WORCESTER, Mass. — As the season opened, New Hampshire appeared to have answers to every question except one. The Wildcats returned their entire defensive corps along with their top goaltender. They also returned every significant scorer, but one.
How do you replace Darren Haydar?
It was the only unanswered question, the only hole in a deep and talented lineup. But as unanswered questions go, it was a big one. Haydar had led the country in scoring with 76 points on 31 goals and 45 assists.
When asked The Question, UNH coach Dick Umile would answer that he expected Preston Callander and Justin Aikins — insignificant contributors as freshmen — to pick up the slack.
It sounded like whistling past the graveyard. Callander and Aikins for Haydar? It reminded one of the ludicrous trades offered regularly on talk sports shows. John Burkett, Lou Merloni and cash for Bartolo Colon. Vinnie Baker and a draft pick for Shaq. Steve Shields and a Zamboni for Martin Brodeur.
Callander and Aikins would replace Haydar? Well, maybe when you-know-what freezes over. They might be talented players, but c’mon.
Yet it wasn’t PR for the media. Dick Umile told the two players the same thing. On the face of it, it didn’t make sense. Aikins had appeared in 29 games, scoring eight points. Callander had wedged his way into the talented UNH lineup for 24 games, scoring 12 points.
“It was frustrating,” Callander says. “I didn’t play as much as I thought I was going to. I was a freshman and you can’t expect to play every game, [but] coming from juniors, I had played every game and I was on the ice all the time.
“You’ve got to expect that coming in as a freshman you’re not going to be on the first line and you’re not going to be on the power play, [but] it was frustrating.
“[Fortunately], I had some guys to talk to. Haydar was great. He talked to me all the time and told me not to get too discouraged. The older guys helped me out with the process.
“At the end of the year, [the coaches] pulled me into the office during the end-of-the-year meetings and said, ‘Next year’s success is going to depend on you and Aikins stepping your game up.’ That’s all I thought about all summer.”
Eleven games into this season, however, Callander and Aikins had each scored only a single goal.
Darren Haydar replacements? Not exactly.
“I started off pretty slow,” Callander says. “That’s kind of frustrating when you’re expected to pick up some slack from the guys who have left. I think around a quarter of the way into the season I started getting more comfortable and started getting more opportunities. I just took it from there and kept working hard.”
While the goalscoring still hasn’t arrived for Aikins (4-16–20), he’s fit in nicely as a playmaker on the power play. Against St. Cloud State in the NCAA first round, he contributed two assists in a 5-2 win.
As for Callander, the sniper’s touch that earned him a berth on the USHL All-Star Team prior to arriving at UNH has begun to manifest itself in a serious way. Having scored 10 goals leading into the national tournament, he torched St. Cloud twice, including the game-winner and the final nail-in-the-coffin insurance tally.
“He’s as good of a goalscorer as we have on our team,” Umile says. “He has fabulous hands. We knew Callander was a goalscorer.
“I would have thought Aikins would have scored a few more goals, but we put him on the power play in the second half and he’s really done a good job.”
As a result, New Hampshire can boast nine 20-point scorers among the forwards. While Lanny Gare (22-28–50) and Colin Hemingway (20-24–44) lead the offense, three very dangerous lines can torment opposing blueliners and strike without warning.
“Darren was phenomenal and we had to replace him,” Umile says. “We have some skill players that fit in together. We’re not far off from where we were last year when Darren did a lot of the scoring. This year we get it from everybody.”
Which are Exhibits A through I why the Wildcats are once again strong contenders for the national championship.