Atlantic Hockey 2021-22 Season Preview: Conference parity a strong suit as teams look to get back to normal in ’21-22

American International repeated as Atlantic Hockey tournament champs in 2021 (photo: AIC Athletics).

At the Atlantic Hockey media day last week, the word “normal” kept coming up in conversations with the league’s coaches.

We’re not there yet, but hopefully moving in the right direction as the 2021-22 season gets underway.

Teams are back to most of their pre-pandemic routines, but this offseason, while not as bizarre as the one before the 2020-21 campaign, was far from normal.

Rule changes that allow for an additional year of eligibility and the ability for players to transfer and play immediately caused a record number to change teams, or stick around for another season.

The shocking cancellation of Robert Morris’ hockey programs in May, followed by the news of a possible reprieve, also made for more player moves and more chaos.

Good News

Things have been off to a good start, with teams able to meet and practice together without many of the COVID precautions that made things difficult last season.

“It looks like, knock on wood, we’re going to get back to a normal year,” said Army West Point coach Brian Riley. “Everybody’s keeping their fingers crossed.”

“We had 12 total team practices last year,” said Niagara coach Jason Lammers. “We’ve had more practices than that already. I’m more grateful than ever to go to the rink every day.”

“Now you don’t take for granted just being able to come to the rink every day,” added Bentley coach Ryan Soderquist. “The ability to come together in one locker room. Team meetings and team outings are really important.”

Fans will be back after a year of games played in mostly empty buildings.

“We missed the fans and the atmosphere,” said Riley. “They make college hockey what it is. It’s exciting to be able to play back in front of good crowds whether that’s here or on the road.”

RIT coach Wayne Wilson said that while his players learned to cope with an empty Gene Polisseni Center, he’s happy to be able to have fans back.

“(Last year) was weird but the players adapted to it very well,” he said. “It was strange coming out at the start of the game and hearing crickets. But once the puck drops you’re right into the game. You focus on your team and the play on the ice. That said, it’s going to be great to have fans back in the building.”

But as we’ve learned over the past 18 months, nothing is ever certain.

“I supposed COVID is in the back of all of our minds,” said Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin. “But, hopefully, things will be back to normal.”

Bad News

On May 26 came the shocking news that Robert Morris was eliminating its men’s and women’s hockey programs, effective immediately.

Within days, efforts began to reinstate the programs, but with their hockey futures in doubt most players left for opportunities at other schools. At least 20 members of the men’s program will start this season on other teams, including five now playing elsewhere in Atlantic Hockey.

“It caught everyone flatfooted,” said Sacred Heart coach C.J. Marottolo. “It’s gut wrenching. Hopefully they’ll be back, but you have to feel bad for those student athletes. The way it went down left a bad taste in my mouth, personally.”

Since then, RMU’s administration has backpedaled a bit, re-hiring coach Derek Schooley and agreeing to reconsider its decision to field teams if fundraising goals can be met.

The deadline, which has been a moving target, is now December 15 to raise $1.4 million in immediate contributions and another $1.4 million in pledges.

Unknowns

The turbulent offseason has teams entering the 2021-22 campaign with a lot of unknowns, especially about the competition.

The league is dealing with unprecedented player movement, with a total of 29 transfers into the conference and three players transferring out, not including the departures from Robert Morris.

Factoring in at least a dozen AHA players who would have normally graduated but opted for an extra year of eligibility, the makeup of many teams is different than one would normally see on a four-year cycle.

Contributing to the uncertainty is last year’s schedule, which in an effort to minimize travel, limited teams to playing just four inter-pod opponents plus Air Force.

“There are a lot of unknowns in terms of what everyone’s going to bring to the table, especially with your opponents,” said Wilson.

“This year will be very unusual,” said Air Force coach Frank Serratore. “I’ve been in collegiate athletics for decades. We’re dealing with a different animal. There’s been only one time in my career where I’ve known less about opponents than this year, when I went from college to the pros.”

A sure thing is that the conference will play an aggressive non-conference schedule, possibly the toughest to date. In October alone, AHA teams will face off against teams ranked in the USCHO Poll 21 times.

“I believe our job is turn this league into a two-bid league,” said Lammers. “We’re hopeful to take advantage of that schedule.”

