2012-13 Atlantic Hockey season preview

By DJ Powers

Chris Saracino - Rochester Institute of Technology

Photo: RIT captain Chris Saracino is one of four players left from the school's 2009-10 roster that made a run to the NCAA Frozen Four (courtesy of Tony Ding/Icon SMI)

The always competitive Atlantic Hockey conference will look to shake things up in the NCAA when the 2012-13 season gets underway. Among the many players in Atlantic Hockey to watch this season is the conference’s lone NHL prospect, Anthony Hamburg.

Air Force Academy
Number of NHL prospects: 0

The reigning Atlantic Hockey Regular Season and Tournament champion will look to successfully defend their crowns when they open their 2012-13 season on Oct. 12 versus host Alaska-Anchorage in the Kendall Hockey Classic.

Air Force is poised to make another successful run at the Atlantic Hockey title this season. While the team suffered few losses to graduation, there will be some significant holes to fill.

The most notable will be on the blueline. One of the nation’s top defensive duos in Tim Kirby and Scott Mathis has graduated. And where their losses will be felt the most this season will be on the Falcons power play. The duo accounted for 11 of Air Force’s 30 power play goals last season.

Kirby was among the nation’s most dominant defensemen last season and leaves Air Force with his name firmly etched in the team’s record books. The Austin, MN native posted 28 points (12 goals, 16 assists) playing in all 39 games. During his Falcons career, Kirby had never missed a game. He earned numerous honors that included the Atlantic Hockey Player of the Year, being named a top ten finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, and a selection to the All-America East Second Team.

Junior Adam McKenzie returns as the Falcons’ top scoring defenseman this season after posting 18 points (two goals, 16 assists) in 39 games in 2011-12. The Petaluma, CA native is an excellent skating defenseman that moves the puck very well. McKenzie leads a very solid mix of veterans and newcomers that will need to collectively replace the lost offensive production of Kirby and Mathis.

Air Force has graduated Stephen Caple but returns Jason Torf. Caple saw significant time between the pipes last season after the injury to starter Torf. Caple played in 23 games, posting a 13-5-5 record that included one shutout.

With Torf healthy to start the new season, the Falcons will be set in goal once again. The Hermosa Beach, CA native was superb in post-season play last season despite battling a nagging groin injury. He appeared in 19 games, posting an 8-5-2 record that included five shutouts. Torf isn’t big (5’11”, 180 lbs.), but he has demonstrated that he can come up big in crucial situations. Torf has very good fundamentals, but it’s his mental focus that is his best asset.

Upfront, Air Force returns nearly all of their top scorers. Senior Kyle De Laurell leads an excellent group of forwards that will also feature two newcomers. De Laurell led the Falcons with 38 points (15 goals, 23 assists) in 38 games last season. His great hands and offensive creativity hasn’t gone unnoticed by NHL teams, either. De Laurell attended the Chicago Blackhawks' prospects camp over the summer.

Air Force welcomes six freshmen this season and the player to watch is forward Max Edson. Like De Laurell, Edson is also a Hermosa Beach native. An injury while with Waterloo (USHL) last season kept the diminutive dynamo out of action for nearly two months. He finished the year with 15 points (six goals, eight assists) in 33 games. What Edson lacks in size (5’8”, 170 lbs.), he makes up for with his speed, quickness and strong puck skills.

American International College (AIC)
Number of NHL prospects: 0

The Yellow Jackets open their 2012-13 season on Oct. 12 at Penn State.

Last season marked the first time since the formation of Atlantic Hockey nearly a decade ago that AIC didn’t finish in the conference basement. While wins were still hard to come by for the Yellow Jackets, they did end their 2011-12 campaign on a strong note, posting a 3-3-1 record in their final seven games.

One reason behind the Yellow Jackets’ improvement last season was in their increased offensive production throughout their lineup. AIC had nine players who posted double-digit point totals, including four who posted 20 or more points. However, two of the four – Neilsson Arcibal and Michael Penny – have graduated. The two accounted for 23 percent of the team’s total point production last season that will need to be filled this season.

The good news is that AIC returns most of last year’s squad this season.

Senior Adam Pleskach returns after leading the team for the third consecutive season in scoring with 29 points (16 goals, 13 assists) while playing in all 37 games. The power forward from Beausejour, MB was particularly dangerous on AIC’s special teams last season. Of Pleskach’s 16 goals, half of them came on special teams (six power play, two shorthanded). He capped the season with a spot on the All-Atlantic Hockey Third Team.

The other returning senior that will be leading the Yellow Jackets’ offensive attack this season is Steve Mele. Last season, the Bronx, NY native nearly doubled his point production from his sophomore campaign two years ago, finishing with 21 points (10 goals, 11 assists) in 37 games. Mele centered AIC’s outstanding second line that included returning juniors Jon Pushar and Blake Peake.

