2014-15 Atlantic Hockey Preview, Part 1: Canisius, Mercyhurst seek shot at conference title

By DJ Powers
Matt Zay - Mercyhurst University

Photo: Mercyhurst University senior forward Matt Zay will lead a Lakers’ offensive attack that was one of the more potent in the NCAA in 2013-14 (courtesy of David Hahn/Icon Sportswire)


This season, Atlantic Hockey is the only conference without NHL prospects. Nevertheless, the conference features a number of players that are well worth a look.

Part 1 of this NCAA preview takes a closer look at Mercyhurst, Air Force, AIC, Army, Bentley and Canisius.

Mercyhurst University

The defending Atlantic Hockey regular season champions will look to defend their title when they open their 2014-15 season on Oct. 10th at Air Force.

Last season, Mercyhurst possessed one of the nation’s most prolific offenses, averaging 3.61 goals per game. And with nearly all of their top scorers returning, the Lakers could be among the nation’s top offensive teams again this season.

Leading the Lakers’ excellent offensive attack this season is senior captain Matt Zay. The Glendale, NY native finished his stellar junior campaign with 43 points (17 goals, 26 assists) in 35 games, earning a spot on the All-Atlantic Hockey First Team. Zay is a winger who is blessed with great hands and creativity. Not surprisingly, Zay has also caught the attention of NHL teams as well, most notably the Chicago Blackhawks, whose prospect camp Zay attended this summer.

“Matt is obviously a guy that we’re going to need to play very, very well,” head coach Rick Gotkin said of Zay. “He’s just your quintessential power forward. He skates well, is strong with the puck and goes hard to the net. He’s also tough and willing to give and take hits too.”

In addition to the depth upfront, another of Mercyhurst’s strengths this season is in goal. Senior starter Jimmy Sarjeant returns after a brilliant junior campaign where he posted an 18-5-6 record that included one shutout in 31 games. His performance earned him both Atlantic Hockey’s Player and Goaltender of the Year honors. As Gotkin explains, Sarjeant seized on the opportunity he was given last season.

“Jimmy hadn’t had much of a chance to play until last year and pretty much took the league by storm’” said Gotkin of his goaltender. “I think he proved that he’s a very capable goaltender and earned the opportunity to play. I think the biggest thing with Jimmy is that he’s such a competitor. He’s a laid back kid but he really does compete.”

While the Lakers only lost two defensemen to graduation, they were significant losses. Nick Jones and Randy Cure were the pillars on Mercyhurst’s blueline last season and filling the roles that those players left behind will be vital to the team’s success this season.

Anchoring the Lakers defensive corps this season is senior assistant captain Tyler Shiplo. The Oakville, ON native played in 39 games last season, posting 16 points (five goals, 11 assists). Shiplo, a great puck-moving defenseman, made his mark on Mercyhurst’s power play, where two of his five goals were scored.

Mercyhurst brings in seven newcomers this season. One player to watch is defenseman Zach Todd. The Holden, MA native is a 5’10”, 180-pound puck-moving defenseman. As Gotkin explains, Todd is a rearguard who could eventually fill the role that Jones vacated.

“Zach is an older freshman that’s a power play kind of guy that I think in time could develop into a Nick Jones-type of player,” said Zotkin. “Zach sees the ice really well and has an unbelievable cannon of a shot.”

Air Force Academy

The Falcons opened their 2014-15 season on Oct. 10th versus Mercyhurst.

Air Force finished third in Atlantic Hockey in a 2013-14 campaign that was hampered by injuries to some key players. But staying healthy isn’t the only issue facing the Falcons this season as the team saw some significant turnover in personnel that includes graduating seven seniors. Nevertheless, Air Force is poised for another strong run for the Atlantic Hockey title this season.

One of the most significant losses to the Falcons was that of goaltender Jason Torf. Despite being limited to just 26 games last season due to injury, Torf still had a great season, finishing with a 13-9-4 record that included one shutout.

