2013-14 Hockey East season preview, part 1

By DJ Powers
Connor Hellebuyck - University of Massachusetts Lowell

Photo: UMass Lowell goaltender and Winnipeg Jets prospect Connor Hellebuyck carried his team to the 2013 Frozen Four, and he’ll likely be a major part of any success that his school experiences in 2013-14 in the tough Hockey East conference (courtesy of Fred Kfoury/Icon SMI)

 

The 2013-14 season is shaping up to be another exciting year in Hockey East. And, with the University of Notre Dame added to the mix, the always hotly contested conference race is sure to get even hotter.

This season, Hockey East features 53 NHL prospects spread among the 11 member schools. Boston College and Notre Dame lead all conference teams with 11 prospects apiece, followed by Boston University with eight.

University of Massachusetts-Lowell
NHL prospects: 3

The reigning Hockey East regular season and tournament champions open their 2013-14 season on Oct. 11th versus Sacred Heart.

After reaching the NCAA Tournament two years ago, the River Hawks took a step closer to winning a national championship last year when they advanced to the Frozen Four. With much of last year’s team returning and a small but outstanding group of newcomers brought into the fold, UMass-Lowell is among the early favorites to win the national title this season.

One of the biggest reasons behind the River Hawks success last season was their stingy defense. UMass-Lowell finished fourth nationally with a defense that allowed an average of 2.02 goals per game and surrendered just 83 total goals.

The man behind those awesome numbers is returning sophomore Connor Hellebuyck (WPG). The Commerce, MI native became one of the best stories coming out of the NCAA last season. He took over the starting job around mid-December and went on an incredible run that few outside of UMass-Lowell could have imagined. Hellebuyck finished his unbelievable rookie campaign with a 20-3-0 record that included an NCAA co-leading six shutouts. He also led the nation in goals-against average (1.37), save percentage (.952) and winning percentage (.870). Hellebuyck’s sensational performance earned him numerous honors including the Hockey East goaltending title and a spot on the Hockey East All-Rookie Team. Now, the biggest question heading into this season is will Hellebuyck be able to match those numbers as a sophomore.

The River Hawks lost just four regulars from last season’s squad, with two of those losses being defensemen. Top-scoring rearguard and All-American Chad Ruhwedel opted to forego his senior year to sign with the Buffalo Sabres. Dmitry Sinitsyn (DAL) left the program to join the WHL’s Regina Pats.

While the two, especially Ruhwedel, will be missed, UMass-Lowell’s defensive corps is shaping up to be an excellent one again this season.

Sophomore Christian Folin returns as the River Hawks’ top-scoring defenseman. The Gothenburg, Sweden native is coming off of a superb rookie campaign where he finished second among all UMass-Lowell rearguards with 21 points (six goals, 15 assists) in 38 games last season. He also led the team with a +17 rating. Folin is a powerful 6’3”, 200 pound defensive defenseman who moves exceedingly well for his size and thrives in the physical aspects of the game. He also showed some real offensive flair last year, and that could potentially become more evident this season. As Folin continues to round out his game and strengthen his large frame, he’ll make it more difficult for NHL teams to not take notice of him.

In addition to Ruhwedel, another key player that the River Hawks lost was captain Riley Wetmore, who graduated. Wetmore co-led the team in goal scoring with 16 and finished with 27 points in 41 games last season.

Despite the loss of Wetmore, UMass-Lowell will again sport great depth up front this season. Leading the River Hawks’ offensive charge this season are junior Scott Wilson (PIT) and senior Joseph Pendenza.

Wilson got off to slow start last season before finding his groove in mid-November. The Oakville, ON native went on to finish a stellar sophomore campaign co-leading UMass-Lowell in both goals (16) and points (38) playing in all 41 games last season. One area where Wilson really became a force for the River Hawks was on the power-play. Of his 16 tallies, six came with the man-advantage.

Pendenza also finished last season with 38 points, which included his team-leading 23 assists, in 41 games en route to earning a spot on the All-Hockey East Second Team. Pendenza is a center who has a terrific motor and can make those around him better. His speed and relentlessness in puck battles have been assets that have and should continue to serve his River Hawks team quite well. This summer, Pendenza attended the Nashville Predators' prospect camp.

In addition to the returning veterans, UMass-Lowell will also welcome six newcomers this season. The one that many will be keeping an eye on is Evan Campbell (EDM). The Port Coquitlam, BC native is a 6’1”, 189-pound winger noted for his strong two-way game who can add some point production to the River Hawks’ already deep forward lines.

Boston College
NHL prospects: 11

The Eagles opened their 2013-14 season on Oct. 10th at Michigan.

Boston College’s hopes for a repeat of their magical 2011-12 season failed to materialize. But with the beginning of a new season comes new challenges. While the Eagles will need to fill the void left by their six graduates, Boston College’s talent-rich lineup puts them in great position to potentially not only win the Hockey East title but reclaim the National Championship, as well.

