For Merrimack coach Chris Serino there are three certainties: death, taxes and a ninth-place position in the coaches’ preseason poll. For the last three years, and for five of the last six, the Warriors have had that dubious distinction. (In 2001-2002, the Warriors were picked to finish eighth.)
“Am I disappointed at being picked ninth?” Serino asks. “I’d lie if I said I wasn’t. But the fact of the matter is that we haven’t finished there. We get picked to finish ninth every year so it doesn’t surprise me.
“What would surprise me is if they picked us to finish first. That would be a surprise. It’s not even motivation [for us] anymore. We expect it. We certainly have our own expectations and I expect us to be a very good team.”
Of course, the team’s expectations are what really matter. If the players start believing they’ll finish last, it’ll become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“In the past, we’d get picked ninth and had kids that were unsure of themselves and thought that maybe we were that team,” Serino says. “But [the poll] last year picked us ninth and going into the last week of the season we had a chance to finish [fifth].
“So it’s not even in our mindset. Our players know how good we can be and I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people.”
Goaltending was a major question mark going into last year, but not this time around. Jim Healey watched from the bench for the first eight games as Casey Guenther had first shot at the job, but Healey took over as the number one in the second half and compiled a 2.84 GAA and .907 save percentage en route to a berth on the Hockey East All-Rookie Team.
“Jimmy Healey really proved himself to be a top notch goaltender at the end of last year,” Serino says. “Casey is more than capable of playing; he played some great games early on before Jimmy took over. So I feel very comfortable in the goal.
“I can do the politically correct thing [and say it's an open competition], but Jimmy earned the starting goaltender’s job last year and he’s going to be our number one guy going in. But Casey will play.
“Will I go to a straight rotation? I don’t think so. Obviously, I’m going to do it early in the year, in non-league games. If they’re both playing well, I’d be stupid not to play them.”
On the blue line, Merrimack lost Tony Johnson and Eric Pedersen, but still brings back a strong group led by Brian Schmidt, who doubles as a force on the power play.
“On defense we’re young, but very experienced,” Serino says. “Schmidt and Rob LaLonde have played a lot of minutes in their two years. Jeff Caron and Ryan Sullivan, our two sophomores, played every situation they could play last year. That’s four guys who played a lot of hockey for us in a lot of crucial situations.
“I think that Schmidt is one of the elite defensemen in the country. If you look at our team, I don’t think we’ve ever had one. I think Jeff Caron, who was only 17 years old when he played last year, is going to be a kid that is going to be able to move into the elite defensemen in the country. I feel that confident about him and where he is at this year.
“Brian Boulay, who played [19 games] for us a freshman, went out to the USHL last year and he’s back with a year under his belt. Peter Hams is an experienced defenseman. Scott Drewicki transferred in from Denver and will be eligible in December. And we have two young freshman, [Jordan Hart and Jarrett Sousa], that we think are going to be very good.
“So we have depth back there. We’re very solid back there.”
Up front, the graduation of Marco Rosa and Tim Reidy subtracts two of the top three scorers from a group that did have problems in the offensive end at times last year. That said, Brent Gough (12-17–29), Matt Johnson (2-9–11 in 17 games) and Steve Crusco (10-6–16) return atop a Warrior scoring parade that is likely deeper this year.
“Gough is ready to move into the elite forwards in the league,” Serino says. “One of the things that hurt us last year was that Matt Johnson, who was also having a great year, got hurt and we lost him for the whole year. [We'll put] him and Gough together.
“Another guy that we expected to play a lot for us last year as a freshman but got a back injury early and wasn’t in shape to come back was Michael Alexiou. He’s got a knack for goal scoring and is a big kid. At the end of the season, [he weighed] 225, he left for the summer at 215 and he came back at 195 so I think you’re going to see a very, very big impact player out of him.
“Steve Crusco is another guy we have up front that I think is going to score for us. There’s guys like Matty Byrnes and Jordan Black, freshmen that played a lot for us last year. I’m not going to tell you that they’re going to be 20-goal-scorers, but they could fit in there at 12 or 13.
“We have a lot of those guys this year. We’ll be able to put four lines out and not have to worry about what the other team has on the ice. When we played the BCs and the BUs and the Maines, we had to overtax our first three lines. So I think that’s going to help our scoring; they’ll be able to rest a little bit.”
The depth at all positions is why Serino waxes optimistic.
“We’ve never had that before,” he says. “We’d get on a roll, but we’d get an injury and we couldn’t replace the player that got injured with a quality player from below. Now we can do that. It’s by far the best team that we’ve had in the six years that I’ve been here.”