2013-14 Atlantic Hockey preview, part 2

By DJ Powers
Tony Capobianco - Canisius College

Photo: Canisius College goaltender Tony Capobianco, shown here stopping Quinnipiac’s Matthew Peca during a NCAA East Regional game last March, will play a major role in his school’s defense of their 2012-13 Atlantic Hockey title (courtesy of Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

 

Hockey's Future has taken a look at five of the 12 teams in the NCAA's Atlantic Hockey conference in the first part of our conference preview. The remaining seven teams are covered below in part two of our 2013-14 Atlantic Hockey preview.

Canisius College
NHL prospects: 0

The defending Atlantic Hockey Tournament champions will look to successfully defend their crown when they open their 2013-14 season on Oct. 12 versus Niagara.

The Golden Griffins were one of the best stories coming out of Atlantic Hockey last season, capturing their first conference tournament title and making their first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament. And with only four losses to graduation, Canisius is poised to potentially repeat last year’s feat again this season. Head coach Dave Smith notes that the formula to be successful this season will be the same as it was last season.

“We were successful because of team depth, special teams and goaltending,” stated Smith. “All three of those things are contingent on chemistry. So our focus to return to success is working on the chemistry first, then on special teams and the special areas of the game. The depth and goaltending is certainly in our program already. We want to make sure that we identify what we did, what we did well, and why we were successful, so that now we can go out and repeat it.”

For the Golden Griffins, it all starts in goal. Senior workhorse Tony Capobianco returns after a brilliant junior campaign that saw him post an 18-19-4 record that included four shutouts. His 43 appearances were tied for the most in the nation last season. He also led the nation in shots faced (1,352) and saves (1,256). The Mississauga, ON native’s ability to consistently keep his team in games and make crucial stops were big parts of the Golden Griffins success last season. None of this was lost on NHL teams, either. One taking particular notice was the Minnesota Wild, whose prospect camp Capobianco attended over the summer.

“Tony went to the Minnesota Wild’s development camp over the summer and I think he’s come back with a nice understanding of the next level,” said Smith. “He needed to get stronger, a little bit more explosive and be able to hold his space in the crease. And he’s worked on that. We’ll be leaning on him a lot again this year and I expect Tony to have another great year.”

The only regular from the blueline that the Golden Griffins lost to graduation was Ben Parker. The Port Perry, ON native was part of Canisius’s excellent defensive corps that finished 16th nationally, allowing an average of 2.42 goals per game. Parker was also part of one of the nation’s best penalty killing teams that finished third nationally with a 90.1% efficiency rating.

Heading the defensive corps this season is senior Ben Danford. The Stillwater, MN native led all Golden Griffins defensemen with 18 points (two goals, 16 assists) in 43 games last season. Danford is an offensive defenseman with excellent puck-moving skills that also quarterbacks the Canisius power-play.

With the exception of graduates Preston Shupe and Torrey Lindsay, the Golden Griffins return all of the their top forwards from last season. Leading the Canisius offensive attack this season is senior Kyle Gibbons. The Westlake, OH native is coming off of a terrific junior campaign where he led the team with 43 points (21 goals, 22 assists) in 42 games and earned a spot on the All-Atlantic Hockey Third Team. Gibbons is a winger who is very creative with the puck and has demonstrated that he can score from almost anywhere. His relentless battles for loose pucks make him especially difficult to play against. This summer, Gibbons attended the New Jersey Devils' prospect camp.

In addition to the returning veteran lineup, the Golden Griffins will also welcome five newcomers. The one to keep an eye on is forward Shane Conacher. The Burlington, ON native is the younger sibling of former Golden Griffins standout and current Ottawa Senators forward Cory Conacher. The younger Conacher is noted for his speed and offensive prowess. He is eligible for the 2014 NHL Draft.

“We’re going to give Shane a chance to succeed because we believe that he is the most ready for that as a freshman,” Smith said of Conacher. “He’s going to get the most opportunity, especially to show what he has, early. We’re expecting that extra year of junior that Shane took to help his transition to our program. He’s got very nice skills, an excellent hockey IQ, and knows when and where to compete.”

