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A Way-Too-Early Look At Hockey East In 2016-17

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Who's the favorite in 2016-17? An early look at what to expect.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The dust has barely settled on the 2015-16 college hockey season, but it's never too early to look ahead. The early departures have subsided (at least for now), so we can start to look at what to expect next season.

At the risk of going full pollyanna, a look at the numbers going in to next year suggests that the demise of BC has been exaggerated. Yes, BC lost more than any other team to early departures, but the Eagles lost far less in  senior class production than any other contender.

Believe it or not, the Eagles bring back more points than any other team in Hockey East:

BC 290
NU 277
UML 248
ND 206
UNH 200
BU 198
UMass 194
UConn 184
Mack 184
UVM 182
PC 137
Maine 125

In terms of percentage of scoring brought back, BC is pretty well in line with the other contenders. Northeastern and Lowell are the only NCAA tournament teams in the conference bringing back a greater proportion of their scoring.

UVM 0.83
NU 0.79
UConn 0.78
UMass 0.77
UML 0.69
Mack 0.66
BC 0.64
ND 0.58
Maine 0.57
BU 0.51
UNH 0.48
PC 0.40

Of course, there are two factors not reflected on these charts. One is that BC is going to have a real issue with scoring depth unless a number of their freshmen produce right away, and guys like JD Dudek and Chris Brown make a jump. BC returns their top 4 scorers, but 3rd and 4th line scoring could be challenging.

There's also the little issue of Thatcher Demko. US U-18 Joe Woll will have a lot of pressure on his shoulders to fill Demko's shoes this fall, but if he and Ian Milosz can combine to at least be above-average, BC should at least be OK.

Let's take a look at Hockey East from top to bottom - not ranking the teams per se, but looking at them in groups:

The Favorite

Boston University
Returning points: 198 (6th)
Returning scoring %: 51% (11th)
Returning shots on goal %: 59% (11th)

Yes, I'm pegging BU as the favorite for next season, despite the fact that they lose a lot. This is based entirely on BU's monster freshman class, which is basically the entire US national development program. BU probably brings in the two best forward recruits in the league in Clayton Keller and Kieffer Bellows; the two best defenseman recruits in Dante Fabbro and Chad Krys; and possibly the best goalie in Jake Oettinger (he and Joe Woll split time for the US U18s).

Combined with the other solid recruits coming in for BU, these guys should have the Terriers up near or at the top of the standings all season long. Of course, as BC fans know well, however, when you have this many good prospects lined up to come in, it's no guarantee they all show up, so stay tuned. It's well known that Clayton Keller, a potential top 10 draft pick, is being recruited hard to pull a Milano/Bracco.

Tournament contenders

Notre Dame
Returning points - 206 (5th)
Returning points % - 58% (9th)
Returning shots % - 61% (9th)

Northeastern
Returning points - 277 (2nd)
Returning points % - 79% (2nd)
Returning shots % - 72% (6th)

Boston College 
Returning points - 290 (1st)
Returning points % - 64% (7th)
Returning shots % - 64% (8th)

UMass Lowell
Returning points: 248 (3rd)
Returning points %: 69% (5th)
Returning shots %: 76% (4th)

As the defending conference tournament champion, Northeastern has a strong case to be made to considered the favorite next year - they are bringing back a vast majority of their leading scorers and the 2nd-most points of any team (maybe the most, if BC is stung by another early departure). The question marks surrounding Northeastern are twofold: 1) While Kevin Roy didn't have a monster points year last year, his resurgence toward the end of the season certainly helped fuel their huge run, and he's gone; 2) Is the real Northeastern what we saw at the beginning of the season, the end of the season, or neither? I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle. If Northeastern plays to their ability all season long they will be up near the top of the pack but not running away with it.

Notre Dame is a promising team as they bring back probably the best returning goalie in the league in Cal Petersen. They also bring back a number of top scorers in Anders Bjork, Jake Evans, Bobby Nardella and Jordan Gross, all of whom should get better with another year of polish. They don't bring in a huge freshman class, but they'll be bolstered on D by NTDP blueliner Matt Hellickson. The question for Notre Dame is if those top scorers can take a leap to the next level; if so, they'll be as good as anyone.

