Players who stayed give ECAC Hockey compelling storylines in 2015-16

First-team All-American Alex Lyon is back as part of a formidable Yale defense (photo: Shelley M. Szwast).

At the start of last season, one of the major storylines in ECAC Hockey involved the players the league lost via early departures.

In 2015-16, it’s about those who decided to stay.

Several of the conference’s biggest names, including Harvard’s Jimmy Vesey and Yale’s Rob O’Gara and Alex Lyon, returned this season despite the potential to turn pro.

Vesey led the country with 32 goals and had strong interest from Nashville, who took the forward in the third round of the 2012 NHL Draft. O’Gara (Boston) and Lyon (free agent) were first-team All-Americans last season and likely could have been earning a paycheck to play hockey this season had they chosen that route.

Also back is Rensselaer senior and Buffalo Sabres prospect Jason Kasdorf. Engineers coach Seth Appert said Kasdorf probably could have signed if he wanted to, but decided to stay at RPI for one more season and do something special for the program. Kasdorf was one of the top goalies in the country as a freshman, but injuries have thrown his career off track. He could be a difference-maker this season if he stays healthy.

It might have been a quiet offseason for early departures across most of the league, but Colgate was hit with junior free agents Kyle Baun and Ryan Johnston giving up their senior year to sign professional contracts.

Baun signed with Chicago and made the team’s opening-night roster after appearing in three games last season, while Johnston signed with Montreal after attending the Canadiens prospect camp over the summer.

Raiders coach Don Vaughan said he and his staff were prepared for Baun’s departure, while Johnston’s signing caught them a bit off guard. Johnston was an important member of Colgate’s defense, which ranked sixth in the country last year, and also was expected to quarterback the Raiders’ power play.

The only other early departure in the league was Harvard forward Brian Hart, who signed with Tampa Bay in July. Despite his loss, the Crimson return 106 goals from last year, the third-most in the country behind UMass-Lowell and Minnesota State.

Harvard and Colgate aren’t the only ones with aspirations for a top-four spot in the standings and the accompanying first-round bye. St. Lawrence, Yale and Quinnipiac all appear capable of making a push, which should result in another tight race at the top of the league.

“I don’t want to use the term parity because I think it connotes mediocrity,” said Yale coach Keith Allain. “We have a great group of teams who are highly skilled. It’s going to make for exciting hockey on a weekly basis in ECAC Hockey.”

In addition to Lyon and O’Gara, the Bulldogs return virtually all of their top forwards from last year. After giving up the fewest goals per game in the country, Yale should once again be strong defensively.

Down the road, Quinnipiac enters the season defending its second regular season title in the last three years. The Bobcats lost stalwarts Matthew Peca and Danny Federico but have a host of young players that should take another step forward and help Quinnipiac remain competitive this season.

St. Lawrence exceeded expectations last season, finishing second after being picked 11th in both the coaches and media preseason poll. The Saints were anchored by goalie Kyle Hayton but have an exciting group of defensemen and depth at forward.

Harvard should have no problems scoring, with Vesey, Kyle Criscuolo, Tyler Moy, Sean Malone, Colin Blackwell, Alexander Kerfoot and incoming freshman Ryan Donato.

While Donato is expected to develop into an impact player, at the very least it should be an experience for Crimson coach Ted Donato, his father.

“It should make for some quality dinner discussions, I’m sure, and some interesting rides home with some of the crazy parents that live in his house,” Ted Donato said.

In addition to Baun and Johnston, Colgate lost defensemen Spiro Goulakos and Brendan Corcoran, along with forwards Joe Wilson and John Lidgett. The loss of Goulakos and Corcoran will hurt a defense that was ranked sixth in the nation last season. Colgate split an opening weekend series at Mercyhurst but allowed nine goals in a wild 9-7 loss on Sunday.

However, the Raiders will have forwards Tylor Spink and Mike Borkowski back at full health, which should help mitigate some of the losses from last season. Still, there will be little room for injuries this season, as Colgate has only 23 players on its roster.

Defense shouldn’t be a problem for the Raiders’ travel partner, Cornell. The Big Red have a solid goaltending duo in Mitch Gillam and Hayden Stewart and should help offset the graduation of defensemen Joakim Ryan and Jacob MacDonald. Still, coach Mike Schafer acknowledged the Big Red have a lot of unknowns — including finding some consistent scorers to improve an offense that averaged fewer than two goals a game last season.

It says something about the depth of the league — and Union’s struggles last season — that the 2014 national champions haven’t been mentioned to this point. The Dutchmen finished 10th last season but have a young team that should be better this year. Union will need to find someone to replace Colin Stevens in net if the Dutchmen are to compete.

Capital Region rival Rensselaer is counting on a healthy season from Kasdorf, and on several returners to increase their production. Like Cornell, the Engineers struggled to score last year.

Up north, Clarkson quietly has one of the best groups of defensemen in the league, led by seniors Paul Geiger and Kevin Tansey. However, the Golden Knights will need stability in net, which will allow the offense to take the risks they need to create scoring chances.

It might be a long season for several of the Ivy League teams, as Dartmouth, Brown and Princeton were picked near the bottom of the league.

The Big Green challenged for a first-round bye last year on the strength of a strong senior class, but they have a number of new players who will need to play bigger roles this season. Junior goalie James Kruger should give Dartmouth a chance, but the Big Green might be inconsistent this season.

Brown graduated talented forward Matt Lorito but returns forwards Mark Naclerio, Nick Lappin, Tyler Bird, Sam Lafferty and Max Willman. A healthy defense and improved goaltending will be key if the Bears want to improve on last year’s 11th-place finish.

Coach Ron Fogarty enters his second year at Princeton, and things can’t be much worse than last year, when the Tigers won just four games and scored 39 goals all season. Princeton has a solid goalie in Colton Phinney, and a few more goals would go a long way toward bringing the Tigers to respectability.

There are several notable games on the schedule for league this year. Colgate and Brown will play in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on Nov. 27 and 28 with UMass-Lowell and Northeastern as part of the Friendship Four. Cornell and Boston University meet at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 28 in the fifth-annual Red Hot Hockey matchup.

Yale travels to Arizona State on Jan. 8 and 10 to take part in the Desert Hockey Classic, while the Garden hosts another game featuring an ECAC team on Jan. 9 when Harvard and Quinnipiac meet in the Rivalry on Ice matchup.

Several programs are celebrating notable milestones off the ice: Union is entering its 25th season as a Division I program, and Clarkson (25 years) and Dartmouth (40 years) mark their anniversaries of their respective arenas, while Colgate prepares for its final season at Starr Rink.

Here are the previews of the league’s teams, listed in order of my predicted finish.

1. Yale

The Bulldogs are anchored by goalie Alex Lyon and a strong defense and should be national contenders this year. Read more

2. Quinnipiac

A young Bobcats team from last year should be competitive again this season. Read more

3. Colgate

The Raiders lost a lot but have one of the most talented senior classes in the league. Read more

4. St. Lawrence

The Saints won’t sneak up on anyone this year, but they have the talent to be contenders. Read more

5. Harvard

This might be one of the highest-scoring teams in the nation, but who plays goal? Read more

6. Union

Union should be better this year; how much so depends on how the younger players perform. Read more

7. Brown

If the defense and goaltending are solidified, the Bears could finish higher. Read more

8. Rensselaer

A healthy Jason Kasdorf could give confidence to an offense that needs to find a way to score goals. Read more

9. Cornell

As usual, goaltending isn’t an issue, but the Big Red need to find a way to create offense. Read more

10. Dartmouth

The Big Green graduated a large senior class and could have some rough stretches this season. Read more

11. Clarkson

The Golden Knights need stability in net and more offense this season if they want to be successful. Read more

12. Princeton

Ron Fogarty seems to have the Tigers heading in the right direction entering his second season, but its going to take a while. Read more

Twenty goalies named to Mike Richter Award watch list for 2015-16 season

Quinnipiac senior goalie Michael Garteig was a Mike Richter Award nominee in 2015 and is on the watch list for the 2015-16 season (photo: Matt Dewkett).

Let’s Play Hockey and the Herb Brooks Foundation on Thursday identified the top 20 goaltenders named to their watch list for the 2016 Mike Richter Award.