University of Connecticut
NHL prospects: 1

The Huskies will open their final season in Atlantic Hockey on Oct. 18 at Minnesota State-Mankato. They will move to Hockey East next season.

This season, a new era dawns on UConn hockey as Mike Cavanaugh takes over the head coaching duties. Cavanaugh was the associate head coach at Boston College before taking the reins in Storrs. He inherits a Huskies team that finished fourth in Atlantic Hockey last season and returns most of their regulars this season. As Cavanaugh explains, the primary goal this season is to bring an Atlantic Hockey title to UConn.

“I’m really excited about the group we’ll have here at UConn this year, and I do believe that some of our younger kids will be integral parts of our team, as well,” said Cavanugh. “I inherited a team that truly believes that they can compete for and win the Atlantic Hockey title. So that’s been very encouraging. This is our last season in Atlantic Hockey and we’ve never won a league title. With all the talk about moving to Hockey East, our primary focus right now is winning the Atlantic Hockey title.”

Defense was one of UConn’s strengths last season and is shaping up to be again this season. The Huskies finished 21st nationally with a defense that allowed an average of 2.54 goals per game. The 94 total goals that they surrendered were the second fewest among Atlantic Hockey teams last season. Where UConn really made their mark was on the penalty kill. The Huskies were the nation’s ninth-best penalty killing team last season with an 85.8% efficiency rating.

The biggest reason behind those numbers was the stellar play of senior Matt Grogan. Although he split time with the now-graduated Garrett Bartus last season, Grogan was still able to put up some very impressive numbers that earned him the conference’s regular season goaltending title. He finished with a 14-4-3 record that included two shutouts. Grogan finished fifth nationally with a .937 save percentage and eighth with a 1.93 goals-against average. He is expected to shoulder the lion’s share of the work this season.

UConn’s defensive corps will be predominately young, but they will also be an experienced group. The Huskies blueline will also feature three freshmen this season and all eyes will be on Ryan Segalla (PIT). The Boston, MA native was a fourth round selection, 119th overall, of the Pittsburgh Penguins last June. Segalla holds the distinction of being the first player in the program’s history to be taken in the NHL Draft and is just the second Uconn player ever to go in an NHL Draft. Former standout Todd Krygier was taken in the 1988 NHL Supplemental Draft by the Hartford Whalers. Segalla was brought in a year early and Cavanaugh feels that his young rearguard is ready for the challenges that lay ahead.

“We felt that Ryan didn’t need a year of junior to come here, step in and help us,” said Cavanaugh of Segalla. “And after talking with Ryan and his family, we felt that it was probably best that he come in a year early. First and foremost, Ryan will come in and fight for a spot on the team. The best defensemen will play for us (right away). We’re hoping that Ryan is in that group because he’s one of those kids that we’re looking to rely on heavily throughout the year.”

Last season, UConn had great depth throughout their forward lines, and despite the loss of top scorer and team captain Sean Ambrosie to graduation, the Huskies look to have that again this season.

Leading UConn’s offensive charge is senior Brant Harris. The Estevan, SK native led the Huskies with 15 goals and finished tied for second on the team with 31 points in 37 games last season. He has been especially lethal on the power-play, where six of his 15 goals were scored. One of the areas of Harris’s development that has continually improved over the course of his collegiate career has been his ability to utilize his strength and 6’1”, 205-pound frame advantageously in all areas of the ice. It was most evident last season in his play in the dirty areas and on the cycle. Harris has been on the NHL radar for some time. After attending the Washington Capitals' prospect camp in 2012, he attended the San Jose Sharks' prospect camp this summer.

College of the Holy Cross
NHL prospects: 0

The Crusaders will open their 2013-14 season on Oct. 12 at Boston University.

Holy Cross is coming off of a strong third place finish in Atlantic Hockey, and are poised to be among the conference’s top finishers again this season.

