2014-15 Hockey East Preview, Part 2: UMass Lowell looks to overcome loss of significant players

By DJ Powers
Ben Gallacher - Uiniversity of Massachusetts Amherst

Photo: University of Massachusetts defenseman and Florida Panthers prospect Ben Gallacher will be an important part of the Minutemen’s defense in 2014-15 (courtesy of Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images)

 

The new Hockey East season is now underway. The conference has expanded by one team for 2014-15 with the addition of the University of Connecticut, a team that was covered in part one of this Hockey East preview.

Part two of this NCAA hockey preview takes a closer at UMass-Lowell, UMass, Merrimack and New Hampshire.

University of Massachusetts-Lowell
NHL prospects: 1

The River Hawks began the defense of their Hockey East Tournament championship when they opened their 2014-15 season on Oct. 10th versus Boston College.

No team in the NCAA this season features a larger group of newcomers than UMass-Lowell. The River Hawks will have 16 players making their debut. New challenges come with such a large roster turnover and UMass-Lowell will have a number of them heading into the season.

The biggest challenge is their goaltending situation. The River Hawks lost all of their goaltenders from last season, including Mike Richter Award recipient Connor Hellebuyck, who opted to forgo the remainder of his collegiate eligibility to sign with the Winnipeg Jets. Hellebuyck led the nation in both goals-against average (1.79) and save percentage (.941) last season and was instrumental in backstopping UMass-Lowell to their second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.

The daunting task of trying to fill Hellebuyck’s role will fall to junior Kevin Boyle and freshmen Jeff Smith and Olli Kalkaja. Boyle, a UMass transfer, could potentially be tapped as the starter to begin the season.

With the uncertainty in goal to begin the season, UMass-Lowell will be looking to their predominantly young defensive corps to stabilize things on the back. The blueline is shaping up to be the River Hawks’ strongest position.

Anchoring UMass-Lowell’s defense this season is senior captain Zach Kamrass. The Atlanta, GA native posted 20 points (four goals, 16 assists) in 35 games last season. Kamrass has been one of the stalwarts on the River Hawks’ defense, logging upwards of 25 minutes per game. While he possesses very good offensive skills, it doesn’t come at the expense of his defensive responsibilities.

Another issue for UMass-Lowell is replacing the point production that left with Joseph Pendenza, Derek Arnold, Scott Wilson and defenseman Christian Folin. Pendenza and Arnold have graduated. Wilson and Folin opted to forgo the remainder of their collegiate eligibility to sign with the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Minnesota Wild, respectively.

Among the returning veterans that UMass-Lowell will be counting on to help pick up the slack are junior Adam Chapie and sophomore Evan Campbell (EDM).

Chapie returns as the River Hawks’ top scorer this season. The Oxford, MI native is coming off of a strong sophomore campaign where he finished second on the team with 23 points (12 goals, 11 assists) in 38 games. Chapie has developed into one of UMass-Lowell’s clutch scorers. This summer, Chapie participated in the Calgary Flames prospects camp.

Campbell, the lone NHL prospect on the River Hawks roster this season, is coming off of a fine freshman campaign where he posted 11 points (nine goals, two assists) in 34 games. The Port Coquitlam, BC native saw time at both center and wing last season. While Campbell got off to a rather slow start to his rookie season, he finished strong in the second half where all but one of his points were scored.

Of the 14 freshmen on UMass-Lowell’s roster this season, one well worth a look is defenseman Tommy Panico. The Wall, NJ native is an offensive-minded defenseman noted for his great mobility.

University of Massachusetts
NHL prospects: 2

The Minutemen opened their 2014-15 season on Oct. 10th versus Boston University.

One of the issues that plagued UMass last season was in generating offense, as they finished 51st nationally. The Minutemen posted just 76 goals, which were among the fewest in all of the NCAA. The task of boosting their offensive production this season is made more difficult by the fact that the team graduated their top three scorers in Conor Sheary, Michael Pereira and Branden Gracel, as well as their top scoring defenseman, Joel Hanley. The quartet accounted for 41 percent of the Minutemen’s points last season, which include nearly half of the team’s power play goals.

