Joseph Gravellese: It's hockey season, friends. BC takes on the University of New Brunswick, one of Canada's top teams, in a pretty interesting exhibition game on Saturday night at Conte Forum. So it's time to take a look at the season ahead. Today, we'll take a two-part look at Hockey East, starting from the teams that finished #11-#7 last year plus UConn, then in part two, tackling the top six. Who are we buying or selling?
Next week, we'll look at the BC roster piece by piece and look at their strengths and weaknesses.
Let's start by discussing Hockey East, and we'll start with the newcomers, UConn. What do we expect out of the Huskies in their first year in Hockey East?
Grant Salzano: I'm expecting a surprisingly decent year from UConn. And by decent, I mean "not last."
UConn wasn't too bad the last couple years. They were above .500 both years--granted, playing in the AHA--but they are rolling in a steady flow of scholarships and should start to show immediate improvement. We all expect Coach Cavanaugh to be a great coach, and it will be interesting to see where he is able to land the Huskies in their first year in Hockey East, but I am fairly certain they will be above UMass, Merrimack, or both.
JG: I picked UConn to finish 10th. They are going to struggle to score goals. They were already a low-scoring team last year and they lost their three top scorers to graduation. But they return much of their defense corps that was one of the best in AHA. Senior goalie Matt Grogan, who was very good for the Huskies, has graduated, but rising sophomore Rob Nichols was pretty good in 13 appearances with a 1.91 GAA and .939 sv%.
I think UConn will also benefit from sneaking up on teams. For instance, BC's game down there is on a Wednesday night sandwiched between bigger games, including BU the ensuing weekend. I could see that being a trap game for BC going down there. And for other teams, they'll be playing in front of a mostly-empty XL Center to boot.
Cavanaugh should have his team ready to go this year and they are coming off a season that should build their confidence in that they beat both UMass and Providence during the regular season.
So I'm with you on thinking UConn will manage to avoid the cellar.
On to Merrimack.
They finished last in Hockey East last year. I'm picking them last this year. Here's a look at Merrimack over the past four years:
GS: God, that is downright Spazian.
JG: Clearly the Happy Days of Da Costa and Cannata are over and Dennehy is looking less like a genius and more like someone who found lightning in a bottle. They lose their top scorer, Mike Collins, to graduation. He scored 25 points last year. Their next top scorer had 14 points (!). Merrimack averaged less than two goals per game last year.
I don't see things improving for them much.
GS: Merrimack has a real, honest-to-goodness teenager freshman coming in for the first time in, what, 10 years? Something like that? Is he coming in to play Gin Rummy with all the AARP members on the team?
I also have Merrimack last. How on earth were they the #1 team in the country a few years back? Seems like forever ago.
JG: Yes. That was a thing. And yeah, I don't know how that happened beyond the fact that they played a cream puff schedule early in the year and also managed to get the greatest French player of all time.
GS: Also bad.
JG: Another program on a downward spiral in recent years has been UMass, who I called the Worst Team in Massachusetts last year after losing to AIC.
GS: The Minutemen are losing 6 of their top 9 scorers from last year. Welp.
JG: ...including their top three, though they did have a few promising freshmen in Steven Iacobellis and Ray Pigozzi. They also have the benefit of a full season of one-time BC prospecct Frank Vatrano, who had to sit out the entire regular season last year due to being ruled ineligible. He'll be a key player for them.
That said, it's going to be awfully difficult for UMass to improve on an 8-win campaign losing so many key pieces.
Steve Mastalerz, UMass's senior goalie, had a robust .907 SV% last year. So. They will need better than that. And I don't think they'll get it.
GS: Vatrano will help, but he's just one player. There's no way they overtake BU, who was 9th last year, and beyond that, the gap from the from the 8th place team to the 9th-11th place teams last year was a freaking chasm. It would take a miracle to have UMass move up in the standings this year.
JG: Speaking of BU... They were 9th last year. Pretty much everyone thinks they're moving up this year. But how much?
GS: Clearly to #1, because of Jesus ChrEichel.
GS: In all seriousness, I had BU jumping up in to the upper half of what appears to be a total clusterf*** in the middle of the Hockey East pack. I think they have enough to bridge that chasm I mentioned, and once they're there it's just a matter of if they finish strong.
They won't really leapfrog the whole conference, but they'll be back to being somewhat respectable.
You almost feel like they kind of have to just because they're BU.
