2019-20 Hockey East Preseason Poll

It’s almost hockey season again folks. With the Hockey East Media Poll releasing yesterday and the coaches poll soon to follow, as well as some teams beginning their regular season as soon as next weekend, it’s time to kick the season off with another edition of our Hockey East Preview/Preseason Poll. The Huskies come into the season looking to defend their Hockey East title and take home the Lamoriello Trophy for the third time in the past five seasons.

(Teams were ranked by all three bloggers and friend of the blog Zach Gordon, with teams assigned one point for an 11th place finish all the way up to 11 points for a first place finish.)

11. Merrimack (4 points)

Last year was the first year for Scott Borek at the helm of the Merrimack program, and I think it’s safe to say the team did not exactly improve from their previous performances under Mark Dennehy. But of course, that’s to be expected of a first year coach who runs a completely different system than his predecessor. The big question is what happens in year two. Does the team make a big second year jump on the back of Borek turning over nearly the entire roster in one fell swoop this summer, or will they continue to be the Merrimack they have always been?

Our money is on the latter. Merrimack will probably be better than last year. They may even move up a spot or two and avoid finishing last in the conference. But the signs of a big jump just aren’t there. When you compare the Merrimack rebuild to UMass, Cale Makar isn’t walking through that door. Nor Mario Ferraro, nor John Leonard, nor Bobby Trivigno. Griff Jeszka transferred in from the Minutemen, which is fine, but he was not exactly at the top of the roster there. Patrick Holway coming in from Maine is a big add, but one defenseman can only do so much.

Merrimack has 3 goaltenders on roster, all of whom are freshmen who just enrolled, so that’s a giant question mark. Their freshman class is large, certainly, but good is another question altogether. Their best defense prospect Zach Uens is 18, which is a rarity for the Warriors. Their other recruits include BC castoff and NTDP vet Joseph Cassetti and some players who scored as USHL overagers in Mac Welsher, Liam Walsh, and Filip Forsmark. My personal choice for their best forward recruit, Felix Carenfelt, never actually made it to campus this fall. But these players are different from the previous ones, which probably makes them better by default. We’ll see if better is enough to break out of 11th.

10. Vermont (8 points)

This is what I wrote last year:

In the wake of Kevin Sneddon’s most recent inexplicable contract extension, he and his Catamounts continue to trudge forward and live off of their 2009 Frozen Four appearance that reaches a decade old this season. They won 6 Hockey East games and 9 regular season games last season, which was just enough to sneak into 9th place in Hockey East and get eliminated by UMass in the first round. The two teams behind them proceeded to replace their coaches this offseason, leaving the Catamounts as the Hockey East team that decidedly has the least hope for both present and future… And while Stefanos Lekkas is a decidedly acceptable Hockey East goaltender, they won 6 games despite him posting a .914 save percentage last year. Unless he posts numbers in another stratosphere, he alone can’t save them.

Kevin Sneddon has progressed from newly extended to lame duck, which is probably better for UVM’s future but worse for their present, and they seem to have little intention of moving on from him regardless. The team finished worse last year than the season prior, while UMass made a historic jump and Merrimack at least has a new look roster. Stefanos Lekkas was decidedly better than acceptable, he was a stalwart and was named the first team goalie by the Hockey East writers yesterday. And even in spite of him, the Catamounts were eliminated with weeks left in the season last year in the most fitting manner possible, with Lekkas pitching a shutout against BU in a game where Vermont failed to score a goal. None of their recruits coming in have any history of scoring, and in many cases not even a history of playing, in the highest levels of junior hockey. There are no other highlights here. Vermont’s ceiling is as high as Lekkas can hold on his shoulders, but considering the size of the burden the goaltender is carrying, that ceiling is probably “above Merrimack.”

9. New Hampshire (15 points)

The rankings for 7th to 9th place were incredibly close, but it’s the Wildcats who draw the short straw in the end, as we project them to miss the Hockey East tournament this season. Coach Souza’s first season at the helm was an improvement over the team Dick Umile left him, with a trip to the Hockey East tournament and some solid showings in conference, including taking 3 of 4 points against both Lowell and BC as well as taking a point off Providence. The Wildcats were ultimately not able to overcome the top of the conference though, with three losses to NU in their last five regular season games then a playoff sweep at the hands of UMass.

