ECAC East Season Preview

The interlocking schedule between NESCAC and ECAC East provides hockey fans in the Northeast some of the best match ups anywhere on virtually every weekend between now and the end of February.

In this the last season in its current configuration before the commencement of the Massachusetts State College Athletic Conference (MASCAC) next year takes Salem State from the East (to be replaced by University of New England) to a new conference, this year’s competition is expected to be as hotly contested as any race we have seen in the past several years.

“Everyone just keeps getting better,” noted Southern Maine head coach Jeff Beaney. Even the guys that have lost a lot like Norwich have reloaded — like that military joke there?”

Sense of humor aside, coach Beaney seems to be right on as even the coaches have matched last year’s top four finishes with the same alignment projected for this season. Hard to disagree when you look at the teams on paper but seeing how Babson won the whole thing two years ago from the six spot; I am inclined to think that just about anything can happen in this league with these teams.

We finally get to see some hockey — and before Thanksgiving too! Enjoy the regular season as well as all of the holiday tournament play over the next few weeks. This is going to be great!

Teams are listed in order of predicted finish by

Norwich Cadets

2007-2008 Overall Record: 23-7-0
2007-2008 League Record: 15-4-0
2007-2008 League Finish: First
2008-2009 Coaches’ Pick: First
2008-2009 USCHO Prediction: First

Team Overview: “We are working our tails off,” observed head coach Mike McShane. “We have lost a lot both upfront and on the blue line so we will be looking for some new contributions from other forwards and have four new defensemen in the mix.

“We have the potential to be a good team and just need to keep working hard to get there. We are getting great leadership from our older guys and we have some new players that should contribute early on.”

Special Teams: Coach Mike McShane is looking for the power play unit to contribute significantly and offset the loss of high scoring forward Rick Cleaver. While there are some newcomers on defense, junior goalie David Thompson should help to limit the opposition from taking advantage of their man advantages.

Player to Watch: Forward Nikita Kashirsky (20 goals, 22 assists, 42 points) scored six game-winning goals last season for the Cadets and is dangerous on the power play.

Summary: Norwich will take nothing for granted in the league and should the defense gel quickly with D-I RIT transfer Steve Coon and Pasha Kozhokin, the Cadets will be chasing their traditional spot at the top of the leader board.

Babson Beavers

2007-2008 Overall Record: 17-6-3
2007-2008 League Record: 13-4-2
2007-2008 League Finish: Second
2008-2009 Coaches’ Pick: Second
2008-2009 USCHO Prediction: Second

Team Overview: “It really does go by quickly,” noted head coach Jamie Rice. “It seems like the summer just started and now we are anxious to play our first game and get this season going.”

“We have a lot returning along with some new faces like freshman forward Cody Carlson,” he continued, “so we will see how the kids come together and how we do out of the gate. [It’s] not exactly easy opening with Bowdoin and Colby on the road but what a great way to start the season.”

Special Teams: Babson’s power play production was down below 20% last season so look for the Beavers to create more chances with the man advantage. Senior Alex DiPietro led the team with three power-play tallies last season.

Players to Watch: Junior forward Jason Schneider (12-15-27) returns as last season’s leading scorer and hopes to build momentum into the new season from last year’s successful campaign. Senior goaltender Skylar Nipps looks to raise his save percentage above 90% in support of the Beaver defensive unit.

Summary: They can beat you in a track meet or a 2-1 tight checking game. Babson has the talent to best anyone in the league in any style of play. If they can be consistent, this team will be around at the end.

Castleton State Spartans

2007-2008 Overall Record: 13-11-2
2007-2008 League Record: 11-6-2
2007-2008 League Finish: Third
2008-2009 Coaches’ Pick: Third
2008-2009 USCHO Prediction: Third

Team Overview: “It doesn’t really matter if you have everyone back if they aren’t focused on executing on the ice,” commented head coach Alex Todd. “We do have a lot back this year and everyone has gotten stronger and faster in the off-season. Practices have gone very well and this group seems much focused right out of the gate. We are going to have to prove it on the ice and we open with a tough one at New England College on Friday night.”

Special Teams: Two power play units have the ability to score and the penalty killing was a strong suit for the team last year especially in the second half of the season. The defense led by senior Jared lavender (0-10-10) will have a major impact on the success of this year’s PK unit.

Senior Brandon Heck is Castleton's all-time leading scorer entering the season.

Senior Brandon Heck is Castleton’s all-time leading scorer entering the season.

Player To Watch: Senior forward Brandon Heck (16-18-34) has already broken all of the scoring records at the school and is looking to add to his résumé this season by again topping the career 100 point mark.

