Hockey East 2021-22 Season Preview: UMass seeks to repeat as conference, national champs, but road back won’t be easy

UMass celebrates its first-ever national title last April in Pittsburgh (photo: Jim Rosvold).

The only thing that will keep Hockey East fans on the edge of their seats this season will be the action on the ice.

At least that’s the hope of commissioner Steve Metcalf and the league’s 11 coaches.

That fans will even be in the building after a year playing in empty arenas has generated excitement among players, coaches and fans as the season kicks off.

“There’s a buzz around campus about sports happening, and just kind of life in general,” said Boston University coach Albie O’Connell. “Everyone in the BU community is pretty excited about it.”

The chaos that governed the league last year, with cancellations and hastily rescheduled contests, will hopefully be a thing of the past in 2021-22, said Metcalf. The second-year commissioner said as of last week that only “a handful” of players are unvaccinated, and those who aren’t have received a medical exception that will require them to follow NCAA-recommended testing protocols.

“As a result of that, and also given the fact that our officials are all vaccinated, we’re very confident that we’re going to play a full, uninterrupted season,” Metcalf said.
The pandemic, of course, is not over. Metcalf said protocols for fans will likely be present this season, but will vary from arena to arena depending on decisions by the schools and local governments.

The virus didn’t prevent UMass-Amherst from winning its first NCAA championship, beating St. Cloud State of the NCHC 5-0 in the national final in Pittsburgh. The Minutemen are the preseason No. 1 in the USCHO.com poll, but as coach Greg Carvel notes, the top ranking in the first poll of the season doesn’t always end up as national champions in April.

“The fact that we’ve been given that ranking in preseason means absolutely nothing,” Carvel said. “I know you have to be good, but you have to be lucky also to win championships. We thought that was the case last year.”

A pair of new coaches will make their debuts this season. At Northeastern, Jerry Keefe is at the helm after Jim Madigan moved to the athletic director’s office, while at Maine, former UMass-Amherst assistant Ben Barr takes over the Black Bears following the untimely death of Red Gendron shortly after the end of last season.

A big change to the postseason tournament is in store. Gone is the two-weekend format with best-of-three quarterfinals followed by single-elimination on the first weekend and single-elimination semifinals and final played on the second. Now, all 11 schools will participate in a win-or-go-home, one-and-done single-elimination tournament.

Any fan whose OCD is triggered by the uneven number of schools in the league — 11 since Notre Dame bolted for the Big Ten after the 2017 season — might be in for a lengthy wait for any relief, as Metcalf said expansion is not being seriously discussed.

“We just came off a very busy, tense and challenging year,” Metcalf said. “But the executive committee and our ADs are always talking about what’s best for the league. If that involves looking at new members, then that’s a conversation that we’ll have in the future. It’s not something that’s imminent (or) a super-pressing to-do item.”

Nikita Nesterenko will be a key cog among the forwards for BC this season (photo: Rich Gagnon).

BOSTON COLLEGE

HEAD COACH: Jerry York (28th season)

LAST SEASON: 17-6-1 (16-4-1 Hockey East, first)

KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Senior forward Marc McLaughlin (10-14-24), sophomore forward Nikita Nesterenko (8-11-19), sophomore forward Gentry Shamburger (10-9-19).

KEY LOSSES: Forward Alex Newhook (7-9-16), forward Logan Hutsko (4-7-11), forward Matt Boldy (11-20-31), goaltender Spencer Knight (16-4-1, 2.18 GAA, .932 SV%,).

KEY ADDITIONS: Goalie Eric Dop (Bowling Green), forward Brandon Kruse (Bowling Green), forward Sam Sternschein (Penn State), defenseman Justin Wells (Bowling Green).

2021-22 PREDICTION: You might call BC “Bowling Green East” as three of the Eagles’ four transfer players are former Falcons (as is head coach Jerry York, who won an NCAA title at Bowling Green in 1984). BC lost a good number of players near the top of their scoring ranks, but should remain among the league’s elite with Marc McLaughlin, Nikita Nesterenko (8-11-19) and Gentry Shamburger leading the way.

