This Week in Hockey East: Oct. 25, 2007

Congrats To Umile

Congratulations to New Hampshire coach Dick Umile on his 400th win. One of the class acts in the sport, Umile has his Wildcats in the thick of things year in and year out.

Perhaps making the win even more satisfying was that it came over rival Boston University and in its barn, no less.

“As I told the team, it’s great,” Umile said after the game. “It says an awful lot about a lot of good hockey players that have played here.”

Umile also thanked BU coach Jack Parker for the announcement of the feat even though it came at the expense of the hosts.

“It’s the class of BU’s program and a good friend, Jack Parker,” Umile said. “I know what he did; I know he told the announcer to announce it. But that’s who he is. It’s class by him and his whole program.”

Congrats To Merrimack

Congratulations also go to the Merrimack Warriors for their 3-0 start to a season in which they were a near consensus pick to finish in the Hockey East cellar.

Winning at home over Niagara was a nice start, but traveling to Bemidji State and sweeping there was even better.

The climb becomes a lot steeper this weekend with a home-and-home series against Boston College, but the Warriors have to feel good about their start.

Preseason All Stars And Awards

Hockey East long ago discarded the idea of preseason all-star teams based on the idea that award-winners should have to earn it rather than be anointed before the first game was played. Almost certainly, that is the correct course of action for the league.

However, it’s fun for fans and writers alike to speculate so we’ll once again indulge ourselves here with our own preseason predictions. And so without further ado…

All-Hockey East Goaltenders

Four returning netminders appear to be the clear frontrunners: senior Joe Fallon (Vermont), juniors Kevin Regan (New Hampshire) and Ben Bishop (Maine), and sophomore Brad Thiessen (Northeastern).

All but Regan have been The Man for their respective teams since entering the league, dominating time between the pipes even as freshmen.

Fallon earned ECACHL Rookie of the Year honors in Vermont’s last season within that league, posting a 1.96 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage. His statistics suffered in the Catamounts’ inaugural Hockey East season, but bounced back last year. He did, however, suffer some inconsistency despite backstopping a team that thinks defense first.

Bishop endured a baptism by fire in his inaugural campaign, taking over only after Jimmy Howard turned pro late in the summer. Even so, Bishop helped get Maine to the Frozen Four despite Howard’s absence and though hampered by injuries last year, again backstopped the Black Bears to the national semifinal game. His abilities as a third defenseman can also not be overlooked.

Thiessen was a unanimous selection to last year’s league all-rookie team after backstopping the Huskies, fresh off a 3-24-7 season, to a dramatic 13-18-5 improvement. In league games, he finished behind only Player of the Year John Curry and Regan in save percentage, posting a .930 mark.

Of the four, only Regan enjoyed a gradual introduction to life in Hockey East, splitting time as a freshman with Jeff Pietrasiak before taking over last year.

Based on the numbers, the two berths should go to Regan and Thiessen. (Forget about goals-against average. That stat is highly dependent on the team in front of a goalie. Although imperfect, a much better measure is save percentage.)

It is, however, hard to ignore Bishop’s “third-defenseman” capability. He also will have the advantage come voting time of playing on a team most expect to be stronger than Thiessen and Fallon’s.

Then again, it’s also hard to ignore Fallon’s status as a senior. And team-dependent or not, that goals-against average sure looks impressive.

The temptation is to weasel out and go with a three-way tie for the second team, but we’ll avoid the weasel, at least for now.

First-Team: Kevin Regan (UNH)
Second-Team: Brad Thiessen (Northeastern)

All-Hockey East Defensemen

Blueliners are notoriously hard to pick. The easy way out (“easy way out” being a euphemism for “copout”) is to select the top point-producers. However, offensive prowess doesn’t necessarily match up with stellar overall defensive play. Denver’s Matt Carle may have been a slam dunk as last year’s Hobey Baker Award winner — his numbers bordered on the outrageous — but to follow that lead down the line ignores what makes successful teams.

A couple cases in point: Boston College’s Brett Motherwell (28 points) was the top scoring defenseman in Hockey East last year and Maine’s Bret Tyler (26 points) tied for second, yet neither earned even honorable mention status on the All-Hockey East team. For all their considerable offensive prowess, both could be an adventure at times in their defensive zone. Big-time assets for their team but not all-stars.

On the other hand, you can’t go as far as some old-timers (a category I’m desperately trying to avoid even as my hair grows ever more gray), who’ll growl, “Defensemen are supposed to play defense.” True enough to a point, but you also need defensemen with enough skill to beat a forecheck. If your blueliners are too one-dimensional, then you’ll have a weakness that opponents can exploit.

