Season Preview: “Unfinished Business”

The 2021-22 season was one of the most successful in the history of Northeastern Men’s Ice Hockey. The team’s 25 wins tied for the second-most ever in a single season, and marked the most wins ever by a first-year head coach. The team won the Hockey East regular season championship for the first time in program history. They returned to the NCAA Tournament after a two-year hiatus. Their starting goaltender shattered previous program records and put his name in the all-time national record books, while also being the first Husky men’s hockey player to be named to an Olympic team. The team captain parlayed a historic four-year career into an NHL contract and made his debut with the NHL’s most-storied franchise. By many measures, the season was a success.

For the players and coaches returning this Fall, they acknowledge that success. They earned it. And yet, never complacent, they still see more for the team to achieve, greater heights their eyes are set upon.

“There’s some unfinished business with the team that we’d like to accomplish.”

Those were the words uttered by All-American starting goaltender Devon Levi as he accepted the Mike Richter Award for the best goaltender in college hockey. Despite all the accolades above, including Levi being named a Hobey Baker finalist, (and quite frankly, was snubbed from winning it), he still feels there is a higher level the program can reach.

Which is why Levi is returning for his junior season despite speculation he would sign with the Buffalo Sabres; why senior forward and team captain Aidan McDonough is returning despite the Vancouver Canucks reportedly wanting him to turn pro after he finished second in the nation in goals scored; why senior defenseman Jayden Struble returns for his senior season despite being arguably ready to take on the physical rigors of professional hockey as a Montreal Canadiens draft pick; and why senior forward Jakov Novak returns as a graduate student rather than start his own professional career.

They all see the mountaintop that Northeastern can reach, and they want to be the ones to bring the Huskies to that pedigree of excellence.

High Preseason Expectations

Leading into the 2022-23 season, Northeastern was selected by both the media and coaches polls as the preseason favorite to win the conference. The Huskies garnered seven of the possible eleven first place votes from the media, ahead of UMass-Amherst and Providence, and seven again in the coaches poll, ahead of the Minutemen and Boston University. Both Levi and McDonough were named to the preseason All Hockey East Team. They also return two centers atop their depth chart who made the All-Rookie team last season in Jack Hughes and Justin Hryckowian. Jerry Keefe is back as the reigning Hockey East Coach of the Year, with Mike Levine back as associate head coach and former Northeastern captain and recent Hall of Fame inductee Jason Guerriero taking over for Mike McLaughlin as assistant coach.

The Huskies also return over 90% of their offensive goal production from the forward position, led by McDonough, Sam Colangelo, and Gunnarwolfe Fontaine. By our projections, they return nearly all of their top nine lineup players from the end of last season, many of whom will likely replicate that role this season. They return multiple senior defensemen with the experience needed to play calm under pressure and provide a stabilizing environment in front of Levi, who returns as the best goaltender in the country. Simply put- the motivation, the players, and the staff together present the opportunity for this upcoming season to be one of the most special in Northeastern history.

On top of returning sixteen players from last year’s championship team, the Huskies bring in an supremely talented class of players that will feature a half-dozen that we expect to play right away, and in important roles. Cam Lund, fresh off being the highest-drafted Huskies player since Jamie Oleksiak, will likely slide into a top-six role from the start, where his size and elite shot will help compliment the other playmakers around him. Liam Walsh, a transfer from Merrimack, will bring experience, versatility, and scoring ability to the middle six of the lineup. Jack Williams brings a 200-foot game and multiple years of USHL experience down the middle. Jackson Dorrington, Hunter McDonald, Braden Doyle, and Vinny Borgesi are the four defensemen who likely will compete for starter minutes right out of the gate, with Dorrington and McDonald fresh off being drafted themselves, and all four players attending NHL Development Camps this offseason. Between the recruits and returning players, a team that was among the youngest in college hockey last year will have the blend of skill, youth, experience, and grit seen year in and year out among the teams that compete for championships.

Room For Improvement

As any player or coach will tell you, there is always room to improve. As I look back at last year’s team, the number one thing I would like to see from the new squad is more consistent goal scoring. The Huskies averaged only 2.5 goals per game last season, which placed them in the bottom third across the nation, and only three other Hockey East teams had a lower per-game average. Backboned by Levi’s heroics, the team made those goals stand up as enough, but seeing that average rise to over three per game would give the team just a little more breathing room each game, especially on nights when playing other high-end teams. They had twenty games last year with two goals or fewer, but additions like Lund and Walsh coupled with returning players taking that next step in development should help push that scoring output higher night in and night out.

Other than goal scoring, the second variable that will play a factor in the success of the season will be the combination of youth and experience on the blue line. With as many as three freshmen expected to play meaningful minutes on defense, how quickly they acclimate to the speed, physicality, and demands of the collegiate level will be paramount to a fast start for the Huskies. Expect senior defensemenJayden Struble, Tyler Spott, and Jeremie Bucheler to step up and take some of the heavy minutes early in the season as the freshmen get their feet under them. By Christmas and the second half, there is every reason to expect the defense can be a well-oiled machine with complimentary pairings featuring offensive-minded players paired with defense-first players, allowing each player to play to their strengths every game.