Sophomore Steven Iacobellis returns as the Minutemen’s top scorer. The Port Coquitlam, BC native led UMass in rookie scoring last season with 21 points (11 goals, 10 assists) in 34 games. One area where Iacobellis was particularly dangerous last season was on special teams. Of his 11 goals, seven came on special teams – six on the power play and one shorthanded. And as good as Iacobellis was last season, he could potentially be even better this season. He isn’t big (5’9”, 170 lbs.), but he makes up for it with his speed and great finishing ability.

Of UMass’s ten newcomers this season, five are forwards. One to keep an eye on is Dennis Kravchenko. The San Clemente, CA native, who originally committed to Vermont, possesses great offensive skills with a motor to match. Kravchenko is also versatile in that he can play both center and wing.

The defense is shaping up to be the Minutemen’s strongest position this season. The defensive corps will be experienced and have some size, too. Among those anchoring the defense this season is junior Ben Gallacher (FLA). The Calgary, AB native is coming off of a solid sophomore campaign where he posted 11 points (one goals, 10 assists) in 34 games last season. One area where Gallacher has developed quite nicely is in his positioning. He has greatly improved his one-on-one play and his added toughness makes him all more difficult to play against.

Gallacher is one of the Minutemen’s two defensemen who are NHL prospects. The other is newcomer Brandon Montour (ANA). The Oshweken, ON native is an offensive defenseman noted for his strong skating. Unfortunately, Montour will not make his collegiate debut until the latter half of December due to NCAA Clearinghouse issues.

One area where UMass is hoping to get some more consistency this season is in goal. The Minutemen return their top two netminders in senior starter Steve Mastalerz and sophomore Alex Wakaluk. Mastalerz is coming off of a very solid junior campaign where he posted an 8-19-3 record that included two shutouts in 31 games. Wakaluk saw limited time as Masterlerz’s backup, making just three appearances and recording just two decisions (both losses).

Merrimack College
NHL prospects: 1

The Warriors opened their 2014-15 season on Oct. 10th at Holy Cross.

Merrimack struggled mightily to get through last season, and the problems that plagued the Warriors were numerous. With a new season comes some renewed optimism and the hope of climbing out of the Hockey East basement.

The biggest issue facing Merrimack this season is getting increased point production throughout their lineup. The Warriors were one of the worst offensive teams in the NCAA last season, finishing 57th nationally. Merrimack posted a total of just 62 goals last season. Only Alabama-Huntsville and Princeton posted fewer goals. To make matters worse heading into this season, the Warriors will have to fill the role left by top scorer Mike Collins, who has graduated. Collins was the only player on Merrimack’s roster last season that posted 10 or more goals and 20 or more points.

Senior Quinn Gould returns as the Warriors top scorer this season. The Fort McMurray, AB native is coming off a solid junior campaign where he posted 14 points (seven goals, seven assists) in 31 games. Gould, who attended the Chicago Blackhawks‘ prospect camp this summer, has shown that he can be a clutch scorer and could potentially have the best year of his collegiate career if he can stay healthy.

Injuries took a devastating toll on Merrimack last season. Among the returning players hoping to bounce back from an injury-riddled season is sophomore Chris LeBlanc (OTT). The Winthrop, MA native saw a promising freshman campaign marred by injuries last season. He appeared in 23 games and finished with 12 points (six goals, six assists). LeBlanc isn’t likely to be in the lineup when the Warriors open their season because he is still recovering from offseason knee surgery. But once he does make his return, LeBlanc could potentially have a breakout year in 2014-15.

Despite graduating stalwarts Brendan Ellis and Jordan Heywood, Merrimack’s defense is shaping up to be their strength this season, and will also be sporting some size.

