Hockey East Preview – Maine Black Bears


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In the coming weeks, NU Hockey Blog will be counting down to the start of the 2017-18 Hockey East season with a look at the upcoming year for each of the returning clubs (Note: get lost Notre Dame). Today, we continue with our projected 10th place finisher, the University of Maine Black Bears.

Maine Black Bears 2016-17 Results:

Overall: 11-21-4

Hockey East: 5-15-2 (11th)

Hockey East Tournament: Swept by Vermont in Hockey East Opening Round

NCAA Tournament: Did not make tournament

Departures: Cam Brown (F), Blaine Byron (F), Matt Morris (G), Eric Schurhamer (D)

Additions: Alexis Binner (D), Simon Butala (D), Brady Keeper (D), Cam Spicer (D), Adam Dawe(F), AJ Drobot (F), Brent Hill (F), Kevin Hock (F), Adrian Holesinsky (F), Jack Quinlivan (F), Eduards Tralmaks (F), Emil Westerlund (F) (Source: College Hockey News); Tim Doherty  (F, Brown transfer), Canon Pieper (F, Quinnipiac transfer) (Source: Bangor Daily News)

Last month, Paul Kariya was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. The pride of Black Bear Hockey and possibly the greatest college hockey player of all-time, Kariya and his election serve as a reminder of the astounding feats once achieved by the University of Maine program. Chad Finn (one of my personal favorite sports writers) had a particularly interesting story about Kariya and the Black Bears’ legendary 42-1-2 season in 1992-93. You can read it here.

As I read through the above article last month, it was hard not to think about just how far Maine has fallen. 42-1-2 will almost certainly never be reached again, but the Black Bears of Orono retained national relevance for nearly two decades following that unforgettable campaign. They nabbed a second national title in 1999, beating hated rival UNH in the process, and visited the Frozen Four five more times during the aughts. Since their last Frozen Four in 2007, though, Maine has finished with a winning percentage of .500 or worse six times. Since the club’s last NCAA tournament appearance (and a Hockey East Championship loss to Boston College), Maine has lost in the first round of the conference tournament five years in a row and has never been a serious contender in any of them. The program’s fall from grace eerily resembles New Hampshire’s struggles further down I-95.

Head coach Red Gendron enters his fifth season still searching for a way to turn the ship around. In 2016-17, Maine was again among the worst clubs in the conference. The Black Bears finished 11th in Hockey East, only ahead of Massachusetts, and struggled all season. Of their 11 wins, 7 came against the likes of Massachusetts, Rensselaer, American International, and Brown. They were mediocre on offense (2.83 goals per game, 9th in Hockey East) and the power play (18.7%, 6th), and even worse on defense (3.47 goals allowed per game, 11th in Hockey East). They were the 11th worst team in the nation in possession, as measured by even strength Corsi For (46.3%), and they were outshot on average by a 34.9 to 29.3 margin. To top all of that off, they took the second most penalty minutes per game in Hockey East (13.9), had the worst penalty kill in the conference (78.8%), and were 11th in net special teams play (-12). If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the team was not particularly lucky; Maine was middle of the pack in college hockey with 9.7 shooting percentage (27th) and a .900 team save percentage (36th).

Unfortunately, Maine will have to improve on these numbers while coping with the graduation of some of its most significant contributors.  Former forwards Blaine Byron (18-23-41) and Cam Brown (4-35-39) were both top fifteen scorers in Hockey East last year. Defenseman Eric Schurhamer (who led the blue line in games played a year ago) has graduated, as well as goaltender Matt Morris (who played nearly 3000 minutes in net the last three seasons).

If they can weather these losses, the Black Bears have reasons for optimism. For example, Toronto draft pick Nolan Vesey will be back for his senior season after finishing last season as the third-highest Black Bear scorer at 13-10-23). More intriguing is the impressive amount of young, depth that may be primed for breakouts in the years ahead. Rising sophomore Chase Pearson (Detroit draft pick) will look to build on his 14 goal, 22 point rookie campaign. Forwards Brendan Robbins (rising junior, 6-13-19) Mitchell Fossier (rising sophomore, 8-8-16), Patrick Shea (rising sophomore, 5-11-16, Florida draft pick), and Ryan Smith (rising sophomore, 4-6-10) are all back for more after chipping in double-digit points a year ago. Patrick Holway (rising sophomore, 4-9-13, Detroit draft pick) and Rob Michel (rising junior, 9-10-19) return as well. That’s an impressive share of scoring from a large crop of underclassmen. Rising junior goaltender Rob McGovern is back after posting a solid .912 save percentage in 29 games a year ago and 6’7” Hungarian defenseman Olivér Herner will bear watching after redshirting last season.

Where hope shines the brightest for Maine, though, is the incoming freshman class. Though the names listed above have not yet been confirmed by the University of Maine program, the class of 2021 holds significant promise. Among the players arriving in Orono this fall are:

Jeremy Swayman (G) was drafted 111th overall (4th round) by the Boston Bruins in this year’s NHL draft. The 6’2”, 183-pound Alaskan native posted a .914 save percentage with the Sioux Falls Stampede of the USHL a year ago. Swayman’s size, athleticism, and self-described aggressiveness will allow him to challenge McGovern for the starting job this year and push Maine’s goaltending to another level.

Brady Keeper (D) is a 6’2”, 195-pound defensemen who will bring size and offensive skill to the Black Bear blue line corps. Keeper, born in 1996, has posted 41, 44, and 48 points in the last three seasons with the OCN Blizzard of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League, including 23 goals a year ago. Described as a two-way defenseman, look for Keeper to step in to play immediately.

Emil Westerlund (F) comes to Maine after posting 28 goals and 39 points in 44 games for the Swedish Elite Under-20 league last season. With scoring ability and a projectable frame (6’1”, 190 pounds), Westerlund promises to be an impact player for the Black Bears.

The Black Bears will add further size to the blue line with Alexis Binner (D, 6’4”, 209 pounds) and Simon Butala (D, 6’2”, 200 pounds). Cam Spicer (D) will join them, as will Adam Dawe (F), AJ Drobot (F), Brent Hill (F), Kevin Hock (F), Adrian Holesinsky (F), Jack Quinlivan (F), and Eduards Tralmaks (F).Forwards Tim Doherty and Canon Pieper will also be allowed to play after sitting out last season due to NCAA transfer rules.

Ultimately, Maine is building from scratch. We don’t see them finishing any higher than the bottom two or three in Hockey East. The once-great Black Bears, though, are not far off from contention with this impressive stream of young talent. Possession, defense, and goaltending need to improve, but Gendron is finally building the needed foundation. In another season or two Maine will be making noise in the Hockey East playoffs once again – and maybe more if player development breaks right.