Photo courtesy of New Hampshire Athletics via NCAA.com
Hockey East: 4-12-6 (10th)
Hockey East Tournament: Lost to Merrimack (2 games to 1) in Opening Round of Hockey East Playoffs
As someone who grew up just a few miles from Durham, I find it remarkable how far the University of New Hampshire hockey program has fallen and how quickly it has done so. The Wildcats, despite a lack of hardware (2 conference titles, 0 national titles), were one of the elite teams in college hockey for two decades. Just three years ago, the program celebrated its 18th appearance in the NCAA tournament in 22 seasons, including 10 trips in a row from 2002 to 2011. This is a school that finished first in the Hockey East standings in 2010, the third time it had done so in four years. This is a club that you could always count on to play deep into March and challenge for the Frozen Four.
That already feels like ancient history. Dick Umile (now in his 27th season in Durham) and his Wildcats have now missed the national tournament three years in a row. Their 8th place finish in 2015 was the lowest in program history – until they finished 10th in 2016. The 2014 and 2015 seasons did have some bright spots, including two trips to the Garden and a Hockey East title game appearance, but the 2016 season never got going. New Hampshire was inconsistent early on, drawing with the UMass Minutemen twice and suffering a brutal weekend sweep in East Lansing where they allowed 12 goals to a mediocre Michigan State team. The Wildcats appeared to briefly find their footing around the winter break, where a 5-0-1 stretch brought them to 8-6-4 overall and a manageable 2-1-4 record in Hockey East entering January. Unfortunately for UNH, this was more indicative of the competition (3-0-1 against Maine, wins against Dartmouth and Bentley) than anything else. The Wildcats proceeded to lose 7 in a row, including sweeps at the hands of Northeastern and Notre Dame. They won just 3 games the rest of the way, losing 14 of their last 19. Their season came to an end when they couldn’t close out Merrimack in the first round of the Hockey East playoffs. UNH lost in three games, despite being just minutes from finishing the Warriors in Game 2.
The stats for last year’s Wildcats are equally ugly and reflect some glaring holes. The club struggled in puck possession, finishing 54th in the nation in even strength CF%, at 44%. The team surrendered 3.27 goals per game, the third highest mark in the league. The penalty kill was 11th in the conference, killing just 78% of power plays. While the offense was more successful (3.03 goals per game, 6th in the conference) and the power play was the best in the league (23.9%), even these numbers are misleading. Top forwards Andrew Poturalski and Tyler Kelleher combined for a whopping 98 points out of the team’s total 317, 32 of the team’s 112 goals, and 16 of the team’s 37 power play scores. Finally, sophomore goaltender Daniel Tirone took a step back in his second season, as his save percentage dropped from .924% his freshman year to .907% this past year. The reality is that beyond the top line, UNH did not have much going for it a year ago.
This upcoming season will likely be even tougher for the Wildcats, as they suffered significant losses during the off-season. Would-be junior Poturalski (22-30-52, the team leader in goals and points in 2015-2016) signed with the Carolina Hurricanes shortly after UNH’s season ended. John Furgele, another rising junior, decided to transfer to Quinnipiac after playing every game last season on the Wildcat blue line. Other significant contributors including forwards Maxim Gaudreault (12-8-20, 3rd on team in goals) and Dan Correale (16-9-25, 2nd on team in goals), and big defenseman Harry Quast (6’4″, 33 games played) have all moved on as well.
There are some bright spots on the returning roster. Kelleher returns for his senior campaign (10-36-46 in 2015-2016), as does newly anointed captain defenseman Matias Cleland (5-23-28, led conference with 112 blocked shots in 2015-2016). Again, though, there is an obvious lack of scoring depth. The Wildcats return 59% of last season’s 317 points and 47% of their 112 goals. Without Kelleher and Cleland, these figures fall all the way to 28% of points and 34% of goals. There is only one other returning player with more than 14 points last year: rising sophomore Marcus Vela, a San Jose Sharks draft pick who posted 7 goals and 9 assists. Beyond Kelleher, no returning player has more than 7 goals. Defensively, the aforementioned Cleland is joined by Dylan Maller, Matt Dawson, Cameron Marks, and netminder Tirone. While Marks was 7th in Hockey East in blocked shots last season (66) and Dawson played in 35 games as a freshman, the results point towards a lot more development being needed within this group for the Wildcats to find success.
If UNH is to make any sort of progress from last season, however, the team first needs to find ways to replace the production of Poturalski, Gaudreault, and Correale. They have some promising candidates to do just that.
Liam Blackburn is the most anticipated recruit of the class. The 5’10”, 175 pound centerman spent the last two seasons with the West Kelowna Warriors of the BCHL, where he posted 173 points in 141 games (1.23 ppg) and led his team to the Royal Bank Cup in 2016. The 20-year-old has been described as a creative, high-speed playmaker with terrific puck skills and vision. He should step into the lineup immediately and have an impact on both ends of the ice.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a UNH preview without a van Riemsdyk child. Brendan van Riemsdyk arrives on campus this year, following in the footsteps of older brothers James (Toronto Maple Leafs) and Trevor (Chicago Blackhawks). The 6’3″, 200 pound forward comes to Durham via the Islanders Hockey Club of the USPHL, where he put up 21 goals and 32 assists in 49 games last season. He also won USPHL Rookie of the Year the season before, when he posted 44 points with 32 goals in 51 games. van Riemsdyk will be a daunting presence in the Wildcat lineup; he’s already roughly the same size as older brother James (6’3″, 209 pounds) and combines that physicality with an excellent shot.
The Wildcats also add a pair of big bodies to the blue line in Anthony Wyse (6’3″, 225 pounds) and Nick Nonis (6’3″, 200 pounds). They round out their incoming class with forwards Joe Sacco, Patrick Grasso, and Justin Fregona.
For a team that struggled so much with depth, defense, and puck possession last season, this incoming class is likely not enough. The team needs to develop legitimate scoring threats beyond Kelleher. For that matter, they need to develop legitimate scoring threats beyond whatever Blackburn and van Riemsdyk can contribute as well. Matias Cleland needs help on the blue line and Daniel Tirone needs a bounceback season in net. There is nothing that points to this edition of the Wildcats featuring enough improvement or enough depth to address these concerns. Look for UNH to finish in the bottom four once again, and maybe challenge for home ice in the opening round of the Hockey East tournament if Daniel Tirone rebounds to his freshman numbers.