Summary: This team has learned how to win and their physical style can wear down many teams — if the goaltending triumvirate of Jay Seals, Jeff Swanson and freshman Seth McNary can step up to the elite level, Castleton could compete with another Vermont school for the league title.

New England College Pilgrims

2007-2008 Overall Record: 16-8-3
2007-2008 League Record: 10-6-3
2007-2008 League Finish: Fourth
2008-2009 Coaches’ Pick: Fourth
2008-2009 USCHO Prediction: Fourth

Team Overview: The Pilgrims are another team that lost some key contributors from last year’s squad. If you happen to be near the bench and hear some different languages from the players, please note that there are 13 players who find their roots in Sweden or Finland, giving NEC a distinctive European style.

The Scandinavian entourage will receive some solid support from a strong returning group that can score in bunches.

Special Teams: Expect speed and puck movement to dominate the style of play as the Pilgrims have always proved dangerous on the power play. Junior Mark Ehl (23-18-41) led the team with 12 goals on the power play and should be in a position to match that number this season with a talented supporting cast.

Player to Watch: Junior defenseman Trevor Turner (0-23-23) didn’t score a goal last season but still produced over 20 points by setting up his teammates.

Summary: Six of the Pilgrims first eight games are at home including three match ups with top teams in the ECAC Northeast such as Nichols, Wentworth and Curry. A good start will set up NEC for a strong run following the semester break.

Southern Maine Huskies

2007-2008 Overall Record: 14-9-3
2007-2008 League Record: 8-8-3
2007-2008 League Finish: Fifth
2008-2009 Coaches’ Pick: Sixth
2008-2009 USCHO Prediction: Fifth

Team Overview: “We are going to be a little inexperienced on the blue line to start but I like the make-up of this team,” said head coach Jeff Beaney. “The league is going to be very tough and we open with Norwich right out of the gate so I guess we’ll see what we have got early on.”

Special Teams: Over a third of the team’s goals came on the power play last season so look for senior forwards Dan Gordon (13-16-29) and Kyle Smith (13-10-23) to lead the way for the Huskies.

Players to Watch: Goalie Jamie Gilbert had a solid year in his first season playing following his transfer from Division I’s UMass-Amherst. His 10-6-1 record combined with a 2.63 GAA and .915 save percentage should help the Huskies stay competitive virtually every night.

Summary: Southern Maine has always finished strong in the second half. If they can steal some points on the front end, a home ice berth is easily within their grasp.

Salem State Vikings

2007-2008 Overall Record: 16-11-1
2007-2008 League Record: 9-9-1
2007-2008 League Finish: Sixth
2008-2009 Coaches’ Pick: Fifth
2008-2009 USCHO Prediction: Sixth

Team Overview: This is Salem State’s final season in the ECAC East as they will join the new MASCAC league starting in 2009-10. Not that they need the motivation but Bill O’Neill’s teams are always competitive and will surprise teams that aren’t prepared to play. They can score in bunches but will need to tighten up defensively if they want to make a run at postseason glory.

Special Teams: Special teams will need to be better on both sides for the Vikings, especially where they only had a 16% success rate scoring with the man advantage. Sophomore Justin Fox (18-22-40) led the team with six tallies on the power play. He’ll need some help.

Player to Watch: D-I transfer Vinny Monaco comes to Salem State from UMass-Lowell so look for some healthy competition with Ryan Hatch for playing time between the pipes.

Summary: The Vikings will need to get consistent play in their defensive end and solid goaltending. If they do last season’s visit to the final four in the conference tournament will not be a surprise.

UMass-Boston Beacons

2006-2007 Overall Record: 11-14-2
2006-2007 League Record: 5-12-2
2006-2007 League Finish: Eighth
2007-2008 Coaches’ Pick: Seventh
2007-2008 USCHO Prediction: Seventh

Team Overview: “We want to compete in this league with all of the top teams,” said head coach Peter Belisle. “We have a great group returning and have added a lot of new faces to help build our talent and depth.

“We need our top performers from last year to go to the next level and from what we have seen in practice they are all bigger and quicker than we were a year ago. Hopefully, we will get a chance to outshoot some teams this year.”

Special Teams: The power play should be better and Eric Tufman (18-19-37) should top the nine extra attacker goals he scored last season. The penalty kill needs to improve significantly as a 21% success rate for the opposition will put the Beacons in a difficult spot unless the offense goes to the next level this season.

Junior Ryan Donovan has been solid for the Beacons in goal.

Junior Ryan Donovan has been solid for the Beacons in goal.