One of the biggest challenges that the Crusaders face to start the season is replacing the lost point production of four of their top six scorers from last season in graduates Brandon Nunn, Rob Linsmayer, Kyle Fletcher and Eric Vos. The quartet combined for 32% of Holy Cross’s total offense, including 18 of the team’s 34 total power-play goals.

The good news for Holy Cross is that they return top point producing seniors Shayne Stockton and Adam Schmidt. Stockton led the Crusaders with 28 points (13 goals, 15 assists) in 34 games last season. Stockton, a superb playmaker with hands to match, centered one of the conference’s best lines that included Nunn and Schmidt.

Schmidt returns after leading Holy Cross with 14 goals and finishing with 25 points last season. The Warrington, PA native was also one of only five Crusaders that played in all 37 games. Schmidt is a 6’2”, 194-pound winger that uses his size, strength and reach very effectively in all three zones. He possesses outstanding finishing ability and is especially dangerous below the dots. Schmidt’s excellent play has also gotten the attention of NHL teams, most notably from the New York Rangers, whose prospect camp Schmidt attended over the summer.

Of Holy Cross’ five newcomers this season, four are forwards. One to keep an eye on is Brett MacKinnon. The Kelowna, BC native is a two-way forward noted for his outstanding skating and puck skills.

With the exception of defensemen Evan Zych and goaltender Thomas Tysowsky, both of whom have graduated, the Crusaders return their back end intact.

While the blueline is still quite young this season, they will also be more experienced. One underclassman that made a big impact last season was sophomore Karl Beckman. The Okemos, MI native led Holy Cross in both defensive and freshman scoring last season with 18 points (four goals, 14 assists) in 36 games en route to earning a spot on the Atlantic Hockey All-Rookie Team. Beckman became a mainstay on the Crusaders' power-play last season where he netted three of his four goals. Beckman is a mobile, offensive defenseman who possesses great puck-moving skills. He also plays with a bit of an edge. At 6’1” and 190 pounds, Beckman has a good frame and, as he adds strength to it, he’ll become more of a force to be reckoned with.

Junior Matt Ginn is coming off of a record-setting sophomore campaign as the Crusaders go-to guy between the pipes, finishing with a 19-13-3 record that included one shutout in 35 appearances. The Lindsay, ON native set new school single-season records in games played (35), saves (994), and minutes played (2100:55). And as good as Ginn was last season, he could be even better this season, rewriting the school’s record books once again. Ginn made great strides in his development in several areas including rebound control and reading/reacting to plays. But the greatest stride he has made has been in his confidence level. He is more composed and handles traffic around his crease better. His renewed confidence has also given his team a chance to win each game.

One area where Holy Cross will look to improve this season is their penalty kill. The Crusaders finished 57th nationally with an efficiency rating of 76.1%. Interestingly, Holy Cross didn’t give up many power-play opportunities to their opponents, as they were one of the least penalized teams in the country, averaging just over nine minutes per game.

Mercyhurst University
NHL prospects: 0

The Lakers will open their 2013-14 season on Oct. 11 versus host Minnesota in the Icebreaker Tournament.

Mercyhurst came within one game of earning another trip to the NCAA Tournament last season, falling to Canisius in the championship game. But with few roster losses and good depth at all three positions, this could potentially be the year that the Lakers make it back to the Big Dance.

One key player that Mercyhurst graduated was goaltender Max Strang. The Gilbertsville, PA native saw the most playing time compiling a 12-10-3 record that included two shutouts in 27 appearances. Strang’s crease partner, junior Jordan Tibbett, is likely to get the starting nod this season. The Indianapolis, IN native was equally good between the pipes last season, posting a 7-7-1 record that included one shutout in 18 appearances. Returning junior Jimmy Sergeant and towering newcomer Spencer Bacon will challenge Tibbett for playing time.

The Lakers were one of the nation’s most prolific offensive teams last season and project to be again this season. Mercyhurst finished 12th nationally, averaging 3.12 goals per game. The 128 total goals that the team racked up were the most of any Atlantic Hockey team. While the Lakers graduated Grant Blakey and Paul Chiasson, they will still have plenty of offensive firepower this season.

