Although Vermont’s move from sixth place (10-11-6) in its first season in Hockey East to a tie for fifth (12-10-5) last year might seem like only the most modest of improvements, there’s reason to view the step forward as more significant than first meets the eye. In the Catamounts’ inaugural campaign, they struggled against “the big boys” — Boston College, Boston University, Maine and New Hampshire — posting a collective 1-6-5 record before being swept by BC in the playoffs. Last season, however, that record rose to 5-7-0 with series wins over BC and BU. In the playoffs, they then went tooth-and-nail with BU before losing in overtime of the rubber game.
“We were the new team in Hockey East feeling our way the first year,” UVM coach Kevin Sneddon says. “We had a decent year last year. We made more strides to close that gap with the top teams. We had more success with the top four.
“Now our attitude is, ‘Hey, we’ve arrived, we belong here.’ That’s the attitude we have to take. It’s our championship to go after just like anybody else.”
If a championship is in the offing, goaltender Joe Fallon will almost certainly be the difference-maker. One of the top returning netminders in the league, Fallon had Sneddon holding his breath until the first day of classes over the possibility of Fallon turning pro. The senior, however, is back, and Sneddon expects sophomore Mike Spillane to push him.
“Mike Spillane has done a tremendous job of really closing the gap with Joe, so I think we have a great one-two punch, probably the best tandem in college hockey,” Sneddon says. “You’re always in good shape when you have that position solidified.
“We’ll have to go with whoever is playing the best and not just plug in Joe no matter what. Mike is hungry, and his hunger is going to drive Joe to be more hungry. Joe’s got the aspiration of playing in the National Hockey League, so he’s going to have the motivation not only [of playing well] for his team but also because he’s got a future goal in sight. But he’s going to have a young guy pushing him the whole year, which is great for everybody.”
The blueliners in front of Fallon and Spillane will include several new faces and have much less experience. Four of the top six defensemen graduated, most notably Kenny Macaulay and Ryan Gunderson.
“Those two guys are big losses on the blue line,” Sneddon says. “Kenny Macaulay was a tremendous captain for us and logged a ton of minutes. Ryan Gunderson was a recruited walk-on forward that we converted to defense and was tremendous for us for four years.”
Freshmen Kyle Medvec, Kevan Miller, Josh Burrows and Dan Lawson will need to hit the ground running.
“The goal is to move those guys along as quickly as possible and get them confidence,” Sneddon says. “Their talent level is tremendous and we’re really excited about them. They’re probably the best four defensemen that we’ve brought in since I’ve been here, so we’re excited about their potential. It will just take some time and patience to get those guys going.”
The forwards will miss top scorer Torrey Mitchell, who turned pro, but otherwise return all the primary threats led by juniors Dean Strong, Peter Lenes and Corey Carlson. Brayden Irwin, Colin Vock and Viktor Stålberg all broke into double-digit points as freshmen and with added experience should progress further. Incoming freshman Wahsontiio Stacey arrives with high expectations.
“Our forwards are as dynamic as I think we’ve ever had since I’ve been here,” Sneddon says. “We’ve done a great job recruiting and finding some great players that play our style.
“Losing Torrey obviously is a challenge and an obstacle, but I guess we look at it as an opportunity for somebody else to step in and fill that void. Last year, it was easy to look down the bench and see where number nine was and think, ‘Okay, he’ll get it done.’ Sometimes a player like that might overshadow some other guys. He was a great player and we would have loved to have him back, but when a player of his skill level leaves, it brings more opportunities for other guys to really shine.
“He was the only player that we lost from our top three lines on the playoff roster. So we’re excited to have a lot of great players back that are bigger and better.”