorite to win the regular season crown and the tournament.
Here’s a numbered ranking of how exactly I’d predict the teams finishing up in the regular season standings.