The award is given annually to the top goalie in NCAA Division I hockey.

Massachusetts-Lowell’s Connor Hellebuyck won the inaugural award in 2014 and Zane McIntyre from North Dakota took home the honors this past spring.

Player's Name
Jayson ArgueSo.Bentley
Michael BitzerSo.Bemidji State
Tommy BurkeSr.Bowling Green
Evan CowleyJr.Denver
Thatcher DemkoJr.Boston College
Charlie FinnJr.Colgate
Michael GarteigSr.Quinnipiac
Mitch GillamJr.Cornell
Carmine GuerrieroJr.Alabama-Huntsville
Kyle HaytonSo.St. Lawrence
Jake HildebrandSr.Michigan State
Dalton IzykJr.Robert Morris
Kasimir KaskisuoSo.Minnesota-Duluth
James KrugerSr.Dartmouth
Charlie LindgrenJr.St. Cloud State
Alex LyonJr.Yale
Jamie PhillipsSr.Michigan Tech
Mike SantaguidaJr.Vermont
Danny TironeSo.New Hampshire
Jay WilliamsSr.Miami

Hayton, Hildebrand, Lyon and Phillips were finalists in 2015, while Bitzer, Demko, Finn, Garteig, Gillam, Guerriero, Lindgren, Santaguida and Williams were nominees last year.

Whittet looks for growth, better special teams from Brown

Nick Lappin scored 14 goals for Brown last season (photo: Shelley M. Szwast).

The important thing about the Brown Bears last season was they were young — really young. Young and inexperienced. But coach Brendan Whittet looks forward to watching his team grow into its own.

“We were a very young team last year,” he said. “Not just young, but young in a lot of critical areas. … Most nights [last season] we were dressing a lot of freshmen.

Underclassmen Tyler Bird, a sophomore, Max Willman, a sophomore, and Tim Doherty, a freshman, are looking to make an impact on a team desperate for goal-scoring.

“Willman, Bird … I expect a lot from them in year two,” Whittet said. “The team was told in very direct terms what we need to do to get back to those championship games. Those guys took it to heart.”

The Bears lost leading scorer Matt Lorito to a professional contract with the New Jersey Devils. Whittet knows that the goals this year will have to come from somewhere — particularly on special teams.

“We really did struggle,” Whittet said of his team’s special teams play. “It’s going to be something we emphasize.”

Forwards Nick Lappin (14 goals, 7 assists) and Mark Naclerio (9 goals, 14 assists) return this season to provide vital offense for the Bears.

Last season

8-20-3, 5-14-3 (11th) in ECAC Hockey. Lost to Harvard in the first round of the ECAC playoffs.

Names to know

Lappin increased his goal scoring from 13 goals as a sophomore to 14 as a junior, and the Bears would love another step up from him. Naclerio, Bird, Willman and Doherty should get opportunities to contribute offensively.

Three questions

1. Can they stay healthy? The Bears ran into injury trouble on defense last season.

2. Can they replace Lorito? Last season’s top scorer went pro with the New Jersey Devils. He had 11 goals and 12 assists for Brown last year.

3. Will special teams play improve?

Crystal ball

The absence of Lorito is felt early and often for Brown, as the Bears struggle all season to score goals and finish in 10th.

Confidence in goal could help Clarkson take more chances offensively

Jeff DiNallo had five goals in 21 games last season for Clarkson (photo: Shelley M. Szwast).

The major question entering this season for Clarkson is who plays in goal? Sophomore Steve Perry, junior Greg Lewis and sophomore Ville Runola all split time last season.

“Ultimately, right now I feel Steve Perry is our guy,” said Clarkson coach Casey Jones. “I thought he was at the top of the league when he got injured in January last year. He’s in a good place. I’d expect him to be the guy for us coming out of the gate. We have some depth [at goaltender]. Steve, I thought he showed that consistency and was playing at a high level for us.”

With Joe Zarbo, the team’s leading goal scorer, lost to graduation, Clarkson will search for offense from elsewhere. Jeff DiNallo returns for his senior season with the Golden Knights, but on a team that didn’t score a lot of goals last season (only 81), Clarkson will have to make up the difference somehow.

“I actually feel that we generate a lot of offense; for us it’s been putting the puck in the net,” Jones said. “It’s really been our Achilles’ heel for us five-on-five last season. We were real good on special teams in the league.”

It’s an offense that relies on its speed and its goaltending leadership, something Clarkson lost when Perry went down.

“We might have been near the bottom of the league in goaltending statistics by the end of last year and you lose your swagger offensively,” Jones said. “I thought we didn’t take as many risks that we needed to in order to be a good offensive team. Confidence in goaltending would be a huge plus for us.”

Last season

12-20-5, 9-9-4 (eighth) in ECAC Hockey. Lost to Rensselaer in the first round of the ECAC playoffs.

Names to know

Troy Josephs, James de Haas, DiNallo and Jordan Boucher figure to make up the core of a forward group that looks to boost the scoring totals this season.

Three questions

1. Who starts in goal? Perry (8-8-1, 2.10 GAA, .907 save percentage), Lewis (4-7-1, 2.19, .911) and Runola (0-5-3, 2.93, .883) split time last season. It’ll be interesting to see who can step up to take the starting job, or whether they’ll once again go goaltending by committee.

2. Can Clarkson’s defense-first, physical mentality help it win more games?

3. Where will the goals come from? Clarkson scored 81 goals and allowed 87 last season.

Crystal ball

The Golden Knights stick to being defensive and physical and get involved in a ton of one-goal games. In the end, Clarkson gets closer to .500 and surprises some people in the playoffs.

Colgate expects to return a strong offense despite two key early departures

Colgate’s Tylor Spink tied for fifth on the team with 20 points last season despite playing in only 23 games (photo: Jim Rosvold).

Colgate lost more than just skill when Ryan Johnston and Kyle Baun signed professional contracts. The Raiders lost leadership and experience on a strong, powerful offensive squad.

One of them was more expected to leave than the other.

“Johnston … he departed unexpectedly when he signed with Montreal,” Colgate coach Don Vaughan said.

That doesn’t mean Colgate is in any position to rebuild. Instead, it has reloaded offensively and is positioned to, once again, make a run at the ECAC Hockey championship.

“All of our expectations were to make the NCAA tournament and we basically came up one game short,” Vaughan said. “This is a team that’s very focused and knows what it takes to get there.”

Tyson Spink (14 goals, 17 assists), Tylor Spink (7 goals, 13 assists) and Darcy Murphy (11 goals, 15 assists) are all back for Colgate as seniors and should provide a strong offensive presence, while goaltender Charlie Finn (2.03 GAA, .924 save percentage) should continue to be dominant in net.

“A healthy Tylor Spink … that’s something that got lost in the shuffle last year,” Vaughan said. “[Spink] missed the entire first half last year with a concussion. The interesting thing with the twins is they play so well together. I’ve never coached identical twins, but I’m telling you there’s something there.”

Last season

22-12-4, 11-7-4 (fifth) in ECAC Hockey. Defeated Dartmouth and St. Lawrence in the ECAC playoffs but lost to Harvard in the championship game.

Names to know

Tyson Spink shared the team goal-scoring lead with Baun last season at 14. Despite playing in just 23 games, Tylor Spink tied for fifth on the team with 20 points. Darcy Murphy has 40 goals in his first three seasons.

Three questions

1. Can they get over the hump? The Raiders were a win away from a conference championship.

2. Can Colgate replace Johnston (1 goal, 14 assists) and Baun (14 goals, 15 assists)? Both left to sign professional contracts with NHL teams, their departures made a major dent in what should be one of the ECAC’s strongest squads.

3. Can they stay healthy? Injuries were a huge problem early last season.

Crystal ball

Colgate’s offense remains strong and fills the hole made by Baun’s departure. The Raiders fill the net and, backed by goaltender Finn, get back to the conference championship game with the purpose to finish what they started.

Cornell out to reestablish its culture as unknowns await in 2015-16

Christian Hilbrich was the only Cornell player to reach 10 goals last season (photo: Shelley M. Szwast).