Two key players that the Eagles lost were also two of last season’s top scorers in Steven Whitney (ANA) and Pat Mullane. The duo finished with 45 and 43 points respectively playing in all 41 games. While the losses of Whitney and Mullane are significant, the Eagles will once again have tremendous depth throughout their forward lines.

Leading Boston College’s offensive charge this season are junior Johnny Gaudreau and senior Kevin Hayes (CHI).

The electrifying Gaudreau led the nation last season in points per game, averaging 1.46. His 51 points (21 goals, 30 assists) in 35 games finished tied for fourth nationally. Gaudreau garnered numerous honors including being named the Hockey East Player of the Year, and being named to the All-America East First Team. The Carneys Point, NJ native had the opportunity to sign with the Calgary Flames in the offseason, but opted to return to Chestnut Hill this season to the delight of the Eagles faithful. As good as Gaudreau was last season, he could potentially be even better this season. A Hobey Hat Trick finalist last season, Gaudreau is widely considered the early favorite to win the prestigious award this season. As associate head coach Greg Brown notes, Gaudreau has also become a more complete player.

“I think the one area that Johnny has really worked hard at improving is becoming a more complete, 200 ft. player that can be relied on in his own end of the ice as well as help us in the offensive end,” said Brown. “Johnny has really taken pride in learning that part of the game, and I think that’s what has made him better.”

Hayes is coming off a junior campaign that was cut short due to a blood clot in his leg. The Dorchester, MA native played in 27 games last season, posting 25 points (six goals, 19 assists). Hayes’ combination of toughness, point producing ability and leadership will all be vital to Boston College’s success this season.

“Kevin’s health is excellent,” Brown said of Hayes. “He’s at 100% and ready to go now. Kevin really pushed himself this summer to be in the best shape possible. So we’re excited about Kevin’s return and how the season unfolds for him.”

Like most of the NCAA powerhouse programs, Boston College doesn’t rebuild. They simply retool with fresh, elite-level talent. And nowhere will that be more evident this season than on their predominantly young blueline. Of the Eagles eight defensemen, five are NHL prospects.

Among the veterans leading the group is sophomore Michael Matheson (FLA). The Pointe-Claire, QC native is coming off of a terrific rookie campaign where he led Boston College in both freshman and defensive scoring with 25 points (eight goals, 17 assists) in 36 games en route to earning a spot on the Hockey East All-Rookie Team last season.

Two of the Eagles’ newest rearguards were selected in the second round of the 2013 NHL Draft. The first was Ian McCoshen, who went to the Florida Panthers with the 31st selection. The rearguard from Faribault, MN has size (6’3”, 206 lbs.) and is noted for tremendous hockey sense and two-way play.

The other was Steven Santini, who was picked up by the New Jersey Devils with the 42nd overall selection. The Mahopac, NY native is a 6’2”, 201-pound defensive defenseman who is noted for his physicality and great mobility.

“We think that Ian and Steven can really help us right away” Brown said of McCoshen and Santini.”

The biggest question mark for the Eagles heading into the season is in goal with starter Parker Milner having graduated. The player that could potentially succeed him is highly touted newcomer Thatcher Demko. The San Diego, CA native has size (6’3”, 192 lbs.) and is noted for his calmness under pressure and excellent positioning. Demko, a late-1995 born netminder, is also one of the top players in the NCAA this season that is eligible for the 2014 NHL Draft.

Boston University
NHL prospects: 8

The Terriers open their 2013-14 season on Oct. 11th versus UMass.

This season marks the dawn of a new era at Boston University. For the first time in 40 years, the legendary Jack Parker will not be behind the Terriers bench, having retired this past spring. David Quinn, who had both played for and coached with Parker at Boston University, takes over the head coaching duties this season. As Quinn explains, his coaching philosophies are quite similar to that of his mentor.

“I learned a lot from Jack and the thing that surprised me most is how much of my coaching philosophies are tied to him,” said Quinn of Parker. “There are a lot of similarities to our approach and I think it’ll make it an easier transition for the players.”

Quinn takes over a Terriers program that will be predominantly young as a result of numerous departures due to graduation or pro contract signings. Nevertheless, Boston University is expected to be among Hockey East’s top teams again this season.

While the Terriers head into the season with great depth at all positions, they will also have a few issues to address.

The biggest is replacing the goal scoring that left with Matt Nieto, Wade Megan (FLA) and Sahir Gill. Nieto opted to forego his senior year to sign with the San Jose Sharks. Megan graduated and Gill left the program. The trio accounted for a combined 37% of Boston University’s goals last season.

