Merrimack goes back to basics after slipping to last place

Rasmus Tirronen returns after playing 25 games for Merrimack last season (photo: Candace Horgan).

For several seasons, Merrimack won the annual war of attrition, staying in the mix in Hockey East after graduating important contributors. Last year, however, the Warriors tumbled from 13-11-3 to 3-15-2 and last place.

“We were a lot closer than our record would have anyone believe,” Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy says. “We had the second-highest shot differential in the league.”

While some might argue that Merrimack’s style of play emphasized taking shots in quantity, Dennehy still may have a point. Even so, the steep drop-off demanded a closer look.

“We did a lot of soul searching,” he says. “We’ve refocused our efforts recruiting-wise. We’ve also gone back to our original message, culturally within the program. I had let some things slip. Maybe we got lazy because we had some success. So we really went back to basics.”

In net, the Warriors return top goaltender Rasmus Tirronen. He’s joined by freshman Colin Delia.

“Raz really took a step last year toward being the goalie that we thought he could be, and we want him to take another step in that direction,” Dennehy says. “But I’ve got to think not only of the short-term success but also the long term. If Raz plays however many games we play this year, I’m going to come into next year without a goalie who’s played at all.

“But I’m also not going to put our team’s success in the way of that. Colin is going to have to come in and compete for that ice.”

Up front, almost everyone returns except for Mike Collins, but nobody totaled so much as 15 points.

“The good news about not scoring a lot of goals last year is … we didn’t lose a lot of offense,” Dennehy quips.

He’ll be looking for increased production from Brian Christie and Chris LeBlanc, who suffered shortened seasons, as well as sophomore Hampus Gustafsson, who came on strong in the second half.

That said, both up front and on defense, much will depend on the play of the freshman class.

“I think we’ve got a couple of guys who will vie for all-rookie team selections, but me talking about it now isn’t going to help them,” Dennehy says. “They’ve got to do it.

“We have 10 freshmen out of 27 players. They’re more than a third of our team. They’re going to need to make an impact. And quickly.”

About the Warriors

2013-14 record: 8-22-3

2013-14 conference record: 3-15-2 (11th)

2014-15 predicted finish (coaches poll): 10th

Key losses: F Mike Collins, D Brendan Ellis, D Jordan Heywood

Key returnees: G Rasmus Tirronen, D Justin Mansfield, F Quinn Gould, F Brian Christie

Why the Warriors will finish higher than predicted in the coaches poll: Last year amounted to the Warriors’ first down year in a while. It wouldn’t take much more offense to fuel a return to the middle of the pack.

Why the Warriors will finish lower than the coaches poll: It looks like there’s a big gap between ninth and 10th place, so with issues on offense the Warriors may be more likely to drop than break through the 10th-place ceiling.