There seem to be way too many unknowns for the Cornell Big Red this season. But for coach Mike Schafer, it’s a chance to reestablish a culture and an identity with his young, inexperienced club.

“Reestablishing culture within our team, I think that’s something the last few years we’ve gotten away from,” Schafer said.

Goaltenders Mitch Gillam (9-9-5 last season, 1.99 GAA, .927 save percentage) and Hayden Stewart (2-5-1, 2.13, .923) each saw time last season for the Big Red, and it’ll be interesting to see who ends up taking the starting job by the end of the season.

“Injuries left those guys out to dry,” Schafer said. “If you look back statistically over the last four games or the playoffs, I didn’t think either one of them stepped up and claimed the No. 1 job down the stretch.

“I’m just as excited as everyone else to see what we have with our hockey team,” he added. “Nine freshmen coming in and only graduate six guys. Who these key contributors are, it will be interesting to see what develops as the fall goes on.”

Last season

11-14-6, 9-9-4 (seventh) in ECAC Hockey. Lost to Union in the first round of the ECAC playoffs.

Names to know

Senior forward Christian Hilbrich was the Big Red’s only 10-goal scorer last season, while junior Matt Buckles had eight. Gillam and Stewart will vie for the No. 1 goalie spot.

Three questions

1. Where’s the offense coming from? The Big Red lost Cole Bardreau to graduation last season, a crucial blow considering he led the team in points. Cornell will need to find offense from somewhere else.

2. Who takes the starting job in goal, Gillam or Stewart?

3. Can Cornell take that next step? The Big Red scored 57 goals last season and allowed 68, only good enough for just below .500. Can this program take that next step forward?

Crystal ball

No, the Big Red can’t. Not yet, anyway. Cornell continues to struggle offensively as Bardreau’s departure hurts more and more by the week. The Big Red fall to one of the bottom slots in the conference.

Veterans need to provide more offense for Dartmouth, which has players hungry to break out

Dartmouth hopes Grant Opperman can have a breakout season (photo: Shelley M. Szwast).

After missing out on a top-four spot by virtue of a tiebreaker last season, Dartmouth enters 2015-16 with a lot of questions.

The Big Green graduated their top three scorers in Eric Neiley, Tyler Sikura and Eric Robinson, along with defensemen Rick Pinkston and Andy Simpson. Overall, Dartmouth lost 52 of its 91 goals from last season.

“We want to be good out of the gate, but we do have some unknowns there, there’s no question about it,” said coach Bob Gaudet.

While the Big Green are bringing in six freshmen this season, Gaudet said some the voids could be filled by returning veterans that aren’t well known around the league.

Among those players are Brett Patterson, who played defense last season out of necessity but likely will return to forward this year, and forward Grant Opperman, who Gaudet said is ready to break out. Senior captain Brad Schierhorn scored a career-high 10 goals last season, while classmate Tim O’Brien also could make an impact.

“I like the quality playing time that’s available to those guys that have been champing at the bit to move up to those spots,” Gaudet said.

Seniors Ryan Bullock and Geoff Ferguson are the veterans on defense, while goalie James Kruger’s 1.98 GAA and .926 save percentage last season were both school records.

“My job as a coach is to find the guys, motivate the guys and to help them reach the heights that they can’t do on their own,” Gaudet said. “I think we are going to be a really solid team with our connection with each other. It is a really great group of guys. We have some unknowns, but there are a lot of quality players on this team.”

Last season

17-12-4 12-8-2 (second) in ECAC Hockey. Lost to Colgate in the ECAC semifinals.

Names to know

Kruger should be solid again in net, while Schierhorn and Opperman will be counted upon to lead the offense. Freshman forward Kevan Kilistoff and defenseman Karan Toor come to the Big Green after having success in the BCHL.

Three questions

1. How will Dartmouth replace the production from last year’s senior class?

2. The Big Green play with speed, but will it be enough to match some of the league’s big guns?

3. Will the goaltending tandem of Kruger and Grant be enough to get the Big Green through some early growing pains?

Crystal ball

Dartmouth will struggle in the first half but the Big Green will put together a solid end to the season, complete with a road upset in the league playoffs.

With Vesey leading the offense, Harvard poised to raise the bar

Harvard’s Jimmy Vesey is the only member of the 2015 Hobey Hat Trick to return to college hockey this season (photo: Melissa Wade).

One year removed from an ECAC Hockey playoff championship and an NCAA tournament appearance, Harvard is ready for more.

Showcasing one of the most prolific offensive groups in the nation, the Crimson will be powered by Jimmy Vesey and Kyle Criscuolo to get their team back to the same level of success as last season.

It’s not as easy as it may seem, Harvard coach Ted Donato said.

“The reality is that there are a lot of things that can impact the level of success,” Donato said. “We know that the league is once again very strong. You look around and see a lot of teams that return a lot of good hockey players. We don’t want to fall into the trap of thinking that we are better than we really are. Internally, there’s expectations and goals and that’s no different than years past.”

Harvard lost promising players Patrick McNally and Max Everson last season, but a large contingent of returning players can fill those shoes. One of those players is Donato’s son, Ryan, who joins the team this season.

“It’s interesting,” Donato said. “For a long time I didn’t really consider much the idea of coaching him as much as I was excited for him to get started on his education at Harvard. He certainly has some offensive tools that will fit in nicely with our group.”

But where Harvard appears to be weakest is in goal. Starting goaltender Steve Michalek (21-13-3, 2.28 GAA, .924 save percentage) graduated at the end of last season, and the question remains as to whether the Crimson’s defensive play can keep up with their offensive production.

“I think it’s definitely an area of concern,” Donato said of his goaltending situation. “I’m also an optimist. … There’s great competition. It will be a situation where we have a lot of competition and I’m hoping that that brings out the best of these guys and to the benefit of the team.”

Last season

21-13-3, 11-8-3 (sixth) in ECAC Hockey. Won the ECAC championship over Colgate, defeating Yale and Quinnipiac in the ECAC playoffs. Lost to Omaha in the NCAA Midwest Regional.

Names to know

One of the best players in the country last season, Vesey returns to lead the Crimson offense. Criscuolo (17 goals, 31 assists) and Alexander Kerfoot (8 goals, 22 assists) also return to round out a dynamic, powerful offensive juggernaut.

Three questions

1. Who plays in goal? Starting goaltender Michalek graduated at the end of last season, leaving senior Peter Traber, sophomore Merrick Madsen and freshman Michael Lackey on the roster. Can the new goaltender keep up with Harvard’s powerful offense?

2. Can Harvard make it over the hump? The Crimson scored 121 goals last season, allowing 87, but their time with Vesey is limited and their time to make some noise in the NCAA tournament with him as their leader may be running short.

3. Can they start off as strong? Harvard was 10-1-2 through its first 13 games last season. Another fast start will benefit the Crimson.

Crystal ball

Harvard will lead the nation in scoring. Defense and goaltending will be the Crimson’s main issues, but they’ll come out fast and strong and make it to the ECAC championship game and beyond.

In his second season, Fogarty wants Princeton players to have a career year

Colton Phinney was a bright spot for Princeton last season (photo: Shelley M. Szwast).

It was a rough first year under coach Ron Fogarty for the Princeton Tigers, who by the end occupied the basement of ECAC Hockey. In the second year for Fogarty, it’s sort of like starting from scratch.

“It was a fun season of teaching the new structure [last year],” Fogarty said. “The thing you have to learn is that it takes time and you have to have a process and a plan. We didn’t try to take shortcuts with the players.”

Fogarty knows that his team struggled offensively, scoring only 39 goals en route to a four-win season.

“We didn’t have much goal-scoring last year and hopefully we can add more this year,” he said. “In saying that, we can move … to implementing more offensive systems and options for our players.”

With a new structure and high expectations in mind, Fogarty also knows that Princeton hockey is a work in progress. And things like that don’t get fixed overnight.

“We need all of our players to not just have their best seasons but have career seasons,” Fogarty said. “Which is a stretch for a lot. We’re going to ask players with 14 points to get 32, players with four goals to try and pick up 12. If we can have a handful of guys, five or seven, having a career year, that will put us in the right direction.”

