ECAC East Season Preview

The interlocking schedule between the ECAC East and NESCAC conferences takes on a different look this year with the departure of the Salem State Vikings and long-time head coach Bill O’Neill to the newly formed Massachusetts State College Athletic Conference (MASCAC). Replacing the Vikings are the Nor’easters from the University of New England, who under head coach Brad Holt will begin their first season as a varsity program.

What won’t be much different is the high level of play and tight race for playoff position that we have seen over the past several years, including league championship wins by Babson from a sixth and seventh seed in two of the last four seasons. Last year, the Beavers beat eighth seeded UMass-Boston in overtime to win the title and advance to the NCAA tournament.

You might think this is about parity. Well, that may be partially true in the sense that yes, any team can win in any given game. But do not confuse parity with mediocrity. This league has superb hockey teams from top to bottom, on both sides of the interlocking schedule, which makes it very challenging to produce wins every weekend. There are no nights off for any team and you better bring your best game if you want to be competing for a championship come March.

The past couple of seasons have found the teams separated by just one or two points, with tiebreakers determining the seeding positions. This year expect more of the same. Here is my shot at how they will all finish in the ECAC East.

Norwich Cadets

2008-2009 Overall Record: 13-8-4
2008-2009 League Record: 11-5-3
2008-2009 League Finish: First
2009-2010 Coaches’ Pick: First
2009-2010 USCHO Prediction: First

Team Overview: “We have everyone back on defense,” said head coach Mike McShane. “We were pretty solid back there last year and if we can get a little better it should help us in those games where scoring is tough or you run into one of those hot goaltenders that a lot of teams seem to have now. I really like this group as they are working hard and seem to have a good atmosphere around the rink and in the locker room. Everyone is excited to get going as part of Norwich’s celebration of 100 years of ice hockey at the school.”

Special Teams: Sniper Nikita Kashirsky has graduated so the power play for the Cadets will be more about creating traffic and leveraging puck movement to create goals from the point or down low. Expect the penalty kill to be strong with the defensive unit intact and the return of goaltender Ryan Klingensmith.

Cadet forward DJ Fimiani has Norwich thinking about some unfinished business from last season (photo: Tim Costello).

Cadet forward DJ Fimiani has Norwich thinking about some unfinished business from last season (photo: Tim Costello).

Player to Watch: Captain Tyler Stitt will set the tone for the Cadets, and his leadership has already garnered the attention of his coach who likes what he sees on-and- off the ice. Fellow senior DJ Fimiani will be expected to build on his eight goals and 11 assists from last season and support a balanced offensive attack for Norwich.

Summary: If defense and goaltending win hockey games then clearly the Cadets are well-positioned to be successful this season. An early season tribute to the centennial of Norwich hockey and the national championship teams of 2000 and 2003 may stir some feelings of some unfinished business from last season. The Cadets have always hosted in March and this year should be no exception.

New England College Pilgrims

2008-2009 Overall Record: 15-10-2
2008-2009 League Record: 9-8-2
2008-2009 League Finish: Fourth
2009-2010 Coaches’ Pick: Third
2009-2010 USCHO Prediction: Second

Team Overview: “We have a nice group coming back.” said head coach Tom Carroll. “You never really know how all of the pieces are going to fit together but we have a veteran group of guys who have been around for a couple of years and have helped the younger players get acclimated to college hockey and how we play at New England College.”

Special Teams: Expect to see skilled forwards continue to excel on the Pilgrims’ special teams. Leading scorer Mark Ehl is back for his senior season and expects to exceed last year’s 10 goal and 17 assist output. Backstopping the Pilgrims is goaltender Aaron Harvey, who has proven to be a very consistent player for NEC. Harvey earned the number one billing by posting a 2.49 goals against average and an impressive .914 save percentage.

Player to Watch: Senior defenseman Trevor Turner (4-14-18) has been a leader on this team since he first stepped foot on the ice as a freshman. This will be Turner’s third year as captain of the Pilgrims, a rarity for most teams, at any level. Turner is solid on both ends of the ice and distributes the puck well in transitioning to the offensive zone. Don’t expect a lot of goals from this blueliner, but he has tallied over 40 assists in the past two seasons.