Junior Matthew Zay returns after a sensational sophomore campaign where he claimed the Atlantic Hockey scoring title after leading the conference with 34 points (11 goals, 23 assists) in 27 games. Overall, Zay finished with 39 points (13 goals, 26 assists) in 41 games. The Glendale, NY native is a 6’1”, 190-pound budding power forward who has both a real nose for the net and the ability to capitalize on his opportunities, two attributes that made him so successful last season. As head coach Rick Gotkin explains, as good as Zay was last season, he could potentially be even better this season.

“I’m hoping that we’re going to see more from Matt this year because we feel that he’ll be one of our prime time guys,” said Gotkin of Zay. “When Matt is playing his game, he’s one of the better players in our league. He’ll be playing in all situations for us, including on our power-play and our penalty-killing unit.”

Another returning forward to watch this season is junior Nardo Nagtzam. The Nijmegen, Netherlands native missed nearly half of last season due to a knee injury. He appeared in just 16 games, posting eight points (one goal, seven assists). Nagtzam is a fun player to watch; he has speed and is creative with the puck.

“We missed Nardo last year after he had to have his knee repaired,” said Gotkin. “He’s healthy now and we’re expecting Nardo to have a very good year for us.”

Of Mercyhurst’s five newcomers this season, three are forwards. One well worth watching is Jack Riley. The West Point, NY native is the son of current Army head coach Brian Riley and the grandson of legendary coach Jack Riley. The youngest Riley is noted for his high level of competitiveness and strong play along the walls.

“We’re really excited that we have Jack,” said Gotkin. “He skates very well and competes at a very high level. We feel that Jack will fit right in very quickly. He’s super mature, has a great work ethic on and off the ice, and we’re expecting very big things from him.”

With the exception of graduate Charlie Carkin, the Lakers blueline returns intact this season. Anchoring the Mercyhurst defensive corps this season is senior captain Nick Jones. The Cranberry Township, PA native led all Lakers defensemen last season with 26 points (seven goals, 19 assists) in 41 games. He also led Mercyhurst with a plus-16 rating. Jones logged upwards of 25-30 minutes per game playing in all situations. While Jones can put up the points, he is equally good at taking care of his own zone, as well. He uses his sturdy 6’2”, 205-pound body well in containing or slowing down opposing players, and is a excellent shot-blocker.

Robert Morris University
NHL prospects: 0

The Colonials will open their 2013-14 season on Oct. 11 at Lake Superior State.

Robert Morris comes into the season after a fifth place finish in Atlantic Hockey last season. While the Colonials graduated just six players, nearly all of them have left significant holes that will need to be filled this season.

The most pressing issue for Robert Morris this season is goaltending. Starter Eric Levine and co-backup Eric Ferber are both gone. Levine posted a 19-12-4 record that included four shutouts in 35 appearances and was the backbone of the Colonials’ strong defense. Ferber saw limited time, appearing in just three games. Sophomore Terry Shafer, the lone returning goaltender, played in just four games, posting a 1-2-0 record. His lone win was also a shutout. Shafer will be competing with newcomers Dalton Izyk and Brandon Lane for playing time this season.

With the uncertainty in goal to start the year, Robert Morris will be relying on their blueline to help stabilize things on the back end. And they will do so without stalwarts Tyler Hinds and Brendan Jamison, who have graduated. The Colonials defensive corps will feature a nice mix of tested veterans and some sizeable newcomers.

Anchoring the Robert Morris defense this season is senior Andrew Blazek. The Pittsburgh, PA native led the Colonials in defensive scoring last season with 18 points (nine goals, nine assists) in 32 games. He is also a mainstay on the power-play where three of his nine goals were scored. Blazek is a mobile, offensive defenseman with excellent puck-moving skills. One notable aspect of Blazek’s development is the velocity and accuracy that he has added to his outstanding shot since arriving at Robert Morris four years ago.

Up front, the Colonials return most of their regulars. The bad news is they graduated two of last season’s top three scorers in Adam Brace and Zach Hervato. The duo accounted for 22% of the team’s total points that will need to be replaced this season.

