Vermont improves its team culture and hopes the wins follow

Connor Brickley played in only 24 games last season because of injury, but he’s being counted on by Vermont (photo: Melissa Wade).

If you’re looking for a dark-horse team in Hockey East, look no further than the Vermont Catamounts.

Coming off three straight down years, most are underestimating Vermont, and with good reason. Since making back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances in 2009 (a Frozen Four year) and 2010, Vermont has failed to finish higher than seventh place in Hockey East. (The Catamounts finished eighth in 2010 but still made the NCAA tournament.)

But this year’s Vermont team represents something important to coach Kevin Sneddon. Having to clean house in 2011 and 2012, eliminating players that he felt weren’t productive to the environment, Sneddon said he finally has the team he wants taking the ice.

“We took a big step last year maybe not in the standings or wins-wise, but culturally, competitiveness and knowing what to do to be successful,” Sneddon said. “Our returning players, we can look for these guys to really help us out.”

Two of the key returning players are senior forward Connor Brickley and fifth-year senior forward Chris McCarthy. Both players have been hampered by injuries (McCarthy lost most of the 2011-12 season and was granted a medical redshirt) but enter the season healthy and will be counted on to contribute. Add to that a senior class that also includes Matt White, H.T. Lenz and Nick Bruneteau, and Vermont may have the deepest group of seniors in the league.

“We have a really good senior class both talent-wise and leadership-wise,” Sneddon said. “We haven’t had that combination for a while. We’ve had good guys, but now we have some real talent so that when push comes to shove and you’re down a goal or you’re up a goal late game, you need your seniors to rise to the occasion.”

One area that was a problem in recent years for the Catamounts but solidified last season was goal. In a freshman class that included standouts like Connor Hellebuyck and Jon Gillies, Vermont’s Brody Hoffman may have been a bit overlooked. But knowing that he would make the routine save all the time and a five-bell stop every now and again gave last year’s team confidence that will carry over to this season.

The rookie class also will bring a bit of a change to the Vermont blue line. Where in past years the Catamounts have touted big men on the point, Sneddon recruited two defenseman in Chris Muscoby and Rob Hamilton that both are under 6 feet.

“We just wanted skill,” Sneddon said. “We wanted guys who can make plays and help on the power play. They’re freshmen so I don’t know how quickly that will happen. But, big picture, we just wanted some more talent out there that could go along with the guys who can play physical for us.”

Predicted to finish ninth in the preseason coaches’ poll, Vermont could finish higher and possibly even compete for a home-ice spot. This is a program that isn’t far removed from a Frozen Four with the senior leadership and talent it could take to return to prominence.

About the Catamounts

2012-13 overall record: 11-19-6

2012-13 Hockey East record: 8-13-6 (tie-seventh)

2013-14 predicted finish (coaches’ poll): Ninth

Key losses: D Anders Franzon

Players to watch: F Chris McCarthy, F Kyle Reynolds, F Connor Brickley, F H.T. Lenz, D Michael Paliotta, G Brody Hoffman

Impact rookie: While most expect Brody Hoffman to be the main man in net for the Cats, don’t be surprised to see either Mike Santaguida or Pat Feeley, both freshmen, to see some time and maybe have an impact on this team.

Why the Catamounts will finish higher than predicted: Despite a few seasons of struggle, Vermont may be the league’s biggest dark horse given the number of upperclassmen on the roster. The key is whether this team can stay healthy, something that has plagued it in recent seasons.

Why the Catamounts will finish lower than predicted: Goal scoring has been a major issue in recent seasons. If the Catamounts can’t find that scoring chemistry across at least three lines, they could struggle once again.