Goaltender Colton Phinney was the one bright spot for the Tigers last season, posting a .910 save percentage and 3.08 GAA. But all the pressure is on Fogarty to pull this program, which has been one of the worst in the country over the past few years, out of the basement and into relevancy.

Last season

4-23-3, 2-18-2 (12th) in ECAC Hockey. Lost to Dartmouth in the first round of the ECAC playoffs.

Names to know

Captain Mike Ambrosia has a big task in leading the way for the Tigers. Tommy Davis is one of four returning defensemen who played at least 20 games last season. And Phinney should get another chance to shine in goal.

Three questions

1. Can they win on the road? Princeton didn’t win a single road game last season.

2. Where will the offense come from? Top scorer Jonathan Liau scored four goals and 10 assists last year, but the Tigers scored only 39 goals overall last season.

3. Can Fogarty turn things around?

Crystal ball

Princeton makes strides but the offense continues to struggle. Phinney plays well enough to pull the Tigers into 11th place.

Quinnipiac tries to replace Peca, who established the team’s identity

Quinnipiac’s Sam Anas has 45 goals through two seasons at Quinnipiac (photo: John Hassett/Quinnipiac Athletics).

Quinnipiac has taken some big hits in the last few offseasons, and last summer was no exception.

The Bobcats graduated only three seniors: defensemen Dan Federico and Justin Agosta along with forward Matthew Peca, but each of them played important minutes.

Peca was a dynamic playmaker and one of the better defensive forwards in the league, while Federico and Agosta were key veterans amid a young defensive corps.

“I think the biggest thing for us is to try and replace Peca’s minutes,” Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold said. “He really made us go, not just on offense but on defense and that really established our identity. When your best players are willing to block shots with his body every night, it just sends a message to our team.”

Quinnipiac made the NCAA tournament for the third straight season despite having 18 freshmen and sophomores on its roster. The Bobcats showed signs of their youth at times last year, but Pecknold hopes some of the younger players can continue to improve this season.

“Last year the one thing we did well was keep the hammer down,” Pecknold said. “I don’t know if we’re the most talented team in the league, but sometimes that’s not always the team that wins.”

One piece of good news for Quinnipiac is that forward Sam Anas enters the season at 100 percent after missing time in the playoffs last year with a leg injury. The junior has scored at least 20 goals in each of his first two seasons and should be one of the Bobcats’ top offensive threats again this year.

Last season

23-12-4, 16-3-3 (first) in ECAC Hockey. Lost to North Dakota in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Names to know

Michael Garteig might be overlooked in goal, but the senior came on strong last season. Anas is joined up front by Travis St. Denis and Landon Smith, while Devon Toews is a solid two-way defenseman and Connor Clifton brings a physical presence to the blue line. His brother, Tim Clifton, and captain Soren Jonzzon have continued to improve throughout their careers and should be solid contributors again. Alex Miner-Barron will play this season as a graduate student, and filled in capably on both offense and defense last year.

Three questions

1. Who replaces the minutes of Peca, Federico and Agosta?

2. Will the Bobcats’ young core from last season continue to progress?

3. It’s not a bad problem to have, but Quinnipiac has been one-and-done in the last two NCAA tournaments. Will that change this season?

Crystal ball

No matter who they lose over the offseason, Quinnipiac has been in the mix for a top-four spot in the standings and a bid to the NCAA tournament the last two years. Expect that trend to continue, even with a number of teams that appear to be legitimate contenders for a first-round bye.

Big senior season from Kasdorf, more offensive production keys to Rensselaer’s hopes

Jason Kasdorf posted a .902 save percentage last season for Rensselaer (photo: Jim Rosvold).

Rensselaer coach Seth Appert was direct when asked what senior goalie and NHL draft pick Jason Kasdorf has to prove entering this season.

“He has a ton to prove,” Appert said. “His career has been derailed by injury. I think if Jason wanted to sign an NHL contract this summer, he probably could have. But Jason is a leader and wanted to come back and do something special for our program.

“He stayed in Troy all summer. He’s a married man. … He’s about as mature and professional and hardworking as you can have. There’s no reason he shouldn’t be one of the top goalies in the country this year.”

Kasdorf was an elite goalie as a freshman during the 2012-13 season. But injuries limited him to two games as a sophomore and took a toll on his performance last year as well.

His decision to remain at Rensselaer for his senior year looms large after goalie Alec Dillon, a Los Angeles draft pick, decided over the offseason to go the major junior route and play for the Edmonton Oil Kings in the WHL instead of coming to RPI this fall.

In addition to Kasdorf, RPI is looking for a boost from several other returnees. The Engineers averaged 1.86 goals per game last season and didn’t have a double-digit goal scorer.

Leading scorer Drew Melanson was a freshman last year, and Appert expects an increase in production after the forward won the team’s strength and conditioning award this offseason. Classmates Viktor Liljegren and Kenny Gillespie have the potential to breakout as well.

“When you put that all together, we’ll have a team that can score goals,” Appert said.

Last season

12-26-3, 8-12-2 (ninth) in ECAC Hockey. Lost to St. Lawrence in the ECAC quarterfinals.

Names to know

If he can stay healthy, Kasdorf has the potential for a big senior year. Appert is looking for more production from seniors Mark Miller, Milos Bubela and Zach Schroeder, as well as a breakout season from junior Riley Bourbonnais, who has emerged as a solid player after barely playing as a freshman. Forward Lou Nanne (Minnesota) and defenseman Mike Prapavessis (Dallas) are both NHL draft picks. Look for freshman Evan Tironese and Jesper Öhrvall to contribute as well. However, the Engineers will be without freshman Brady Wiffen, who will sit out the season after being ruled a partial qualifier by the NCAA.

Three questions

1. Will the potential for offense translate into actual goals for RPI?

2. Can Kasdorf have a big senior year and match the promise he showed as a freshman?

3. Will the Engineers stay healthy? Rensselaer was plagued by injuries last season, with only three skaters playing in every game.

Crystal ball

If Kasdorf can stay healthy and RPI can put together some goals, the Engineers could challenge for a first-round bye. If not, it could be a long season. Expect something more toward the middle of those two outcomes.

St. Lawrence hopes not to have to rely on Hayton as much this season

Kyle Hayton covered for a lot of a young St. Lawrence team’s mistakes last season (photo: Omar Phillips).

The players St. Lawrence lost last offseason might not have the cachet as in previous years, when the Saints saw Kyle Flanagan, Justin Baker, and Matt and Greg Carey depart Canton.

But graduated seniors Gunnar Hughes, Patrick Doherty and Chris Martin were key components on and off the ice for St. Lawrence. Those three, along with a talented group of underclassmen, helped the Saints to a second-place finish and trip to Lake Placid after being picked 11th in the league’s preseason poll.

“Expectations this year will be much different than last year,” Saints coach Greg Carvel said. “I think we were able to sneak up on some teams. That won’t be the case this year.”

Goalie Kyle Hayton was a major reason St. Lawrence exceeded expectations last season. As a freshman, Hayton ranked among the national leaders in virtually every goaltending category and set program records in GAA (1.97), save percentage (.937) and shutouts (five).

Carvel said Hayton covered for the mistakes of a young team early in the year but didn’t have to steal games as often for the Saints as the season progressed.

“I think if we play as a team the way we are capable of, scoring chances should be way down,” he said.

St. Lawrence might not have the big offensive stars of prior teams, but the Saints had 12 players score at least five goals last year. That, coupled with a more experienced defensive group led by puck movers Gavin Bayreuther, Eric Sweetman and Nolan Gluchowski, should gave St. Lawrence plenty of talent in front of Hayton.

“The real focus for us is that last year was a real nice year for us, but if we bring the same thing we brought last year, it’s not going to be good enough,” Carvel said. “We have to set our standards higher.”

Last season

20-14-3, 14-7-3 (second) in ECAC Hockey. Lost to Colgate in the ECAC semifinals.

Names to know

Hayton, Bayreuther, Sweetman and Gluchowski form a solid defensive nucleus, while forwards Mike Marnell, Tommy Thompson and Brian Ward give the Saints depth up front. Carvel said incoming freshman forward Jacob Pritchard can score goals and will be an important piece for St. Lawrence moving forward.