While Torf will be missed, Air Force’s goaltending will be in great hands with the return of sophomore Chris Truehl. The Stoughton, MI native replaced Torf when he went down with injury and went on to have a stellar freshman campaign that saw him post an 8-3-0 record that included three shutouts in 14 appearances en route to earning a spot on the Atlantic Hockey All-Rookie Team. At 6’3” and 185 pounds, Truehl has size and, along with his superb athleticism, does a great job of covering the net.

In addition to Torf, Air Force also graduated two of their top defensemen in Adam McKenzie and Jacob Musselman. And while those two losses are significant, the Falcons defense is once again shaping up to be an outstanding one again this season.

Anchoring Air Force’s defense is senior co-captain Dan Weissenhofer. The Naperville, IL native is coming off of an excellent junior campaign where he posted 15 points (two goals, 13 assists) in 36 games. He also led the Falcons with a +11 and 65 penalty minutes. Weissenhofer is a hard-nosed, defensive defenseman who can chip in offensively, as well.

In recent years, Air Force has had great depth up front. And although the team graduated Ryan Timar, Jason Fabian, Tony Thomas and Mitch Torrel, the Falcons do return many of their top scorers from last season.

Among them is senior Cole Gunner. The Richfield, MN native is coming off of a breakout junior campaign where he led Air Force with 44 points (15 goals, 29 assists) in 39 games last season. Gunner possesses a nice combination of speed, great hands and playmaking ability. This summer, he attended the Chicago Blackhawks’ prospect camp.

In addition to the returning veterans, the Falcons will also have 12 newcomers on their roster this season. One to keep an eye on is forward Matthew Meier. The Highlands Ranch, CO native has good size (6’1”, 185 lbs.) and is noted for his ability to score timely goals. Meier, who originally was slated to join the team next fall, is one of the youngest players on Air Force’s roster.

American International College

The Yellow Jackets opened their 2014-15 season on Oct. 10th at Union College.

After a great 2012-13 campaign two years ago, AIC took a bit of a step back last season, finishing 11th in Atlantic Hockey. The Yellow Jackets will look to remedy that this season, but they will also have some issues to address, as well.

Perhaps the biggest is filling the holes that were left by graduates Jon Puskar and Blake Peake. In addition to accounting for 22 percent of the team’s points last season, the duo were also the catalysts of AIC’s outstanding power play.

One player that the Yellow Jackets will be looking to lead the offensive charge this season is senior Alexander MacMillan. The Calgary, AB native returns as AIC’s top goal scorer from last season. He finished his solid junior campaign with 28 points (13 goals, 15 assists) in 34 games. Where MacMillan really made his mark last season was on the Yellow Jackets’ power play where five of his 13 goals were scored. MacMillian is a 6’4”, 215-pound power forward who uses his size and strength in jamming the net.

Aside from the losses of Nick Campanale and Jake Williams, AIC returns all of their defensemen this season. Anchoring the Yellow Jackets’ defensive corps is senior captain Steve Hoshaw. The Vista, CA native is coming off of a rock solid junior campaign where he posted three points (two goals, one assists) in 31 games. Hoshaw is a defensive defenseman who plays a simple yet effective game. While he’s not likely to become a prolific scorer, Hoshaw can chip in the occasional goal.

One aspect that AIC will be looking to improve this season is to add more consistency in goal. The bad news for the Yellow Jackets is they lost two of their three netminders from last season. The good news is the lone returnee is sophomore starter Hunter Leisner. The Garland, TX native is coming off an impressive freshman campaign where he posted an 8-16-1 record that included one shutout and a .902 save percentage in 26 appearances. Leisner possesses great athleticism and lateral movement. In 2012, he attended the Dallas Stars‘ prospect camp.

In addition to the returning veterans, the Yellow Jackets also welcome seven newcomers this season. One player to keep an eye on is forward Johno May. The Mahtomedi, MN native has size (6’4”, 190 lbs.) and is noted for his great hands and relentless drives to the net.