Sophomore Danny O’Regan (SJS) is coming off of a terrific freshman campaign where he led the Terriers with 38 points (16 goals, 22 assists) in 39 games last season. He also returns as Boston University’s top goal scorer. The Needham, MA was one of two Terriers named to the Hockey East All-Rookie Team. One area where O’Regan really excelled last season was on the power-play; of his 16 goals, half came with the man-advantage.

“When you have some elite scorers like Danny returning, that makes a big difference,” Quinn said of O’Regan. “He was part of probably one of the best lines in college hockey last year and I think Danny will be a key for us again this season.”

One of the Terriers’ strengths this season is their blueline. Boston University’s defensive corps will feature a nice mix of size, speed and toughness that can also generate some offense. Leading the group this season are sophomore Matt Grzelcyk (BOS) and senior Garrett Noonan (NSH).

Grzelcyk, who joined teammate O’Regan on the Hockey East All-Rookie Team last season, is coming off of a stellar freshman campaign where he led Boston University in defensive scoring with 23 points (three goals, 20 assists) in 38 games. One of Grzelcyk’s greatest assets is his puck-moving ability. While he moves the puck exceedingly well, it’s his smart decisions with it that has clearly set him apart from most collegiate defensemen.

The ultra-aggressive Noonan, who will serve as a Terriers co-captain this season, is coming off an excellent junior campaign where he posted 19 points (six goals, 13 assists) in 34 games last season. He also led Boston University with 94 penalty minutes.

Goaltending is another area of strength for the Terriers with the sophomore tandem of Sean Maguire (PIT) and Matt O’Connor both returning this season. The duo split time last season and that could be the case again this season. Maguire posted a 13-8-0 record that included four shutouts in 21 games. The towering O’Connor appeared in 19 games, posting an 8-8-2 record.

“We have two guys that had great freshman years last year and it’s certainly nice to have Sean and Matt there again this year,” Quinn said of his goaltenders. “I think they’ll be able to pick up from where they left off last year for us.”

In addition to returning veterans, Boston University will also welcome nine newcomers this season. One to keep an eye on is the towering Doyle Somerby (NYI). At 6’5” and 223 pounds, the Marblehead, MA native will be the biggest defenseman on the Terriers roster this season. He is noted for his superb mobility and puck-moving skills.

University of Maine
NHL prospects: 4

The Black Bears open their 2013-14 season on Oct. 11th at St. Lawrence.

Maine is one of two Hockey East teams that will feature a new head coach this season as Dennis “Red” Gendron takes over for Tim Whitehead behind the Black Bears bench. As Gendron explains, his first order of business is restoring the championship culture that has been traditionally associated with Maine.

“We want to be a championship-caliber program and do it on a regular basis. But before that, there are some cultural principles that have to be implemented within the program and they have to become second nature. It’s about how we hold ourselves accountable to each other on a daily basis. So that’s certainly an initial goal to begin with.”

Gendron inherits a Black Bears team that struggled out of the gate last season, eventually finishing tied for seventh in Hockey East. The team also graduated seven regulars.

The biggest issues facing Maine coming into this season is generating more offensive production and turning around their anemic power-play. The Black Bears finished 57th nationally last season with an offense that averaged an uncharacteristic 2.03 goals per game. The 77 total goals that the team accumulated were the fewest in Hockey East last season. Maine’s power-play didn’t fare much better. The Black Bears finished a dismal 51st nationally, clicking at just 13.7%. Compounding matters is the fact that Maine also graduated top goal-scorer Joey Diamond (NYI). The Long Beach, NY native was the lone Black Bear to rack up 10 or more goals last season.

The good news for Maine is that they return many players that should be able to help boost the aforementioned numbers this season.

Leading the Black Bears’ offensive attack is returning sophomore Devin Shore (DAL). The Ajax, ON native made quite an impact from the start and went on to become one of the most pleasant surprises coming out of Hockey East last season. Shore is coming off of a sensational freshman campaign where he led Maine with 26 points (six goals, 20 assists) in 38 games last season. As good as Shore was last season, he is poised to be even better this season with a year of collegiate experience under his belt and a stronger 6’1” frame.

Of Maine’s eight newcomers, six are forwards. The one many will be watching is center Blaine Byron. The Manotick, ON native is noted for his superb skating and creativity with the puck. The Pittsburgh Penguins, who selected Byron in the 2013 NHL Draft, have gotten great results out of their late-round collegiate picks in recent years and Byron could become the latest to continue that trend.

An area where the Black Bears saw significant losses was on the blueline, with two of their top defensemen, Mark Nemec and Mike Cornell, having graduated. Nemec and Cornell were integral defensive cogs last season that provided both leadership and stability on the blueline.

