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Saturday, August 2, 2008

Hockey Log: Sunday Edition

Whitehead a victim of circumstances
Supply-and-demand crises plaguing Maine coach

One glacial, 1929 Wall Street-like meltdown, and there is swift speculation that Tim Whitehead’s job as head coach of the Maine men’s hockey program is dangerously fragile.

Going into last season, Whitehead had withstood adversity of all breeds well enough to stretch the Black Bears’ streak of consecutive NCAA tournament appearances to nine, the first three of those conducted by the program’s late godfather, Shawn Walsh. On Whitehead’s watch, Maine stretched four of those six tournament bids to the Frozen Four, two to the final showdown.

But most recently, a profuse loss of scoring talent and no explicit ability to replenish the depth chart snapped that NCAA streak and also nailed Maine’s first losing season and Hockey East playoff no-go since 1993-94. And that previous nightmare, which was brought on by a hefty forfeiture as punishment for use of an ineligible player, was quickly buried in ice chips the following year.

This time around, it’s not so easy. In May, insidecollegehockey.com took an impulsive look ahead to the coming season and cited Whitehead as the number one hot seat occupant in the nation. “It's hard to argue with Whitehead's success,” the evaluation began before it warned, “even though one would think Whitehead would be safe in spite of last season's 13-18-3 overall record and ninth-place finish in Hockey East play, which marked just the second time Maine failed to qualify for the league postseason tournament, scuttlebutt out of Orono is that the natives are restless. Another subpar showing could heighten the clamor.”

Taking that approach, Whitehead has next to no fighting chance. Whitehead began his reign a meticulous succession choice on Walsh’s part mere weeks before the legend’s passing. Toiling through the popular assumption that he was merely a one-and-done interim, and the eclipsing challenge of grieving with the entire program, he ended up bringing home silver from the Frozen Four, earning the Spencer Penrose Award as national Coach of the Year and an accepted stable claim to the job.

His longevity since then indicates that Whitehead is capable of recruiting a healthy crop to ultimately restore Maine’s powerhouse persona. But it won’t happen in the immediate future.

The 2006-07 Black Bears brandished nine 20-plus point-getters, three of them charging up over 40. Then five of them graduated, would-be senior Billy Ryan broke away for the New York Rangers’ system, and freshman beacon Teddy Purcell hastily took off for the LA Kings organization after a 40 game, 16-27-43 Rookie of the Year campaign. Last season, senior forward Wes Clark topped the charts with 10-11-21 totals, followed immediately by defenseman Bret Tyler, whose output lapsed by six points to an 8-12-20 transcript.

Six of Maine’s top seven scorers were seniors in 2007-08. In the middle of that crop sat freshman Andrew Sweetland, who with 17 points in 28 games didn’t exactly replenish the raw void left by Purcell but nonetheless made like Purcell in signing a tryout contract with Florida 23 days after his first college campaign had ended. And so, the Black Bears’ top returning scorer is a towering senior defenseman named Simon Denis-Pepin, coming off a career-best 12-point year.

And one other repulsive reminder: anchoring goaltender Ben Bishop, a would-be senior, took off and has eaten a good trial fill of action with the AHL’s Peoria Rivermen.

Worthy as they are of Orono’s contempt, the early losses of Bishop and Sweetland are not nearly as harrowing as the notion that they were being counted on as the underpinning for quick resurgence. A vast batch of new blood needs to come together and blossom into a luxurious stock similar to what Maine had a mere 18 months ago.

While on the subject of recruiting and rebuilding, the dark omens keep on coming. On Tuesday, two veterans of the Walsh cabinet, second-term assistant coach Guy Perron and longtime volunteer assistant Grant Standbrook, resigned and retired respectively. In other words, Whitehead won’t be conducting anymore present or future projects with the colleagues who knew Alfond Arena well before he did.

