The end of September is nearly upon us and the Hockey East coaches and media polls should be out any time now, which means it’s time to reveal how we at the blog think Hockey East will shake out this year. In a year where Northeastern loses it’s big three and BC and Providence seem stronger than ever, just how high can Cayden Primeau and the defense lead the Huskies?
(Teams were ranked by all three bloggers and special guest 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. Vermont (7 points)
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.
They lose leading scorer Ross Colton, who unexpectedly bolted to the Tampa Bay following a 16 goal season, as well as some veteran leadership in Rob Darrar, Trey Phillips, and Jarrid Privatera. The issue is that for their relative lack of losses besides Colton, they don’t bring have a whole lot else either. Alex Esposito will become their biggest threat as a sophomore coming off a 10 goal season. In terms of incoming players, freshman Johnny DeRoche could contribute. Joey Cipollone had an okay junior career before underwhelming in the USHL. But there’s nothing in this class that says it’s replacing Ross Colton. 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.
10. Merrimack (8 points)
The Warriors made the controversial decision to fire Mark Dennehy last offseason, and while I agreed with the criticism at the time, it’s hard to point at Merrimack and say they’ve been getting better or competing at all under him in recent years. Their most recent moment of note, besides taking it to Denver in Denver last season, is probably when Rasmus Tirronen and the Warriors defeated Clay Witt and the Huskies in a playoff series at Matthews back in 2015 before Jack Eichel’s Terriers promptly stomped all over them on their way to a National Championship appearance.
The Warriors lose most of the notable scorers from their 2018 10th-place performance, including Brett Seney, Jace Hennig, Jared Kolquist, and Ludvig Larsson. That leaves a roster with one, count him, one player who scored more than 5 goals last season in Sami Tavernier. They do bring in a few freshmen with potential, including Jordan Seyfert and Chase Gresock. But they still don’t have any semblance of goaltending, there’s no real reason to believe their freshmen are better than Seney or Larsson, and Scott Borek was less than inspirational as a coaching hire. If the Warriors are going to make their way back from the cellar, this season probably isn’t the year it’s going to happen.
9. New Hampshire (9 points)
The Wildcats started last season a tear, winning 5 games against the likes of Lowell, Colgate, and Colorado College in October (4 at home) and garnering an entirely-too-high national ranking that nearly everybody realized they didn’t deserve. They even picked up 7 points from their first 4 Hockey East games. Then reality hit them like a brick, and Dick Umile went out with ONE SINGLE win after December 6th. One. They failed to win in 20 of their last 21 games on their way to a last place finish in Hockey East despite having the lead in November. That’s the kind of stretch that should get you fired, even if you’re not an aging head coach holding on for years too long to reach a milestone you have no chance of achieving.
So now Michael Souza is here with recruiting classes that he’s been planning for years and it looks… kind of promising? Will MacKinnon, Angus Crookshank, and incoming goaltender Ty Taylor were all drafted. Max Gildon and Benton Maass are still around. McNicholas, Eiserman, and Salvaggio are gone which might be addition by subtraction. Rome wasn’t built in a day and it’s hard to see an immediate turnaround in Durham, but time will tell if the loss of Umile will be a blessing in disguise for UNH.
8. UMass-Lowell (19 points)
The Riverhawks were the shock of the 2018 season, with a season opening sweep at the hands of UNH being a sign of things to come. They finished in 8th place in Hockey East, lower than most thought Norm Bazin was capable of, and only made it that high because Cristoffer Hernberg took the net from Tyler Wall and dragged them there kicking and screaming . The Riverhawks won 11 Hockey East games. Hernberg won 9 of them. Wall won 3 games in 12 starts and posted an .868 save percentage.
The good news for Lowell is that Wall has to be better, basically by default, and they only lost John Edwardh and Jake Kamrass among scorers. The bad news is that Hernberg is probably not an all-world goaltender, they lose three of their top four defensemen in Tommy Panico, Chris Forney, and Tyler Mueller, and while they bring in 13 freshmen, only defenseman Seth Barton was drafted. Overall, that probably adds up to not much change from 2018. But this is still a Norm Bazin coached team, so they’ll probably roll their way back into the top four and we’ll all be completely unsurprised by the development despite there being no evidence pointing to it.
