2014-15 Hockey East Preview, Part 3: Providence looks to challenge for conference title

By DJ Powers
Mario Puskarich - University of Vermont

Photo: University of Vermont sophomore forward Mario Puskarich will be a top offensive threat for the Catamounts after turning in a strong 2013-14 season where he was named Hockey East Rookie of the Year (courtesy of Fred Kfoury/Icon Sportswire)

 

In part one and part two of our 2014-15 preview of the Hockey East conference, Hockey’s Future looked at eight of the 12 teams in the conference. Part three of this NCAA hockey preview takes a closer look at the final four teams in that conference, including Northeastern, Notre Dame, Providence, and Vermont.

Northeastern University
NHL prospects: 4

The Huskies opened their 2014-15 season on Oct. 11th versus Vermont.

Few NCAA teams received more production out of their freshman class last season than Northeastern did, with the frosh accounting for an astounding 69 percent of the team’s total points. And all but one returns for the 2014-15 season.

Leading the now-sophomore group is Mike Szmatula. The Commerce Township, MI native finished his stellar freshman campaign posting 39 points (15 goals, 24 assists) in 37 games and earned a spot on the Hockey East All-Rookie Team. Szmatula’s 39 overall points led all conference rookies and finished second nationally last season. Szmatula, a center blessed with terrific hands, has also drawn notice from NHL teams, most notably from the Montreal Canadiens, whose prospect camp he attended this summer.

The catalyst up front for the Huskies is junior Kevin Roy (ANA). For the second consecutive year, the Lac-Beauport, QC native finished as Northeastern’s top scorer with 46 points (19 goals, 27 assists) in 37 games and earned a spot on the All-Hockey East Second Team. One notable area last season where Roy took a big step in his development was in his added strength, which allowed him to be more effective around the net. This season, Roy could potentially reach and surpass the 50-point plateau.

The Huskies have just five newcomers this season, and the one to watch is center Dylan Sikura (CHI). The Aurora, ON native is the younger sibling of Dartmouth senior Tyler Sikura. The younger Sikura is noted for his superb playmaking skills.

Northeastern returns their defensive corps nearly intact this season. The only loss was Josh Manson, who opted to forgo his senior year to sign with the Anaheim Ducks. While losing Manson is significant, the Huskies’ defense is shaping up to be very good this season.

Among the returning veterans patrolling the blueline is sophomore Matt Benning (BOS). The St. Albert, AB native is coming off of an impressive rookie campaign where he finished with 13 points (three goals, 10 assists) in 33 games. Benning missed five games late in the season due to injury. Although Benning is noted more for his defensive side, he showed flashes of his offensive skills last season which could be even more evident this season.

Goaltending is shaping up to be one of Northeastern’s strengths this season. Senior assistant captain and starter Clay Witt returns after an excellent junior campaign where he posted a 17-12-3 record that includes four shutouts in 32 games. His performance also earned him a spot on the All-Hockey East Second Team as well as being named a top 10 finalist for the Mike Richter Award. Part of what made Witt so good last season was his great ability to win or keep his team in games. This summer, Witt attended the Tampa Bay Lightning’s prospect camp.

University of Notre Dame
NHL prospects: 10

The Fighting Irish opened their 2014-15 season on Oct. 10th versus RPI in the Icebreaker Tournament in South Bend, IN.

This season, Notre Dame features more NHL prospects on their roster than any other Hockey East team. And among all NCAA teams, only Minnesota and North Dakota have more prospects than the Fighting Irish.

Notre Dame graduated a number of key players from last season’s squad including starting goaltender Steven Summerhays, top defenseman Stephen Johns (CHI) as well as their top two scorers in T.J. Tynan (CBJ) and Bryan Rust (PIT).

The most intriguing position to watch this season is in goal. With Summerhays gone, the starting job for Notre Dame will be a battle between sophomore Chad Katunar and freshman Cal Petersen. Despite playing in just five games last season, Katunar played remarkably well, posting a 2-1-0 record. Petersen is one of two Buffalo Sabres prospects on Notre Dame’s roster this season (the other is fellow freshman Connor Hurley). The Waterloo, IA native is noted for his superb athleticism and is unique in that he’s also a right handed catching goaltender.

“I feel really good about both of them,” head coach Jeff Jackson said of his netminders. “They’ve both looked really good and who gets the starting job will depend on which guy can step up and show that level of consistency. If both of them can do that, then I think it would be a great thing.”

With the three keys losses, Notre Dame will have some significant holes to fill on the blueline this season. The good news for the Fighting Irish is that senior Robbie Russo (NYI) returns. The Westmont, IL native missed nearly the entire second half of his junior year after being ruled academically ineligible. He finished with 15 points (four goals, 11 assists) in 21 games.

“We’re excited to have Robbie back and we have high expectations for him,” Jackson said of Russo. “Over the last few years, Robbie has physically developed his body, which has helped his skating and confidence with handling confrontational situations. Robbie isn’t a bruiser but he can hold his own and has learned to be better defensively. Because of those things, I think that has made Robbie a complete defenseman.”

Despite the key losses up front, Notre Dame’s forward lines look to be their strength this season. Leading the Fighting Irish is junior captain, Steven Fogarty (NYR). The Edina, MN native is coming off an injury-shortened sophomore campaign where he posted 11 points (three goals, eight assists) in 33 games. Fogarty has become more of a defensive forward. And as Jackson explains, while he would like Fogarty to continue to be strong defensively, he would also like to see him be more involved offensively.

“Steven has had a history of being a better offensive player than he’s shown here at Notre Dame,” said Fogarty. “He seems to be more comfortable on the defensive side of the puck. I think it’s a natural tendency for him. We’re hoping that Steven can step up, take a little bit more of a risk offensively and come out of his defensive shell because he’s certainly capable of being a real good offensive player.”

