The Black Bears returned to the Frozen Four last year, but were foiled in the semifinal game by North Dakota in their attempt to repeat as national champions.
All of which moved to the background during the offseason when coach Shawn Walsh was diagnosed with kidney cancer. He’ll miss the season opener against North Dakota and the following weekend’s Black Bear Classic tournament while undergoing a second round of treatments at UCLA. Depending on any follow-up course of action, his availability may be touch-and-go for the rest of the season.
Although he’s undoubtedly one of the top bench coaches in the business, Walsh dismisses any thought that his medical problems will affect the team’s play.
“I don’t think it’ll affect our players,” he says. “Kids want to play once the puck is dropped, especially opening up with North Dakota.”
Walsh considers the strength of the team to be from the nets on out.
“Having Matt [Yeats] in net gives us a backbone with Mike [Morrison] behind him,” says Walsh. “We feel very solid in goal.”
Yeats didn’t get much ink last year, in part because of an almost total lack of flamboyance, best symbolized by his plain white mask. At a 52-flavors position, he was vanilla, simply stopping the puck consistently and leaving the headlines to others. Even so, his 2.60 GAA and .911 save percentage gave evidence that he’s one of the top goaltenders in the league and should be a mainstay for this year’s squad.
In front of him is a defense that lost Robert Ek and Anders Lundback, but returns a strong group led by Doug Janik and Peter Metcalf.
“We’re semi-thin on defense, but at the same time, we’re experienced,” says Walsh. “We’ve got four guys back who have played key roles in Final Four teams: Doug Janik, A.J. Begg, Peter Metcalf and Cliff Loya.
“I think Eric Turgeon will give us a big lift back there and we expect Kevin Clauson and Mike Schutte to battle for the sixth spot. So, we’re not expecting any freshmen to have to come in and be big players on defense this year.”
Up front, the Black Bears have some big holes to fill after losing their top four scorers in Cory Larose, Barrett Heisten (who turned pro early), Ben Guite and Brendan Walsh. Heisten and Walsh were also among the team’s most physical players.
“We lost a lot of scoring and we lost a lot of strength,” says Walsh. “But I do think there are guys who can take the next step. I think guys like Marty Kariya, Tommy Reimann and Niko Dimitrakos can all go from the 20 point level to the 40-50 point level.
“Donnie Richardson will join us at Christmas [after sitting out a year following his transfer from Vermont] and he’s going to be an impact kid. Interestingly enough, Matthias Trattnig, who’s our biggest forward, came back and won the three-mile run despite losing one of his shoes with a mile to go. So he’s obviously in unbelievable shape. And we have Dan Kerluke and a lot of guys who’ve done things.”
Additionally, three freshman forwards — Colin Shields, Todd Jackson and Brendan Donovan — appear ready to make immediate contributions.
“Colin Shields is as good of a freshman forward as we’ve brought here in a while,” says Walsh. “He looks like a guy who should be able to command some power-play time right away and be able to put up some offensive numbers. His track record shows that, too. He led the North American League in scoring.
“Brendan Donavan has been exceptionally good, too. He’s fast and feisty.
“Todd Jackson is clearly a good player. He’s going to be in the top nine forwards in all probability.”
As a result, the Black Bears should be able to plug the holes left behind by Larose and company and will likely be one of the top offensive teams in the league once again.
“We don’t return the 50-point scorer, but we have a lot of guys who have potential to do that,” says Walsh. “We’re deep up front.”
— Maine head coach Shawn Walsh
Unfortunately, that depth will be tested early. Dimitrakos fractured a wrist in preseason practice and is likely to miss the first month of the season. He’s not only one of the most talented forwards, but one with a certified big-game reputation. With several major clashes in that first month, he’ll be missed.
“It’s a major loss for us,” says assistant coach Gene Reilly, acting as the interim coach in Walsh’s absence. “But the positive for us is that you get to develop another player or two. They’ll get thrown into a playoff atmosphere right off the bat when we host North Dakota. That will be invaluable experience for those guys when January and February hits.
“We’re going to have a tough time scoring goals [without Dimitrakos,] but everybody has a tough time scoring goals. It’s the nature of hockey right now with the way people are teaching defense and the use of video. Maybe we’ll focus a little more on defense with him out.”
Dimitrakos had earned a reputation early in his Maine career for “not having a defensive bone in his body,” as assistant coach Grant Standbrook once observed. So Reilly’s comment about more defense without Dimitrakos isn’t mere spinmastering. Ironically, though, his defensive play had appeared to be much improved prior to the injury.
“The unfortunate part is that he was paying attention to those defensive details,” says Reilly. “He was playing terrific in training camp. That’s why he’s even more of a loss.”
If there are problems that need fixing — whether related to the Dimitrakos injury or not — they’ll likely surface early.
“Our first three official games are North Dakota, North Dakota and St. Lawrence,” says Walsh. Both opponents went to the Frozen Four with the Black Bears last year. “With a team that has only three seniors, we’re going to learn in a real hurry what we need.”