JD’s PREDICTION: Second

Boston University’s Robert Mastrosimone was one of seven players to skate in all 34 games during the 2019-20 season (photo: BU Athletics).

BOSTON UNIVERSITY

HEAD COACH: Albie O’Connell (fourth season)

LAST SEASON: 10-5-1 (10-3-1 Hockey East, second)

KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Junior forward Robert Mastrosimone (7-10-17), junior defenseman Domenick Fensore (3-13-16), senior forward Logan Cockerill (4-1-5), sophomore goaltender Drew Commesso (4-3-1, 3.34 GAA, .909 SV%).

KEY LOSSES: Defenseman David Farrance (5-8-13), forward Jake Wise (1-1-2), forward Matthew Quercia (2-1-3).

KEY ADDITIONS: Forward Matt Brown (UMass-Lowell); defenseman Ty Gallagher (US 18-U team), forward Tyler Boucher (US 18-U team).

2021-22 Prediction: The Terriers return a ton of talent from last year’s team, which was picked sixth in the preseason coaches’ poll but wound up finishing second. BU started three different goaltenders last season; Drew Commesso had by far the most minutes and will be back in net this year. If the Terriers can play consistent hockey, they should once again finish near the top of the standings.

JD’s prediction: Third

Vladislav Firstov had three goals in 13 games a year ago and already has two this season (photo: Stephen Slade).

CONNECTICUT

HEAD COACH: Mike Cavanaugh (ninth season)

LAST SEASON: 10-11-2 (10-10-2 Hockey East, fourth)

KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Senior forward Carter Turnbull (9-4-13), junior forward Vladislav Firstov (3-9-12), senior forward Jachym Kondelik (4-18-22), senior forward Jonny Evans (14-15-29).

KEY LOSSES: Defenseman Yan Kuznetsov (1-5-6), goaltender Tomas Vomacka (10-11-2, 3.13 GAA, .909 SV%).

KEY ADDITIONS: Goalie Darion Hansen (Union), defenseman Jarrod Gourley (Arizona State), forward Kevin O’Neil (Yale).

2021-22 PREDICTION: The departed Tomas Vomacka played every minute in goal last season for UConn. Of the three goalies on the Huskies’ roster, only Union Darion Hansen has college hockey experience — but he hasn’t played in two years as Union suspended its season last year due to Covid. Jonny Evans led all Huskies in scoring with 14 goals and 15 assists and is expected to have another big year.

JD’s PREDICTION: Sixth

Jacob Schmidt-Svejstrup enters his senior season primed to produce for Maine (photo: Maine Athletics).

MAINE

HEAD COACH: Ben Barr (first season)

LAST SEASON: 3-11-2 (3-10-2 Hockey East, ninth)

KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Senior forward Adam Dawe (5-9-14), senior forward Jacob Schmidt-Svejstrup (3-6-9), sophomore goalie Victor Ostman (3-6-1, 3.77 GAA, .902 SV%), sophomore forward Lynden Breen (3-8-11).

KEY LOSSES: Forward Eduards Tralmaks, defenseman Veli-Matti Tiuraniemi, defenseman JD Greenway.

KEY ADDITIONS: Defenseman Dom Dockery (Merrimack), forward Matthew Fawcett (Quinnipiac), forward Grant Hebert (Robert Morris), forward Nolan Renwick (Omaha, USHL).

2021-22 PREDICTION: Ben Barr, an assistant last year on UMass-Amherst’s NCAA championship team, takes over for the late Red Genderon, who passed away unexpectedly in April. The Black Bears are stacked with returning talent, led by Adam Dawe, the top scorer from last season. Merrimack transfer Dom Dockery should fortify Maine’s defense.

JD’s PREDICTION: Ninth

Matt Kessel posted 10 goals and 23 points a season ago for the Minutemen (photo: Rich Gagnon).

MASSACHUSETTS

HEAD COACH: Greg Carvel (sixth season)

LAST SEASON: 20-5-4 (13-5-4 Hockey East, third, won NCAA championship)

KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Senior forward Bobby Trivigno (9-11-20), senior defenseman Marc Del Gaizo (3-11-14), grad student goalie Matt Murray (10-4, 1.97 GAA, .917 SV%), junior defenseman Matthew Kessel (10-13-23).