Chris Dodero is back for a fifth season with AIC (photo: Kelly Shea).

AMERICAN INTERNATIONAL

HEAD COACH: Eric Lang (6th season)

LAST SEASON: 15-4-0, 11-1 AHA (1st in East Pod) in Atlantic Hockey

KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Graduate student forwards Chris Dodero (7-11-18) and Justin Cole (9-7-16), senior forwards Chris Theodore (5-15-19) and Elijah Barriga (7-6-13), sophomore goalie Jake Kucharski (5-0, .916 save percentage).

KEY LOSSES: Defenseman Brennan Kapcheck (East Pod player of the year), forward Tobias Fladeby (all conference first team), goaltender Stefano Durante (all conference second team).

KEY ADDITIONS: Sophomore defenseman Brian Kramer (a transfer from Robert Morris who was on the AHA All-Rookie team last season), defensemen Alex Tertyshny (31 points in 55 games for the Northeast Generals (NAHL)), and Luis Lindner (alternate captain for Austria in last year’s World Junior tournament).

2021-22 PREDICTION: The Yellow Jackets first part of the 2021-22 schedule is a gauntlet with games against Providence and Quinnipiac, plus a pair with crosstown rival and defending national champions Massachusetts.

AIC lost some key cogs to its success over the past three seasons, but retain more than enough to be the favorites to win an unprecedented fourth consecutive regular season title.

Predicted finish: First

Luke Rowe will serve as a co-captain this season for Air Force (photo: Air Force Athletics).

AIR FORCE

HEAD COACH: Frank Serratore (25th season at Air Force)

LAST SEASON: 3-9-1, 3-8-1 (9th) in Atlantic Hockey

KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Junior defenseman Brandon Koch (3-6-9), junior forward Willie Reim (6-6-12), senior goalie Alex Schilling (4.32 GAA, .847 save percentage)

KEY LOSSES: Forward Shawn Knowlton, defenseman Jake Levin, goaltender Zack LaRocque

KEY ADDITIONS: Forwards Clayton Cosentino (60 points in 56 games for Aberdeen (NAHL)) and Andrew DeCarlo (57 points in 54 games for Lone Star (NAHL)), goaltender Guy Blessing (2.44 GAA and .907 save percentage for Lone Star (NAHL))

2021-22 PREDICTION: The Falcons, with 18 underclassmen including nine freshmen, are one of the youngest teams in college hockey.

Frank Serratore’s teams tend to get better as the season goes on, but this year’s version might have a long way to go.

Predicted finish: Ninth

Army West Point senior Colin Bilek was voted the Atlantic Hockey preseason player of the year (photo: Army West Point Athletics).

ARMY WEST POINT

HEAD COACH: Brian Riley (18th season)

LAST SEASON: 15-6-1, 10-4-1 (2nd in the East Pod) in Atlantic Hockey

KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Senior forwards Colin Bilek (18-7-25), junior defenseman Thomas Farrell (5-9-14), sophomore forward Lincoln Hatten (Rookie of the Year in the East Pod)

KEY LOSSES: Goaltender Trevin Kozlowski (all conference first team), defenseman John Zimmerman (all conference second team), forward Mason Krueger (second on the team in scoring last season with 19 points).

KEY ADDITIONS: Forwards Joey Baez (121 career points with Lone Star (NAHL)) and Josh Bohlin (27 points for Minnesota (NAHL)), goaltender Evan Szary (2.71 GAA, .929 save percentage for South Shore (NCDC))

2021-22 PREDICTION: Bilek, the pre-season Player of the Year as voted on by the league’s coaches, leads an experienced group with one exception: goaltending. Riley leaned heavily on the departed All-American Trevin Kozlowski, who started 51 of 54 games over the past two seasons.

“I’ve been going to church every morning. I hope that helps (the goaltending situation),” said Riley. “We have a total of two games experience in net. (Goaltending) is yet to be determined. I think we have good goalies.”

Predicted finish: Third

Arizona State goaltender Evan DeBrouwer stops Harvard forward Wyllum Deveaux in the first period of Game 1 of the SoCal Clash Saturday at Great Park Ice and FivePoint Arena in Irvine, Calif., during the 2019-20 season (photo: Anthony Ciardelli).

