Hockey East Preview – New Hampshire Wildcats

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Image Courtesy of Melissa Wade via USCHO

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 eleven returning clubs (Note: Get lost Notre Dame). Today, we start with our projected last place finisher, the University of New Hampshire Wildcats.

New Hampshire Wildcats 2016-2017 Results:

Overall: 15-20-5

Hockey East: 7-11-4 (10th)

Hockey East Tournament: Beat Merrimack 2-1 in Hockey East Opening Round; lost to UMass Lowell 2-1 in Hockey East Quarterfinals

NCAA Tournament: No.

Departures: Matias Cleland (D; Hockey East All-Star Honorable Mention), Jamie Hill (F), Tyler Kelleher (F; Hockey East First Team All-Star), Dylan Maller (D)

Additions: Max Gildon (D; FLA), Charlie Kelleher (F), Benton Maass (D; WSH), Eric MacAdams (F), James Miller (D), Mike Robinson (G; SJS), Kohei Sato (F)

The coming spring of 2018 will mark the end of an era in Durham. Shortly after the Wildcats’ elimination from the 2017 Hockey East Tournament, New Hampshire athletic director Marty Scarano announced that the upcoming season will be the last for long-time head coach Dick Umile. Current associate head coach and UNH alumnus (2000) Mike Souza will take the reins in the fall of 2018.

For the better part of three decades, Umile has been a college hockey icon. UNH became an elite force under his leadership, and a remarkably consistent one at that. Umile’s teams made the NCAA tournament an astounding 18 times in one 22-season stretch (including ten in a row). His teams won eight regular season Hockey East titles and reached four Frozen Fours. Unfortunately for the Wildcat faithful, UNH won just two Hockey East Tournament titles during this run (2002 and 2003). And the once-expected national title has remained elusive.

It’s likely to remain that way. UNH has undergone a slow but steady decline over the course of the past six seasons. In 2012, the club finished with a winning percentage of .500 or worse for the first time since 1996 and for just the second time in Umile’s tenure. Though the 2014 and 2015 seasons featured two trips to the Garden and a Hockey East title game appearance, the Wildcats have now finished .500 or worse three years in a row. 2017 did hold some promise; UNH sat at 11-8-3 through January 14th, with a 7-2-2 Hockey East record. The following 1-9-3 stretch to close the regular season sank them, though. They fought off the Merrimack Warriors in three games in the opening round of the conference tournament, but ultimately fell to eventual champion UMass Lowell in three games in the quarterfinals.

Umile’s 28th season doesn’t hold much more promise. The majority of the 2016-17 squad returns, bringing last year’s possession struggles with them. UNH was outshot on a nightly basis, averaging 28.4 shots to 33.5 shots allowed. They were beat up during even strength play, posting a Corsi For % of 43.4, tied for third-worst nationally with Michigan. The Wildcat offense that posted a respectable 3.1 goals per game was, thus, predominantly carried by a high shooting percentage (10.9%, 7th in the nation) and, more importantly, a top 10 Hobey Baker candidate in Tyler Kelleher. Kelleher posted 24 goals and 63 points (tying for the Hockey East scoring lead with Zach Aston-Reese). The drop-off in production after Kelleher was drastic: just three other players scored more than nine goals for UNH and two of them did so playing alongside Kelleher.

The possession issues shone brightest on the other end of the ice. UNH surrendered 3.4 goals per game (10th in Hockey East). Goaltender Daniel Tirone, though not stellar, posted a decent .910 save percentage in 38 games, while playing more minutes than every Hockey East netminder except for Hayden Hawkey of Providence and Cal Petersen of Notre Dame (2268:43). However, Tirone still posted a 2.99 goals against average, second-worst in Hockey East. This was clearly dragged upwards by the high number of shots Tirone faced on a nightly basis.

The Wildcats did do some things very well. The power play unit was the 11th best in the country and third in Hockey East (21.2%). They also took the fewest penalty minutes in the conference (9.2 per game). But these aren’t enough to overcome their significant deficiencies. They were overly reliant on top-end offense, namely Tyler Kelleher, and struggled to control play, especially on the back-end. These issues promise to get worse before they get better: UNH lost Kelleher and number one defenseman Matias Cleland (Hockey East All-Star Honorable Mention; 3-33-36 scoring line; led all Hockey East defensemen in scoring) to graduation.

The incoming freshman class offers some promise, especially on the defensive end.

Max Gildon (D) was drafted by the Florida Panthers this year (3rd round, 66th overall). The 18-year-old checks in at 6’3” and 191 pounds and was invited to the US World Junior Summer Showcase this year. He also won a gold medal with the US U18 team at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship, where he was named to the tournament all-star team. The existing scouting reports on Gildon indicate that he has good skills, including above-average skating and an excellent shot. While he has offensive potential, he’s still a defense-first blueliner and a raw talent. He’s a candidate for a significant breakout during his years in Durham.

Benton Maass (D) was drafted by the Washington Capitals this year (6th round, 182nd overall). Another 18-year-old with size (6’2”, 195 pounds), Maass played both high school hockey in Minnesota and junior hockey in the North American Hockey League (NAHL) this past season. He posted a scoring line of 7-9-16 in the NAHL with the Fairbanks Ice Dogs. More offensive-minded than Gildon, he has received praise for his shot, passing skills, and skating.

Mike Robinson (G) was drafted by the San Jose Sharks in 2015 (3rd round, 86th overall). A 6’4”, 195 pound netminder, Robinson is another NAHL alumnus, having played for the Springfield Junior Blues of the NAHL last year. He posted a save percentage of .916 in 25 games. With significant size and sound technical ability, look for Robinson to be the heir to Tirone – or to snatch the job from him altogether.

The Wildcats will also add freshmen James Miller (D), Charlie Kelleher (F, brother of Tyler), Eric MacAdams (F), and Kohei Sato (F).

Ultimately, New Hampshire needs improvement across the board. The club needs to find depth scoring beyond their top three returning scorers. Sophomore Patrick Grasso (20-13-33 last season as a freshman) will bring some scoring at the top of the team. Seniors Jason Salvaggio (23-13-36) and Michael McNicholas (13-30-43) could as well, though it remains to be seen whether they can produce without Kelleher alongside them. Before joining forces with the Hobey Baker candidate, the pair had combined to score a total of just 7 goals and 21 points over two full seasons in Durham. Perhaps promising young sophomore forwards such as Liam Blackburn (9-9-18) and Brendan van Riemsdyk (5-10-15) can break out and fill the void. The Wildcats will also need a much stronger showing on the blue line, both to prevent goals and to control play. They’ll lean heavily on freshmen Gildon and Maass, but will still need significant contributions from seniors Cameron Marks and Dylan Chanter, as well as sophomore Anthony Wyse and junior Matt Dawson. Finally, UNH needs Daniel Tirone to raise his game another notch; perhaps the arrival of Robinson will push the team’s goaltending quality higher with additional competition.

Every team in Hockey East has potential, but there are too many “ifs” here for a team that was already bottom-of-the-league last year and lost its two best players (including a Hobey Finalist and conference scoring leader). UNH will be hard-pressed to escape the cellar this year and are destined for a 4th consecutive finish at .500 or worse. The Wildcats faithful will have to hope that Souza will provide a needed breath of fresh air starting next summer.