UNH does return multiple 10 goal scorers as well as most of their notable defensemen and solid goaltending, and defense help is coming in the form of Kalle Eriksson and perhaps former prep standout Nolan McElhaney. At forward they need some help behind Blackburn, Crookshank, and Grasso though, and that is looking a lot more shaky outside of Filip Engaras, if the NCAA ever lets him take the ice to begin with. UNH is probably a team on the rise if they can overcome the losses of Nazarian, Vela, and van Riemsdyk up front, but the replacements for all of those goals aren’t readily apparent and that leaves UNH solidly in a holding position this year, fighting for a playoff spot yet again.

8. Maine (16 points)

The next team up in our 7th-9th logjam, the Maine Black Bears have been a picture of consistency, following up a sixth place Hockey East finish in 2018 with another sixth place in 2019. Their projection of eighth here is not an indictment of their progress so much as it is an expectation of some teams behind Maine to jump up in the rankings. The Black Bears return most of their roster up front with only Brendan Robbins really graduating out of a notable role. The loss of Chase Pearson definitely hurts though. On defense however, Rob Michel is gone as well as Alexis Binner, Sam Becker, and Keith Muehlbauer, with Patrick Holway finding his way to Merrimack to boot. Jeremy Swayman still exists though, and he will probably find a way to continue to save .920 behind the new look defense.

I’m not a fan of the recruits Maine has coming in, aside from Matt Thiessen who will be backing up Swayman. But I am a fan of many of the forwards that were already in Orono, including Mitch Fossier who should see an uptick in goal scoring after a long run without finding the net last winter lowered his stats some. Tralmaks, Schmidt-Svejstrup, and others have potential offensively. The question mark for the squad is going to be what the blue line looks like and whether it can succeed at both helping Swayman and at getting pucks up to the forwards. That’s a giant question mark, and in the end, may be what holds Maine back.

7. UConn (19 points)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. I really think this is the year that UConn finally makes their step up and competes with the upper tier of Hockey East. They come in seventh here, a justified ranking considering UConn has been the team to watch and the team of the future for the better part of a decade now with nothing to show for it. (Aside from the second exodus of Eastern European hockey players to North America.) But their gigantic freshman class last year contributed and is now a gigantic sophomore class, with Tomas Vomacka finally looking like the answer in goal that the Huskies have been awaiting for years. There are building blocks there, similar to how NU started their rise to the top with a giant class led by John Stevens and Matt Benning coming in to accompany Clay Witt.

Behind that large class UConn brings in a solid bunch of talented freshmen, including NHL picks Matej Blumel and Vladislav Firstov up front and Eichel-age defenseman Yan Kuznetsov on the blue line. Those players should all be better than those who came before them, and with progression from the stable defense corps and from the forward class led by Ruslan Iskhakov, Alexandre Payusov, Jachym Kondelik and friends, as well as Vomacka in net, this class could finally be the one that puts the Huskies into the national conversation.

6. Northeastern (23 points)

The Huskies find themselves, like they are seemingly every offseason, at a crossroads. In the summer of 2015, I asked myself what kind of noise Northeastern could possibly make without Clay Witt. They raised the Lamoriello Trophy the next year. That summer they lost a player who we considered one of the best in program history in Kevin Roy, and Zach-Aston Reese replaced his scoring and then some on a way to a Hobey finalist campaign where he likely would have won the award on a different team. In 2018 they looked to replace ZAR and ended up with one of the best lines in the history of the game, their first Beanpot in 30 years, and that elusive Hobey on the mantle thanks to Adam Gaudette. And in 2019 they replaced that entire line and somehow only got better, adding a second Hockey East title in 4 years, a second consecutive Beanpot, and the best record in program history, alongside a Mike Richter award for the best goaltender in program history. That brings us to this year’s question.

How in the hell are the Northeastern Huskies supposed to replace Cayden Primeau?

To put it frankly, Northeastern was not a good possession team last year, especially down the stretch. They were outshot early and often on a regular basis. And game after game after game after game, Primeau was the best player on the ice, held the fort, and got the win. He was the MVP of the Beanpot, preventing Jake Oettinger from stealing the first game before shutting down BC in the second. He was the MVP of the Hockey East Tournament, stealing both quarterfinal games from Maine before shutting down the Terriers and the Eagles in much the same fashion. In my opinion he probably should have been the MVP of the 2018 Beanpot as well, as tough as it is to argue with a Hobey winner scoring a hat trick.

All that is to say, Cayden Primeau is irreplaceable. But the world keeps turning, so here are the two people who will try to replace him anyway.

