Departure of top talent leaves Massachusetts-Lowell waiting for surprises

Zack Kamrass posted 20 points as a junior (photo: Melissa Wade).

Success, particularly in college athletics, often has some pitfalls associated. Such is the case for the Massachusetts-Lowell River Hawks.

After three straight NCAA tournament appearances and back-to-back Hockey East tournament championships, the NHL stood up to take note, decimating the River Hawks lineup by picking the team’s best players out of Lowell early.

Two years ago, it was talented defenseman Chad Ruhwedel who departed as an NHL free agent after the River Hawks were eliminated in the Frozen Four. After last season’s NCAA run ended a game short of another Frozen Four bid, forward Scott Wilson, defenseman Christian Folin and goaltender Connor Hellebuyck all inked NHL deals. Wilson had a single season of eligibility left at Lowell, while both Folin and Hellebuyck had just completed their sophomore campaigns.

Add to that the graduation of forwards Joe Pendenza and Josh Holmstrom as well as goaltender Doug Carr, and it’s not a surprise that River Hawks fans will need a lineup card to identify the 16 new faces that will dot the lineup this season.

“We don’t talk about the guys who have departed but we do talk about the guys who can fill some of those roles,” said coach Norm Bazin, entering his fourth season with the River Hawks after taking the team to the NCAA tournament in each of his previous three. “I’m excited for guys like Zack Kamrass, Adam Chapie, A.J. White, Ryan McGrath and a couple of more guys who will surprise me.

“Some guys are going to have to surprise me if we’re going to keep moving forward. And somebody will.”

Among those may be sophomores Joe Gambardella, Chris Maniccia and Michael Kapla. Gambardella and Maniccia both showed flashes of offensive brilliance while Kapla proved throughout his rookie campaign that he can be solid on the blue line.

But the biggest question for the River Hawks is between the pipes. Though none of the trio of goalies on the roster has played a game for the River Hawks in the past, junior transfer Kevin Boyle played two seasons for Massachusetts before practicing with the River Hawks last season. He’ll be joined by rookies Jeff Smith, who played last season for Powell River in the BCHL, and Finnish product Olli Kälkäjä.

Thus, the position that has been the solid foundation for the past three years likely will determine just how much success this River Hawks team will have.

If anything, however, Bazin knows that the players that are returning understand what success tastes like. And that’s something he hopes is contagious in a locker room full of fresh faces.

“These young men who are returning have won two postseason championships, they’ve won a regular season championship, they’ve won a regional, they’ve been to a Frozen Four,” said Bazin. “At some point all of those experiences add up. They have unique experiences that they can pass down to the next generation.”

About the River Hawks

2013-14 record: 26-11-4

2013-14 conference record: 11-6-3 (second)

2014-15 predicted finish (coaches poll): Seventh

Key losses: G Connor Hellebuyck, D Christian Folin, F Joseph Pendenza, F Scott Wilson

Key returnees: D Zack Kamrass, F Terrence Wallin, F Adam Chapie, F A.J. White, F Evan Campbell

Why the River Hawks will finish higher than predicted in the coaches poll: One major reason you have to believe the River Hawks will be a top team is the man behind the bench, Norm Bazin. Three years at Lowell equal three NCAA tournament appearances. Yes, this team may have growing pains, but this club also knows how to win.

Why the River Hawks will finish lower than the coaches poll: With 14 new faces in the lineup (12 freshmen, two transfers), there will be some learning to do for this systems-oriented team. Goaltending also is a major question mark, something that has been solid throughout the River Hawks’ last three seasons.