Men’s Hockey East preview: Hub Hunks looking the best
For customary look-back purposes, we will remind everyone one final time that “parity” was the word carrying endless savory juice in the Hockey East talkosphere for the better part of the 2007-08 campaign. But now, much like New England’s professional football pundits with their own threadbare P-word, let’s bury it and move on with the safe assumption that phenomenon will not equate itself this season.
Instead, consider how each program more or less stapled its true identity in March and the varying pivots they have all made in the offseason.
Starting from the presumptive bottom-up, the nine-time national tournament invitee from Maine duped the pollsters early on last year just for their respectable history. Since the stretch drive last winter, everyone has come to know better, and more personnel deductions should keep the Black Bears in the doubter’s light for a while. Similarly, UMass-Amherst was one of the quieter HEA teams –for better or worse- and suddenly doesn’t look like a potential regular at TD Banknorth Garden.
But along the snowier treads of the mountain, the Commonwealth Avenue rivals and Vermont call for little beyond simple consistency –which, plainly, nobody could snatch for the full ride of last season- to cement their powerhouse personas.
We now offer you a snapshot of each team’s preseason outlook in order of projected finish, concomitant with a team grade in parenthesis.
1. Boston College (A): Put the anxiously smug no-Gerbe-plus-hangover-equals-collapse notion in the cooler. Yes, the national champion Eagles saw their runaway scoring spokesman sneak off campus a year early, but BC’s road to glory was defined by persistence and non-fatal lesions. They stamped their passport to the national bracket with another HEA crown, for they had no other choice having finished fourth at 11-9-7 in the regular season. They dealt with two mid-season pro signings and the loss of puckslinger Brock Bradford to injury. Bradford, by the way, has healed for his senior campaign and will partner with fellow flares Joe Whitney, Ben Smith, and –if all goes according to plan- rookie Jimmy Hayes. Defense? Goaltending? Not a second missed in a freshman banner campaign (ahem –John Muse) kind of speaks for itself.
2. Boston University (A-): With a lavish foundation of skaters underlined by Colin Wilson’s decision to stay put and a recruiting class featuring four fresh NHL draftees, BU’s outlook is redressed from the slushy NCAA no-go road it paved. One potential hindrance: unlike Wilson and 2007 first-rounder Kevin Shattenkirk, would-be junior goaltender Brett Bennett did bolt for the pros, leaving an inclusive hole in the already shaky crease. But if either Kieran Millan or the imposing Toronto draftee Grant Rollheiser (6-foot-4, 195-lb.) can make a stable claim to the cage, and if the whole team doesn’t waste time thawing out its win column, there should be a more substantial succession of Terrier fist-jabs this season.
3. Vermont (A-): The steadily ascending Catamounts’ returnee corps includes seven tin men who were available for all 39 games in 2007-08, another –sophomore Jack Downing- who missed but one game in a respectable rookie campaign, and all but one of their regular forwards who can lash out audible locomotive slappers reminiscent of Bernie Geoffrion. Oh, and then there’s reigning Bob Kullen Award winner Kevin Sneddon, who rationally brandished pure raring optimism after his pupils spilled the league title to BC. All Vermont really needs to indemnify their Contender’s Club membership is a resolute campaign out of lightly seasoned junior goalie Mike Spillane, who will likely fill the sturdy pads of Joe Fallon.
4. New Hampshire (B+): Of those teams who have lost their established #1 goaltender, UNH may have the best immediate compensation in Brian Foster. Foster, a rising junior, has filled in for Kevin Regan 13 times over his first two seasons and rolled out a 4-4-2 record while slurping often heavy bushels of shots. With that seasoning, he should be ready to backstop the Wildcats’ strike force on a nightly basis. On that note, while not catastrophic, the graduation of scoring beacons Matt Fornataro and Mike Radja will press heavy demands on a fairly young crew anchored by sophomore James van Riemsdyk. Ultimately, though, any analyst’s trust in the Wildcats should lie exclusively on the stick of their playoff responsiveness, which they’ve lacked despite back-to-back regular season championships.