KEY LOSSES: Defenseman Zac Jones (9-15-24), forward Oliver Chau (5-22-27), junior goalie Filip Lindberg (10-1-4, 1.24 GAA .949 SV%).

KEY ADDITIONS: Forward Cam Donaldson (Cornell), defenseman Slava Demin (Denver), defenseman Scott Morrow (Shattuck St. Mary’s, USHS), forward Matt Baker (Dartmouth).

2021-22 PREDICTION: The Minutemen (this year’s preseason No. 1) have the tools in place to repeat as national champions, but won’t have the easiest path back to the Frozen Four with one of the toughest schedules in the country. Goalies Matt Murray and Filip Lindburg were a championship combination in goal last season, but Murray will carry the bulk of the starts this winter after Lindberg went pro. Bobby Trivigno, who led the conference in scoring last season, is back to lead the offense after an impressive 20-point performance in last year’s Covid-shortened season.

JD’s PREDICTION: First

UMASS LOWELL

HEAD COACH: Norm Bazin (11th season)

LAST SEASON: Record 10-9-1 (7-8-1 Hockey East, seventh)

KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Junior forward Carl Berglund (3-8-11), junior forward Andre Lee (7-9-16), senior defenseman Jon McDonald (0-8-8), grad student Connor Sodergren (2-4-6), senior forward Reid Stefanson (5-10-15).

KEY LOSSES: Forward Matt Brown (8-5-13), defenseman Chase Blackmun (5-12-17).

KEY ADDITIONS: Forward Theo Pistek (Örebro HK, Sweden), forward Matt Crasa (Fargo, USHL), defenseman Nick Austin (Colgate), goalie Edvard Nordlund (Danbury, NAHL).

2021-22 PREDICTION: The River Hawks will rely heavily on European talent this season, with more than 10 players on the roster who speak two languages or more, according to Bazin. Andre Lee returns as the River Hawks’ top scorer from last season. Reid Stefanson, who led the team in assists, will return injury free to start the season.

JD’s PREDICTION: Eighth

Merrimack’s Logan Drevitch collected nine points in 12 games last season (photo: Josh Gibney).

MERRIMACK

HEAD COACH: Scott Borek (fourth season)

LAST SEASON: 5-11-2 (Hockey East, eighth, no nonconference games)

KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Junior forward Filip Forsmark (4-9-13), sophomore defenseman Zach Uens (1-6-7), sophomore goalie Zachary Borgiel (4-8-2, 3.10 GAA, .883 SV%), junior forward Liam Walsh (7-5-12), junior forward Logan Drevitch (3-6-9).

KEY LOSSES: Defenseman Declan Carlile (2-8-10), defenseman Patrick Holway (3-6-9), forward Chase Gresock (4-4-8).

KEY ADDITIONS: Defenseman Christian Felton (Bentley), defenseman Colby Bukes (Mankato), forward Steven Jandric (Denver), forward Jake Durflinger (Denver).

2021-22 PREDICTION: The transfer portal was friend and foe to the Warriors during the offseason. The Warriors netted four Division I players, including a pair of forwards from Denver, Steven Jandric and Jake Durflinger. Both will be called upon to make up for the loss of scorer Chase Gresock, who transferred to Miami of the NCHC. Forward Filip Forsmark and goalie Zachary Boriel return to fortify Merrimack on both sides of the rink.

JD’s PREDICTION: Tenth

New Hampshire senior Filip Engarås was drafted in the sixth round (169th overall) Wednesday by the Edmonton Oilers (photo: UNH Athletics).

NEW HAMPSHIRE

HEAD COACH: Mike Souza (fourth season)

LAST SEASON: 6-14-3 (5-13-3 Hockey East, tenth)

KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Senior forward Filip Engaras (6-5-11), junior forward Jackson Pierson (9-16-25), junior defenseman Kalle Eriksson (6-12-18), senior goalie Mike Robinson (3.32 GAA).