Craig Pantano comes to Northeastern as a grad transfer after four years at Merrimack, where he came in as the third goalie and took over the net by his second year, posting subpar numbers as a sophomore, much improved stats as a junior which were still near the bottom of Hockey East, then a senior year that was statistically poor but featured a number of highlight games, including shutting out NU at Matthews. Craig Pantano is, by definition, a goaltender with a Hockey East pedigree. He’s likely going to take the net on October 11th. And he’s likely going to need help from the defense in much the same way the defense last year needed help from Primeau. Not playing for Merrimack will certainly help him in that regard.

On the other end of the spectrum is freshman Connor Murphy, not to be confused with the Blackhawks defenseman of the same name or with NU defenseman Collin. Murphy posted a .917 save percentage in the CCHL last season, following a .919 in the NCDC the season prior. At 6’4″ 190 lbs, he has the frame you look for in a goaltender. He has a mentor and a wiley veteran in Pantano to guide him along the way. And he is most definitely going to be in games this season, even if opening night isn’t the time or the place. If Murphy can match his junior numbers for the Huskies, that will be all this team needs to maintain a high level of play and compete for a top four spot.

The reason the Huskies are ranked so low is because, well, there’s a good chance Pantano is the goalie he has been behind Merrimack’s terrible defense, and that Murphy can’t jump from the CCHL to the NCAA without missing a beat. Just as an NU team with goaltending is set for another run, an NU team without goaltending is doomed to a middling finish, just as we saw in 2017 when they finished 8th in Hockey East in spite of having Aston-Reese, Gaudette, Sikura, Stevens, Stevens, Davies, and Shea on the roster.

On defense the Huskies are stacked, replacing Jeremy Davies and Eric Williams with one of the highest draft picks in school history in Jayden Struble, Oilers pick Mike Kesselring, and two more highly regarded defensemen in Jeremie Bucheler and Tyler Spott. Not to mention unleashing Jordan Harris in a better role after using him alongside the dynamo Davies last year. Offensively Hawkins and Pecararo will be missed, and upperclassmen like Filipe and Jozefek as well as grad transfer Brendan van Riemsdyk need to step up. But again the replacements are there, with the two big time forwards replaced by Canucks pick Aidan McDonough coming off a strong USHL season, Rangers pick Riley Hughes from the BCHL, and a trio of undrafted goal scoring threats in TJ Walsh, Neil Shea, and Matt DeMelis. This is likely the strongest defense group in the history of NU hockey with a strong forward class to boot. The skaters on this team belong on a home ice Hockey East squad. The question is what happens in the net.

5. UMass-Lowell (30 points)

Lowell returned to form last year, following up the most disappointing season in Norm Bazin’a tenure by returning back to the top four in Hockey East and hosting a quarterfinal. Their large freshman class came through, as Reid Stefanson, Lucas Condotta, and Sam Knoblauch contributed at forward and Seth Barton, John McDonald, and Chase Blackmun did the same on defense, alongside returnees Ryan Lohin, Connor Sodergern, and Kenny Hausinger up front and a resurgent Tyler Wall working in goal with Christoffer Hernberg.

All of those names will be back this season except Lohin and Hernberg, and the latter has been replaced by Logan Neaton, a freshman goaltender from Michigan who was drafted by the Winnipeg Jets. You may note that the last Lowell goalie from Michigan drafted by the Jets was Connor Hellebuyck, and he did alright for the River Hawks. The defense will be essentially the same as last year, and at forward they add Matt Brown and Andre Lee who should both contribute to the team and fight for minutes with last year’s successful freshmen. While Lowell ends up ranked 5th here, they’re much closer to the top of the conference than they are to falling much lower than that.

4. Providence (31 points)

Providence had issues with their top prospects last year, as first round pick Jay O’Brien struggled all season and ultimately left the school while Blackhawks pick Mikael Hakkarainen didn’t even make it to the end of the first weekend. And in spite of those losses, the Friars still managed a top 3 finish in Hockey East, an NCAA berth, and a Frozen Four. Never doubt Nate Leaman.

In addition to O’Brien, the Friars also lose one of the best goalies in their history, Hayden Hawkey, and five of their top six point scorers in Josh Wilkins, Brandon Duhaime, Scott Conway, Kasper Bjorkqvist, and Jacob Bryson. Jack Dugan is one of the leading returning scorers in the whole conference but his supporting cast is gone. The next best returners are Spenser Young and Ben Miraegas on D and Greg Printz up front. Needless to say, this will be a very different Friars team. They roster 4 goalies, led by Harvard grad transfer Michael Lackey and also including Jake Kucharski. Max Crozier is their top incoming D, with Parker Ford and Patrick Moynihan as the two new names to watch up front. Never doubt Nate Leaman, and the addition of Lackey will certainly help to quell those doubts, but it’s hard to see Providence losing what they did and not taking at least a minor step back this season.