JG: Their hopes are pinned largely on a big and talented freshman class. Beyond Eichel, they bring in two other USNTDP players--defensemen Brandon Fortunato and Johnathan MacLeod. They also will have back a healthy Matt Grylyzyx, who somehow is only a junior.
It's worth noting how absolutely horrendous BU was last year, in case people think their 10-21-4 record and numerous WTF losses were a fluke. They averaged being outshot last year 36.31-26.49--fourth-worst in the nation in shot differential, just ahead of Princeton, AIC and Alabama-Huntsville, and right behind Army. That's pretty pathetic on both fronts, offense and defense.
GS: It really was remarkable. The more they got curb stomped, the less it felt real.
JG: They do have some decent players on the roster beyond their freshmen and the theory is that Quinn should get more out of them in year two after a rocky transition following the departure of Jack Parker. As much as I want to pooh-pooh that, there's certainly some truth to it. It's not easy to step into that situation after a hall-of-famer retires.
Of course, highly talented prospects failing to live up to their potential while at BU has been a theme so we'll see if that carries over to the Quinn era.
GS: I'm already getting ready to put Eichel on a milk carton.
JG: I do feel compelled to point out that if you're looking for senior leadership on BU... well, there's Evan Rodrigues and Cason Hohmann. That's *it.* No other seniors on the entire roster. That is insane.
And shows what kind of roster turnover they've had.
Finishing in 8th place last year, a team we know well: Notre Dame.
I predicted that Notre Dame would have some struggles in Hockey East last season despite being a solid team, and I was right...during the regular season. Or, at least, until those damn four games they played against BC down the stretch.
It was really satisfying to see St. Cloud State knock them out of the tournament. What can I say, I'm petty.
GS: Well, I had no idea that the rest of Hockey East would slap around the Irish so much. Their out of conference record was fantastic but they were only .500 in Hockey East.
No more Summerhays. That's sad. His name was fun to say. Did he teach the new goalie how to be sneaky with knocking the net off its pegs? That's the real question here.
JG: Well, the NCAA officials have stated that delay tactics are going to be a "point of emphasis" for officials this year. So that could be a factor.
In all honesty, Notre Dame probably loses the 2nd most talent from last year's roster of any team...after BC.
GS: 5 NHL draft picks gone to graduation.
JG: Summerhays...TJ Tynan...Stephen Johns...Jeff Costello...a lot of the players who made them a strong contender in recent years are gone. They do bring in some solid freshmen, including USNTDP'er and likely US World Junior player Anders Bjork (Bjork Bjork Bjork). They also return the electrifying Vince Hinastroza, and the reliable Mario Lucia.
I think Notre Dame will probably not be as good a team as they were last year, but will finish higher in the Hockey East standings. Vagaries of that short Hockey East season and whatnot.
GS: They won't have a BU-level meltdown, but they should be a bit less talented than they were last year. I have them dropping down to 9th, the bottom of the mid-conference mess, but they could end up much higher just because of how close everyone is.
JG: It's true. There's a lot of unpredictability here.
GS: Last up in the bottom half is Vermont, one of 7 teams to fall within 5 points of each other and 5 teams within 2 points, at the end of last year. They ended up 7th.
JG: Vermont has sort of been the opposite trend of Merrimack.
It looks like Kevin Sneddon has that situation stabilized and Vermont moving in the right direction. I expect them to climb a little bit.
GS: I do as well. They seem to be trending upward still, even with a really good year last year. Freshman Mario Puskarich led all freshman in scoring, and he led Vermont in goals.
The Cats only lose one of their top scorers to graduation, Chris McCarthy, who led the team in points. Otherwise, the rest of the top 5 remain intact.
JG: Puskarich is someone on a lot of people's all-league teams. They have some other young weapons too. And Michael Paliotta, a senior now, should be a strong weapon for them on the blue line. He had 22 assists last season.
Also, they bring in BU flameout Alexxxxxxxxxxx Privatera. I don't know if that's going to help their team or not, but it'll be good to have Alexxxxxxxxx back in the league. Perhaps the Gutt's penalty boxxxxxxxxxxxxxx can become a more enjoyable place.
GS: I was just going to say, I don't know if having a guy who couldn't cut it at BU will really improve you much, but he should at least make things a little more exxxxxxxxxxxxciting in Burlington.
That's it for the bottom half--we'll be back tomorrow with a run through the upper half of Hockey East. Where will BC fall? Come back to find out!