Anchoring the Warriors defensive corps is senior captain Dan Kolomatis. The Basking Ridge, NJ native is coming off of a fine junior campaign where he posted eight points (three goals, five assists) and was one of only six players to play in all 33 games last season. Kolomatis is an excellent skating defenseman who plays a strong two-way game.

Of Merrimack’s 10 newcomers this season, four are defensemen. The one to watch is Marc Biega. The Pointe-Claire, QC native is the youngest of the Biega brothers. The three elder Biega brothers all played at Harvard. Marc Biega is a two-way defenseman who is noted for his superb puck-moving skills that could also help generate some much-needed offense from the blueline.

Goaltending is another area where the Warriors look very good coming into the season. Although Sam Marotta has graduated, Merrimack does return last year’s starter in senior Rasmus Tirronen. The Espoo, Finland native posted a 7-14-3 record that included one shutout in 25 games last season. While Tirronen did post a losing record, he also had a .908 save percentage to go with it.

University of New Hampshire
NHL prospects: 3

The Wildcats opened their 2014-15 season on Oct. 11th at Union College.

Each year, at least one NCAA team suffers an unexpected loss, usually from a player decommitting late that can have a tremendous impact on the team leading up to and even into the season. Such was the case for New Hampshire, and it wasn’t due to a player backing out of his commitment.

The Wildcats had expected their goaltending situation to be unquestionably rock solid to start the season. But that all changed last month when senior starter Casey DeSmith was suspended indefinitely following his arrest for domestic assault. Whether the Rochester, NH native will or can return this season remains to be seen. DeSmith is among the NCAA’s top netminders and one of the league’s workhorses, as well. Last season, he posted a 20-16-0 record that included three shutouts in 37 appearances. His 2148:01 minutes played finished seventh nationally.

The task of filling DeSmith’s role this season will be a daunting one as the two goaltenders currently on the roster have little or no collegiate experience. Junior Jamie Regan was the Wildcats third-string netminder and the only returnee as Jeff Wyer was lost to graduation. He appeared in just one game in relief, playing only 6:38 minutes. Challenging Regan will be freshman Adam Clark.

With the uncertainty in goal, the Wildcats will be looking to their predominantly young defensive corps for stability on the back end. While New Hampshire’s blueline is shaping up quite well this season, it also has to fill the roles vacated by two of last season’s top defenders in graduate Eric Knodel (TOR) and Trevor van Riemsdyk, who opted to forego the remainder of his eligibility to sign with the Chicago Blackhawks.

Anchoring the Wildcats’ defense is junior Brett Pesce (CAR). The Tarrytown, NY native is one of just three upperclassmen on New Hampshire’s blueline. He is also one of two Carolina Hurricanes prospects on the Wildcats’ roster. Pesce is coming off of a terrific sophomore campaign where he finished with 21 points (seven goals, 14 assists) in 41 games. Where Pesce really stood out was on the power play, where five of his seven goals were scored. With the departure of Knodel and van Riemsdyk, Pesce will most likely quarterback New Hampshire’s power play this season.

In addition to their goaltending, another issue that the Wildcats will need to address this season is replacing the offense that left with graduates Kevin Goumas and Nick Sorkin. The two accounted for 27 percent of the team’s points last season, which also includes 39 percent of the team’s goals.

Senior captain Matt Willows returns as New Hampshire’s top scorer after finishing behind Goumas and Sorkin last season with 39 points (18 goals, 21 assists) in 41 games. The dynamic Congers, NY native was especially dangerous on the Wildcats’ special teams where seven of his 18 goals were scored – five on the power play and two shorthanded. Willows also led the team with six game-winners.

In addition to the returning veterans, New Hampshire welcomes ten newcomers this season, including a pair of 2014 NHL Draft selections in forwards Warren Foegele (CAR) and Shane Eiserman (OTT). Foegele is a winger that is relatively raw but possesses a great upside. He is noted for his strong skating and ability to move through traffic. Eiserman is a hard-nosed power forward that is noted for his physicality and sheer strength.

Follow DJ Powers on Twitter via @DJPowersHF