As the 2014-15 Hockey East campaign begins, if it feels a little bit like Groundhog Day, that’s because it should.
A year ago at this time, the league was welcoming a new member in Notre Dame and was about to embark on the first change to the league’s playoff format in more than a decade.
Hockey East team previews
This season is identical. Hockey East welcomes its 12th (and final?) member, Connecticut, creating the largest body of institutions this league has ever possessed. Long gone are the days when Hockey East was college hockey’s smallest conference. Now the league matches ECAC Hockey with 12 teams as the nation’s largest.
And just like last season, the playoff format in the league will be tweaked. A season ago, Hockey East ended its exclusion of teams from the playoffs (the top eight of 10 teams used to qualify) and followed the standard of other leagues, allowing all 11 teams to qualify for the postseason. That created two rounds before the final weekend league tournament at the TD Garden. To make things interesting, the athletic directors decided to make the opening round single elimination.
With one year of white-knuckle excitement behind us, the athletic directors changed the course for the opening round, making it best-of-three, the same as in the quarterfinals.
Maybe it is that this opening round will impact eight teams rather than six. Or maybe the ADs simply saw how a bounce of the puck can end a team’s season in a single-elimination format.
Regardless, Hockey East is now following the same formats other conferences like the ECAC, Atlantic Hockey, WCHA and the defunct CCHA have followed in the past.
This, however, is all housekeeping.
On the ice, expect the product from Hockey East to again be one of the best in the nation. Although the league was absent a team in the national title game last season for just the fifth time in the last 22 years, it did field the most teams of any conference in the NCAA tournament (five) and on the final weekend of play could have had as many as seven teams in the field.
A major reason for such success on the national level was the play of Hockey East outside of the conference. Hockey East had a nation’s best .611 winning percentage out of conference, including a perfect 13-0 record against the new-look WCHA.
When you add that Hockey East teams played the most nonconference games of any conference (135; the ECAC was second with 111), that level of success will always generate a high conference RPI and PairWise Ranking, the key components used when selecting the NCAA tournament field.
Although the league has now expanded to 12 teams and each team will play two fewer nonleague games this year as compared to a year ago (12 this season, 14 last season), it’s still a significant increase from the seven nonleague contests each school was permitted before the expansion.
If the league continues to succeed outside of conference, expect the NCAA field to once again be laden with Hockey East members.
Back in the conference, there is an unmatched level of parity once again. Most expect Connecticut to struggle making the jump from Atlantic Hockey to Hockey East. And some think that Merrimack and Massachusetts lack the depth for either to be a top-tier team.
But among the nine other members, it’s difficult to pick a winner. Providence led the preseason coaches poll, but four different teams received first-place votes.
Two-time defending postseason champion Massachusetts-Lowell was picked to finish seventh and received a first-place vote. Last year’s newcomer Notre Dame is picked third, a position it could have finished last season save an injury-laden slow start (and you may remember, Notre Dame made the NCAA tournament after finishing tied for seventh).
A lot of the familiar names from last year are gone, some of them before their time. Boston College lost Hobey Baker Award winner Johnny Gaudreau early, though to no one’s surprise. New Hampshire lost defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk after his junior year. Josh Manson, a beast on the blue line for Northeastern, bolted a year early as well.
But no team was whacked more by the departures than Lowell, which lost forward Scott Wilson, defenseman Christian Folin and Mike Richter Award-winning goaltender Connor Hellebuyck.
But these departures made room for new superstars. Maybe it will be one of last year’s standout rookies like Vermont’s Mario Puskarich, Notre Dame’s Vince Hinostroza or Northeastern’s Mike Szmatula. Or quite possibly it’s a player none of us has ever seen play (we’re looking at you, Boston University rookie Jack Eichel).
Regardless, the 31st season of Hockey East begins with high expectations. Let’s see where it ends.
Below, in alphabetical order, is a brief synopsis of each team. Clicking on the team name will take you to a full preview of that club. After that are our preseason picks. Whatever you do, don’t place too much faith in them.
More experience on the blue line and in goal makes up for losses up front.
Things have to improve from last year and a major reason for that improvement may be named Eichel.
Welcome to the new league and welcome back to coach Mike Cavanaugh. Try not to get pummeled.
Devin Shore and Ben Hutton give the Black Bears two huge difference-makers.
Last year was a difficult year. Let’s hope that’s not compounded by huge losses from graduation.
If someone can replace the duo of Connor Hellebuyck and Doug Carr in net, this could be another great year. If not, it could be a long one.
The Warriors will fare better than last year, but it’s going to be tough making headway in this league.
Losses abound at all positions. Will goaltending problems sink the Wildcats?
On paper, the Huskies should be dominant. But the game is played on ice.
The Irish have suffered significant losses at each position but should be more accustomed to play in Hockey East.
The Friars bring back almost all of last year’s successful team, led by Jon Gillies.
Last year was a big step forward for this Catamounts team. But is it a stepping stone to bigger things?
David H. Hendrickson’s picks
2. Boston College
6. Notre Dame
7. Boston University
8. New Hampshire
Jim Connelly’s picks
2. Boston College
3. Notre Dame
5. Boston University
7. New Hampshire