Players to Watch

As Devon Levi goes, so too will the Northeastern Huskies this year. If it’s possible to improve on an all-time historic season, expect Levi to pursue that path. After posting nine shutouts in his first season, Levi is only two away from breaking the program record, and very reasonably could establish a new mark that may never again be touched by a Huskies goalie. Eyes of the NCAA and NHL worlds will be fixated on the Canadian goalie from the first drop of the puck, but as he’s shown, Levi is capable of handling the pressure.

Offensively, Aidan McDonough is the straw that stirs the drink, but expect junior Sam Colangelo to be arguably just as important this season. The Stoneham native produced at a near point-per-game level last season, and showcased true sniper abilities through the center of the offensive zone. Armed with an NHL-caliber shot, expect development for Colangelo in the power forward department- if he can use his size to help create space for himself and teammates, that will only amplify his offensive contributions.

Jayden Struble has the unenviable task of filling in Jordan Harris’ skates as the presumptive number one defenseman of the Northeastern blue line. Now a senior who will likely get top pair minutes as well as special teams time, this season has all the makings of Struble’s best offensive season yet. A clean bill of health for the season will go a long way towards that goal as well, but after setting new scoring highs every season, don’t be shocked if by April Struble has shattered last season’s 14 points and 3 goals as his career high.

Jeremie Bucheler returns as the top right-handed defenseman, likely pairing with Struble to allow the lefty more offensive freedom as Bucheler holds down the fort in his own end. Bucheler more than doubled his career high in points last year, finishing with 11, and has flashed offensive smarts that lead to quick breakouts and goals in transition. Gunnarwolfe Fontaine also more than doubled his single-season high, jumping from 10 to 25 points. A speedy sniper who I once said reminded me of Kevin Roy, I have high expectations for Fontaine this year in a top six winger role. Justin Hryckowian was the surprise of the season last year, starting lower in the lineup before playing himself into a top six role and proving to be one of the best face-off men in the conference, nation, and one of the best Northeastern has seen in many years. A knack for clutch goals and capable of playing a skill or a grinding game, Hryckowian has all the tools to challenge for 30 points this year.

Breakout Player of the Year

It’s hard to say that a second round NHL Draft pick and former All-Rookie Team selection is your breakout player selection, but I am willing to bet that Jack Hughes is going to turn a lot of heads this season. After playing last season as the youngest player in college hockey, he still put up seven goals and nine assists, including the game-winning, conference title-winning assist to Aidan McDonough against Merrimack in the last game of the regular season.

What impressed me most about Jack last season was not his stick handling or his puck skills, although both of them are truly video game-type stuff; it was his physicality, scrappiness, and his ability to play in the face of opponents, whether it was protecting himself, his teammates, or trying to establish himself in position on the ice. Despite sometimes going up against men five, six, sometimes seven years older than him, Hughes held his own physically. Hughes is a playmaking center and will likely play in a top six role surrounded by finishers, whether that’s Fontaine or Colangelo or Lund or McDonough or Walsh- whoever he is paired with, expect Jack to pile up plenty of primary assists as he dishes out pucks to his teammates in positions to score. Not for nothing, Hughes also showed the ability to score goals both in the dirty areas around the crease and flashy shots from between the dots.

Jerry Keefe said prior to last season that Jack Hughes has the potential to be the best player in college hockey. My prediction is this year, he takes a massive leap towards fulfilling that prediction, and starts to show why the Los Angeles Kings made such a smart decision snagging him with the 51st pick in the NHL Draft.

Final Thoughts

This season has all the makings of being arguably the greatest season in Northeastern history. Picked as the preseason favorite in Hockey East and 8th in the nation in the opening USCHO poll, the expectations are there across the board for the Huskies. They have the goaltender, the scoring ability, the veteran leadership, the high-end skill combined with excellent role players, and the staff to maximize that talent. At a bare minimum, this team should expect to lock in home ice for the Hockey East playoffs as a top four seed, and compete for a competitive at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament. Players and coaches alike are well aware that the next mountain to tackle is winning a game in the NCAA Tournament and advancing into the next round- folks, the 2022-23 Huskies have every chance to be the team that ends that drought.

One factor that should help achieve their tournament berth goal is the out of conference schedule. In their ten non-conference games, Northeastern plays BU (Beanpot), BC (regular non-conference), Harvard (regular non-conference) either Harvard or BC again (Beanpot round 2), Western Michigan, Long Island twice, Union, Sacred Heart, and Bentley. The Huskies will be the favorite to win the majority of these games, with Harvard and BU likely presenting the stiffest competition based on returning production and preseason expectations. If the Huskies can take care of business in this slate, they will build a cushion for themselves in the Pairwise that will only be aided by further taking care of business in conference play.

We’ve waited six months since Northeastern last played a hockey game. The wait is finally almost over. The 2022-23 season is finally upon us, and with it, the start of what could be Northeastern’s date with destiny.

All hail, Northeastern.