Player to Watch: Junior goaltender Ryan Donovan has been outstanding in his first two seasons for UMass-Boston. If the team defense can improve and cut down on the shots he faces per game, he has the ability to steal wins and points the Beacons will need to compete for a higher seed in the playoff hunt.

Summary: While the roster again includes some significant changes from just a year ago, coach Belisle has brought back a program that was not competitive for years. In this the third year in his system, the team should be competitive and deep enough to match up with some of the toughest teams in the league at home or on the road.

St. Anselm Hawks

2007-2008 Overall Record: 13-12-3
2007-2008 League Record: 8-8-3
2007-2008 League Finish: Seventh
2008-2009 Coaches’ Pick: Ninth
2008-2009 USCHO Prediction: Eighth

Team Overview: “We’re still pretty young,” noted Hawks coach Ed Seney. “We will definitely be better defensively and we will have some competition for time in the net with Pat Gallagher returning and two sophomores in as transfers from UConn and Clarkson.

“We’ll have a handful of freshmen getting some playing time and the bulk of roster is made up by sophomores so we will have to see if they can make the jump to the next level in their game.”

Special Teams: Penalty killing will need to improve for this team to compete in the league as opponents converted at 20% last season. The power play will also need to find contributions from other players as the top four scorers have graduated. Half of sophomore Ryan Butler’s (6-9-15) goals last season were scored on the power play.

Player to Watch: Goaltender Pat Gallagher played significant minutes last season for the Hawks and will need to maintain his .918 save percentage in striving for double-digit wins.

Summary: The Hawks will need to avoid last year’s eight game losing streak in the middle of the season that took them out of contention in the league. This team is still young but has some strong performers from a year ago to build on. While they aren’t eligible as a D-II school for the league playoffs, this schedule will prepare them for a run at the NE-10 title in March.

Skidmore Thoroughbreds

2007-2008 Overall Record: 7-17-2
2007-2008 League Record: 4-14-1
2007-2008 League Finish: Tenth
2008-2009 Coaches’ Pick: Eighth
2008-2009 USCHO Prediction: Ninth

Team Overview: “We are healthy this year which should make a big difference this year,” said head coach Neil Sinclair. “At the end of last season we had just one regular defenseman healthy and had moved forwards back to play on the blue line. This year we have everyone back in the regular spot including Mike Gibbons moving back to his natural position at forward.

“Our other challenge last year was in goal. This year we have three freshmen competing hard and doing well. Colin Bessey, John Bienkowski and Andrew Ross are all doing a nice job but we will see who emerges from the pack. I am confident that we will see better play in goal this season.”

Special Teams: With opponents scoring 28% of the time on the man advantage, the penalty kill has to be a top priority for coach Sinclair’s squad. Improved goaltending should contribute greatly to a reduction in those numbers.

Player to Watch: Sophomore Alex Mykolenko (12-9-21) returns as last year’s leading scorer. He has great offensive talents and is looking to reap the benefits of a healthy front line unit for the Thoroughbreds.

Summary: They love playing on the big surface at home but will need to play better on the road. If the offense can improve with goaltending to match, Skidmore may surprise a few teams.

St. Michael’s Purple Knights

2007-2008 Overall Record: 12-14-1
2007-2008 League Record: 8-14-1
2007-2008 League Finish: Ninth
2008-2009 Coaches’ Pick: Tenth
2008-2009 USCHO Prediction: Tenth

Team Overview: “It’s exciting to have won some hardware last year,” noted head coach Chris Davidson. “We want to continue to improve and compete in this league as if we were eligible to play for the league championship. We have something to prove every time we go out on the ice.

“We have a nice nucleus back and have brought in a nice group of freshmen that will see some playing time for sure. If Tyler [Bilton] can build on his success from last season, we will be a pretty competitive team in a very tough league where there are no nights off.”

Special Teams: It’s tough to have success as a team when the opposition scores as frequently as you do with the man advantage. Look for an improved penalty kill supported by defensive stalwart and new assistant coach Lou DiMasi who was a former two time All-American at Norwich.

Player to Watch: Senior forward Ryan Mero (20-17-37) has a chance to finish his college career as a 100 point scorer, but to do so he’ll need some help from his supporting cast.

Summary: Last season’s NE-10 champs couldn’t have provided a better first season ending for first year coach Chris Davidson. This year’s squad will need to cut down on the goals against with improved team defense and leverage the strong league competition to set them up for playing into the D-II tournament in March. That said, the Purple Knights want to show the ECAC East schools that they can compete at their level every game.

The games begin tonight — so drop the puck!