Three questions

1. How will St. Lawrence handle the increased expectations for this season?

2. Can Hayton match — or even exceed — his production from last year?

3. How will the Saints replace the leadership of Hughes, Doherty and Martin?

Crystal ball

Don’t expect much, if any, drop off for Hayton. The Saints should have no problem scoring goals and will finish with a first-round bye.

Union expects young players to bring energy after disappointing season

Mike Vecchione scored 19 goals as part of a 50-point season for Union (photo: Melissa Wade).

Last season’s national title defense started out with little warning of what was to come for Union. The Dutchmen began the year 5-0 but ended it in 10th place in ECAC Hockey, the school’s worst finish since the 2008-09 season.

Union struggled on defense at times but also had problems scoring goals — the Dutchmen were shut out by their opponents for three consecutive games in February.

That inconsistency plagued Union for most of the year following its undefeated start, but the Dutchmen swept the final regular season weekend and then had a strong showing in the league playoffs, sweeping Cornell before taking top-seeded Quinnipiac to three games in the quarterfinals.

“It’s going to be a different type of squad this year than in previous years,” Union coach Rick Bennett said. “I think we have a lot of youth but that has created a lot of energy based on what we’ve seen so far.”

Bennett’s assessment is validated when looking at the breakdown of the Dutchmen’s roster. Union has nine freshmen and seven sophomores. Along with the returning upperclassman, they’ll be tasked with replacing several important players, including starting goalie Colin Stevens, leading scorer Daniel Ciampini and captain and defenseman Charlie Vasaturo. All three graduated in the spring.

The biggest question might be in goal, as Union returns 50-point scorer Mike Vecchione and a number of other players that should be solid contributors, including defenseman Jeff Taylor and forwards Matt Wilkins, Ryan Scarfo and Michael Pontarelli.

Bennett wasn’t tipping his hand as to who had the inside track for the starting goaltending job. Junior Alex Sakellaropoulos pushed Stevens for playing time last season, while freshmen Jake Kupsky and Joe Young should compete for minutes as well.

“It’s a three-way battle,” Bennett said of his goaltending competition. “It’s a good thing but at the same time it’s the old theory of the ‘if you have three quarterbacks you have none’ trick. We’re just going to have to wait and see who develops.”

Last season

19-18-2, 8-13-1 (10th) in ECAC Hockey. Lost to Quinnipiac in the quarterfinals of the ECAC playoffs.

Names to know

Vecchione was one of the league’s top forwards last season, while classmates Pontarelli and Eli Lichtenwald are looking to bounce back after disappointing sophomore seasons. Scarfo and Spencer Foo each had double-digit goals as freshmen, while Taylor can move the puck from the blue line. Bennett said incoming freshman forwards Cole Maier, Brett Supinski, Sebastian Vidmar and Ryan Walker have looked impressive so far.

Three questions

1. Can the defense be better? The Dutchmen missed Mat Bodie and Shayne Gostisbehere last season.

2. Who replaces Colin Stevens in net?

3. How will the offense replace Ciampini, who finished tied for second in the nation in goals?

Crystal ball

Union doesn’t crack the upper echelon of the standings in what should be a talented top half of the league but gets home ice in the first round of the playoffs.

Defense, goaltending again look to be strengths for Yale

Yale’s Rob O’Gara is among the nation’s best defensemen (photo: Shelley M. Szwast).

While their Ivy rivals Harvard likely will be carried by one of the league’s best offenses, Yale looks to once again rely on shutdown defense and goaltending this year.

The Bulldogs ranked first in the nation in goals allowed at 1.64 per game last season and 42nd in goals scored, a stark contrast from their powerhouse teams in the early part of the decade.

Even though Yale graduated defensemen Tommy Fallen and Matt Killian, that first ranking could remain the same, thanks in part to junior goalie Alex Lyon and senior defenseman Rob O’Gara, arguably two of the best at their positions in ECAC Hockey, if not the entire country.

“To me, [Lyon is] the total package. He’s got a work ethic that is unmatched, he’s got great mental focus and concentration,” Yale coach Keith Allain said. “He wants to be as good as he can be and I think his teammates feed off of that.”

As for O’Gara, Allain said the Boston Bruins draft pick can be physical when needed and play virtually any role that Yale needs him to.

The Bulldogs should score more this year, as graduated senior Trent Ruffolo’s six goals represent the only significant loss among the forwards. In fact, Yale returns just under 90 percent of its point scoring from last season, second in the nation behind Omaha.

Junior John Hayden, a Chicago draft pick, has the size necessary to be an offensive force and could be poised for a breakout year. Classmates Frankie DiChiara and Mike Doherty were Yale’s top two scorers last season and should increase their production this year, while senior Stu Wilson is a solid two-way player.

“We have a deep group of seniors,” Allain said. “At Yale, it’s a tradition to only have one captain but we’ve got five guys that could legitimately be captains of this program.”

Last season

18-10-5, 12-6-4 (third) in ECAC Hockey. Lost to Harvard in the ECAC quarterfinals; lost to Boston University in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.

Names to know

In addition to Lyon and O’Gara, senior Ryan Obuchowski and sophomore Nate Repensky are key parts of Yale’s defensive unit. Hayden, Doherty and DiChiara are joined by junior Cody Learned and sophomore Ryan Hitchcock, who had a number of responsibilities as a freshman. Incoming freshman Joe Snively averaged more than a point per game last season for the Sioux City Musketeers in the USHL.

Three questions

1. This year’s seniors are the last remaining holdovers from the 2013 national championship team. Will they bookend their careers with another title?

2. What kind of seasons will Lyon and O’Gara have? The two are among the best at their positions in the league, if not the country.

3. Will the Bulldogs be able to increase their offensive production?

Crystal ball

The Bulldogs defense is just as good as last season and the offense picks up, giving Yale a top-four spot in the ECAC standings and a second-straight NCAA tournament appearance.

Arizona State’s team may be new to NCAA hockey, but its roster has college experience

Greg Powers enters his eighth season as Arizona State’s head coach, but his first at the NCAA Division I level (photo: Courtney Pedroza/Sun Devil Athletics).

Arizona State’s venture into the NCAA Division I ranks this season is hardly a new team stocked with 28 freshmen.

In fact, a handful of Sun Devils players on the inaugural roster have played at the D-I level and transferred to ASU to be part of the brand-new program this year.

Players like Ryan Belonger (Northeastern), Dylan Hollman (UMass-Lowell), Wade Murphy (North Dakota) and Brock Krygier (Michigan State) all have previous college experience, while others such as Ed McGovern (Sioux Falls), Jordan Young (Youngstown), Drew Newmeyer (Indiana) and Connor Schmidt (Des Moines) came to ASU from the USHL.

Another transfer, Garrett Peterson, played at Notre Dame and is joining the Sun Devils to finish out his NCAA career. He said the vibe around the team is contagious.

“This is a group that has all the necessary pieces to achieve success,” Peterson said. “The right pieces to the puzzle are here. I think what has made the chemistry happen so quick and easy between the returnees and new guys is just the depth of stand-up gents we have in our locker room. No question marks really that I can think of.

“We’ve spent some time together now as a full group and are all aware of what is expected and the amount of focus and hard work that it is going to take to achieve success.”

Arizona State coach Greg Powers, who guided the school’s ACHA D-I program for seven seasons and won an ACHA national title in 2014, likes what he saw in preseason practices and off-ice workouts.

“We expect a lot out of this team, to be honest with you,” Powers said. “We have a lot of high-level players that we kept on from the ACHA team that helped build that program. And when you combine them with the guys we recruited, it’s really been one big group, one cohesive unit so far.”

Schedule-wise, the Sun Devils play NCAA D-I and D-III teams, as well as Canadian schools and the U.S. National Team Development Program. In January, ASU will host the Desert Hockey Classic at Gila River Arena in Glendale, Ariz., (home of the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes) and will bring in Connecticut, Yale and Michigan Tech — “quite a big deal for us,” said Powers.

ASU opens its Division I slate with games this weekend against Alaska and Alaska-Anchorage in the Kendall Hockey Classic in Anchorage.