3. Boston University (36 points)

A relatively down season by Comm Ave standards befell the Terriers and their faithful in 2019, as BU finished just fifth in Hockey East and lost their first game at TD Garden in both appearances, ultimately missing the NCAA tournament. You can’t help but wonder though, if BU would have added two more trophies to their long list if not for Cayden Primeau’s heroics. Alas they did not, and now the Terriers will look to reload from their annual mass exodus in March, having sent elite goalie Jake Oettinger, first rounder Joel Farabee, top D Dante Fabbro, and two other quality players in Shane Bowers and Chad Krys to the NHL.

You know the next wave of elite recruits will be here to support BU though, as they bring in top ten pick Trevor Zegras to lead the way up front in addition to second rounder Robert Mastrosimone. Ethan Phillips was a fourth rounder, 2018 third rounder Jake Wise comes back from a season ending injury, and while not relevant to this year, first rounder Jay O’Brien will be transferring in as well. Defense is more of the same, as the Terriers welcome second rounder Alex Vlasic, third rounder Domenick Fensore, and fourth rounder Case McCarthy to the roster, keeping fourth rounder Cade Webber and sixth rounder Braden Doyle warm for next summer.

If the Terriers have a weak spot it’s in the net, as the heir apparent to Jake Oettinger is Drew Commesso, and he’s still a year away. In the meantime, BU lost out on the Michael Lackey sweepstakes, so it will be Vinny Purpura between the pipes for the season helped by Yale transfer Sam Tucker. That’s not a bad tandem, but it’s no Jake Oettinger, and it’s no match for their roster of skaters with NHL draft picks up and down the lineup. But they did fine with Matt O’Connor and Sean Maguire back in the day and they will likely prosper this time as well.

2. UMass (38 points)

UMass jumped straight to the top of any list you can think of last year as players exploded onto the scene up and down the lineup, starting with Cale Makar’s progression from “very good” to “undisputed Hobey” and working the way down the entire roster from there. Makar is gone now, as is forward Jacob Pritchard and fellow drafted defenseman Mario Ferraro, but the Minutemen still return four of the top scoring returners in Hockey East, John Leonard, Mitchell Chaffee, Marc Del Gaizo, and Bobby Trivigno. In addition, Filip Lindberg and Matt Murray could both argue they’re the top returning goalie in Hockey East. So while UMass almost inevitably has to take a step back without Makar, that step may not be very far back.

The UMass freshman class is in the upper tier of Hockey East, led by defenseman Zac Jones who garnered quite a bit of USHL praise last year and is the first step to replacing Makar, alongside some forwards who I’m high on in Reed Lebster, Jeremy Davidson, and Calen Kiefiuk. Cale Makar is gone to Colorado, but the team he left behind isn’t leaving the conversation. There’s not much flashy to say about UMass, just good goaltending, good forwards, and good defensemen. The sum of that is good.

1. Boston College (44 points, 4 first place votes)

The Boston College Eagles, coached by legend Jerry York, have missed three consecutive NCAA tournaments. Yet here they are, the unanimous number one. Full disclosure, we picked them first last season as well, proving that the real season won’t be as easy as the paper one.

The Eagles enter this season losing a little at forward, as seniors Christopher Brown and JD Dudek and underwhelming freshman Oliver Wahlstrom are gone. But the players who drove the Eagles, David Cotton, Logan Hutsko, and Julius Mattila are still on the suburban end of Comm Ave while third rounder Jack McBain looks to build on his freshman year. Defensively the Eagles do have some issues, with Michael Kim and Casey Fitzgerald moving on. Joseph Woll is also gone, but that’s no issue. Here’s why.

BC brings in top 15 pick forward Alex Newhook, top 15 pick forward Matthew Boldy, and top 15 pick goaltender Spencer Knight, who is possibly the most well-regarded goalie to step foot in Hockey East since Rick DiPietro. On defense, second round pick Drew Helleson and sixth round pick Marshall Warren join the party. Which is to say, they bring in a lot. And when you have a couple of high-end returning scorers, a couple of first round picks to join them up front, some heralded D, and a once-in-a-generation goaltending prospect, you get to be the preseason number one. Last year, the Eagles didn’t live up to their billing, although just like BU you could argue that only Cayden Primeau stopped them from winning two trophies. This year? Only time will tell.