Defense was the team’s most glaring weakness last season. The Yellow Jackets sported a defense that allowed an average of 3.70 goals per game last season, which ranked near the bottom nationally. But with all of their goaltenders and nearly all of their top defensemen returning this season, those numbers should improve.

Senior Ben Meisner returns as AIC’s starter in goal. The Halifax, NS native posted an 8-22-3 record that included two shutouts and a .909 save percentage. While his record may indicate otherwise, Meisner actually played remarkably well last season. One of his best performances came on Oct. 29 versus eventual Frozen Four participant, Union College. In that game, he stopped 53 of the Dutchmen’s 58 shots in AIC’s 5-2 loss. Of the five goals that Union College scored, three came on the power play.

Aside from graduating Rob Blanchette and Luciano Primiani, the Yellow Jackets return all of their defensemen this season. Returning senior Jeff Ceccacci anchors AIC’s solid and experienced blueline. The Placentia, CA led the team in defensive scoring with 18 points (four goals, 14 assists) in 34 games. Ceccacci is a small (5’9”,170 lbs.), offensive-minded defenseman that moves the puck well and quarterbacks the Yellow Jackets’ power play.

In addition to their returning veterans, AIC will welcome five newcomers this season. One player to watch is Chris Porter. The Stouffville, ON native is a converted forward. He possesses size (6’2”, 195 lbs.) and is noted for his work ethic and goal-scoring ability.

U.S. Military Academy at West Point (Army)
Number of NHL prospects: 0

Army opens their 2012-13 season on Oct. 12 versus Nebraska-Omaha in the Icebreaker Tournament at the Sprint Center in Kansas City.

While the Black Knights finished tied with Sacred Heart at the bottom of the conference standings, they posted fewer wins than the Pioneers. One reason behind Army’s demise last season can be attributed to their anemic offense. The Black Knights average 1.91 goals per game and the 65 total goals that the team scored were the second fewest in the nation. Only Alabama-Huntsville scored fewer goals.

The task of increasing offensive production this season is made more challenging with the loss of three of the team’s top five scorers in Mike Hull, Danny Colvin and defenseman Marcel Alvarez, all of whom have graduated. The trio accounted for 34 percent of Army’s total point production last season.

Leading the offensive attack this season is senior Andy Starczewski. The power forward from Whitesboro, NY returns as the Black Knights’ top scorer after posting 24 points playing in all 34 games last season. He was also the team’s only player that registered ten or more goals (13). Starczewski is a winger with a powerful shot that uses his 6’1”, 205-pound frame effectively in the difficult areas. One area where Starczewski was particularly dangerous last season was on the Black Knights’ power play where five of his 13 goals were scored.

Another contributing factor to Army’s demise last season were the many injuries to their defense. Only Marcel Alvarez and Bill Day played in all 34 games. But both rearguards have since graduated. While the defensive corps is healthy to start the 2012-13 campaign it will also be a predominately young one as well with only three upperclassmen. Among those anchoring the blueline this season are sophomores Maurice Alvarez and Mac Lalor. Alvarez led the Black Knights in defensive scoring last season with 14 points (five goals, nine assists) in 33 games. Like his older brother, Alvarez possesses very good offensive skills that should help Army increase their offensive output this season.

Lalor posted ten points (four goals, six assists) in 31 games as a freshman. The Needham, MA native made some good strides in development last season, most notably in his decision-making. He is a very good skater and moves the puck quite well.

With such a young defensive corps heading into the season, the Black Knights will be relying heavily on their returning goaltending tandem of senior Ryan Leets and sophomore Rob Tadazak to solidify things on the back end. Leets saw the majority of action last season, posting a 4-16-4 record in 26 appearances. Tadazak will be looking for his first collegiate win this season after posting a 0-7-3 record in 11 outings as a freshman.

Army will feature a large, 13-member freshman class. One player to keep an eye on is forward Michael St. Denis. The Auburn, ME native has speed and great finishing ability. He missed five games due to a concussion while at Phillips-Exter last season. If St. Denis is able to stay healthy this season, he could provide some much-needed scoring punch for Army.

Bentley University
Number of NHL prospects: 0

The Falcons open their 2012-13 season on Oct. 13 at UMass-Lowell.

Bentley got off to shaky start before ending last season with an 11-7-5 record in the second half. Two reasons behind the strong fisnish were the team’s marked improvement on defense and reliable goaltending.

After starting in just seven games two seasons ago as a freshman, junior Branden Komm emerged as the Falcons top netminder last season, giving Bentley some excellent consistency in goal. He finished with a 16-14-7 record that included three shutouts in 38 games. His 2.41 goals against average and .923 save percentage both finished in the top 25 nationally. The Williamsville, NY native possesses good athleticism, and the overall improvement in his fundamentals, particularly in rebound control, has made him a much more reliable netminder.