BENTLEY

HEAD COACH : Ryan Soderquist (20th season)

LAST SEASON: 5-11, 4-11 (4th in the East Pod) in Atlantic Hockey

KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Junior forward Matt Gosiewski (7-8-15), sophomore defenseman Drew Bavaro (2-10-12), sophomore goalie Nicholas Grabko (2.85 GAA, .894 save percentage)

KEY LOSSES: Forwards Jakov Novak (a team-leading 17 points last season) and Luke Santerno (16 points)

KEY ADDITIONS: Goaltender Evan DeBrouwer (transfer from Arizona State where he posted a 3.02 GAA and .908 save percentage in three seasons), forward Phil Knies (transfer from Miami where he totaled 49 points over four seasons), forward Cooper Connell (52 points in two seasons with Coquitlam (BCHL))

2021-22 PREDICTION: The Falcons look to put in the rear view mirror a difficult 2020-21 season that saw them unable to compete in the AHA postseason due to COVID protocols.

Losing his top two scorers, Soderquist is looking for a more balanced approach this season.

“We’re going to be structured very differently,” he said. “(Last season) we were top heavy, relied on one line and power play unit.

“We wanted to get back to our culture of having a deep team.”

Predicted finish: Eighth

Keaton Mastrodonato collected nine goals and 18 points last season for Canisius (photo: Marshal Filipowicz/Canisius Athletics).

CANISIUS

HEAD COACH: Trevor Large (5th season)

LAST SEASON: 12-6, 8-5 (2nd in the West Pod) in Atlantic Hockey

KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Junior forward Keaton Mastrodonato (9-9-18), senior forward Mitchell Martan (6-9-15), junior goaltender Jacob Barczewski (2.29 GAA, .926 save percentage)

KEY LOSSES: Forwards Grant Meyer (3rd in scoring last season) and Matt Long (6th in scoring)

KEY ADDITIONS: Forwards Randy Hernandez (transfer from Robert Morris, where he was the West Pod’s Rookie of the Year) and Alton McDermott (81 points in 103 games for Oakville (OJHL)), goaltender John Hawthorne (transfer from Northern Michigan, where he was named to the WCHA All-Rookie team in 2020)

2021-22 PREDICTION: With seven transfers, the Griffs have beefed up a lineup that got to them within a period of the NCAA tournament last year.

Expect them to finish in the top four and make a return to at least the conference semifinals.

Predicted finish: Second

Alex Peterson will be a key cog up front this season for Holy Cross (photo: Mark Seliger Photography).

HOLY CROSS

HEAD COACH : Bill Riga (1st season)

LAST SEASON: 4-12, 3-9 (5th in the East Pod) in Atlantic Hockey

KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Junior forward Alex Peterson (4-5-9), senior forward Anthony Vincent (3-2-5), senior goalie Erik Gordon (2.68 GAA, .906 save percentage)

KEY LOSSES: Forwards Jake Pappalardo (2nd on the team in scoring last season) and Logan Ferguson (4th).

KEY ADDITIONS: Forwards John Gelatt (54 points in 51 games for Johnstown (NAHL)) and Matt Guerra (transfer from Robert Morris)

2021-22 PREDICTION: The Crusaders struggled across the finish line last season, losing their final 10 games and getting shut out of the Atlantic Hockey tournament due to COVID protocols.

New head coach Bill Riga brings an opportunity for a fresh start.

“Our entire staff is new,” he said. “That’s a whole lot of change. It’s an exciting time but also a lot of unknowns.”

Predicted finish: 10th

Jonathan Bendorf celebrates a goal last January as Mercyhurst swept Robert Morris with a 7-5 win in Erie (photo: Ed Mailliard).

MERCYHURST

HEAD COACH: Rick Gotkin (34th season)

LAST SEASON: 8-12-1, 7-8-1 (4th in the West Pod) in Atlantic Hockey

KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Sophomore forward Carson Briere (5-14-19), junior forward Jonathan Bendorf (11-4-15), defenseman Joseph Marziarz (1-12-13), goaltender Hank Johnson (3.45 GAA, .900 save percentage)

KEY LOSSES: Senior defenseman Quinn Wichers (118 career games)

KEY ADDITIONS: Grad student forward Pierce Crawford (transfer from Notre Dame, where he played in 108 games), defenseman Jake Beaune (19 points for Lincoln (USHL)), forward Garrett Dahm (31 points for Youngstown (USHL)).

