After losing 11 players a year ago, Massachusetts-Lowell said good-bye to another 10 heading into this season. With a roster of only three juniors and just one senior, the wild cards of freshmen and sophomores will dictate whether the River Hawks sink or swim.
“Reality TV seems to be the big fad,” coach Blaise MacDonald says. “There’s no better form of reality entertainment than a young college hockey team because you just have no idea what’s going to happen.
“We could make it to the FleetCenter and beyond or we could continue to grow, albeit a little slower than maybe we’d want. We’ll have an interesting year, but I couldn’t even come close to handicapping where we’re at.
“In terms of the future, it obviously bodes well that we’ve got a lot of these guys who we’ve recruited who will be around for a few years. That helps us formulize our plan and get these guys entrenched in our culture.”
The one question that dwarfs all others is between the pipes. Last year, Lowell posted by far the worst save percentage in the league, 84.5 percent. Only one other team finished lower than 89.6 percent. Needless to say, no team can be successful with such a staggering goaltending difference from the norm.
Even worse, Dominic Smart, who took the job from Chris Davidson and showed some positive signs down the stretch, left the team for personal reasons. Army transfer John Yaros impressed during practices last year, but won’t be eligible until the spring semester. Until then, Davidson will have to show more than in the past or else it will be a long first half of the season.
“Chris Davidson has come back in tremendous shape,” MacDonald says. “His strength and conditioning numbers were vastly improved. That tells me that he’s worked hard at it.
“He’s our key guy. If you look at this league, it’s hard to have success without much-better-than-average goaltending.”
Guarded optimism or whistling past the graveyard? The 17 games prior to the Christmas break will deliver the answer.
There are also no guarantees that Yaros, when he becomes eligible, will be the second coming of Dwayne Roloson.
“He certainly performed very well last year in practice,” MacDonald says. “He competed for loose pucks. He was strong around the net. He showed really good reflexes and competitive spirit. That’s going to be critical, that he continue that. We’ll see how he is when the bright lights and the referees show up.”
The blue line will be led by the lone senior, Jerramie Domish, junior Peter Tormey and sophomore Matt Collar. After that, the depth chart will depend on the progression of other sophomores and the top freshmen.
“How quickly some of our new players can adapt to the speed and strength of college hockey is going to be a huge indicator of the level of success we’ll have,” MacDonald says. “As our defense goes, our team will go. If we get them acclimated quickly and they have some confidence and success early, that’s going to be tremendous for our future. If we struggle early, it’s not an easy league to bounce back in.”
Up front, the River Hawks must replace not only All-Hockey East stalwart Ed McGrane, but five other graduated seniors. Of the top nine forward scorers, only four remain, all of whom are just entering their sophomore season. Andrew Martin, Ben Walter, Danny O’Brien and Elias Godoy will all step into larger roles and presumably become even bigger contributors.
“They better be,” MacDonald says with a rueful laugh. “We need a really good collective effort from everybody to produce.
“In a lot of ways, it reminds me of my first year here when we had lost Ron Hainsey and he had scored a lot of points. There were questions about how we were going to replace that scoring on defense. We thought we were going to do it collectively and, lo and behold, a lot of guys chipped in and we scored more goals from the blueline than we did with Ron Hainsey because everyone picked it up five and 10 percent. Clearly, we have to do that this year.”
Can the River Hawks produce results that belie their youth? Certainly. More likely, though, this will be a season in which Lowell fans must stay focussed on the big picture of how good this team can be in another year or two.