Leading the Robert Morris offensive attack is junior Cody Wydo. The Southgate, MI native returns as the team’s top scorer following a stellar sophomore campaign that saw him post 33 points (21 goals, 12 assists) in 38 games. One area where Wydo really excelled last season was on special teams. Of his 21 goals, seven came during special teams play – four on the power-play and three shorthanded. Part of what makes Wydo so dangerous is his ability to make decisions quickly. He also uses his speed and creativity effectively in making things happen. Not surprisingly, Wydo has been on the NHL radar since early in his collegiate career. This summer, he attended the New Jersey Devils' prospect camp.

Another returning veteran who is well worth watching this season is sophomore Brandon Denham. The Milton, ON native played in 36 games for Robert Morris last season, collecting four points (one goal, three assists). He also led the Colonials with 57 penalty minutes. Denham is a hard-nosed, 6’4” and 215-pound winger who plays the game with a ton of energy. He has some good upside and could be a significant contributor this season.

In addition to the returning players, the Colonials roster will also feature six newcomers this season. One player to keep an eye on is defenseman Rob Mann. At 6’4” and 217 pounds, Mann is the biggest player in the Colonials’ freshman class. The Oshawa, ON native is noted for his strong two-way game and will also add some physicality to the Colonials blueline.

Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT)
NHL prospects: 1

The Tigers will open their 2013-14 season on Oct. 10 hosting Colgate.

After a pair of strong regular-season finishes in their previous two seasons, RIT struggled to find the same magic last season, eventually finishing tied for seventh. But with few key losses and a more experienced group returning, the Tigers could potentially find themselves at or near the top of the Atlantic Hockey standings by season’s end.

One reason for RIT’s demise last season was their defense. The Tigers finished an uncharacteristic 53rd nationally, allowing an average 3.32 goals per game. As head coach Wayne Wilson explains, defensive changes that were made in the latter half of last season will continue to be in place this season.

“I think we’re going to start this year how we kind of finished last year,” explained Wilson. “I thought we did a much better job down the stretch defensively. Structurally there were things that we had to change. We did that in the second half. This season, we want to attack the puck and be aggressive on it. We’re not going to sit back and necessarily trap, but one thing we’ve got to make a better effort of doing is getting three guys back. I think if we do those things, we’ll be a better defensive team.”

Unlike in recent years, the Tigers utilized a goaltending tandem last season with Jordan Ruby and Josh Watson splitting time. Watson has since left the program and Ruby will likely be this year’s starter. The senior from Tavistock, ON finished with an 8-10-1 record in 21 appearances along with a .911 save percentage. Ruby became RIT’s starter down the stretch after struggling to find his groove in the first half. Newcomer Mike Rotolo and sophomore Ken McLean will be competing with Ruby for playing time this season.

The most significant loss that the Tigers suffered in the offseason was that of defenseman Chris Saracino, who has graduated. The St. Louis, MO native was one of the nation’s top scoring rearguards last season, racking up 32 points (11 goals, 21 assists) in 38 games.

Anchoring the Tigers blueline this season is senior Greg Noyes. The Lucan, ON native finished behind Saracino among the team’s defensemen with 29 points (nine goals, 20 assists) in 38 games last season. Six of his nine goals were collected on the power-play. Noyes is an excellent skating, offensive-minded defenseman who does an outstanding job of getting pucks to the net.

Offense continues to be RIT’s strength and the Tigers will once again possess a deep and potent group of forwards this season. Two veterans to watch are juniors Anthony Hamburg (MIN) and co-captain Matt Grabowsky. Last season marked the debut of Hamburg since transferring from Colgate. The Phoenix, AZ native played in 33 games, posting 11 points (four goals, seven assists). Hamburg possesses decent hands and has shown patience and creativity with the puck. Wilson feels that putting Hamburg in offensive situations is where he’ll get the most mileage out of him this season.

