With the dramatic changes that have taken place in the college hockey landscape, Atlantic Hockey is one of only two conferences that remain unchanged heading into 2013-14. This season, Atlantic Hockey features two NHL prospects representing UConn and RIT, respectively.
The recent U.S. government shutdown has added a rather unusual twist to the start of the season, which could affect conference members Air Force and Army due to travel restrictions. The Department of Defense announced the suspension of all intercollegiate sports, including ice hockey, at the service academies until the shutdown ends. Depending on how long the shutdown lasts, the start of the regular season for the Falcons and the Black Knights could be delayed. Both Air Force and Army are set to start their regular seasons on the road on Oct. 11.
NHL prospects: 0
The defending regular season champions will look to defend their title when they open their 2013-14 season on Oct. 5 when they host Clarkson.
Last season, Niagara became the first Atlantic Hockey team to earn an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament. With significant losses at all three positions and a large incoming class, the task of returning to the big dance will be a challenging one for the Purple Eagles this season.
Nowhere was Niagara hit harder with departures than in goal. The Purple Eagles do not return any of their netminders from last season, including Carson Chubak. The Prince Albert, SK native opted to forego his senior year to turn pro, signing with Adirondack (AHL). Chubak was one of the nation’s top goaltenders last season. He finished with a 27-5-3 record that included an NCAA co-leading six shutouts in 35 games that garnered him Atlantic Hockey’s Goaltender and Player of the Year honors, as well as being named a top ten finalist for the Hobey Baker Award. The daunting task of filling Chubak’s big shoes will fall to freshmen Jackson Teichroeb and Adrian Ignagni, and sophomore Chris Paulin, who did not play last season. Of the three, the one to keep an eye on is Teichroeb. The London, ON native has some size (6’1”, 193 lbs.) and is noted for his great athleticism.
With the uncertainty in goal to begin the season, Niagara will be relying heavily on their experienced defensive corps. Despite graduating regulars Dan Weiss, C.J. Chartrain and Jason Beattie, the Purple Eagles’ blueline is shaping up to be very good again this season.
Anchoring Niagara’s defense will be senior Kevin Ryan. The Eden, NY native is coming off of a terrific junior campaign where he led the Purple Eagles in defensive scoring with 24 points (one goal, 23 assists) in 38 games and earned a spot on the All-Atlantic Hockey Third Team. His 23 assists also led the team. Ryan is an outstanding puck-moving defenseman that also takes good care of his own zone. He possesses some really nice hands and can quarterback the power-play quite effectively.
Niagara also suffered significant losses up front, losing two of last season’s top three scorers in top defensive forward Marc Zanette and top goal-scorer Giancarlo Iuorio. The duo alone accounted for 27% of the team’s goal scoring last season.
The good news for the Purple Eagles is that they do return top-scoring senior Ryan Murphy. The Stratford, ON native led Niagara with 36 points (15 goals, 21 assists) in 36 games last season. He also led the team in power-play goals (5), game-winners (4) and penalty minutes (50). Murphy is a power forward that has developed a knack for scoring timely goals. What makes him a difficult player to play against is that he uses his superb combination of strength, tenacity and stick work exceedingly well in his battles for loose pucks and positioning around the net.
One veteran that could potentially have a big year is sophomore Dan Kolenda. The Superior, WI native was the right-winger on the Purple Eagles’ outstanding second line that also featured Ryan Rashid and Chris Lochner, both of whom return this year. Kolenda played in 35 games last season, posting 13 points (five goals, eight assists). At 6’4” and 230 lbs., Kolenda is the biggest player on Niagara’s roster, and he uses that frame exceedingly well along the boards and in the corners. This summer, Kolenda attended the Florida Panthers' prospect camp.
In addition to two goaltenders, Niagara also brings in eight other freshmen as well as two transfers in defenseman Nick Cecere and forward Mike Conderman. Cecere previously played for Michigan Tech and Conderman previously play for UMass-Lowell.
Air Force Academy
NHL prospects: 0
The Falcons will open their 2013-14 season on Oct. 11 versus Alaska in the Kendall Hockey Classic in Anchorage.