The Sun Devils also boast a fair amount of Arizona natives in Newmeyer, McGovern, Young, Anthony Croston and Cody Gylling, in addition to Michael Cummings, who played junior hockey with the Western States Hockey League’s Phoenix Knights.

Peterson, Young and Liam Norris will serve as tri-captains this season. Norris is coming off an ACHA first-team All-American season to boot.

Arizona State will be led by co-captains Liam Norris, Jordan Young and Garrett Peterson during the 2015-16 season (photo: Sun Devil Athletics).

“We expect to be a strong and resilient, well-rounded team that is an absolute pain to play against,” said Peterson. “A couple realistic goals we have set are to win the tournaments on our schedule and build a championship foundation and culture. The buzz on campus is electric. I think ASU athletics and the coaching staff are the spark of the buzz and it has certainly dispersed out among the entire student body. The team and myself could not be more amped for this inaugural season.”

When it comes to recruiting, one would think the weather would be a major selling point. After all, it is Arizona after all, right?

“If a player wants to come here for the sunshine and the palm trees, they’re not the type of kid we want here,” said Powers. “We demand a high work ethic out of all our players, and we may not have the best talent or a Frozen Four team right away, but piece by piece, we are building a culture here that says we will not be outworked by anyone on or off the ice.”

Powers also noted that success can be measured in any number of ways, but daily improvement and proving the Sun Devils belong at the D-I level are at the top of the list of priorities this season.

“Right now, we’re there off the ice, but it remains to be seen where we are on the ice,” said Powers. “We’re young and energetic and we want to win hockey games. We simply want to be better next spring than we are right now.”

Last season

35-4-1. Lost to Stony Brook in ACHA D-I Final Four semifinals.

Names to know

Look for the players with previous D-I and USHL experience to be the difference-makers. Watch for Murphy, Peterson, Newmeyer, Belonger, McGovern, Young and Norris to be key cogs in the Sun Devils lineup.

Three questions

1. How will ASU fare against other NCAA Division I competition?

2. Powers has been successful at the ACHA coaching level, but how will that translate to the NCAA D-I level?

3. Can NCAA D-I hockey work in the desert?

Crystal ball

On paper, this team looks like a serious threat to any team it plays. Is .500 overall a possibility? Sure it is. Based on preseason enthusiasm, the players and coaching staff are psyched to get the season going and to prove that ASU will be a viable addition to the D-I ranks. This team will win more games than it will lose this season. A .600 record is not out of the question, but .500 seems reasonable.

Hamlen putting pieces in place at first-year Merrimack

Samantha Ridgewell in net for Merrimack against St. Cloud State on Oct. 2, 2015 (Mike Gridley/Photo: Mike Gridley)

Samantha Ridgewell in net for Merrimack against St. Cloud State on Oct. 2, 2015 (Mike Gridley/Photo: Mike Gridley)

The chorus of the Imagine Dragons song “Warriors” contains the line, “We are the warriors that built this town from dust.”

While things aren’t quite as bleak as all that at Merrimack — there was an entire college campus and a perfectly good arena with an ice sheet and everything so nobody had to skate on dust — 2015-16 Warriors hockey is certainly forming a team where none existed before.

Doing anything for the first time brings a feeling of discovery that is unique. First season, first team, first practice, first game, first goal — all of it.

“We have a nice, tight, low-number facility,” said coach Erin Hamlen, tasked with building a team to reside in J. Thom Lawler Arena, capacity 2,549. “The nice thing about that is we knew coming in that we would have a great ability with our program to pull numbers that are going to be loud in our building, whether it is 500 or what we had on Friday night, which was over 1,700. It was a great atmosphere. The fans were incredible. The people were absolutely incredible as far as their noise level and just the ability to give us support up and down with the ebb and flow of the game.”

That adds to the excitement.

“Getting all those fans, the first game we have, we hope that they keep coming back,” said Jackie Pieper, who served as the team’s captain in its inaugural game. “We tried to give them something to look forward to.”

After a scoreless first period, visiting St. Cloud State took a 2-0 lead, but Katelyn Rae scored the first goal in program history on a power play to halve the deficit by the second intermission.

The Warriors power play kept rolling. Paige Sorenson, Pieper, and Paige Voight scored on three straight chance to leapfrog the Huskies and put Merrimack up, 4-2, with 8:45 elapsed in the final period, and opening night couldn’t have been going any better.

“I think our D on the point handle the puck well, and they were composed, especially on the power play,” Hamlen said. “One of our players on the wall, [Madison] Morey, was an integral part of one of those power plays. She was able to sustain pressure, and hang onto the puck and dish where she needed to dish. That’s a lot of credit to a young freshman player, who is able to really handle the pressure on the wall like that. I think we’ve got some great individual skill, for sure.”

Had the Warriors spent a lot of time working on the power play, which clicked on four of six opportunities in its first NCAA contest?

“Honestly, not really,” said Pieper. “We had the one [exhibition] last Friday with the two power plays, and we didn’t practice them at all. We just know what we’re doing out there, and we play smart and we’re patient with the puck. That showed [Friday]. I think a lot of people are very impressed with our power play.”

For its first series, Merrimack went five of nine on the power play, to lead the country with a gaudy 55.6 conversion percentage. That had the Warriors positioned for a win in their debut effort as the clock ticked under nine minutes remaining.

“We were up, 4-2, and I think the fact that our players are so young, they just don’t quite understand what it’s like to be up two goals in the third period of their first college game and then be able to settle nerves and not get overly excited and not take bad penalties through the process,” Hamlen said.

The Warriors committed three straight infractions, and it was St. Cloud State’s turn to capitalize. The Huskies tallied three power-play goals of their own in less than two minutes, and the visitors led by one. SCSU added an insurance goal with under three minutes left and skated off with a 6-4 victory.

“We’ll learn from that, and that’s the nice thing about having a young team, is it’s all a learning experience for them right now,” Hamlen said. “They lived, even this past weekend alone, some really great highs and lows, so they’ll start to learn how to balance it all out.”

Some of the same story lines played out on Saturday. Felila Manu got her first collegiate goal just 25 seconds into play, and after St. Cloud State took a lead by the intermission, Dominique Kremer netted another power-play goal a couple minutes into the middle stanza for a 2-2 tie.

For the second night in a row, however, the Huskies ended the game on a four-goal run, and Merrimack fell, 6-2.

A number of factors worked against the Warriors. A young team lacked the experience of how to deal with certain situations; it may have also just ran out of gas.

“As I went in after the weekend, I told them, they’re not conditioned well enough yet,” Hamlen said. “They’re not to where I want them to be, and it’s really hard to make that up in season. So I told them, it’s going to be a work in progress all season for us to get where I want to be by the end of the game, so that we’ve got the energy level and the conditioning to stand through a 60-minute game and then come back and play another one the next day.”

It’s just another growth area for young kids.

“I think really what it boils down to is that our players weren’t fully conditioned enough,” Hamlen said. “Part of that is youth and not understanding quite where they need to be in the summer prior to their freshmen year. I think if you look across the board at most programs, you’re going to have the freshmen in that position, and they’re going to be picked up by the sophomores, juniors, and seniors, and that’s where you’re going to get the depth having so much value in the late stages of a game.”

However, Friday’s game was the first NCAA contest for everyone but junior Marie Delarbre, a transfer from Minnesota-Duluth. While the success on the power play for such a young group was unexpected, the struggles on its penalty kill were not, as Merrimack yielded goals on half of its kills on the weekend.

“We have lots of time and lots of ability to grow as a team, and we’ll get better in certain areas, and other teams will be better at adjusting to us on the power play,” Hamlen said. “We can’t hope and pray that our power play stays the way it did against St. Cloud this weekend. I think we have to continue to work on that, but we have to also tighten up on those loose ends that we know we need to tighten up on in terms of our PK.”

The other option is to stay out of the penalty box, and the Warriors demonstrated great improvement in that regard from the first game to the second. After being whistled for seven infractions in the opener, they cut it down to three in game two.

Similarly, Merrimack reduced its shots allowed from 44 to 26 by its second game.

