Season Preview: UMass-Lowell River Hawks

Even though UMass-Lowell finished in the cellar last year, it was only by a single point. It won’t take much to make a significant move in the standings.

“We recognize Hockey East is the strongest league in the country right now,” says coach Tim Whitehead. “For anyone that finished in the bottom half last year, something special has to happen to get into that top half of the league.

“We believe that something special can happen this year. Whether or not that happens, we just have to wait and see. That’s why we play the games, obviously. We believe that it can, but we know the challenge that’s in front of us.”

One key to moving up in the standings will be improving the offensive output. The River Hawks went through stages last year during which they struggled to bury the puck. They’ll also have to replace leading scorer Chris Bell.

“We’re expecting everybody to increase their offensive production,” says Whitehead. “Do we have another [Greg] Koehler or [Greg] Bullock point-wise on the horizon? We’d like to think we do, [but] it’s too early to say that.

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“Based on last year’s point production, it doesn’t look like it. But we think we do have a couple of guys who can put up some real good numbers this year. They haven’t done that yet, but they’ve put up good numbers in the past and the potential is there for that to happen here.”

Three freshmen — Laurent Meunier, Peter Hay and Anders Strome — will also be part of the mix.

“I think Laurent Meunier will be in a position to make an immediate impact,” says Whitehead. “And Peter Hay and Anders Strome both have talent. We’re expecting them to contribute.”

Rather than one player bursting out and carrying the load, Whitehead sees a collective emergence.

“If the whole team elevates offensively, then we’re in business,” he says.

Whitehead brings the same expectations to the defensive end, where the River Hawks finished last in the league, allowing an average of 3.29 goals per game. There wasn’t much of a difference between the sixth-ranked team and Lowell, but a similar argument could be made in the overall standings. Small differences can make for big differences.

Additionally, the team graduated its top blueliner, Kevin Bertram.

“I’m not going to say we had a good year defensively,” says Whitehead. “But at the same time, we do have a lot of potential there. In goaltending and defense, we were extremely young last year so [our problems] were no big mystery.”

Whitehead doesn’t need one player to suddenly become this year’s Mike Mottau. Modest improvements all around could pay big dividends.

“We expect all our returning guys to play better this year, play better defensively and put up a little better numbers offensively,” says Whitehead. “I do expect that to happen.

“Will someone like a [first-round NHL Draft pick Ron] Hainsey or one of our goaltenders accelerate that process and really be with the top of the league? We’ll just have to wait and see, but the potential is there.”

"I know we’ll be better in that position. How much better remains to be seen, but we will definitely be better in that area."

— UMass-Lowell coach Tim Whitehead

Two redshirt freshmen, Darryl Green and Jerramie Domish, could quickly push for playing time as well.

“They’re coming in a little older than your typical freshman, so I anticipate they’ll contribute right away,” says Whitehead.

Arguably, the biggest problem for Lowell last year was the inconsistent goaltending. Neither Cam McCormick nor Jimi St. John put up impressive numbers, although both had asterisks attached to their performances. St. John missed over two months with an injury, and McCormick may have entered the season with a thick coat of rust after sitting out almost two years because of a stint in major junior hockey.

“The goaltending position has to improve and they know that,” says Whitehead. “But again, there’s potential for that to happen. McCormick is going to be better because he played a lot of hockey last year after being off for so long. He’ll be better just from experience.

“Jimi St. John will be better just by being healthy. And Chris Davidson, the freshman coming in, is going to challenge for playing time.”

A further reason for higher expectations for the goalies is the hiring of assistant coach Pertti Hasanen.

“We have a coach on our staff now who’s a former elite goaltender and he’s going to be there every day,” says Whitehead. “So I know we’ll be better in that position. How much better remains to be seen, but we will definitely be better in that area.”

Veteran River Hawk fans may consider the potential of three goaltenders in a rotation to be an ominous thought. In 1994-95, just such a trio almost single-handedly sank one of the better squads in the program’s history.

“I can’t say that won’t happen,” says Whitehead. “It worked for St Lawrence last year until the end of the season and then one guy [Derek Gustafson] rose above. But we’re not going into the season with that in mind. We’ll just play the best goalie. Ice time will be fair, but it won’t necessarily be equal.

“We will win if we rely on each other as a team,” he says. “It’s going to have to be a group effort. Our guys are prepared to do that. It’s on all of us.

“It’s a great way to go into the year. We’re depending on every single guy to be crucial to us this year.”