Expectations had soared for last year’s veteran-laden Massachusetts-Lowell squad until the late offseason departure to the pros of 26-goal scorer Ben Walter. The River Hawks then got off to a poor start, lost go-to guy Andrew Martin to injury, and saw several key players suffer off-years. Although a closing 4-1 surge vaulted them into seventh place, the River Hawks finished a disappointing season as the league’s worst defensive team.
High expectations will not be Lowell’s problem this year. Not only did 10 seniors move on, but so did goaltender Peter Vetri, who had posted a 2.52 GAA and a .912 save percentage while earning the Hockey East Rookie of the Year Award, but fell to 3.58 and .892 last year and then transferred.
Unfortunately, this season has the adjective rebuilding plastered all over it. Last year’s two playoff games are likely two more than Lowell will play next March.
“We have 15 freshmen this year and three goaltenders with  minutes of experience at the Division I level so we have to be really cautious in our expectations,” UML coach Blaise MacDonald says. “It’s a cliché, but we want to get better each day if we can.
“We live in a culture or society where it’s bottom-line winning [that matters]. We’ll have to celebrate some small victories along the way to build that confidence, build that level of fulfillment that will allow a young team to be able to explore their potential and mature.
“What I have been able to see is that we have real quality of depth. I can’t really tell a big difference between our first-line and our fifth-line guys or our top two defensemen and our eighth and ninth defensemen. So that’s pretty good.” Adding a bit of gallows humor, MacDonald adds, “I haven’t watched the goalies yet. I don’t want to do that to myself.”
Ah, yes, the goalies. Vetri’s departure leaves only Vinny Monaco and two incoming freshmen, Carter Hutton and Nevin Hamilton. The good news about Monaco (3.83, .900) is that he’s undefeated in D-I. The bad news is that record is only 1-0-0.
“It’s awfully hard to tell [how the position will shape up],” MacDonald says. “We really like Carter Hutton. Nevin Hamilton played for the Junior Bruins and had a lot of success. Then we’ve got Vinny Monaco, who’s undefeated. They’re all pretty close.”
The blueliners, an area of concern last year, will be led by captain Cleve Kinley and J.R. Bria along with fellow senior Jake Pence. With five departures, most notably defensive stalwart Matt Collar, there will be many new faces and, going hand in hand with that, the inevitable learning curve. Even so, MacDonald likes the group’s raw potential.
“[Kinley and Bria] are head and shoulders above the other guys when you compare their game savviness, their grace under pressure,” MacDonald says. “They really know how to make plays.
“But the potential of the other players [is there]. We have very good transitional defensemen with good stick skills and good skating ability. They’ll learn a lot watching those two guys.”
Although the cupboard isn’t quite as bare up front, the River Hawks did lose their top four scorers. That said, Jason Tejchma (10-16–26) and Jeremy Hall (12-13–25) return and both have been productive throughout their first three years. In larger roles, both should break through the 30-point barrier. After that, however, no returnees topped eight points last season.
“[We’ll count on] Jason Tejchma and Jeremy Hall, who have played well together in the past,” MacDonald says. “But I also look at a couple seniors who have had okay careers to this point, but I think are due for a breakout. That’s René Gauthier, who looks fantastic so far, and Todd Fletcher. I look to both of those guys to be placed in a different role this year and with that given more opportunities to succeed and be productive.”
Put together, this looks like a team that is likely to struggle mightily in the early going. What’s more, if there is, as this writer would contend, a gap between the top six teams in the league and the bottom four, Lowell’s first-semester schedule includes only a single matchup with Merrimack from that lower tier. As such, all factors point to the River Hawks looking better in the second half than the first.
“You’d like to think that, but this is a league that doesn’t give you a lot of feel-good games,” MacDonald says. “You get punched in the nose a lot in this league. Sooner or later, it gets tough to pick yourself up so it’s hard to say.
“[A golfer] can have a bad day and say that tomorrow’s a new day. But when he then bogeys the first couple holes, it’s hard not to relive the bogeys from the day before.
“That’s going to be one of our biggest challenges. It’s not athletics; it’s psychological. The body’s going to do what the head tells it to do. We’ve really tried to address a lot of those things in our meetings so far this year.
“Time will tell.”