Among the returning veterans that Maine will rely on to help pick up the slack this season is sophomore Ben Hutton (VAN). The Prescott, ON native is coming off of an excellent rookie campaign where he led all Black Bears defensemen with 15 points (four goals, 11 assists) in 34 games last season. Hutton’s simplified game, along with his great composure with the puck, paid big dividends for Maine last season. He was paired with the now-graduated Cornell for much of the season and that learning experience will serve both Hutton and his team well moving forward.

One of Maine’s strengths heading into this season will be their goaltending. The Black Bears return all three of their netminders from last season, including now-senior Martin Ouellette (CBJ). The St. Hippolyte, QC native took over the starting job in mid-November last season and went on to have his best year to date. Ouellette finished his stellar junior campaign with a 9-12-8 record that included two shutouts in 30 appearances. The two most notable areas of his development that contributed to his success last season were his vastly improved positioning and ability to consistently control rebounds. These attributes were especially evident in the second half. Ouellette was the co-recipient of Hockey East’s ROTC Three Stars Award last season.

While Ouellette will likely be tapped as the starter again this season, he will have some competition for the job coming from fellow senior Dan Sullivan and sophomore Matt Morris. Each appeared in six games with Sullivan posting a 0-6-0 record and Morris posting a 2-1-0 record.

University of Massachusetts
NHL prospects: 1

The Minutemen open their 2013-14 season on Oct. 11th at Boston University.

Throughout last season, UMass struggled to hit their stride, and as a result the Minutemen missed the conference post-season for the first time since the 2001-02 season after a ninth-place finish.

Despite numerous player departures due to graduation, dismissal, etc., the Minutemen return as a predominantly experienced group that will be looking to move up the Hockey East standings in 2013-14. And in order to do so, there are several issues that the team will need to address.

The biggest is goaltending. Of the three netminders that UMass pressed into service last season, only junior Steve Mastalerz returns this season. The other goaltenders – Kevin Boyle and Jeff Teglia – are no longer with the program. Mastalerz, who split time with Boyle, is coming off of a very solid sophomore campaign where he posted a 4-8-1 record that included one shutout in 15 appearances. While the North Andover, MA native could be tapped as the starter heading into this season; he will get competition from newcomers Alex Wakaluk and Mac Haight. Wakaluk is the son of former NHL goaltender Darcy Wakaluk. The younger Wakaluk is noted for his great athleticism and composure under pressure.

With the uncertainty in goal to start the season, the Minutemen will be relying on their experienced defensive corps to stabilize things on the back end. However, UMass will have to do it without two of last season’s key rearguards. Darren Rowe graduated and top-scoring defenseman Conor Allen opted to forego his senior year to sign with the New York Rangers.

Among those defenders that the Minutemen will be looking to is redshirted sophomore Ben Gallacher (FLA). The Calgary, AB native is a transfer from Ohio State who moves the puck exceedingly well and can help generate offense from the blueline. Gallacher is also the lone NHL prospect on the UMass’ roster this season.

One intriguing veteran to watch is towering junior Oleg Yevenko. At 6’7” and 250 pounds, he is one of the tallest players in the NCAA this season. The Minsk, Belarus native played in 31 games last season, posting one assist. Yevenko is a defensive defenseman who uses his enormous size and long reach well, but has yet to fully utilize those strengths consistently. If Yevenko can do that this season, he could become a highly sought-after free agent defenseman at season’s end. This summer, Yevenko attended the New Jersey Devils' prospect camp.

The forward lines look to be the Minutemen’s strength this season. While the team will have some good depth up front, they will need to find a way to generate more offensive production throughout their lineup. Last season, UMass finished 33rd nationally with an offense that averaged 2.74 goals per game. While those numbers aren’t terrible, they will need to be boosted to successfully compete against the many high-octane offenses in Hockey East this season.

Leading the Minutemen’s offensive charge is senior Branden Gracel. The Calgary, AB native is coming off of a stellar junior campaign where he led UMass with 34 points (14 goals, 20 assists). He was one of only five players to play in all 34 games last season. Gracel centered the Minutemen’s top line, playing much of the year alongside now fellow seniors Conor Sheary and Michael Pereira. Gracel is a small (5’9”, 180 lbs.) center with great speed who is equally adept at setting up and finishing plays. One area where he really excelled last season was on face-offs, winning 60% of his draws.

Of UMass’s nine newcomers this season, four are forwards. Two to keep an eye on are Ray Pigozzi and Frankie Vatrano. Pigozzi, a former Denver recruit, was a late addition to the Minutemen’s incoming class. The Evanston, IL native is noted for his speed and great hands.

Vatrano, a former Boston College recruit, was expected to join UMass at the start of this season but eligibility issues have delayed his debut until the Hockey East post-season. The East Longmeadow, MA native is a 5’10, 215-pound winger with an elite-level skill package.

Pigozzi and Vatrano are both eligible for the 2014 NHL Draft.

Follow DJ Powers on Twitter via @DJPowersHF

 

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