Early exits last season fuel Hockey East teams for 2011-12

When the books were closed on the 2010-11 season for Hockey East, few would say it was one of success.

Coming off three straight national titles — Boston College in 2008 and 2010, Boston University in 2009 — there were inflated expectations that this league was poised to become the dominant conference in college hockey.

Then, in three fateful days in March, Hockey East’s hope for four straight titles was quashed. The conference’s best bet, BC, was manhandled by Colorado College in its opening game of the regionals. The league’s Cinderella story, Merrimack, blew a late lead in its regional game and lost to Notre Dame. Then New Hampshire followed suit the next night, outplaying Notre Dame only to lose in the end.

Suddenly, Hockey East’s hopes for another national title were not only dead, but the league didn’t send a representative to the Frozen Four for just the second time in 19 years.

So on the eve of the 2011-12 season, it’s not a surprise that each of the teams is hungry to bring Hockey East back to the national stage in Tampa, Fla., this April.

Between now and April, though, Hockey East fans should be in for an entertaining ride. Rarely has the league been as wide open as it is this season.

The visiting Merrimack College Warriors tied the Boston University Terriers 1-1 on Friday, November 12, 2010, at Agganis Arena in Boston, Massachusetts. (Melissa Wade)
Kieran Millan led Boston University to the national championship in 2009. Can he lead the Terriers back to the NCAA tournament in 2011-12? (photo: Melissa Wade).

A look at the league’s preseason coaches poll shows Boston College at the top. Maybe that’s not the biggest shocker, as BC has won three of the last four league tournament titles. But this is the same Boston College team that graduated its standout goaltender and two of its top five scorers, then lost three of its most talented returning players to the NHL.

The coaches poll, in fact, turned to its standbys — BC, Boston University, New Hampshire and Maine — as its top four teams. Of course, that could be for good reason. Merrimack lost significant scoring up front, including the departure of Stephane Da Costa after just two seasons. Vermont, after reaching the NCAA tournament in back-to-back seasons, had a significant drop-off last year and will need a major turnaround this season to get back to dominance. Massachusetts is coming off its worst season under coach Don “Toot” Cahoon and will need to break in a new goaltender with the graduation of Paul Dainton.

Then there are the three teams that will be wild cards: Northeastern, Providence and Massachusetts-Lowell. All have new faces behind the bench.

Providence and Lowell dismissed their coaches immediately upon season’s end and turned to two of the top free agent coaches available. The Friars grabbed Spencer Penrose Award winner Nate Leaman from Union. Lowell turned to an alum in Norm Bazin, who was an extremely successful recruiter at Colorado College before turning around Division III Hamilton, leading it to a regular season title.

Northeastern was put in a bind when Greg Cronin left for the Toronto Maple Leafs in June, forcing a late-summer coaching search that resulted in another alum, Jim Madigan, taking over.

Each of those three teams could be in position for an immediate turnaround as often happens when a new coach takes over. Wisdom, though, shows enough deficiencies in each program to understand that success may not come immediately.

So with the new season upon us, there are a number of questions to ask about Hockey East. Is there a team that, like Merrimack last year, can crack the big four of BC, BU, UNH and Maine? And if so, which of the big four will be the odd man out? What impact will three new head coaches have? And most importantly, how will Hockey East impact the national picture?

Speaking of national picture, oh, what a changing picture that was this summer. The creation of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference and what appears will be the dissolution of the CCHA has created more than a little rumble across all conferences. We enter the 2011-12 season still lacking a clear understanding of what the college hockey landscape will be come 2013.

There have been a lot of rumors that Hockey East will face changes as well. Notre Dame has made it clear that it is interested in joining either Hockey East or the NCHC. The NCHC announced Sunday that it will begin play in 2013 without Notre Dame, meaning it is likely Hockey East will become the home of the Irish.

For that to happen, there will likely have to be another team to take the league from 10 to 12 teams and avoid the undesirable 11-team schedule. That team could be Rensselaer, and the announcement could come as early as this week.

All of that, though, will define the future. Right now, we can focus on the present and what is sure to be an exciting — and very interesting — Hockey East season.

With that in mind, below are our preseason predictions. We advise you not to take these to Vegas unless you want to donate your money to a casino that certainly doesn’t need it. Click on a team name to read its season preview.

Dave’s picks

1. Boston College
2. Boston University
3. New Hampshire
4. Merrimack
5. Maine
6. Massachusetts
7. Vermont
8. Northeastern
9. Massachusetts-Lowell
10. Providence

Jim’s picks

1. New Hampshire
2. Boston College
3. Boston University
4. Maine
5. Merrimack
6. Vermont
7. Massachusetts-Lowell
8. Providence
9. Massachusetts
10. Northeastern