Northeastern finished a disappointing 13-19-4 last year, making it three straight losing seasons on Huntington Avenue. The Huskies defeated NCAA tournament-bound St. Lawrence and Wisconsin, not to mention New Hampshire, BU, Rensselaer and Harvard, but overall the wins were too few and far between.
The Huskies then lost their top scorer and two key defensemen to graduation. Even so, coach Bruce Crowder thinks he has the ingredients for a turnaround.
“We’re going to be young, but I think we have great leadership in our senior class,” he says. “That combination is going to be good in a way because the freshmen are looking at guys like Willie Levesque and Chris Lynch and Jim Fahey and their work ethic and their desires. I just know it’s going to rub off on them and they’re going to want to compete just as hard just to keep up with those guys.
“I think right now it’s a good mix. It’s a mix that I haven’t had in awhile here at Northeastern and I think you need that type of leadership from the top down.”
As has recently been the case, offense was a problem last season. The Huskies ranked next to last in scoring and then lost top point-getter Greg Mischler, who led Hockey East in assists with 32 while also scoring 10 goals. On the plus side, however, junior Mike Ryan returns, having established himself as one of the better snipers in the league. Hard-working Willie Levesque and Chris Lynch are also back for their senior seasons.
Those three form the veteran core up front, followed by junior Joe Mastronardi and sophomores Scott Selig and Trevor Reschny.
“Mike Ryan had a breakout year, going from four goals to 17,” says Crowder. “We need him to take that type of leap again going into his junior year. He’s a very skilled individual.
“Willie Levesque is a guy that we’ve got to have shoot the puck more. Statistically, Willie’s shooting percentage was one of the best in the league. His shooting percentage was 23 percent, but he only took 56 shots. So he’s a guy that has to shoot the puck more. He has a good shot and should play to his strengths.
“Chris Lynch needs to rebound a little bit. He didn’t have the same production last year that he did his sophomore year. Those are the guys that we really need to count on.”
Crowder will also be counting on his freshman class to make an immediate impact up front. On paper, it’s an impressive group led by Jared Mudryk (102 points, AJHL), Jason Guerriero (NAHL MVP) and Jaron Herriman (MWJHL MVP).
“It’s probably the most skilled forward freshman class I might have ever brought in anywhere,” says Crowder. “They all come in with different awards and accolades. We felt recruiting-wise we needed more skill up front and that’s what we feel we went out and got. We won some recruiting battles and that’s big. Now we need those kids to step forward and crack the ice a little bit.”
Unlike many of their more rugged predecessors, the three incoming freshmen emphasize speed and skill over size. Guerriero stands 5-8, 175 pounds, Herriman 5-10, 190, and Mudryk 5-6, 165.
“We hope we can surround those guys with pretty good guys that can grind and muck it up a little bit,” says Crowder. “You look at guys like Eric Ortlip, who I thought had a decent freshman year. We can get more out of him. And Joe Mastronardi, we can get more out of him. Even Leon Hayward, a guy that’s a senior. We need more from him.
“I don’t think we’re going to be a team that’s as rugged in slamming people, but maybe a little more a finesse, skilled team that will compete at 110 percent level at every game.”
Jim Fahey (Second-Team All-Hockey East) and Arik Engbrecht will lead a very young defensive corps. Brian Sullivan and Joe Mancuso are the only other returning blueliners, and Mancuso may be moved up front. As a result, immediate contributions will be needed from the incoming class of six recruits led by Brian Nathe (US Under-18 Team), Tim Judy (USHL Second-Team All-Star) and Donnie Grover.
“We have Fahey, of course, but we also need Arik Engbrecht to be healthy,” says Crowder. “He can be a great defenseman in this league. One of his goals to be healthy all year. If he is, that’s going to be a huge plus for us.
“Brian Sullivan is a kid that has put on about 10 or 15 pounds over the summer. He’s got to step it up as a junior coming back.
“I look at us as maybe being in a similar position to what Providence went through last year. They had two senior defensemen, [Matt] Libby and [Jay] Leach, and a lot of young guys. The two seniors kind of settled the fort [for the young guys.]
“To have that happen for us, we need our goaltending stepping up to the point where everybody can play with a lot more confidence.”
It’s not a coincidence that Northeastern’s last winning season was in 1997-98 when Marc Robitaille was in the nets. Since that time, the Huskies have tended to get average or inconsistent goaltending, at best. Both Mike Gilhooly (8-14-4, 3.15 GAA, .890 Sv%) and Jason Braun (5-5-0, 3.57 GAA, .895 Sv%) have had their bright moments, but .890 and .895 save percentages aren’t going to lead many teams to winning records.
“I don’t care what level you’re at, you have to have somebody who can get the job done in goal,” says Crowder. “If you have the best forwards in the world and the best defense in the world, but your goaltender is a guy that’s going to let the soft one in, it just starts to snowball.
“Not to throw everything on the goaltenders. It would be nice if we could score a few more goals to maybe take the pressure off our defense and goaltender. It’s kind of a catch-22.”
All too often over the past few years, the Huskies have held territorial advantages in games only to lose because the forwards weren’t scoring and the goalies weren’t coming up big. As a result, it wasn’t a surprise to see the push for more skill up front and more competition in the net. The latter comes from freshman Keni Gibson (COJHL Goalie of the Year), who was second in all Canadian junior leagues in goals against average and save percentage.
“There’s no doubt that Michael Gilhooly, in our opinion, has the ability to do what he needs to get done for us to be competitive,” says Crowder. “At the same time, Keni Gibson coming in as a freshman can really push [Gilhooly]. And we still have Jason Braun. If for whatever reason, things don’t get done, he’s a guy that’s played some games and won some games for us.”