7. UConn (19 points)
UConn’s 2018 can really only be described as “strange”. They had a rough first half, including a loss to Sacred Heart and a sweep at the hands of Miami. They only won 15 games overall. Yet somehow, they finished the season on an absolute tear, winning 7 Hockey East games in a row from January 20th to February 10th and vaulting themselves all the way into a bye in the conference tournament.
The Huskies have some big losses in Max Letunov and Spencer Naas, their two leading scorers, along with Johnny Austin, Jesse Schwartz, Kasperi Ojantakanen, and Corey Ronan. But Alexander Payusov is back and probably would have led them in scoring last year had he played the entire season. Adam Huska is still around. And their freshman class has 11 skaters, including 4.75/5 star prospect and third round pick Ruslan Ishakov, another draftee in Jachym Kondelik, and solid players including Kale Howarth and Corson Green.
The Huskies lose a lot and gain a lot. In the end that’s probably not the best thing for their season as players need time to adjust and build chemistry, but another late season run could be coming once they do that. The issue with that plan? They play all of BC, BU, NU, PC, and preseason hype machine UMass in February or March. So in this case, when the tough get going for the Huskies, the going gets tough to match them. UConn is the wild card entering this season.
6. Maine (23 points)
The Black Bears blew away expectations in 2018, turning a basement dweller from the prior few years into a team that was just one point away from securing a bye in the Hockey East tournament. The biggest reason for that was the emergence of freshman goaltender Jeremy Swayman, but big performances by unexpected names like Mitch Fossier, Eduards Tralmaks, and Tim Doherty has a lot to do with it as well.
There’s no real reason to believe Swayman can’t save .921 again and none of the forwards except Fossier posted outlandish shooting percentages, so by all rights a Maine team that loses Nolan Vesey and Cedric LaCriox and gains Jacob Schmidt-Svejstrup and Adam Dawe should be better than they were last year. But the Black Bears were outshot last season and only finished with an 10-11-3 record in a pretty weak Hockey East. So in reality, a “better” Maine team probably means they get their shot differential up and win another game or two, but as Hockey East gets better around them instead of having a historically bad year, the 6-8 range still ends up being about their landing point.
5. UMass (28 points)
The preseason darlings of Hockey East, the young guns, Greg Carvel’s UMass Minutemen. Led by Cale Makar and Mario Ferraro on the back end, John Leonard, Oliver Chau, and Mitchell Chaffee on the front end, and incoming freshman Fille Lindberg in goal, the Minutemen are quite possibly on the way to the stratosphere. They lose nobody of note (Niko Rufo and Jake Horton) and pick up a small army of potential contributors, from Lindberg to Marc and Anthony Del Gaizo to Colin Felix and Ty Farmer. Experience? Don’t worry about experience, they have Jacob Pritchard coming in too, a a grad transfer from St. Lawrence with 27 goals and 63 points in his NCAA career. The only question is whether they break into the top four, with a potentially vulnerable Northeastern probably the easiest team for them to pick off. Whether they host their playoff series or not, I think it’s pretty safe to say nobody is going to be penciling in a win for their games against the Minutemen, which is leaps and bounds from where they were just two short years ago.
4. Northeastern (31 points)
Let’s not bury the lede here. Adam Gaudette is gone. Dylan Sikura is gone. Nolan Stevens is gone. But forget about offense for a second and look at what’s still here for the defending Beanpot Champions. Cayden Primeau is in goal, stability for the Huskies between the pipes for the first time anyone can remember. In front of him, Jeremy Davies, Ryan Shea, Senior Captain Eric Williams, and third round pick Jordan Harris make a formidable top four. AJ Villella and Julian Kislin both come in following successful USHL campaigns. The Huskies were third in the NCAA in goals against last season. Will they be third again? Probably not. The Big Three holding the puck in the other end of the ice for half the game helped. But there’s no reason that the defense and goaltending coming back should fall very far down the list.
