2001-02 UMass-Lowell Season Preview

The biggest change in Lowell, of course, isn’t the usual departure of graduating players and influx of freshmen, but rather the arrival last spring of new coach Blaise MacDonald. Arguably, former coach Tim Whitehead should have been treated better and still be at the River Hawk helm. He was, after all, a finalist for national coach of the year.

However, once Whitehead and Lowell parted ways, the program could not have made a better choice than MacDonald. The Greater Lowell favorite son was a magician at Niagara, creating a program out of nothing and, in just its fourth year of existence, directing the Purple Eagles to an NCAA berth and first-round victory over UNH. Of course, vaulting to the top of College Hockey America is a much easier task than accomplishing that feat in Hockey East.

“With a team like Lowell, we’re always the hunters,” says MacDonald. “There are always four teams [in Hockey East] that are the hunted. There are two tiers. Maybe one team goes back and forth, but you’ve got BC, BU, UNH and Maine. They are always the hunted. Providence is going to be up in that top tier this year, too, without question.

“So we’re the hunters, but that’s fine. We like that.”

How well they’ll hunt this year remains to be seen. The River Hawks didn’t lose many players from last year’s squad, but the ones they did lose leave behind some very large shoes to fill. Most notably, All-American and First-Team All-Hockey East defenseman Ron Hainsey turned pro with two years of eligibility remaining. Combined with number-three scorer Brad Rooney and largebodies Kyle Kidney (number-five scorer) and Jeff Boulanger, the losses amount to replacing quality, not quantity.

Even more significantly, Laurent Meunier, Yorick Treille and top recruit Baptiste Amar will leave the team in late January to join the French National Team for the Olympics. The trio could miss as many as 8-10 games, of which only one would be a nonconference contest. That stretch run and the injury list at that point could make or break the team in the Hockey East standings.

Had Hainsey returned and the Olympics not claimed three top players, this team might have had a great shot at playoff home ice. Don’t forget that after a disastrous 1-6 start in Hockey East games last year, the River Hawks finished 9-5-3 before toppling New Hampshire in the playoffs to advance to the FleetCenter.

Hainsey, however, won’t be skating on the Tsongas Arena ice this year and the three Frenchmen will be making a jersey switch at a most inopportune time. Nonetheless, MacDonald is nonplussed.

“That’s okay,” he says. “It’s a wonderful [opportunity] for somebody else to have a challenge and to make an impact.”

One such impact player — even though he doesn’t play the position of Meunier, Treille or Amar — is goaltender Jimi St. John. Hockey East doesn’t give a Most Improved Player Award, but if it did the senior would have been a leading candidate. After never posting a goals against average under three or a save percentage better than .874, he improved both numbers to 2.55 and .906, respectively, while stealing the top position from fellow senior Cam McCormick.

Even though St. John played the final 16 games of the 2000-2001 season, however, MacDonald isn’t tipping his hand as to who will be his number one.

“We have two very experienced goaltenders who have played in a lot of big games and been around for a long time,” he says. “I think we’ll see their experience be their strongest asset this season. It should be a strong position for us.”

Except for Hainsey, Lowell returns all its defensemen, including four seniors: Chris Gustafson, Kevin Kotyluk, R. J. Tolan, and Josh Allison. Sophomores Darryl Green and Jerramie Domish also made strong first impressions last year. The group has an abundance of 5-10 blueliners, who have proven that you don’t have to be a redwood to be effective at the position. Added to that mix will be Amar, who is almost certainly the most highly regarded Lowell recruit.

“He’s similar to Ron Hainsey,” says MacDonald. “He can really control the play, can establish a pretty good breakout, make that first pass and really dictate momentum.”

If Amar can fill the quarterbacking role, the blueliners as a unit have the chance to be a special group.

“That’s going to be the strength of our team,” says MacDonald. “We possess a lot of true grit, incredible competitive spirit and a high level of pride coupled with talent.”

Up front, Meunier and Treille, who are both in their last year of eligibility, lead the offense along with junior Ed McGrane, one of the better-kept secrets in the league. The River Hawks finished fourth in scoring last season, but may be hard-pressed to match that without Hainsey, especially on the power play where he was such a force.

“We’ve lost three of our top five scorers,” says MacDonald, mindful that when Treille and Meunier leave for the Olympics that number goes to five of the top six. “That’s a significant hole. We need a lot of shared, increased productivity out of the returning forwards. I think we’ll get that, but there’s an unknown there.

“We’ve had guys make significant jumps in their strength and conditioning — off the chart improvements. The breakthroughs in conditioning their bodies will condition their mind. I can see Tom Rouleau having a big year. I can see Ed McGrane making a quantum leap. There’s a handful of other guys who could have breakthrough years.

“People might look at Lowell as last year being kind of one-dimensional in Ron Hainsey. The players need to change people’s perception.”