U.S. Military Academy at West Point (Army)

The Black Knights opened their 2014-15 season on Oct. 10th versus Sacred Heart.

Last season, Army finished in the Atlantic Hockey basement. The Black Knights struggled in a number of areas, most notably on defense. And with a large roster turnover, this season could be an equally challenging one, too.

Army’s most significant loss was that of starting goaltender Rob Tadazak. The LaPeer, MI native was forced to retire due to injuries, but is still at West Point. Tadazak’s successor this season is sophomore Parker Gahagen. The Buffalo, NY native is coming off a solid freshman campaign where he posted a 3-10-0 record in 16 appearances. Gahagen has good size (6’2”, 191 lbs.) and possesses some very good athleticism. As head coach Brian Riley explains, the experience that Gahagen got last season will greatly benefit the team this season.

“Parker was able to get a lot of experience, especially in the second half because of Rob’s injury,” Riley said of Gahagen. “He proved that he could be a pretty good goalie. And because of the experience Parker had last year, I think it’ll make him a better goalie and he’ll be our starter this year.”

One of the Black Knights strengths this season will be their blueline. Army’s defensive corps is a nice mix of size and skill that is shaping up to be better this season.

Anchoring the Black Knights defense this season is senior tri-captain Mac Lalor. The Needham, MA native posted 10 points (two goals, eight assists) and was one of only two players to play in all 34 games last season. Lalor, an excellent skating, two-way defenseman is also among the stalwarts on the Black Knights blueline, logging upwards of 25 minutes per game playing in all situations.

“Mac is just an unbelievable person and leads by example,” Riley said of Lalor. “He’s a great ambassador for not only our program, but for the military academy here at West Point, as well. Mac is such a great skater that he can go end-to-end with the puck. He can also get pucks to the net, as well.”

Up front, the Black Knights will be looking to boost their offense. Leading Army’s offensive attack is sophomore C.J. Reuschlein. The Flint, MI native is coming off a terrific freshman campaign where he led Army with 22 points (11 goals, 11 assists) in 33 games and earned a selection to Atlantic Hockey’s All-Rookie Team. Reuschlein is an excellent skating winger that has established himself as a clutch scorer.

This season, Army’s roster features 11 newcomers. One well worth watching is center Tyler Pham. The Denver, CO native is noted for his superb hands and vision, qualities that could certainly give the Black Knights some much-needed offensive punch. Pham is a former University of Denver commit.

“Tyler is one of our freshman that is going to give us some depth,” Riley said of Pham. “We think he’s very skilled and brings a great skill set to our program.”

Bentley University

The Falcons open their 2014-15 season on Oct. 11th at Quinnipiac.

After getting off to a slow start last October, Bentley put together a great 2013-14 campaign that saw them finish second in Atlantic Hockey. But building off of that success this season might be a challenge as there are some significant holes to fill.

The biggest hole is in goal. Workhorse Brandon Komm has graduated, so replacing the minutes that he played last season will be a daunting task. The Williamsville, NY native is coming off of a stellar senior campaign where he posted a 19-12-4 record that included one shutout while playing in all 37 games en route to earning a spot on the All-Atlantic Hockey Second Team. Komm’s 2194:08 minutes of playing time led all Atlantic Hockey netminders last season and was the seventh-most in the NCAA.

Competing to replace Komm as the Falcons main man between the pipes this season are senior Blake Dougherty, junior Gabe Antoni and freshman Jayson Argue. Dougherty and Antoni have a combined eight games and 333:11 minutes of collegiate experience between them. Argue is a player well worth watching. He is among the Falcons’ seven newcomers this season. The Swan River, MB native is noted for his willingness to compete and ability to keep his team in games.

Bentley’s defense is shaping up to be very good again this season. The Falcons received great offensive contributions from their blueline last season, and that could be the case again this season.

