Looking back, 2017-18 was a strange season for the New Hampshire Wildcats. The team started 5-1 over the first three weeks and looked poised for a great finish to Dick Umile’s legendary career. Unfortunately, after October, the Wildcats went 5-20-5, finished in last place in Hockey East, and were eliminated in two tightly competitive games against longtime rival Maine in Orono. After that disappointing finish, Umile walked into the sunset after 28 seasons behind the Wildcat’s bench, long time goalie Danny Tirone graduated, and the Wildcats were left with plenty of questions. However, they appear to have the right man to lead them forward.
Mike Souza was a star player for New Hampshire from 1996 until 2000 when he served as captain. He was a major piece of possibly the most beloved team in UNH’s history, the 1999 team that lost to Maine in the National Championship Game. He played professional hockey then jumped into coaching in 2011 at Brown, where he helped the Bears to the ECAC Title Game in 2013. He moved to UConn and helped Mike Cavanaugh make a successful transition into Hockey East before returning home to Durham as the Assistant to Umile, knowing that he was to succeed his mentor. He was introduced as UNH’s Head Coach on March 15th. He knew the expectations on him then and now. “I understand the pressures of representing this program and I love it. I love this school, this town, and the opportunity to represent New Hampshire.”
Regarding the struggles last season, Souza remarked that “I don’t think there’s any one thing you can point to and say ‘that’s the reason we struggled’. Hockey East is a tough league to win games.” He reflected the program’s focus on the new season and excitement for a new potential run of excellence.
The Wildcats will have to start that epoch without critical pieces of the last few seasons. Most notably, goalie Danny Tirone. The Trumbull, CT, native was a featured goalie for three seasons, playing 33 or more games every year for all those years, and carrying the Wildcats to playoff wins with heroic efforts. His departure to the pros leaves a hole in net for the Wildcats to fill with either Mike Robinson or star freshman Ty Taylor. “It’s too early to know who will be the full starter. There’s open competition for that spot” Souza said. Robinson is a San Jose Sharks draft pick and a New Hampshire native who got back up time last year behind Tirone. Taylor walks in with immense expectations. He was the BCHL’s goalie of the year with a .931 save percentage. Whoever wins the spot will have to earn it.
As for the skaters, UNH features an interesting mix of veteran depth and promising youth. The best two skaters returning for this season are sophomores Max Gildon and Benton Maas. Both showed they could shoot, skate, run a power play, kill penalties, and play efficient offensive hockey from the blue line. Both were drafted ahead of their freshman seasons; Gildon by the Florida Panthers and Maas by the Washington Capitals. They were not regularly paired with each other, but still caused havoc. They also contributed to a Hockey East-best penalty kill and the fourth-best mark in the nation.
Gildon got to show his skills at the World Junior Showcase this summer and has many, including his head coach, excited. “Max is a unique talent. He had a great summer. He’s in great shape. He’s a fun kid to coach. I think he’s got limitless potential.”
The rest of the blue line features some considerable size and strength with players like Anthony Wyse and Richard Boyd able to lay big hits and dictate the pace. New arrivals Drew Hickey, Ryan Verrier, and Will MacKinnon don’t boast the same kind of strength but are all mobile defensemen who can produce points and will get ample opportunities to play important roles.
Up front, UNH features a bevy of established seniors. Ara Nazarian, Marcus Vela, and Chris Miller have a nose for important goals and can play with gritty determination. They will be leaned on heavily for leadership. Juniors Brendan Van Riemsdyk, Justin Fregona, and Joe Sacco are all hoping for healthy years after injuries limited them last year. Van Riemsdyk has the added pressure of playing up to his brothers’ names but has carried his weight on Lake Whit so far in his tenure. The sophomore class features an interesting mixed bag. Charlie Kelleher walked into his brother’s shadow, and battled through a tough freshman year, with flashes of great skill. Eric MacAdams and Patrick Grasso were among Hockey East’s most tenacious players last year. They aren’t big, but they played in the corners and greasy parts of the rink and got rewarded with goals, points, and Souza’s respect.
The new freshman forwards brings a remarkable amount of maturity to the roster. Jackson Pierson, a smaller skater from the Culliver Military Academy, Eric Esposito, Angus Crookshank, and Filip Engaras all bring excellent names, playoff experience, unusual wisdom, and good skill to a roster with open spots and questions. “It’s a new slate,” said Souza. “There’s opportunities for the returning players, chances for the new guys, and we’ll give the roles to whoever earns them.”
The schedule is not kind to UNH at the open. Two game road trips to Colgate and Colorado College will be difficult tasks to handle. But the Wildcats have the talent, the expectations, and the head coach to make noise in Hockey East again.