KEY LOSSES: Forward Patrick Grasso (7-8-15), forward Charlie Kelleher (0-4-4), forward Angus Crookshank (9-9-18).

KEY ADDITIONS: Forward Harrison Blaisdell (North Dakota), goalie David Fessenden (Alabama Huntsville), forward Liam Devlin (Omaha, USHL).

2021-22 PREDICTION: Depth on offense could help lift UNH to the top half of the conference this season. North Dakota transfer Harrison Blaisdell brings a +6 rating to the Wildcats’ front line. Mike Robinson started 21 games for UNH last season, and is one of 11 seniors on the Wildcats’ roster.

JD’s PREDICTION: Seventh

Aiden McDonough figures to be a prominent player for Northeastern in 2021-22 (photo: Rich Gagnon).

NORTHEASTERN

HEAD COACH: Jerry Keefe (first season)

LAST SEASON: 9-9-3 (9-8-3 Hockey East, sixth)

KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Sophomore forward Aidan McDonough (5-5-10), junior defenseman Jordan Harris (4-6-10), sophomore forward Dylan Jackson (3-5-8), sophomore forward Ty Jackson (4-3-7).

KEY LOSSES: Forward Zach Solow (13-18-31), forward Grant Jozefek (1-8-9), goalie Connor Murphy (9-9-3, 2.99 GAA, .916 SV%).

KEY ADDITIONS: Defenseman Tommy Miller (Michigan State), forward Jakov Novak (Bentley), goalie Evan Fear (Quinnipiac).

2021-22 PREDICTION: Jerry Keefe takes over for Jim Madigan, who has a new job as the school’s athletic director after a decade behind the men’s hockey bench. Opposing defenses could be seeing double this season as the Jackson twins, Dylan and Ty, return for their sophomore seasons. The pair was good for seven goals and eight assists in last year’s COVID-shortened season.

JD’s PREDICTION: Fourth

Jaxson Stauber starts his junior season with Providence as the No. 1 goalie (photo: Steve Babineau).

PROVIDENCE

HEAD COACH: Nate Leaman (11th season)

LAST SEASON: 11-9-5 (10-8-5 Hockey East, fifth)

KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Senior defenseman Michael Callahan (3-11-14), junior forward Parker Ford (9-13-22), junior forward Patrick Moynihan (6-9-15), junior goalie Jaxson Stauber (11-7-5, 2.24 GAA, .916 SV%).

KEY LOSSES: Forward Tyce Thompson (11-14-25), forward Greg Printz (6-9-15), forward Jason O’Neill (3-5-8).

KEY ADDITIONS: Forward Kohen Olischefski (Denver), forward Alex Esposito (Vermont), goalie Austin Cain (Western Michigan).

2021-22 PREDICTION: The Friars return almost all of their top scorers from last year’s team, which finished in the top half of the league standings. Parker Ford will be expected to carry much of the scoring load, as he did last season. Michael Callahan, a defenseman with a scoring touch, is expected to play plenty of minutes.

JD’s PREDICTION: Fifth

Vermont is banking on increased goal production in 2021-22 (photo: Vermont Athletics).

VERMONT

HEAD COACH: Todd Woodcroft (second season)

LAST SEASON: 1-10-2 (1-9-2, last)

KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: Junior defenseman Andrew Lucas (1-1-2), junior forward Jacques Bouquot (1-1-2), sophomore forward Ray Vitolins (1-5-6).

KEY LOSSES: Forward Ace Cowans (0-1-1), defenseman Christian Evans (4-1-5), forward Tristan Mullin (2-1-3).

KEY ADDITIONS: Defenseman Joe Leahy (Cornell), defenseman Robbie Stucker (Minnesota), defenseman Cory Babichuk (RPI).

2021-22 PREDICTION: Even within the context of a last-place finish in a Covid-shortened season, the Catamounts suffered from low scoring output last season. Ray Vitolins is the team’s top returning scorer from last year with only six points — he and his fellow underclassmen on the front line will have to generate more scoring if Vermont has any chance of finishing out of the cellar.

JD’s PREDICTION: 11th

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