Last year, Northeastern came within one game of its first Hockey East regular season title. Although the Huskies fell short of that goal, their second-place finish matched the school’s best, a mark they hadn’t achieved since 1987-88.
If Hockey East player of the year Brad Thiessen had returned for his senior year, the Huskies would be looking at another run at the league title. But Thiessen turned pro, leaving behind a gaping hole in the Northeastern net.
Can anyone fill it?
“That is the question,” NU coach Greg Cronin says. “I don’t have an answer for that right now but we have quality goaltenders on campus.
“The headliner is Chris Rawlings who was the MVP out of the British Columbia league. He’s a 6-6 goalie and a tremendous athlete. He had the best save percentage in that league, [which] I call the Wild West of hockey because it’s all offense. He did a good job developing over three years in that league.
“Mike Binnington has been a real patient backup for Brad over the years. He came out of the St. Michaels program in Toronto with great credentials so he’s going to get a chance to show what he represents as a goalie.
“The last one is Bryan Mountain who comes in from Winnipeg and gives us some depth.
“Our biggest challenge will be finding out who’s going to be the go-to guy. If we have to rotate, we have to rotate.”
At first glance, the defense may not be ready to bail out a new goalie. The corps of blueliners lost Louis Liotti, tabbed Hockey East’s best defensive defenseman, and Denis Chisholm.
Cronin, however, believes the unit could be even stronger this year.
“The guy that was [going to be] our best defenseman last year was Drew Muench,” Cronin says. “He was our best freshman two years ago, but he went out with an injury and was red-shirted last year. He comes back this year healthy.
“We’ve also added more talent than we’ve ever had back there. We augmented the group with Jake Newton, who was a second team all-star in the USHL, and Chris Student, who was a top-five plus-minus guy in that league.
“So I do the math in my head. We lost a great player in Louis Liotti and Chisie was a heart-and-soul defensemen with tremendous character. We lost two, but we’ve gained three. That’s going to make our defense instantly better.”
Up front, Ryan Ginand’s 20 goals will be missed as will Joe Vitale’s skill and 27 points. That said, there’s more returning depth than in past seasons, led by Wade MacLeod (14-21–35), Steve Quailer (10-15–25), Tyler McNeely (8-12–20), and Alex Tuckerman (8-14–22). (Quailer suffered a lower body injury in the Huskies’ exhibition game against St. Thomas and is out indefinitely.)
“We’ve also added four freshmen that I think are as good as any freshman we’ve brought into the program in my four years here,” Cronin says. “[We’ve got] Justin Daniels, who was drafted by San Jose, Garrett Vermeersch, who could have gone back and played another year [in the USHL] but we thought was ready to play this year, and Robbie Vrolyk, who’s a tremendous hockey player and a speedster.”
It’s a big if, but if the Huskies get decent goaltending, they could be a pretty good team.
“I think we can be better than we were last year,” Cronin says. “That might be a bold statement, but I think our talent level is better.
“But the goaltending position is the most important position. It’s like pitching in baseball, a quarterback in football and a point guard in basketball. Everything flows through that position.
“There are also the intangibles, that willpower, that confidence, that conviction about what you are. The guys we lost had it. Our biggest challenge as coaches will be putting that together and instilling it in new players.”