“Anthony is a very good offensive player that has a great mind for the game, but he needs to play the game at a faster pace in order to excel at this level,” said Wilson. “I think he needs to pick up his speed and some of his conditioning and those are things that we’re working on with him. I also feel that for Anthony to be successful, we need to find a way to get him into offensive roles, including the power-play, as well as on the wing. That’s where Anthony is going to excel. We’ve got him at center now, but I do think that right wing is going to be his best position.”

Grabowsky has blossomed into not only one of Atlantic Hockey’s most dynamic offensive players, but also as one of the conference’s best face-off men. The St. George, ON native led RIT in assists (22) and points (33) in 36 games last season. One attribute that makes Grabowsky so dangerous is that he knows what to do with the puck when it’s on his stick. This is especially evident in his play below the dots.

Four of the Tigers’ eight newcomers this season are forwards. The one to watch is Todd Skirving. At 6’2” and 185 pounds, the Thunder Bay, ON native will add some size up front. Skirving is also noted for his ability to play both ends of the ice well and having a powerful shot.

Sacred Heart University
NHL prospects: 0

The Pioneers will open their 2013-14 season on Oct. 11 at UMass-Lowell.

To say that Sacred Heart struggled mightily last season is probably an understatement. The Pioneers didn’t post their first win until February and finished at or near the bottom nationally in virtually every statistical category. With much-needed improvements in all areas and adding 11 newcomers, this season will be very much a rebuilding time for Sacred Heart.

An area that could see vast improvement is in goal with the arrival of Vermont transfer and redshirted sophomore Alex Vazzano. The Trumbull, CT native was excellent in his limited time with the Catamounts and a standout in his prep days before that. He’s a 6’2”,190-pound netminder who possesses great athleticism and high-end skill. Competing with Vazzano for playing time this season are returning goaltenders Andrew Bodnarchuk, Frederick Melander and Chris Paliafito. Bodnarchuk and Melander were the only ones that saw playing time last season.

One of the many challenges facing Sacred Heart this season will be in generating more offense throughout their lineup. The Pioneers offense ranked 50th nationally last season, and the 83 total goals scored were among the fewest. To further challenge the task, Sacred Heart also lost three of their top four scorers in graduates Eric DeLong and Ben Ketchum, and Chad Barthelmess, who is no longer with the team. The trio accounted for 30% of the team’s total point production last season.

Junior Brian Sheahan is the top returning scorer for the Pioneers. The St. Louis, MO native was one of the few bright spots on Sacred Heart’s roster last season, finishing with 28 points (11 goals, 17 assists) in 36 games. Sheahan is a small (5’9”, 175 lbs.) winger with a good burst of speed who is smart with the puck and good around the net.

Of the 13 newcomers on the Pioneers roster this season, nine are forwards. One to watch is Spencer Graboski. The Quesnel, BC native brings size (6’3”, 190 lbs.) and the ability to produce points consistently. And those two attributes could go a long way in helping Sacred Heart be more successful this season.

With six players having departed from the team and three newcomers, Sacred Heart’s blueline will be quite young this season. They will also be bigger with five of the six rearguards standing 6’1” or taller.

Two defensemen that the Pioneers will be looking to step up this season are junior Will Rayner and sophomore Josh Phillips. Rayner, who played in his first season since transferring from UMass-Lowell, was a stalwart for Sacred Heart last season. The Needham, MA native finished second on the team in defensive scoring with six points (two goals, four assists) in 29 games. He logged upwards of 20-25 minutes per game, playing in all situations. Rayner is a 6’1”, 189-pound defenseman who plays a solid two-way game with some grit.

Phillips is coming off of a solid freshman campaign, posting five points (two goals, three assists) in 34 games. While Phillips did go through his struggles last season, he also showed glimpses of his potential. The Toronto, ON native has good size (6’3”, 200 lbs.) and possesses a blistering shot. One area where Phillips began to make his mark last season was on the penalty kill. With further development, Phillips could blossom into a solid, reliable defenseman for Sacred Heart.

2013-14 Atlantic Hockey preview, part 1

Follow DJ Powers on Twitter via @DJPowersHF