After two straight appearances in 2011 and 2012, Air Force failed to reach the NCAA Tournament last season. This season, the Falcons are poised to make another strong bid for the NCAA Tournament but will have to do so without some key personnel from last season’s team.
One of the most significant losses that the Falcons suffered was that of associate head coach Mike Corbett, who left the Academy to take the head-coaching job at Alabama-Huntsville. Corbett was the architect behind the Falcons’ outstanding defense that finished 19th nationally last season, allowing an average of 2.50 goals per game. The 92 total goals that the team surrendered were the fewest among Atlantic Hockey teams.
In addition to losing Corbett on the defensive side, Air Force also graduated two of their top rearguards in Mike Walsh and Eric Artman. Despite those losses, the Falcons defensive corps is shaping up to be quite good this season.
Anchoring Air Force’s blueline this season is senior co-captain Adam McKenzie. The Petaluma, CA native has become one of the best rearguards coming out of Atlantic Hockey. McKenzie is coming off of a stellar junior campaign where he led all Falcons defensemen with 20 points (eight goals, 12 assists) in 30 games en route to being named Atlantic Hockey’s Defenseman of the Year. He also led Air Force with six power-play tallies. McKenzie is a superb puck-moving defenseman that makes really good decisions with the puck. Although he isn’t big (5’11”, 178 lbs.), McKenzie does use his body positioning quite effectively in limiting the available space to opposing players.
Senior Jason Torf returns as Air Force’s go-to guy between the pipes. The Hermosa Beach, CA native turned in another excellent performance for the Falcons last season with a 17-13-2 record that included two shutouts in 35 games. Torf is a goaltender with great athleticism and composure that can win games and keep his team in them. He has had a history of injuries, including a groin injury at the start of last season. If Torf can stay healthy, goaltending will likely be the least of Air Force’s worries this season.
Another area where the Falcons saw some significant losses was at forward, with their top two scorers in Kyle DeLaurell and Stephen Carew having graduated. And while DeLaurell and Carew will be missed, the team’s forward lines look to be excellent again this season.
Leading Air Force’s offensive attack this season are junior Cole Gunner and senior Tony Thomas. Gunner is Air Force’s top returning point producer. The Richfield, MN native led the Falcons with 22 assists and finished tied for second with 29 points in 37 games last season. He also led Air Force with 53 penalty minutes. Gunner is a player that is really fun to watch. He’s a real spark plug that combines quickness and creativity with fierce competitiveness.
Tony Thomas is the Falcons top returning goal scorer. The South Lyon, MI native finished third on the team with 10 goals and fourth with 28 points in 37 games last season. Where Thomas really made his mark was on special teams. Of his 10 goals, four came on special teams – three on the power-play and one shorthanded. Thomas is a 6’3”,195-pound power forward that uses his combination of size, strength and toughness very effectively in the dirty areas.
In addition to their returning veterans, the Falcons will also have eight newcomers on the squad. One player to watch is winger A.J. Reid. The Lakeville, MN native is a former Army recruit that is noted for his quickness and ability to score timely goals.
American International College (AIC)
NHL prospects: 0
The Yellow Jackets will open their 2013-14 season on Oct. 19 at Providence College.
Despite a ninth-place conference finish, AIC continued to make great strides and improvements in many areas last season. But with some significant losses to graduation, continuing that upward trend this season may prove to be a bit of a challenge.
The most notable loss was that of starting netminder Ben Meisner. The Halifax, NS native was the glue that held the defensive side of the team together. Meisner finished his final season with an 11-15-6 record that included two shutouts, a 2.98 goals-against average and a sparkling .923 save percentage in 32 appearances. He leaves AIC as one of the program’s most successful goaltenders. The Yellow Jackets also will not return Chandler Long, who has left the program. The starting job this season could fall to towering junior Ryan Kerpan. The 6’6” native of Saskatoon, SK appeared in just four games last season, posting a 0-1-0 record. Challenging Kerpan will be newcomers Hunter Leisner and Ty Reichenbach. Leisner is a player that will be well worth watching. The Garland, TX native is noted for his great athleticism, calm demeanor and ability to carry his team.
AIC’s blueline will be an experienced group this season, but they will also need to fill the holes left by two of their best rearguards from last season in graduates Jeff Ceccacci and Chris Markiewicz. Both were integral parts of their defense and special teams, with Ceccacci having led the team in defensive scoring with 15 points (one goal, 14 assists).