5. UMass-Lowell (B): This year’s Vermont Catamounts? The Riverhawks have paved that kind of road so far, giving BU a little static shock in the best-of-three quarterfinals the same way UVM did in 2007 for the program’s first post-season single-game victory since 2002. And with everyone but defenseman Kelly Sullivan returning, coach Blaise MacDonald can bank on a completely unruffled batch of forwards –who along with the defensemen made for the league’s most disciplined gang (10.1 PIM per game)- and a fairly reliable goaltending tandem of Carter Hutton and Nevin Hamilton.
6. Providence (B-): The Friars finished the 2007-08 regular season at a clear-cut median rarer than a lunar eclipse, posting a .500 mark of 11-11-5 and a GF-GA split of 66-66. Examine it a little deeper, though, and you’ll find that PC’s defense was second in the league behind only New Hampshire, but the offense was #8 on the landscape. Incidentally, the only departed forward from last season, Jon Rheault, was immeasurably the most consistent scorer on the roster. Now, his residual mates will have to collectively pad on that consistency if PC is to maintain or enhance its competitive posture. They have the indubitable mass for it (a whopping 20 rostered forwards), but the acceleration has yet to be seen.
7. Northeastern (B-): Subsisting too heavily on Brad Thiessen’s acute goaltending made the Huskies one of the first lost promises of last season. But save for Jimmy Russo, coach Greg Cronin’s entire depth chart is back for another try, which only oozes the program’s reinforced potential. Like the aforementioned Friars, though, the easier-said-than-done trick for Northeastern will be to freeze and exercise all-around consistency with no breathers at any time. You can ask for no less when you have so many certified obstacles in your league. The Huskies may also want to do something about that power play that finished dead last in league action.
8. UMass-Amherst (C+): The Minutemen haven’t lost much on a numerical front –only five seniors suited up through the course of last season. Rising sophomores Paul Dainton, the established starter in the crease, and James Marcou, the team’s reigning point-leader, ought to scrape out more gold as they mature. But the rest of UMass has yet to prove it can renew the ripples it made en route to its first NCAA tournament bid in 2007.
9. Merrimack (D+/C-): It’s no secret or surprise that the perpetually plebeian Warriors like to do –or try to do- as the Hockey East Romans do. And it just so happens that they, too, are returning a substantial core of players this season –their lone departures being the statistically shallow iron forward Derek Pallardy and one early signing in the form of would-be junior Matt Jones. But is this foundation enough to finally pilot Merrimack into full-length playoff contention? The safe gamble here is no gamble at all, for the Warriors are simply looking up at too many competitive hurdles.
10. Maine (D): Through their respective premature departures, goaltender Ben Bishop turned head coach Tim Whitehead’s left pocket inside out, as did forward Andrew Sweetland to the right pocket, exposing their emptiness. This once-perennially underachieving tournament shoo-in (on both the conference and national fronts) flaunts nothing to build on that can be seen without perceptive spectacles. Their top returning scorer –physically towering senior defenseman Simon Danis-Pepin- had but 12 points to speak of last season. The veteran skater crop as a whole (16 players) averaged 5.19 points over the course of last season. That’s enough to keep presumptive new starting goaltender Dave Wilson completely out of the equation. If he’s no Bishop or Jimmy Howard, he’s no help.
Quick Feeds: North Scituate’s Joe Augustine –the now 20-year coach of the URI men’s club team- released his 28-man Team USA roster for February’s Winter World University Games, which includes full-time Ram pupils Jon Biliouris (North Smithfield), Kyle Krannich, and David Sheehan. Additionally, team physician Razid Khaund cites Providence as his hometown…My personal slap shot of the week, while we’re thinking ahead to a new season: can someone tell me why I attended over thirty PC men’s and women’s games last season and never once heard “The Hockey Song” in any venues? That atmospheric hole must be plugged –and just to make this clear, I’m not looking at the pep band for it.
Al Daniel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org