Summary: The Pilgrims only play 10 home games this season, so being a good road team is going to be an important factor in the team’s success. NEC always seems to be there at the end of the year in one of the top four playoff spots. This year should be no different; and if the younger players can come up to speed quickly like the experienced guys, Tom Carroll’s squad could be playing for some hardware come March

Castleton State Spartans

2008-2009 Overall Record: 15-9-2
2008-2009 League Record: 11-6-2
2008-2009 League Finish: Second
2009-2010 Coaches’ Pick: Second
2009-2010 USCHO Prediction: Third

Team Overview: “Last year’s group were the first seniors that I had brought into the program,” stated head coach Alex Todd. “There is a natural change in the atmosphere with a lot of new kids coming in this season and players who didn’t have to be leaders last year moving into new roles on this team. It is an exciting time and we are looking forward to competing hard every night. We have improved our overall team speed and will be playing a little different style with this group.”

Special Teams: Defenseman Omar Pacha led the Spartans in power-play goals last season with six. Expect some of the new look forwards to contribute to improving on last year’s 18.3% success rate. Goalie Seth McNary grew into the number one position last year after competing with two seniors. This season he will be pushed by two new freshmen. When McNary is on, his size and movement make it very difficult for teams to score in any situation so expect the penalty kill to put up solid numbers.

Player To Watch: Senior forward Steve Culbertson (10-18-28) is the top returning point getter from last year’s team. If he can duplicate those totals, he should easily eclipse the 100 point mark for his career at Castleton. His offense will be a much need commodity for the Spartans.

Summary: Just one point separated Castleton from cross-state rival Norwich for the top spot in the regular season. There are lots of new pieces on this year’s Spartan squad, so turning that youthful exuberance into focused play and strong results will be the challenge for captain Nick Westcott and his head coach. This program has come a long way quickly but still has yet to make the league finals so there is no lack of motivation for Castleton players this season.

Babson Beavers

2008-2009 Overall Record: 17-6-3
2008-2009 League Record: 13-4-2
2008-2009 League Finish: Seventh
2009-2010 Coaches’ Pick: Fourth
2009-2010 USCHO Prediction: Fourth

Team Overview: “The group that just graduated certainly had a lot of success here with the program,” stated head coach Jamie Rice. “We lost several of our top players that were big pieces in last year’s title run. That said we have some younger guys that played an equally big part in our success and will now be looked upon to lead our team with many new players and get everyone pulling in the same direction.”

Special Teams: Babson’s power-play production was an exceptional 22% last season with a balanced distribution among several players. The Beavers have never been a one dimensional team, so look for junior Terry Woods, senior Chris Wood, senior Shane Farrell and senior Casey Fazekas to add to their goal totals this season.

Babson senior Jason Schneider leads the Beavers as they look to repeat as conference champs (photo: Tim Costello).

Babson senior Jason Schneider leads the Beavers as they look to repeat as conference champs (photo: Tim Costello).

Players to Watch: Senior Jason Schneider (11-22-33) is the team’s leading scorer and he will have some help this year with some added talent to the roster. Goalie Andrew Peabody moved into the number one role late last season and backstopped the team into the NCAA tournament. His .906 save percentage was solid, as was his 2.42 goals against average.

Summary: With two conference championships under his belt, Rice knows how to get his team playing its best hockey at the right time of the season. There may be some younger and less experienced players on this roster, but Babson has demonstrated the ability to compete every game and improve their level of play when it matters most. Don’t underestimate the defending champs.

UMass-Boston Beacons

2008-2009 Overall Record: 10-16-2
2008-2009 League Record: 4-14-1
2008-2009 League Finish: Tenth
2009-2010 Coaches’ Pick: Eighth
2009-2010 USCHO Prediction: Fifth

Team Overview: “We want to compete with the best in this league and really improve our regular season results,” said Beacon head coach Peter Belisle. “We had a tough regular season last year where we lost a ton of one goal games and had some kids that never got into their groove until late in the season. We can definitely build off of last year’s playoff run and this team knows what it is going to take if we are going to be near the top in this league.

Special Teams: Senior goaltender Ryan Donovan has been outstanding in his first three seasons for UMass-Boston. Last year he started out slow, so look for the four year starter to be focused from the first drop of the puck in helping the Beacons to improve on their 73.4% penalty kill rate..

Sophomore defenseman Wayne Sands is focused on the Beacons returning to the conference title game (photo: Tim Costello).

Sophomore defenseman Wayne Sands is focused on the Beacons returning to the conference title game (photo: Tim Costello).