A defenseman that AIC will be looking to help pick up the slack is sophomore Brandon Lubin. The Commerce Township, MI native was a pleasant surprise on the blueline last season, playing in 32 games and recording 11 points (all assists). He led the Yellow Jackets in plus/minus (plus-8) and shot blocks (66). Lubin is a 6’1”, 205-pound defenseman that moves the puck well and possesses a very heavy shot. While he is still early in his collegiate development, Lubin does have some good upside.
One area where AIC vastly improved last season was their power-play. The Yellow Jackets finished eighth nationally with a power-play that clicked at 22%. AIC was also able to generate more offense throughout the lineup, averaging 2.51 goals per game. Although much of the scoring depth that the Yellow Jackets had last season returns this year, they will be missing the contributions of five graduated forwards, including top scorer Adam Pleskach.
Leading AIC’s offense this season are seniors Jon Puskar and Blake Peake. Puskar is the Yellow Jackets' top returning scorer. The Grosse Ile, MI native finished second on the team with 24 points (12 goals, 12 assists) in 34 games last season. Where Puskar really made his mark was on special teams. Of his 12 goals, four came on special teams – two on the power-play and two shorthanded. Puskar is a small (5’11, 190 lbs.), tenacious winger that possesses some good speed and can successfully play in any situation. His speed and outstanding transition game makes him particularly dangerous in penalty killing situations.
Peake, who will serve as team captain this season, finished a solid junior campaign with 23 points (eight goals, 15 assists) in 35 games last season. The Lethbridge, AB native could probably best be described as a quiet leader. There isn’t much fanfare or flare to Peake’s game. He’s a hard-working playmaker that leads by example and plays quite well at both ends of the ice.
In addition to the returning veterans, AIC also welcomes nine freshmen into the fold this season. One to keep an eye on is defenseman-turned-forward Sean Federow. The Niagara Falls, ON native has a good but lanky frame (6’1”, 175 lbs.) and is noted for his superb puck-moving skills.
U.S. Military Academy at West Point (Army)
NHL prospects: 0
The Black Knights will open their 2013-14 season on Oct. 11 at Penn State.
Last season, Army began to implement a new style to their game that could pay big dividends this season. The Black Knights, who have had difficulty generating offensive production in past years, opted for a more aggressive, uptempo style that resulted in a slight increase in their overall point totals.
With top scorer and graduate Andy Starczewski being the lone key loss up front, Army is in good position to continue that upward trend this season. Among those leading the Black Knights offensive attack this season are sophomores Joe Kozlak and Thane Heller.
Kozlak is coming off an excellent rookie campaign where he led Army in freshman scoring with 17 points (seven goals, 10 assists) in 34 games en route to being named to Atlantic Hockey’s All-Rookie Team. The Duluth, MN native also centered the Black Knights top line last season. At 6’2” and 190 pounds, Kozlak has size to go along with some really nice hands.
Heller is Army’s top returning goal-scorer after netting nine goals and posting 15 points in 34 games last season. The Elizabethtown, PA native is a big (6’2”, 210 lbs.), strapping center that is very good in tight areas. Heller uses his size and strength very effectively in battles for loose pucks.
Army will also see the long-awaited return of senior forward Mike Santee. The Park Ridge, IL native was forced to miss the last two seasons due to recurring symptoms from a concussion he suffered back in the 2010-11 season.
Another area where the Black Knights will look to improve this season is their defensive numbers. Army finished 56th nationally with a defense that allowed an average of 3.56 goals per game last season. The 121 total goals that the team surrendered were the second most among Atlantic Hockey teams.
Of the three goaltenders that the Black Knights pressed into service last season, only junior Rob Tadazak returns. The Lapeer, MI native posted a 3-13-4 record that included both of the team’s shutouts last season. Tadazak actually played better than his record would indicate and this season he could potentially be even better as Army’s likely starter. One notable area in Tadazak’s development has been his increased confidence level. That has resulted in better rebound control and positioning, particularly with traffic around him. Competing with Tadazak for playing time this season will be freshmen Parker Gahagen and Tanner Creel.