The splintered staff’s final class for this fall slates the arrival of a whopping fourteen new faces, including a hungry Dartmouth transfer in Kevin Swallow and two fresh NHL draftees in Ryan Hegarty and Gustav Nyquist. But there’s no guarantee as to how much of an immediate boom any number of them might have or how their elders will carry on from last year, and the INCH assessment leaves a fairly broad vat of possible “subpar” seasons. It’s rather hard to imagine that the Maine-iak legion has been satisfied with the routine conference quarter-final trip-ups and Frozen Four shortcomings that have underscored most of Whitehead’s reign.

Whitehead has battled and retained his balance through his first seven years. He won’t be openly discussing this personal business battle. Still, when you weigh the apparent expectations and his present allotment in the effort to fulfill them, you wonder if he’s thinking like the title character in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. “What sort of chance does that give me?”

To be fair, he’s not a surefire goner by any means, and it’s tough to fault just him for Maine’s follies. But all the matters at hand make one think.

Ludwig’s path clear and unclear
The Dallas Stars’ website ran a sun-shiny evaluation of some of their boldest prospects, including newly graduated Friars’ bruiser Trevor Ludwig, who made the prompt leap to the AHL ranks at the end of his senior season and consumed seven games worth of action in Iowa.

In the press release, Dallas’ scout-in-chief, Scott White, acknowledged the worth of Ludwig’s experimental sliver with the I-Stars and also answered the inevitable question as far as similarities between Trevor and his father, former Stars’ shot-block junkie Craig Ludwig. "I think he (still) has to get a little more comfortable with the pro game. Hopefully, he'll find himself in the American League and play full-time there this year... He's not as tall as his dad, but they're similar in that they have big legs, a big trunk. He's physical when he needs to be, and can handle himself well when he needs to."

One thing, though, Ludwig won’t be cultivating anymore experience in the land of endless cornfields as Iowa has lent itself as Anaheim’s new affiliate. White said that the Stars will take on partial affiliations to be shared with four other NHL franchises (though he didn’t specify who) before the tentative 2009-10 advent of the Austin-based Texas Stars.

The Canadian-born Ludwig, who if need be could also see action with the Stars’ ECHL affiliate in Idaho, lists his current hometown as Grapevine, 20 miles northwest of Dallas and about three hours northeast of Austin.

Good to BU
Satisfied speculation began to circulate as early as the end of last week amongst fan bases before Monday brought confirmation of Colin Wilson’s decision to stick with Boston University for the moment. Not that the rising sophomore’s stay-or-go ruling was the singular make-or-break factor in Professor Parker’s upcoming season, but especially with top puckslingers Pete MacArthur and Brian Ewing having graduated, it helps to have some trusty veteran blood. Wilson will be the Terriers’ top point-getter (35) among all returnees, leading a savory list of eight other vets, including classmates Nick Bonino (29 points) and Kevin Shattenkirk (21). Their continued input, of course, assumes nobody else has an idea popped into his head from their respective colonizing franchise, and there is not a blip of such disturbance churning around the Hub at this time. Although, BU did lose its top stopper in would-be junior Brett Bennett to Phoenix in May, renewing the crease cavity that John Curry left last summer.

Quick Feeds: The New York Islanders, run by the Mount St. Charles and Maine-educated Garth Snow, have had a smattering of Hockey East alumni in the rumor circuit for the coaching vacancy, including Snow’s fellow Black Bear John Tortorella, ex-BU Terrier and Bruin Mike Sullivan, and P-Bruins’ coach and former BC goaltender Scott Gordon…The US national development U17 team, coached by Warwick native John Hynes, posted its 21-member 2008-09 roster with a record nine college commitments featured, including 2010 Maine pick-up Stuart Higgins…Boston College men’s coach Jerry York finalized his trinity of captains for the coming season, giving the “C” to a recovering Brock Bradford (who missed the bulk of last year’s thrill ride with broken arm) and the sidekick duties to Benn Ferriero and Tim Filangieri…The PC men have their fourth annual golf outing set for two weeks from Monday at the Pawtucket Country Club.

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