Player to Watch: Eric Tufman, who played on the winning U.S. team at the World Jewish Games this summer, will look to rebound offensively from a down season that saw him post 10 goals and 16 assists as a follow up to a 37 point season as a freshman. Sophomore Wayne Sands was a pleasant surprise in both ends of the ice last season. The defenseman quarterbacked the power play and posted 10 goals and six assists in his first season.

Summary: There are not the wholesale roster changes that UMass-Boston has had in the previous seasons. This core group has really matured and is looking to make a statement beyond last year’s overtime loss in the conference championship. There is a strong group of seniors that can show the way and if the core players play up to their talent, Belisle may be playing in another big game come spring.

Skidmore Thoroughbreds

2008-2009 Overall Record: 13-10-3
2008-2009 League Record: 8-8-3
2008-2009 League Finish: Sixth
2009-2010 Coaches’ Pick: Sixth
2009-2010 USCHO Prediction: Sixth

Team Overview: “We didn’t lose a ton from last year’s team,” said head coach Neil Sinclair. “We have a great core group back with some talented forwards, some solid young defensemen and good goaltenders. We will be looking to continue to push the puck offensively utilizing our speed but also striving to be more consistent with our overall game and results.”

Special Teams: With opponents scoring 27% of the time on the man advantage, the penalty kill has to be a top priority for Sinclair’s squad. Look for sophomore Nick Dupuis (0-13-13) to be the trigger man on the man advantage for the Thoroughbreds as they try and improve on last year’s 12.5% success rate with the man advantage.

Player to Watch: Sophomore Colin Bessey was last year’s ECAC Rookie Goalie of the Year. He was a big part of Skidmore’s success last season, posting a 2.68 goals against average and .919 save percentage. Forward Hunter Thayer (9-10-19) will be expected to provide a lot of offense along with senior Matt Czerkowicz and junior Alex Mykolenko.

Summary: This team has some good skilled players up front, on defense and in goal. The defensive corps will be made up of freshmen and sophomores so how quickly they gain experience will be a key to Sinclair’s goal of being more consistent. This team played well when it counted most last year so look for the experience and motivation to keep this group focused on improving last year’s finish.

Southern Maine Huskies

2008-2009 Overall Record: 11-12-2
2008-2009 League Record: 8-8-3
2008-2009 League Finish: Fifth
2009-2010 Coaches’ Pick: Sixth
2009-2010 USCHO Prediction: Fifth

Team Overview: “We are going to have a lot of new faces this year,” noted head coach Jeff Beaney. “We have a group of key performers back from last year and if they can help the younger guys come along quickly we can be very competitive in this league. We’ll have an idea of where we are pretty quickly as our first few games include the likes of Norwich, Williams and Middlebury.”

Special Teams: About 25% of the Huskies goals last season were scored on the power play with defenseman Paul Conter (8-18-26) leading the way with five goals. While the goal total was good the success rate should improve from last year’s 16.4%. The Huskies will also need to improve the penalty kill from last season’s 73.5%. Look for top netminder Koray Celik to backstop a better man-down unit this season.

Players to Watch: Senior forward Chris Travis (15-8-23) will be a key contributor upfront for the Huskies this season. Combined with junior Zack Joy (14-10-24), the Huskies will need to see last year’s goal production from these two in support of the younger players gaining college experience.

Summary: Southern Maine has a new travel partner this year which may make the second game of the weekend doubleheader more challenging depending upon the competitiveness of the UNE team joining the league. The Huskies have always been right in it and this year they will need some veteran leadership and consistent goaltending to help them play for a home-ice berth at the end of the season.

St. Anselm Hawks

2008-2009 Overall Record: 10-15-1
2008-2009 League Record: 6-12-1
2008-2009 League Finish: Eighth
2009-2010 Coaches’ Pick: Seventh
2009-2010 USCHO Prediction: Eighth

Team Overview: “We are very young,” admitted Hawks assistant coach Mike Curtis. “We will have 14 freshmen on the roster and a lot of depth at forward with four of our top six scorers returning. Our team is basically made up of juniors and freshman so we need continued development from the upperclassmen while the freshmen get up to speed on what college hockey is all about. We are expecting the enthusiasm of the incoming group will get our returning players motivated for success so we can get back the level this team was at just a couple of seasons ago.”

Special Teams: Penalty killing will need to improve as the Hawks gave up all most as many goals to opponents as they scored themselves with the man advantage. The power play was very effective and Coleman Noonan (five power play goals), Paul Snell (five) and Nick Wheeler (six) all return to support the offensive effort for the Hawks.