With the graduation of stalwarts Cheyne Rocha and John Clark, along with Cole Ikkala, the Black Knights blueline will be predominately young this season.
Anchoring Army’s defensive corps this season is junior alternate captain Mac Lalor. The Needham, MA native has blossomed into an excellent and dependable rearguard for Army. Lalor is coming off a stellar sophomore campaign where he led the Black Knights in defensive scoring with 18 points (six goals, 12 assists) in 33 games. He is also Army’s top returning scorer. In his three seasons at West Point, Lalor continually made great strides in his offensive game and that has allowed him to not only play in all situations but also to do so effectively and consistently. One notable attribute that Lalor possesses is a very powerful shot. Simply put, he can really fire the biscuit.
In addition to the two new goaltenders, Army also welcomes seven new skaters. One to keep an eye on is defenseman Connor Costello. The Londonderry, NH native has a good frame (6’1”, 205 lbs.) and is noted for his physicality, sound defensive play and heavy shot.
NHL prospects: 0
The Falcons will open their 2013-14 season on Oct. 11 at Nebraska-Omaha.
Bentley got off to a good start in the first half of last season before the wheels nearly fell off in the second half. As a result, the Falcons finished a disappointing 10th in the conference.
The good news heading into this season is that Bentley returns last year’s team nearly intact. But there are some improvements that will need to happen if the Falcons expect to make a serious run at the conference title this season.
The most pressing issue will be improving their defensive numbers. The Falcons defense finished 52nd nationally last season, allowing an average of 3.31 goals per game. Bentley surrendered four or more goals in 13 of their 35 contests last season.
Senior Braden Komm returns as the Falcons starter in goal. The Williamsville, NY native was actually quite good last season, despite posting an 11-19-1 record with a 3.12 goals-against average in 33 appearances. Komm possesses good athleticism and puck-handling skills. An area where he has greatly improved over the course of his collegiate career has been his rebound control. This summer, he attended the Ottawa Senators' prospect camp.
One thing that Komm will be looking for this season is more support from his defense. And he should be able to get that with the same group returning this season. Last season, the Falcons defense finished 52nd nationally, surrendering an average of 3.31 goals per game. Injuries along with some inconsistency contributed to their lackluster numbers last season.
Anchoring Bentley’s blueline this season is junior Steve Weinstein. The Los Angeles, CA native led all Falcons defensemen with 25 points (six goals, 19 assists) in 35 games. Weinstein logged upwards of 25-30 minutes playing in all situations last season and that’s not likely to change this season. While Weinstein continues to give Bentley some tremendous offensive production from the blueline, he has also been able to balance that with smart, sound defensive zone play. Furthermore, Weinstein has also added a bit of snarl to his game.
The Falcons strength this season will once again be their outstanding forward lines. Senior Brett Gensler returns as the motor that drives the Bentley offense. Despite a slight dip in numbers, Gensler still was able to lead the Falcons in scoring for the second consecutive year. The St. Charles, MO native posted 40 points (16 goals, 24 assists) in 35 games last season en route to earning a spot on the All-Atlantic Hockey First Team.
Returning sophomore Andrew Gladiuk will be looking to build on a sensational freshman campaign that culminated with the Atlantic Hockey Rookie of the Year honor. The White Rock, BC native led the conference in rookie scoring with 23 points (eight goals, 15 assists) in 27 conference games. Overall, he finished third on the Bentley roster with 29 points (13 goals, 16 assists) in 32 games. Gladiuk is a player that can simply make things happen when the puck is on his stick. One of his best attributes is his quick feet. He can transition quickly and effectively utilizes all three zones. At 6’1” and 190 pounds, Gladiuk has good size and with added strength could become a dominant force in college hockey. Not surprisingly, Gladiuk has also attracted the attention of some NHL teams. Among those taking notice are the Vancouver Canucks, whose prospect camp he attended this summer.
Five newcomers join the Falcons this season and the one to keep an eye on is defenseman Charlie Donners. The Norwood, MA native has good size (6’1”, 200 lbs.) and is noted for his physicality, quick feet, and competitiveness. A 1994-born player, Donners is also eligible for the 2014 NHL Draft.
Follow DJ Powers on Twitter via @DJPowersHF