2021-22 PREDICTION: The Lakers have been in rebuilding mode the past couple of seasons, and that should start to pay off.

“We’ve been a young team the past two years, which is becoming an older team,”said Gotkin. “We graduated just one senior defenseman and added what we think are some key elements.”

Predicted finish: Seventh

Chad Veltri enters 2021-22 as Niagara’s No. 1 goaltender (photo: Niagara Athletics).

NIAGARA

HEAD COACH: Jason Lammers (5th season)

LAST SEASON: 7-12-3, 3-9-3 (5th in the West Pod) in Atlantic Hockey

KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Senior forward Walker Sommar (8-7-15), junior goalie Chad Veltri (2.60 GAA, .914 save percentage), grad student defenseman Chris Harpur (0-8-8).

KEY LOSSES: Forwards Ludwig Stenlund (second on the team in scoring last season), Jack Billings (3rd) and Eric Cooley (73 career points)

KEY ADDITIONS: Goaltender Jake Sibell (1.19 GAA, .952 save percentage for Aberdeen (NAHL)), forward Jay Ahearn (62 points in 52 games for Johnstown (NAHL)), defenseman Lars Rødne (played for Norway in the 2020 World Junior tournament).

2021-22 PREDICTION: So far, the Purple Eagles under Lammers have played their best hockey in the postseason, throwing out regular season records and storming through the playoffs, making the semifinals in their past two attempts.

Despite losing a ton of offense, Niagara can finish in the top half of the standings, or close to it.

Predicted finish: Sixth

RIT senior Will Calverley will provide points up front for the Tigers (photo: RIT Athletics).

ROCHESTER INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY

HEAD COACH: Wayne Wilson (23rd season)

LAST SEASON: 9-10-2, 7-5-1 (3rd in the West Pod) in Atlantic Hockey

KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Senior forward Will Calverley (12-13-25, co-AHA West Pod Player of the Year), grad student forward Jake Hamacher (7-14-21), grad student defenseman Dan Willett (4-14-18)

KEY LOSSES: Forward Alden Depuis (12 points last season), Goaltender Logan Drackett (99 career appearances)

KEY ADDITIONS: Goalie Thomas Scarfone (2.50 GAA, .922 save percentage for Surrey (BCHL)), defensemen Doug Scott (31 points in 36 games for Humboldt (SJHL)) and Gianfranco Cassaro (a transfer from national champions Massachusetts, where he appeared in 40 games over two seasons)

2021-22 PREDICTION: The Tiger’s will be deep with a lot of scoring returning and experience on the blue line.

Goaltending is the main question. If RIT can find consistency in that area, the Tigers will contend for a first round bye.

Predicted finish: Fourth

Sacred Heart goalie Josh Benson starts his senior season as the starting netminder (photo: Sacred Heart Athletics).

SACRED HEART

HEAD COACH: C.J. Marottolo (13th season)

LAST SEASON: 5-10-2, 5-7-1 (3rd in the East Pod) in Atlantic Hockey

KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Junior forwards Braeden Tuck (6-10-16) and Kevin Lombardi (8-4-12), senior goalie Josh Benson (3.02 GAA, .899 save percentage)

KEY LOSSES: Forwards Marc Johnstone (95 career points) and Marcel Godbout (a career-high 11 points last season)

KEY ADDITIONS: Defenseman Connor Hutchison (14 points for Tri City (USHL)), Forwards Dante Palecco (transfer from Yale, where he appeared in 91 games, scoring 26 points) and Dakota Raabe (transfer from Michigan, where he played 113 games and scored 32 points)

2021-22 PREDICTION: With 11 new players including seven transfers, it’s difficult to gauge the Pioneers’ chances. But if they can gel early, I think they’ll finish in the top half of the league.

“Our biggest challenge is how quickly we can get this group together,” said Marottolo. “We’ve done a lot of team building and I’m happy with the mindset right now.”

Predicted finish: Fifth

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