I do think Boston College will be a tournament team, assuming two big ifs: 1) Woll/Milosz provide above-average goaltending; 2) nobody else leaves. Right now it looks like Colin White is likely to return. Ian McCoshen has been named a captain for next year and hasn't made an indication of signing yet, despite seeming to be the most ready. If they both come back, that's a solid core, combined with a freshman class that should at least produce a number of solid players, if few superstars.

Lowell will be good; at this point you have to expect them to always be good, and always find a way to replace what they lose. They lose two guys who were key to their run of glory in Adam Chapie in AJ White, plus goaltender Kevin Boyle, but UML has managed to find and have a good goalie every year since 1844, so I'm guessing they'll be OK. They bring in a pretty big crop of 20/21-year-old USHL forwards who might not be big names, but will probably fit seamlessly in to the Bazin system, because that's what Lowell does.

Chasing the leaders

Providence
Returning points: 137 (11th)
Returning points %: 40% (12th)
Returning shots %: 46% (12th)

UConn
Returning points: 184 (8th)
Returning points %: 78% (3rd)
Returning shots %: 77% (3rd)

You want to talk about a team getting decimated, it's Providence. They lose EVERYBODY. Four of their top five scorers graduated. Their goalie, Nick Ellis, bounced to the pros. Solid blueliners who contributed to their national title, like John GIlmour and Tom Parisi... gone.

My faith in Providence at least being solid next year is obviously just based on them having a great coach who will find a way. There's also still plenty of talent here, but they have to fill a lot of holes. Erik Foley could have a breakout sophomore season after a somewhat quiet freshman year. Hayden Hawkey looked pretty good between the pipes when spelling Nick Ellis, and should be fine. In addition, PC, much like BC, brings in a jumbo-sized recruiting class (6 forwards, 3 defensemen) mostly out of the USHL who Leaman will have ready to go.

UConn is probably the likeliest of last year's "bottom 6" to break through and contend, but I still think they're a few years away from serious contention. That said, they're going to be a handful for anyone who plays them next year, right off the bat. Their two leading scorers, Max Letunov and Tage Thompson, will both be sophomores next year, and they really don't lose much. This will be Year 4 for Cav at UConn so you'll really see his stamp on the talent level on the roster.

There's hope, but only kinda

Vermont
Returning points 182 (10th)
Returning points %: 83% (1st)
Returning shots %: 84% (1st)

Merrimack
Returning points: 184 (9th)
Returning points %: 66% (6th)
Returning shots %: 72% (5th)

UNH
Returning points: 200 (5th)
Returning points %: 48% (11th)
Returning shots %: 60% (10th)

UVM brings back a greater proportion of their scoring than any other team in the league, and yet they still bring back just 182 points. That tells you a lot about how bad they were on offense last year. They also just suffered another blow learning that Packy Munson, who played so well in net against BC, will not return to the program next year due to family/personal reasons.

Merrimack brings back just about all of their key players from a team that grinded its way to 7th in the Hockey East standings last year before bouncing UNH out of the #octofinals. The Warriors were plagued by a 1-9 January but bounced back in February and March to look a little better, taking care of business against other low-ranked teams in Hockey East. They will probably replicate similar results next year.

UNH should have a good offense again but the early departure of leading scorer Andrew Poturalski really hurts. He was a massive part of their team and leaves a big hole. There's a lot of hope that UNH's recruiting is back on the upswing after being hurt by NCAA sanctions, they'll be relying on a big freshman class to contribute.

Not this year

UMass

Returning points: 194 (7th)
Returning points %: 77% (4th)
Returning shots %: 80% (2nd)

UMass finally has the most powerful asset of all: hope. Greg Carvel finally has UMass fans believing in their hockey program again, and maybe he can get the players to buy in and improve right away as well. But even if he does, this is going to be a project. UMass was atrocious last season, winning just two games from January on: one against Army, one against AIC. Both of those wins came in OT. Ouch.

Abandon all hope all ye who enter

Maine

Returning points: 125 (12th)
Returning points %: 57% (9th)
Returning shots %: 65% (7th)

It's going to be a long season in Orono. After going 8-24-6 this year, they lose 3 of their top 5 scorers and bring back less firepower than arguably any team in the conference.