As a result, assessing the play of blueliners is fraught with difficulties. To be really accurate requires watching a defenseman over and over and over again.

See, for example, the Hockey East Defensive Player of the Week Award. Of the 25 award-winners last year, all but three were goaltenders. The exceptions — defensemen Sean Sullivan (BU), Mike Lundin (Maine) and Brett Tyler (Maine) — almost certainly had big offensive weekends when they earned those honors.

(In fact, I’ll step out on a limb now and predict that two, if not all three, enjoyed significant point production in their award weeks. I’m not connected to the Internet as I type this and I promise not to edit this prediction if I’m proven wrong. Later update: Sullivan had three assists and Tyler had two goals and an assist. Case closed.)

Okay, enough of the dillying and dallying. Time to make some picks.

The one no-brainer has to be Boston University’s Matt Gilroy. He’s the only returning All-Hockey East selection, a first-teamer no less, and a second-team All-American. Gilroy does produce on the offensive end (9-17-26), but he also has consistently been among the team’s top plus-minus guys.

Providence’s Cody Wild was an All-Hockey East honorable mention as a sophomore last season one year after being Rookie of the Year runner-up to Brandon Yip. Wild has to make the team even though his statistics may suffer from being on a team expected to struggle.

Then there’s UNH’s Brad Flaishans, also an All-Hockey East honorable mention. He emerged last year in offensive production and is consistently strong in his own end.

After that, the choices are tough. Go with offense in the form of Motherwell or Tyler? Go for the upside of all-rookie team selections Justin Braun (Massachusetts) or Mark Fayne (PC)? The leadership and rock-solid defensive play of Mike Brennan (BC), Mike Lutz (UVM), or David Leaderer (UMass)?

With apologies to all of those already mentioned plus UNH’s Craig Switzer, the last berth goes to UMass captain Mike Kostka for his strong two-way play.

First-Team: Matt Gilroy (BU), Brad Flaishans (UNH)
Second-Team: Cody Wild (PC), Mike Kostka (UMass)

All-Hockey East Forwards

Finally, a comparatively easy set of selections.

The forwards from the top three projected teams provide some clear-cut choices. That shouldn’t be surprising. How many games do you watch in which the territorial play is quite even, but the win goes to the team with the extra sniper who has that special knack of finding the back of the net? Top teams almost always have more of those guys than those in the middle of the pack that have to grind it out a bit more.

So with apologies to Dean Strong (UVM), Cory Quirk (UMass) and Billy Ryan (Maine), the all-star forwards appear destined to come from the ranks of BC, UNH and BU.

Boston College enjoys the greatest wealth with not only the one returning scorer to top 40 points last year but all three of them. While those numbers were padded by the Eagles’ run to the national championship game, juniors Nathan Gerbe, Benn Ferriero and Brock Bradford are near locks for the team. Each finished with at least 45 points (as sophomores!) and will make BC an offensive juggernaut yet again.

Speaking of offensive juggernauts…

New Hampshire’s Mike Radja and Matt Fornataro rank right there with the BC trio and arguably will get even more of the UNH prime scoring time following the departure of Trevor Smith, Jacob Micflikier and Brett Hemingway. Both could easily leapfrog their way to the top of Hockey East stat sheets.

BU’s Peter MacArthur and Chris Higgins trailed the other two teams’ snipers slightly in points but are extremely talented scorers in their own right and also belong on the team.

All of which leaves seven players for six slots. However, we’ve conveniently held a weasel-out card up our sleeve so the only question becomes who makes the first team and who is relegated to the second.

And the answer is…

First-Team: (tie) Nathan Gerbe and Benn Ferriero (BC), Matt Fornataro (UNH) and Peter MacArthur (BU)
Second-Team: Brock Bradford(BC), Mike Radja (UNH) and Chris Higgins (BU)

Rookie of the Year

This is usually an impossible choice since freshmen are arriving from all directions, but this year there’s a sight-unseen, slam-dunk prediction: James vanRiemsdyk (UNH). If a defenseman gets picked number two overall in the NHL draft, he’s still a longshot for Rookie of the Year. Not so with a forward. Bet the ranch on vanRiemsdyk.

Player of the Year

There are so many variables that this one is much tougher to predict, but it’s almost never a defenseman and, far more often than not, is a forward.

We’ll go with Nathan Gerbe, a threat (or a pest, depending on your perspective) on the power play, penalty kill or even strength.

Until Next Time…

Eventually, you’ll see a trivia contest and the return of “And Finally, Not That It Has Anything To Do With Anything, But…”

For now, though, Let’s Go Red Sox!

Thanks to Scott Weighart.