It will be extremely difficult for Hockey East to top the 2014-15 season.
After welcoming the league’s 12th member, Connecticut, in October, the season proceeded almost nearly as perfect as any fan could imagine. The conference produced arguably the best rookie the game has seen in more than two decades in Boston University’s Jack Eichel, who captured the Hobey Baker Award in April.
And speaking of April, as Hockey East hosted the Frozen Four at the TD Garden in Boston, it was two Hockey East clubs that reached the national title game, with Providence besting Boston University in a thrilling final. The Friars became the conference’s fourth different national champion, joining Maine, Boston University and Boston College.
When you put all of that together, it’s hard to figure what Hockey East will do to top it.
Whatever is accomplished by Hockey East members in 2015-16, it will be done without some of the talented upperclassmen from a season ago. As is the case when teams and leagues find success, the NHL came calling and pillaged lineups.
No loss looms larger than that of Eichel, who in June was the second overall pick in the NHL Draft by Buffalo and three days later ended his college career after just one season, professional contract in hand.
“I’m both a commissioner and a fan. As a fan, I’m sorry we don’t have the Eichel buzz again,” said Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna. “He was just fun to watch and there was a clear buzz in the building. So that’s unfortunate as a selfish point of view.
“But it does seem that when you lose one, there is another class that comes in and becomes household names.”
While early departures mean some of the names in Hockey East will change, for the first time in three years, that’s about the only major change for the conference.
For the last two seasons, Hockey East has welcomed new members — Connecticut last year and Notre Dame two seasons ago. Each of those seasons also featured changes to the playoff format. This year, both the membership and the postseason formats are unchanged.
That doesn’t mean that a change to the playoff format wasn’t discussed.
Last March on the opening night of the Hockey East playoffs, Massachusetts beat Notre Dame in a five-overtime game, the longest in college hockey history. The physically taxing nature of that game with two additional games still to be played over the following two nights led Bertagna to revisit the playoff format with athletic directors and coaches.
“A five-overtime game to start a season is not ideal. Other than some aberration, we don’t ask our athletes to play three nights in a row, let alone a game that long to begin,” said Bertagna. “I’d like to see some sort of solution to that, whether it is to play a single overtime in the first two games.”
In that scenario, a team would get two points for a win and one for a tie. If a team reaches three points in the first two games, it wins the series. If the series is tied after two games, the third would be played until there was a winner.
Bertagna, however, didn’t have the support of the members to make that change.
“I think I’m out on an island on this one,” he said.
The on-ice product this season should be as strong as ever for Hockey East. It is reasonable to say that at least eight teams enter the season with expectations and hopes to reach the Frozen Four in Tampa in April, while the remaining four teams look to take a step up the standings and possibly put together a Cinderella postseason run.
The biggest goal for Hockey East teams will be to enjoy success outside of the conference, for despite Providence and BU playing for the national title last April, only three Hockey East teams qualified for the NCAA tournament field after five teams qualified in 2014.
“We flew under the radar during the year,” said Bertagna. “It was misleading on how strong we were across the board. We didn’t dominate the PairWise like we had in past year. Of course, it played out that we had a great NCAA run. It finished exactly the way that you want to draw it up.”
Here’s a look at Hockey East teams in order of predicted finish by USCHO’s Hockey East writers.
Predictions by David H. Hendrickson
Last year’s power outage will be a distant memory as the Eagles return to national prominence. Read more
The Terriers may get passed by their archrivals but still bring back some of last year’s top players and will once again be one of the top teams in the country. Read more
Lowell will challenge for another Hockey East regular season crown, reach the title game in the league tournament and have a realistic shot at the Frozen Four. Read more
This team isn’t going to repeat as national champions and it’s hard to see it atop Hockey East, but it’ll be a contender. Read more
UNH became a much better team after Daniel Tirone stabilized the goaltending position. The momentum of eight straight late-season wins continues into this year. Read more
The Irish will be much better than .500 at home and 8-12 out of conference, two negatives from last year that kept them from more success within Hockey East and a berth in the NCAA tournament. Read more
The Huskies will be dynamic on offense but will go only as far as their team defense and goaltending allow. Read more
The Catamounts look like they’re on an eighth-place island, a long way from both seventh and ninth place. Read more
One of the most pleasant surprises in all of college hockey last year, the Huskies showed they were no one’s doormat. Moving higher in the standings, however, will only get tougher. Read more
Maine played much better over the second half of last year, but will be mightily challenged to keep any of that momentum going with its two megastars, Devin Shore and Ben Hutton, off to the pros. Read more
I expect the goaltending and defense to be just fine, but the offense needs to produce a lot more than 1.73 goals per game for the Warriors to move up in the standings. Read more
The cupboard appears very bare. It’s hard to see this team avoiding another last-place finish. Read more
Predictions by Jim Connelly
The Terriers may not be the popular pick to win the league in a lot of people’s opinion, but I think they have all the pieces of the puzzle to repeat as regular season champs. Read more
The River Hawks return the most offense in the nation and are adding some talented freshmen. The one question you might have is goaltending, but senior Kevin Boyle should be motivated to go out on top. Read more
The Eagles certainly have one of the nation’s top recruiting classes and a proven goaltender in Thatcher Demko. The one area I worry about is defense, which grew thin with early departures. Read more
The defending national champions should be out to prove that last year wasn’t a fluke but will have to do so without the team’s backbone goaltender Jon Gillies. Read more
The Catamounts seemingly get better every year but it still is difficult to place them ahead of my top four. Plenty of experience returns and goalie Mike Santaguida now will take the reins by himself. Read more
The Wildcats were easily the hottest team down the stretch last season. There will be some holes to fill but there’s no reason to believe this team won’t compete for a first-round bye. Read more
In only year two in Hockey East, the team that many thought might serve as a doormat has an excellent recruiting class and a goaltender in Rob Nichols who can steal games. Read more
Jeff Jackson’s squad could be sneaky good and climb much higher in the standings. But this club needs to score some goals, particularly on the power play. Read more
Many think Kevin Roy’s return for his senior season will vault this club to the top of the standings. I still have concerns about Roy’s brother, Derick, a relatively untested goaltender who will have to assume the starting job in net. Read more
Merrimack needs to find a way to score goals, particularly knowing that it won’t have much experience in goal to lean on. Read more
A team that struggled a season ago will have to battle without the services of two of its best players — Devin Shore and Ben Hutton — both of whom signed NHL deals in the offseason. Read more
You don’t expect the last-place team to lose talent to the pros, especially not two underclassmen. But that’s what happened to UMass, which could make for a long season ahead. Read more