Hockey East Tournament: Swept Connecticut (First round); lost to Boston College (Quarterfinals)
The Vermont Catamounts never really got their season heading in the right direction in 2015-16. They won their first game, a 3-0 shutout of Minnesota in the US Hockey Hall of Fame game, but lost their next four at home to Nebraska-Omaha and North Dakota. Similarly, in Hockey East, they won their first conference game over Northeastern, but only won two more games the rest of the fall and matched that pace in the spring, ultimately finishing the season with six wins and a ninth place finish in Hockey East. The bright spot for the Catamounts during the regular season was winning their own Catamount Cup over the winter break; however, they defeated Lake Superior State and Colgate to do so, neither of which were quality competition. The Hockey East tournament went a little better for Vermont, as they swept UConn in Hartford to move on to the quarterfinals, where Boston College needed overtime in the third game at Conte Forum to defeat the Catamounts and put an end to their campaign.
A closer look at Vermont’s numbers last year shows a team that was held back by its offense. The Catamounts ranked 7th in Hockey East in goals against both inside the conference and overall, but their offense ranked 10th in goals scored both inside the conference and out. The strange thing, however, is that the underlying shot numbers don’t seem to support that result. Vermont outshot their opponents over the course of the season. Almost all of that shot differential came in Hockey East play. Usually when a team is constantly outshooting their opponents and losing, the problem is in the net. Even that yields no answers, though, as junior Mike Santaguida posted a decent .913 save percentage before an injury in the fall cost him almost the entire balance of the season. Freshman Packy Munson topped him with a .920 save percentage while filling in.
Munson’s save numbers did dip to .899 in conference play, which certainly didn’t help matters and likely led to a few losses, but it simply can’t explain Vermont’s record. The real culprit is that Vermont shot just 6.7% on the season. That value is significantly below what you would expect from a strong Hockey East program and more in line with the percentages usually put up by teams like AIC, Army, Alabama-Huntsville, and Maine. The reasonable explanations for that discrepancy are that Vermont takes more shots from low-scoring areas, that they just have less skill than most of the teams they face, or that they got extremely unlucky. Shot quality and shot location can tell a big story over a small sample size and can be the difference between winning and losing a game, but over the course of the season, they tend to average out for everybody. If Vermont were an unskilled team, they likely would have gotten both outshot and outscored, not solidly outshot their opposition while losing. As a result, the only conclusion that supports the data is that Vermont was just plain not very lucky last season, which immediately makes them a prime candidate to make a big jump up the standings if they get just average scoring in the future.
Additional good news for Vermont fans is that they’ve retrained basically all of the little scoring they did have a year ago. Jonathan Turk is UVM’s only departing forward and he put up just 7 points last season, with 5 coming in Hockey East play. They do lose a lot of skill at the point, though, as two of their top defensemen graduate, Alexx Privitera and Yvan Pattyn. (Dan Senkbeil also graduates, Senkbeil played 23 games on the fourth line at forward last season while listed as a defenseman on the team roster.) Vermont will need to replace the 29 points Privitera and Pattyn scored from the point last year, and their defense will likely regress with the loss of two of their top blue-liners, but their offense has nowhere to go but up. That alone should be enough to ensure the Catamounts will be a better team than they were last year, especially with returning scoring from Mario Puskarich, Brendan Bradley, and Jarrid Privitera, all of whom posted double-digit goal totals while skating on the first line for Vermont in 2015-16.
In net, rising sophomore Packy Munson took his talents out west and transferred to the University of Denver over the summer, which leaves Mike Santaguida as the only quality returnee in goal. However, Santaguida is a proven option in net for the Catamounts, with save percentages of .912, .923, and .913 in his first three years in Burlington. The Catamounts should have no issues with plugging the rising senior back into the net after an injury in the fall cost him about half of his junior season last year. While Vermont won’t return Munson behind Santaguida, freshman Stefanos Lekkas is coming in to play behind him, and he kicks off our look at Vermont’s Class of 2020.
Stefanos Lekkas, a 5’11” goaltender who continues UVM’s run with shorter goalies after the 5’9″ Santaguida, has been the starting goaltender for the USHL’s Sioux Falls franchise for the past two seasons. Last year he posted a .924 save percentage, good for top five in the league, and was named to the USHL Third All-Star team. While he didn’t have quite as good of a year with Sioux Falls in 2014-15, he posted save percentages better than .930 in his four previous seasons in the NAHL and HPHL, so Lekkas has shown he can succeed against every level of competition he’s faced thus far in his career. He will be looking to have more success at UVM playing with Santaguida in 2016-17 and as their starting goaltender in the years to come.
The star of the class, however, is forward Ross Colton. Colton was chosen by Tampa Bay in the fourth round of this year’s NHL draft and comes in as a 19 year old with some giant USHL stats and an even larger amount of hype to live up to. As the captain of the Cedar Rapis RoughRiders last season, the same USHL program that produced Northeastern’s Adam Gaudette and Matt Filipe, Colton led the RoughRiders to the best record in the USHL and scored 35 goals and 66 points along the way, good for second in the league. He was named to the All-USHL First Team and scored 3 goals and 2 assists in the USHL/NHL Top prospects game, the first hat trick in the history of the game, and was named MVP of the game. Simply put, Ross Colton is the best player Vermont is bringing in this year.
However, Colton’s status as the future of Vermont hockey is another question entirely. After his breakout season in the USHL last year, it was reported that Colton was no longer interested in attending Vermont and had appealed for the university to release him from his National Letter of Intent. Vermont understandably chose not to do so and, after a failed appeal to the NCAA, it appears Colton will be a part of the Catamounts’ freshman class this fall. As Northeastern recently saw with Mike Szmatula, though, the NCAA forcing a player to uphold his commitment to a school doesn’t necessarily mean the future is going to be a happy one, regardless of the amount of success Colton may have on the ice.
Jake Massie, a defenseman from Montreal, was a sixth round pick of Carolina last year’s NHL draft, but his rights have since been traded to Chicago, making him a prospect of the Blackhawks. Massie is a late steal for the Catamounts, as just as Ross Colton was considering leaving Vermont, Massie chose not to uphold his commitment to UMass following the firing of the coaching regime in Amherst. He instead chose to play a few hours further north for the Catamounts. Massie had an underwhelming campaign for the USHL’s Omaha Lancers last season, but his selection in the NHL draft speaks for itself as far as his potential is concerned. While Massie will likely skate for Vermont from the first game of the season, he projects as more of a long-term project with the ability to become a top defenseman rather than someone ready to step into a large role here and now.
These three freshmen are joined by three more forwards and three more defensemen to make up a 9-member incoming class for the Catamounts this season. Overall, Vermont looks to be in a good position to improve in 2016-17. With a shot percentage that’s nearly guaranteed to get better, only one loss at forward, and a potential superstar filling in that hole, the Catamounts should certainly be seeing an uptick in scoring this season. On the defensive side they do lose three strong defensemen who drove the team last year, and don’t have players who can step in and immediately fill those shoes. If Mike Santaguida can stay healthy in his senior season and consistently provide the goaltending prowess he’s already proven capable of, though, Vermont has the potential to be a threat. It’s not out of the question for the Catamounts to finish this season over .500 and they could threaten the “top six” that seems to have broken away in Hockey East, but in all likelihood Vermont will be on the outside looking in come NCAA tournament time. A good team without a doubt, but not one quite poised to break into the top half of the conference or into the national discussion.