In addition to the returning veterans, Notre Dame will also welcome 11 newcomers this season, including Jake Evans (MTL). The Toronto, ON native is noted for his great playmaking ability and vision.

Providence College
NHL prospects: 5

The Friars opened their 2014-15 season on Oct. 10th at Ohio State.

Last season, Providence College returned to the NCAA Tournament after a 13-year absence. And, as good as the Friars were last season, they could be even better this season as one of the top contenders for the Hockey East crown.

Providence returns most of their key players from last season, although senior forward Drew Brown won’t be one of them. The Grass Lake, MI native will medically redshirt this season as he recovers from Ewing’s Sarcoma.

For the Friars, it begins in goal. Junior Jon Gillies (CGY) returns after another record-setting season. The South Portland, ME native posted a 19-9-5 record that included four shutouts in 34 games as a sophomore. Gillies finished in the top 15 nationally in virtually every goaltending category. Furthermore, both his 2.12 goals-against average and nine shutouts are new Providence College career records. And he’s not done yet.

Gillies will get lots of help from his defense this season, which is shaping up to be excellent once again. Junior John Gilmour (CGY) is among those patrolling the Friars’ blueline. The Montreal, QC native led all Providence defensemen with 18 points (five goals, 13 assists) in 39 games last season. One area where Gilmour developed quite nicely last season was his shot. While he has always had a good shot, Gilmour has added noticeable velocity to it. As a result, he’s getting more shots to the net as well as better quality ones.

Of the seven newcomers on the Providence roster this season, three are defensemen. One to keep an eye on is Jake Walman (STL). The Toronto, ON native is noted for his superb puck-moving skills and skating which could help to generate some additional offense from the blueline.

While the Friars didn’t possess any 20-plus goal-scorers last season, they received great contributions throughout their forward lines, and that’s not likely to change this season.

Leading the Providence offensive attack this season are senior captain Ross Mauermann and junior Mark Jankowski (CGY). Mauermann is coming off of a terrific junior campaign where he led the Friars in scoring for the third consecutive year with 36 points (19 goals, 17 assists) in 39 games and was named the Hockey East Co-Defensive Forward of the Year. Not surprisingly, the Janesville, WI native has also gotten the attention of NHL teams, namely the New Jersey Devils whose development camp he participated in this summer. And at season’s end, Mauermann could be among the most sought-after collegiate free agents available.

Jankowski continues to make great progress at Providence. The Dundas, ON native is coming off of an outstanding sophomore campaign where he posted 25 points (13 goals, 12 assists) in 39 games last season. His 13 goals are nearly double his total from his freshman season. Jankowski has begun to round out his game, with some added grit and improved defensive play.

One area where the Friars excelled last season was on the penalty kill, with that unit clicking at 87.2 percent, which finished third nationally. The team’s seven shorthanded tallies were tied for second-most in Hockey East.

University of Vermont
NHL prospects: 2

The Catamounts opened their 2014-15 season on Oct. 11th at Northeastern.

Vermont is coming off of a successful 2013-14 campaign that saw them return to the NCAA Tournament after a four-year absence. This season, the Catamounts will look to build on that success.

Vermont returns their stellar tandem of junior Brody Hoffman and sophomore Mike Santaguida this season. The two split time in the Catamounts’ net last season, finishing with nearly identical records. Hoffman appeared in 20 games, posting a 10-8-1 record. Santaguida posted a 10-7-2 record that included one shutout in 19 appearances.

The duo will also have a very experienced defensive corps in front of them this season, anchored by senior captain Michael Paliotta (CHI). The Westport, CT native is coming off of his best collegiate season so far, leading Vermont in defensive scoring with 27 points (five goals, 22 assists) in 38 games. Paliotta might be the best defenseman in Hockey East that no one is talking about. While he is known more as a rugged, shutdown defenseman, Paliotta has also displayed some great offensive skill.

“Mike is one of the most improved student-athletes that I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with,” head coach Kevin Sneddon said of Paliotta. “Over the course of his (collegiate) career he’s improved in all areas and has become a complete player. Mike’s learned to be physical without taking a lot of penalties and he’s learned how to improve his offensive skills without forgetting that he’s got to play solid team defense. And I think he’ll be able to take all that to the next level.”

Among the Catamounts’ nine newcomers this season are four defensemen, including Trey Phillips. The Okotoks, AB native is the youngest player on Vermont’s roster and is eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft. Phillips is a 5’10”, 174-pound offensive-minded defenseman noted for his great speed.

“Trey is a player that I’m really excited to have on our team,” Sneddon said of Phillips. “He is an extremely dynamic defenseman offensively and isn’t a liability defensively. I think Trey and all of our freshmen will certainly add depth to our lineup.”

While Vermont returns many of their key players from last season, the team graduated top scorer Chris McCarthy (NYR). His former linemate and reigning Hockey East Rookie of the Year Mario Puskarich returns this season as the Catamounts top scorer. The Fort Walton Beach, FL native is coming off of a sensational freshman campaign where he posted 36 points (19 goals, 17 assists) in 37 games. His 36 points finished were for fourth among all NCAA rookies. As Sneddon explains, the experience of having played with McCarthy last season will benefit Puskarich this season.

“I think Chris (McCarthy) made Mario a better player and he benefited from that experience,” explained Sneddon. “Mario was fortunate as a freshman to have been thrust into a key role, and he certainly answered the call. He’s a very intelligent player that possesses a lot of skill and has a knack for scoring goals. His overall off-ice development took a big step this summer, and we’re expecting big things from Mario this year.”

Follow DJ Powers on Twitter via @DJPowersHF