“I think there are a lot of pieces that we have, and not necessarily just individual, but we have some great pieces that work well as a team, even in that short period of time,” Hamlen said. “I think there’s a lot to build on, and I know that power-play wise and special teams will come together even further. So I’m looking forward to tightening up the back end, the PK side of it, and building more on those power play opportunities.”

While everyone but Delarbre is a rookie on the ice, not all are freshmen in the classroom.

“The players last year who were on campus with us — we had four of them — and they have emerged as natural go-to [options], as far as our younger players coming in and really looking to them for some guidance,” Hamlen said. “Then we had some players on campus this summer, and I think that made a world of difference for those players, but also for the teammates who looked to them for some advice, even on the academic side and where to go for what. A lot of those things are helpful for the young program.”

While Hamlen and her assistant coaches, Brent Hill and Kacey Bellamy, will teach and guide the team, she expects help from within the squad itself.

“I do think that there are a few players who are stepping up as true leaders, and I know that we’ll settle in to a captain at some point,” Hamlen said. “Right now, we’re rotating them game to game, so that we give opportunity across the board to all of our players to have the opportunity to lead for a game, and see what comes out of all of that and who the true leaders are and who can really help us with bringing the young group up to speed in the future.”

While most of the team is embarking on its first year of college hockey, the experience level isn’t uniform. For example, Voight played with the United States team that won an Under-18 World Championship in January. Also, members originated from widely varying areas. The roster represents seven states, four Canadian provinces, and Germany.

Hamlen likes the diversity and would like to keep it moving forward.

“I just think being from a different part of the country or a different country entirely, it brings a different sense of community to our program,” she said. “I really enjoy that aspect, so I would like to continue to move into different areas. Every province, every state, has a different mentality about hockey, but also has a different way of going about their training, their preparation, and it’s just interesting to have all those different areas. If you talk about the Western Canadian kids, a lot of those kids have kind of a hard-nosed attitude, and they know that they need to go and they need to take care of business. Some of those Minnesota players might have a different level of stick skills. The Ontario kids are used to playing at quite a high level all the time. We’ve got a little bit of everything from every province and every state. I like that.”

Merrimack hosts the final two rounds of the Hockey East Tournament this year, and Hamlen would love for her team to be a participant in it as well as a host. Obviously, that will take a lot of growth for a new team to find a way into and through the quarterfinal round, but their opening performance hinted at potential.

“We’re just pleased as a staff,” Hamlen said. “We’re very pleased with the progress. It’s amazing that it’s only been two weeks that we’ve been on the ice with them full time, so that’s a very short period of time. We’ve got a lot of building blocks and a good foundation for the future.”

After forgettable season, Big Ten has redemption on the mind in 2015-16

Michigan and Minnesota are expected to compete for the Big Ten title in 2015-16 (photo: Larry Radloff).

The start of college hockey season is a study in potential and optimism.

“It’s that time of year again,” said Ohio State coach Steve Rohlik. “Pretty excited to get going.”

“We’re coming off of a very exciting season for us, both what happened on the ice and off the ice with the program,” said Penn State coach Guy Gadowsky, “and now the challenge is to build off of that.”

Said Wisconsin’s Mike Eaves, whose Badgers finished the 2014-15 season with four wins overall, “The one thing we know about our group is that we have energy and passion.”

Energy and passion. Challenges. Excitement. These are nice words and the sincerity behind them is unimpeachable, yet there is another word that the Big Ten should keep in mind at the start of the 2015-16 season, one that Eaves didn’t shy away from when describing how his veteran players feel after the worst season in Wisconsin hockey history.

“For the guys that are returning,” said Eaves, “I think the thought or word that comes to mind is redemption.”

Redemption. After 2014-15, it’s an apt concept for a league with the resources, exposure and branding of the Big Ten — a league whose single representative in the 2015 NCAA tournament, Minnesota, bowed out immediately with a first-round 4-1 loss to Minnesota-Duluth.

In a six-team league, especially, the idea that anyone can win a conference championship and advance to the NCAA tournament holds a certain romance in October, but the reality is that every league — even one as small as the Big Ten — has its haves and have-nots.

For the Big Ten’s first two seasons, Minnesota has been the team to catch and beat; in 2014-15, even when the race for the regular season championship was much tighter than it had been the year before and the league was experiencing what can only be termed a down year, the Golden Gophers were still the gold standard for Big Ten hockey.

And that got exactly one Big Ten team into postseason play last year.

Energy. Passion. Excitement. Those are great. What the Big Ten needs is scoring, defense, better goaltending and much better results in the nonconference play that fills the schedule before league games begin in earnest in December.


Last year, two teams in the Big Ten — the haves, if you will — produced enough goals consistently to remain among the top 10 scoring teams in the country. Michigan led Division I, averaging 3.86 goals per game, with 143 overall goals and six double-digit goal scorers on the roster.

With the Wolverines’ top two scorers — Zach Hyman, a senior last year, and Dylan Larkin, a freshman last year who’ll start this season with the Detroit Red Wings — departed, also gone are 37 of those overall goals, a mighty big number to replace.

Averaging 3.51 goals per game in 2014-15, Minnesota was fifth in the nation but returns this year without four seniors and a junior — Seth Ambroz, Travis Boyd, Kyle Rau, Sam Warning and Mike Reilly — who together combined for 69 of Minnesota’s 137 goals, or half of the Golden Gophers’ scoring.

Penn State was 12th in scoring overall (3.22 goals per game), Ohio State 29th (2.72), Michigan State 42nd (2.37) and Wisconsin 56th (1.69). And Michigan State finished second in the league and did not make the NCAA tournament.

And Minnesota — averaging nearly four goals per game all season — scored just one goal arguably when it counted most.


Those Wolverines that averaged nearly four goals per game to lead the nation? Tied for 38th nationally, having allowed 2.89 goals per game on average.

The Gophers? They were 32nd, having allowed 2.51 goals per game — and they were second among Big Ten schools, nationally, in scoring defense. Second.

Among all six Big Ten schools, only the Spartans had a defense that was solid consistently. Michigan State allowed 2.29 goals per game, 13th-best in the nation.


All-American Jake Hildebrand was the most consistent and reliable goaltender in the Big Ten last season, backstopping Michigan State to its second-place league finish with his .930 save percentage, 10th-best nationally.

But as improved as Michigan State was as a team last season and as solid as Hildebrand was — especially as the season progressed — a goaltender cannot do it all alone. Hildebrand’s GAA was 2.18, 26th-best in the country. It was the best in the conference by a long shot.

Nonconference play

Here’s a little disclaimer: There was some really good league hockey played among Big Ten teams during the 2014-15 season. Courtesy of the Big Ten Network, fans across the country were treated to some intense games played by highly recognizable teams, which can only heighten the profile of the sport.

But 2014-15 proved that parity in any form can produce equally measured intensity. Conference play was pretty good.

The Big Ten went 37-43-7 in nonconference play last year, a win percentage of .466. Compare that to Hockey East’s nonconference record (68-44-9, .599) or — better yet — the NCHC’s record (59-30-4, .656), a league with only eight teams to Hockey East’s 12.

Each Big Ten team will play between 12 and 16 regular season games against nonleague foes in 2015-16, and nonconference play dominates the schedule until the Big Ten is in full swing come December. Every coach is eager for that start to the season, none more so than Minnesota’s Don Lucia.

“We have a very good nonconference schedule,” said Lucia. “We’re playing some of the top teams throughout the country, and that certainly should help us prepare for the Big Ten season in December.”

Preparation for league play is nice. Early season preparation for what comes in March and April?

That would be a nice step toward redemption.

My Big Ten co-writer, Drew Claussen, and I think this is how the final standings will look at the end of 2015-16. Click on any team for its detailed season preview.

1. Michigan

The Wolverines need consistent goaltending and team defense. Read more

2. Minnesota

The Gophers seek to fill roster holes left by graduation and early departures. Read more

3. Michigan State

The Spartans can use a few more goals. Read more

4. Penn State

The Nittany Lions hope for prolonged success. Read more

5. Ohio State

The Buckeyes look to buck the tradition of early season struggles. Read more

6. Wisconsin

The Badgers seek redemption after an abysmal year. Read more

Big Ten favorite Michigan searches for consistency on defense

Zach Nagelvoort split time with Steve Racine in the Michigan net last season (photo: Michelle Bishop).