Player to Watch: Goaltender Alex Wyse started 13 games for the Hawks last season, after transferring from D-I Clarkson. A save percentage of .874 and goals against average of 4.51 are statistics that Wyse will need to improve upon in order for the Hawks to compete each night against the teams in this league, especially as a young defensive corps gains experience early in the season.

Summary: This team is still young but has some strong performers from a year ago to build on particularly with the forwards and goal scoring capabilities. Consistent goaltending will be a key early on as will a rapid adjustment to the college game by the freshmen. While they aren’t eligible as a D-II school for the league playoffs, the Hawks want to prove they can compete with the league’s best as they prepare for a run at the NE-10 title in March.

St. Michael’s Purple Knights

2007-2008 Overall Record: 11-15-1
2007-2008 League Record: 4-14-1
2007-2008 League Finish: Ninth
2008-2009 Coaches’ Pick: Ninth
2008-2009 USCHO Prediction: Ninth

Team Overview: “There are a lot of unknowns with this year’s team,” said head coach Chris Davidson. “We lost a lot scoring up front and a very consistent goaltender in Tyler Bilton. We will be counting on a lot of new faces to play a very disciplined style, particularly in the defensive end to support our new goaltenders. We have some very good leadership and expect that will help us keep the young guys focused on crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s and paying attention to the details of the game that we will need to compete in this league.”

Special Teams: The power play will be looking to replace over half of last year’s goals following the graduation of Chris Healey and Ryan Mero. A healthy Alex Higgins up front should help the Purple Knights’ production. The penalty will have to get significantly better as opposing teams scored with the man advantage better than 21% of the time; a problem for a team looking for offense early in the season.

Player to Watch: Senior defenseman and captain Dave Vorozilchak (4-10-14) will be needed to be a force at both ends of the ice and really provide strong leadership for a young team looking to find itself early in the season.

Summary: There are a lot of new components for this year’s team that need to be figured out including the offense and goaltending. Like St. Anselm’s, the Purple Knights definitely want to compete in the conference and show they can play with the best the league has to offer while preparing for their own D-II championship at the end of the season in the NE-10 conference. If St. Mike’s can find some scoring and goaltending becomes a strength for this team, they could be hoisting the NE-10 trophy again this season.

University of New England

2008-2009 Overall Record: 14-4-1 (Club Schedule)
2008-2009 League Record: 0-0-0 (Did Not Play)
2008-2009 League Finish: Did Not Play
2009-2010 Coaches’ Pick: Tenth
2009-2010 USCHO Prediction: Tenth

Team Overview: This is the inaugural season for the Nor’easters from the University of New England under head coach Brad Holt. “We have had two good recruiting years as we have played a club hockey schedule the past few seasons and have had time to get ready for the transition to the ECAC East,” said an excited Holt. “While we have two good recruiting classes with some good players from the prep and junior ranks, all the teams we are competing with have four good recruiting classes so we need to be patient and play or style of hockey with our personnel to help us be successful.”

Special Teams: UNE got a taste of the D-III level last week when they played Salve Regina from the ECAC Northeast. Despite outshooting the Seahawks by a wide margin, they lost a close 3-2 game and went just 1-for-7 on the power play. Special teams will be an important piece of the puzzle for Holt’s squad and they will have a much better barometer when they open the regular season Friday night against Norwich at home.

Player to Watch: Junior forward Jack Nolin is the real deal for the Nor’easters and will be relied upon to be productive in all situations on the ice. The rest of the roster is largely made up of freshmen and sophomores with very limited experience but anxious to be a part of building the program at UNE. Holt likes to play a “run and gun” style with lots of pucks to the net and stretching the defense so it will be interesting to see how this group of players acclimate themselves to the level of play in the ECAC East.

Summary: The Nor’easters aren’t worried about the wins and losses as much as they are about being competitive and being successful in reaching key goals as a team. Holt has been successful everywhere he has been and if the first recruiting classes can compete hard against top flight competition early on, UNE can quickly build a successful program in the way that Castleton, UMass-Boston and Skidmore have done with new coaches over the past several seasons.

It’s here: the start of what will surely be an extremely competitive and roller-coaster like season. Everyone is anxious to play for real and this weekend kicks-off the pursuit of the ECAC East title. Hope you are all ready!

Drop the puck!

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