Anchoring Bentley’s defense is senior assistant captain Steve Weinstein. The Los Angeles, CA native is one of the nation’s most prolific offensive defensemen. Weinstein is coming off of a terrific junior campaign where he led all conference defensemen with 38 points (one goal, 37 assists) in 37 games en route to earning a selection to the All-Atlantic Hockey First Team. His 38 points also finished second among all NCAA defensemen last season. Only Union College’s Mat Bodie (NYR) posted more points than Weinstein.

Last season, Bentley possessed one of the nation’s most potent offenses. The Falcons averaged 3.43 goals per game, finishing eighth nationally. Furthermore, Bentley was especially dangerous on the power play, which clicked at an astounding 26.4 percent. That ranked second nationally. And all of that isn’t likely to change much this season as, aside from graduating their leading scorer Brett Gensler, the Falcons return all of their top point producers from last season.

Senior captain Alex Grieve leads Bentley’s offensive attack this season. The Calgary, AB native is the Falcons’ top returning scorer. Grieve finished second on the team with 47 points (25 goals, 22 assists) in 37 games last season en route to earning a spot on the All-Atlantic Hockey Second Team. His 25 goals set a new Bentley school single-season record. Grieve, who attended the New York Islanders’ prospect camp this summer, is simply a scoring machine. He can score in bunches and in just about any situation.

Canisius College

The Golden Griffins opened their 2014-15 season on Oct. 10th versus Western Michigan.

After reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history two years ago, Canisius nearly repeated the feat last season before falling to Robert Morris in the Atlantic Hockey Tournament title game. And, while the Golden Griffins will be looking to remedy that this season, the team will have some issues to address first.

At the top of the list is their goaltending situation. Tony Capobianco, who was the starter the previous two seasons, has graduated. The Mississauga, ON native finished his collegiate career in impressive fashion, posting a 18-19-4 record that included four shutouts in 41 games and leaves Canisius as the program’s most decorated netminder.

The daunting task of filling Capobianco’s role this season could likely fall to towering senior assistant captain, Keegan Asmundson. The 6’5”, 234-pound native of Inver Grove Heights, MN is the only Golden Griffins netminder this season that saw playing time in 2013-14. He appeared in just six games, posting a 1-0-1 record. Asmundson will get some serious competition this season from junior Adam Harris and freshman Reilly Turner.

With the uncertainty in goal, Canisius will be looking to their experienced (and sizeable) defensive corps to help stabilize things on the back end.

Anchoring the Golden Griffins defense this season is senior captain Doug Jessey. The rugged Langdon, AB native is coming off of an excellent junior campaign where he posted 22 points (eight goals, 14 assists) in 40 games last season. One area where Jessey really made his mark last season was on the power play, where five of his eight goals were scored.

One notable attribute about the Canisius defense and goaltenders this season is their sheer size, with the “smallest” of the group being 6’1”.

Of the six forwards that the Golden Griffins lost, no loss was greater than that of graduate Kyle Gibbons. And where his presence will be especially missed is on special teams, where nine of his 15 goals were scored – eight on the power play and one shorthanded.

One returning forward that the Golden Griffins will be relying on for some added offense is sophomore dynamo, Shane Conacher. The Burlington, ON native is coming off of an injury-shortened freshman campaign where he posted 23 points (six goals, 17 assists) in 32 games. Conacher, brother of current NHL forward Cory Conacher, is blessed with great offensive skills and is really fun to watch. If he can stay healthy, Conacher should be able to take the next step in his development this season.

Canisius brings in one of the best freshman classes in Atlantic Hockey this season. One player well worth a look is forward Mike Sabatini. The Grosse Pointe Woods, MI native is a 6’1”, 177-pound power forward noted for his blistering shot. Sabatini is also among five Golden Griffins freshmen that are eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft.

Follow DJ Powers on Twitter via @DJPowersHF