Michigan is hungry for success. After fielding their best offense in years in 2014-15 — a team that seemingly could score at will, from nearly anywhere on the ice — the Wolverines want to put together the complete package, a team that doesn’t swing between allowing 13 goals in three losses in crucial three-game league stretches before outscoring conference opponents 13-4 in three consecutive contests.

Defensive consistency is what Michigan needs, and coach Red Berenson thinks that a new volunteer coach may help with that. Michigan alumnus Steve Shields (1990-94) joins the Wolverines to help returning goaltenders Zach Nagelvoort and Steve Racine and newcomer Chad Catt reach their net potential.

“The good thing about Steve is he’s not only an experienced player — he’s gone through the Michigan college hockey experience and the pro experience — but he’s available to be on the ice every day with our goalies,” said Berenson. “I think that his presence is going to make a difference for each of our goalies. We have three goalies and we don’t know who’s going to be our starting goalie.”

The Wolverines also need to replace the goals lost with the departure of senior Zach Hyman and freshman Dylan Larkin. Berenson thinks he has a bead on that, too, starting with senior forward Cristoval “Boo” Nieves.

“I think Boo Nieves is the classic college hockey player that comes in young and has to work his way up and just get better and better every year,” said Berenson.

Others poised to have breakout seasons are senior forward Justin Selman, who had a career year in 2014-15, and junior Alex Kile, who posted 13 goals last year.

“You know how coaches are,” said Berenson. “They’re always looking for more.”

And there’s junior captain and forward JT Compher. “We need him to have his best year this year,” said Berenson, “and I think he will.”

Last season

22-15, 12-8 (third) in the Big Ten. Lost to Minnesota in the Big Ten championship game.

Names to know

There are six rookies on Michigan’s roster, and only one lists a hometown that’s more than an hour’s drive from Ann Arbor. Forwards Kyle Connor (Shelby Township, Mich.) and Cooper Marody (Brighton, Mich.) were goal scorers in the USHL in 2014-15. The Wolverines also return a talented blue line. Expect big things from juniors Michael Downing and Kevin Lohan and sophomores Cutler Martin and Zach Werenski — especially Werenski.

Three questions

1. Will the Wolverines find the consistency in net that they so desperately need?

2. Will the Wolverines be able to reload offensively and continue the momentum with which the team ended the 2014-15 season?

3. Will the Wolverines play well enough in early nonconference games to position themselves for an NCAA bid without having to win the conference championship?

Crystal ball

With the help of volunteer goalie coach Shields, the Wolverines shore up their net and return to the NCAA tournament following their first Big Ten regular season title.

Hildebrand has Michigan State’s back, but offense needs a kick-start

Jake Hildebrand returns after an All-American season for Michigan State (photo: Larry Radloff).

For Michigan State this season, everything starts from the net. Coach Tom Anastos is counting on senior goaltender Jake Hildebrand to be Jake Hildebrand.

“I think that Jake just has to continue to be Jake, to do what he does,” said Anastos. “He influences our team a great deal. He makes our team better in practice every day because he’s so competitive. He pushes guys. He provides leadership. I don’t think he has to do anything more than what he’s been doing and do it in every single game that he plays.”

Hildebrand — an All-American in 2014-15 and the Big Ten’s best goaltender last year — played every game for Michigan State last season, and Anastos is counting on Hildebrand’s stability to help with the one aspect of Michigan State’s game that is in serious need of a boost.

“We’ve got to figure a way to increase our offensive productivity,” said Anastos. “I think that being able to take a few more chances knowing that he’s back there is probably a good thing. There’s such a confidence knowing that when you make a mistake, he’s the last line of defense and people in spite of a mistake still have to beat him at the end. He’s the kind of guy who can steal a game for you and that gives your team confidence.”

The Spartans return all but one of their top scorers from last season. Senior Matt Berry netted a dozen goals last year on a team with only four players with more than 10 markers. Berry is only one of three departures, however, to impact the roster.

“We do return a group of more experienced players and a more upperclass team than we’ve had since my first season here,” said Anastos, “so we’re excited about the group — actually very excited about the group.”

Last season

17-16-2, 11-7-2-2 (second) in the Big Ten. Lost to Michigan in the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament.

Names to know

This is a senior-heavy roster, with three of Michigan State’s top four scorers returning. Senior forward and captain Michael Ferrantino had a great junior season and leads the team with his relentless passion. His classmate, Ryan Keller, had a breakout year last year, and junior Mackenzie MacEachern will only get better. Junior forward Villiam Haag and senior forward Matt DeBlouw have yet to reach their offensive potential.

Three questions

1. Will the Spartans be able to score enough goals per game consistently to push them beyond the development they saw last season?

2. Will Hildebrand begin his season where he ended it, as a rock-solid netminder who could steal any game?

3. Will the Spartans collectively have what it takes all season long to challenge for the regular season title and perhaps — perhaps, perhaps — play themselves into the NCAA tournament without an autobid?

Crystal ball

Michigan State will find more goals this season but won’t find the kind of scoring the Spartans need to top the standings in March. This is an incredibly disciplined, hard-working team with chemistry, brains and passion, and the only thing holding it back is offense.

Minnesota enters 2015-16 with ‘a completely new team’ after big personnel losses

Hudson Fasching scored 26 goals over his first two seasons at Minnesota (photo: Jim Rosvold).

Like its rival one state to the east did last season, Minnesota will have to replace some big names that often found themselves on the score sheet last year.

Don Lucia’s cupboard may not be quite as empty as Wisconsin’s was last year, but the Minnesota coach lost a lot of experience due to graduation and early departures.

“We’re going to have a completely new team this year,” Lucia said. “All of sudden we have 10 new players … and will probably nave nine different guys in our lineup, but that’s the fun of coaching at this level.”

Going back to its days in the WCHA, Minnesota has won a least a share of its conference’s regular season title for four straight years. The drive for five will be a little harder — the Gophers lost their starting goaltender, top two defensemen and numerous forwards from last year.

“For us to have a successful year we’re going to need a few things to happen,” Lucia said. “Obviously, we’re going to need a goaltender to step forward with the departure of Adam Wilcox. The returning guys are going to be key, especially our junior class.”

Lucia didn’t tip his hand on what he would do with the goaltender position to start off the season. He faced a similar situation during the 2012-13 season when Wilcox was a freshman and split time with Michael Shibrowski before winning the starting job a month into the season.

Minnesota’s success this season is contingent on forwards Hudson Fasching, Justin Kloos, Taylor Cammarata and Vinni Lettieri all elevating their play and driving the team’s goal-scoring.

“We have big expectations,” Lucia said. “So far in practice Vinni Lettieri looks like a player who’s ready to take another step.”

Lucia added that sophomore forward Leon Bristedt looks more comfortable during his second year at the university after coming from Sweden last year.

Last season

23-13-3, 12-5-3 (first) in the Big Ten. Lost to Minnesota-Duluth in the NCAA Northeast Regional.

Names to know

Key returners are Kloos, Fasching and Lettieri. Rookie Tommy Novak should help fill the scoring void left by Kyle Rau. Freshmen Eric Schierhorn and Brock Kautz and sophomore Nick Lehr will compete for the starting goaltender spot, and don’t expect to see one play both games in a weekend early in the season.

Three questions

1. Who’s the goaltender? The four netminders on the Gophers’ roster have combined to start one collegiate game, Nick Lehr’s start against Michigan State last season.

2. How will Minnesota fare during its nonconference schedule? The Gophers have nonconference series with preseason No. 2 Minnesota-Duluth, No. 6 Minnesota State and No. 17 St. Cloud State. Minnesota could also play No. 8 Harvard at the Mariucci Classic and will see either St. Cloud State or Minnesota State in its second game at the North Star College Cup.

3. Who will step up on the blue line? Mike Reilly and Brady Skjei are gone. This year’s defensive corps will be made up of a combination of three juniors, three sophomores and two freshmen.

Crystal ball

If the Gophers get goaltending, they can certainly contend with Michigan. Finishing either second or third in the conference seems more likely.

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