The back end stability provides a floor for the Huskies, no matter what happens, they should be in the Hockey East playoffs on that merit alone. How high up the standings they finish and how far they go depends on the offense. Brandon Hawkins looked like a legitimate threat last season, but now he has to compete with the best that opposing defenses have to offer, not the scraps the Big Three left behind. Zach Solow, Matt Filipe, and Grant Jozefek have to step up. Four incoming forwards, including grad transfer Austin Plevy, now-senior Liam Pecararo, third round pick Tyler Madden, and shooting specialist Matt Thomson all need to be as advertised. If the forwards contribute rather than coming along for the ride, the Huskies will be reloading for another run, not rebuilding. And if they don’t, all it takes for a run in hockey is a hot defense and goaltending, and you would be hard pressed to say Northeastern is less equipped than anyone in the country to make that run.
T2. Boston University (39 points, 1 first place vote)
The Terriers come off a season that can only be considered pedestrian by their standards. They won just 12 of their 24 Hockey East games and finished 4th in the standings. In non-conference play, they got swept by Minnesota State, lost to Denver, lost their Red Hot Hockey title to Cornell, and lost the Beanpot to the Huskies.
Then they went out, won the Hockey East tournament, and took their trophy back from the Big Red the next weekend.
What else did you expect?
The Terriers lose Jordan Greenway just as he became the dominant unstoppable force he was always advertised as. They lose 4th overall pick Brady Tkachuk after insisting all summer that he would stay. And they really don’t lose a whole lot else of note. On the flip side, Patrick Harper is back from whatever disease riddled him and the Terriers last year, Joel Farabee and Jake Wise are great despite maybe not being quite as impressive as any BU freshman class in recent memory, and they bring in another grad transfer in Max Willman to boot. Jake Oettinger is still hanging around in net to save everything sent his way. The Terriers are perfectly fine, even by their standards, which is pretty amazing. What other team can lose a top five NHL pick unexpectedly, have a player retire from hockey, and not replace either of them with new players, and be perfectly fine? Only BU can. What other team can lose their head coach to the NHL and probably end with with a better staff because of it? Only BU can. Look for the Terriers to take up their usual top four Hockey East spot and to check in on them in the NCAA tournament.
T2. Providence (39 points, 1 first place vote)
The Friars come off a Hockey East Championship game loss bigger and better than ever. They do lose two but their top five goal scorers in Brian Pinho and Erik Foley, but still bring back Josh Wilkins, Brandon Duhaime, Scott Conway, Kasper Bjorkqvist, and Vimal Sukumaran, all of whom are double-digit goal scorers and/or 25 point scorers. Behind them, 5/6 of the defense returns, only losing Tommy Davis. Hayden Hawkey still mans the net. Their freshman class includes first round pick Jay O’Brien, Mikael Hakkarainen, Jack Dugan, and Michael Callahan (all also drafted), Luke Perunovich (brother of Scott), and Tyce Thompson (brother of Tage). The Friars are an unquestionable Hockey East Championship contender and National Championship contender. This is a picture of what reloading looks like.
1. Boston College (42 points, 2 first place votes)
Jerry York never ceases to amaze. In back to back seasons, the Eagles were, frankly, not all that great. They were desperately missing their 2018 senior class that all left for greener pastures. They fell short of the NCAA tournament both years. They didn’t have a whole lot to offer to compete with their Comm Ave rivals on draft day.
And in those two years, they won two Hockey East regular season titles.
Death, taxes, and Jerry York’s Eagles are on top of Hockey East. These are constants in life.
The Eagles enter this season losing exactly one player from their team that topped Hockey East a year ago; grad transfer defenseman Kevin Lohan. They bring in the best transfer in hockey, defenseman Ben Finkelstein. They bring in an elite talent as the third collegiate home of Oliver Wahlstrom. Another high draft pick in Jack McBain. And a pair of players who were projected to be high draft picks but inexplicably weren’t in Patrick Giles and the 6’6″ defenseman Adam Samuelsson. The Eagles are, for the first time in a few years, back in the National Title picture. The Eagles and the Friars should be neck and neck all season to determine who should be seen as the kings of Hockey East. It may well come down to the end of the season.
But the Eagles always finish on top.