Komm’s performance this season will be especially crucial in solidifying the younger Falcons defense after losing two of their top defenders in Mike Switzer and Trent Bonnet to graduation.

Among those leading Bentley’s defense is sophomore Matt Maher. The Avon, CT native posted 12 points (two goals, ten assists) in 39 games last season. Maher is a very good two-way defenseman with size (6’2”, 190 lbs.) that skates and moves the puck very well.

Along with their goaltending, Bentley’s strength this season will be in their forward lines. The Falcons had nice depth throughout their lines last season, much of which returns in 2012-13. Junior Brent Gensler is the catalyst for the Falcons’ offensive attack. He returns as not only Bentley’s top scorer but as the nation’s co-leading returning scorer as well. The St. Charles, MO native more than doubled his point production from two years ago, finishing with 50 points (23 goals, 27 assists) playing in all 40 games. Gensler, who was the conference’s lone player to reach the 50-point plateau in 2011-12, capped the year with being named the recipient of the Walter Brown Award as the top American-born collegiate player playing in New England. He is the first Atlantic Hockey player to ever win the award. Gensler’s stellar season has also caught the attention of NHL teams. And if he can put together a similar or better season in 2012-13, Gensler will become a highly sought-after free agent at season’s end.

What makes Gensler such a great player is his offensive creativity and ability to make his teammates better. And no one benefitted from playing with Gensler more than sophomore Alex Grieve. The Calgary, AB native won the Atlantic Hockey Rookie of the Year honor after leading all conference freshmen with 34 points (15 goals, 19 assists) in 39 games. Grieve also led Bentley with four power-play tallies. The line of Brett Switzer-Grieve-Gensler accounted for 39 percent of the Falcons offense last season.

While the Switzer-Grieve-Gensler line will likely stay together this season, the Falcons will need increased offensive production from their other three lines as well as their defense if they are to make a serious run for the Atlantic Hockey crown.

In addition to the returning veterans, Bentley also welcomes eight newcomers. One player to watch is Kyle O’Brien. The Tewksbury, MA native is a 1993-born defenseman who played at Cushing Academy last season. O’Brien is a defensive defenseman with size (6’2”, 190 lbs.) who is noted for his skating and solid one-on-one play.

Canisius College
Number of NHL prospects: 0

The Golden Griffins open their 2012-13 season on Oct. 12 versus host Alaska-Anchorage in the Kendall Hockey Classic in Anchorage.

Although Canisius finished out of the Atlantic Hockey basement last season, there were many growing pains that the predominately young squad went through. The good news heading into this season is that with few departures and the team returning nearly intact, Canisius will be more experienced and should be able to get things headed back in the right direction.

The most glaring issue that the Golden Griffins will need to address this season is their offense. Canisius averaged just 1.83 goals per game last season, which ranked 57th in the nation. The 66 total goals that the Golden Griffins scored were the third fewest nationally. Equally dismal was Canisius’ anemic power play, which clicked at 8.3 percent. The 11 power-play goals that the team scored were the second fewest in the nation. To make matters worse, Canisius also graduated one of their top goal-scorers in Scott Moser.

The Golden Griffins do return the rest of their top point producers, however. But, if Canisius is going to make a serious run for the conference title this season, they will need increased scoring throughout their lineup.

Among those that the Golden Griffins will be looking to is junior Taylor Law. The Markham, ON returns after an excellent sophomore season co-leading the team with 26 points (11 goals, 15 assists) in 35 games. He also led Canisius with three power play tallies. Law is a player that is well worth watching because, as good as he was last season, he could potentially be even better this season. Law is a 6’2”, 200-pound power forward that possesses a nice combination of grit and offensive skill. He does most of his best work around the net and is willing to pay a price to finish plays.

The Golden Griffins will also be looking to their defensive corps for some stepped up production. Junior Ben Danford returns to anchor the Golden Griffins blueline after leading the team in defensive scoring with 13 points (one goal, 12 assists) as a sophomore. He was also one of just three players on Canisius’ roster that played in all 36 games last season. Danford has made some steady progress in his development since arriving at Canisius three years ago, most notably in how he utilizes his strengthened 6’0”, 185-pound frame. While Danford has good offensive skills, he’s learned to balance that with solid defensive zone play. That, in turn, has allowed him to become a more reliable defenseman that can play in any situation.

One area that will be a strength for Canisius heading into this season is their goaltending. While the Golden Griffins lost Dan Morrison to graduation, they do return his goaltending partner in junior Tony Capobianco. The tandem split the season in 2011-12 and their records were virtually identical – each played in 19 games and posted a 5-11-2 record. Capobianco posted the lone shutout on the season. The tandem actually played better than their records would indicate. Both posted save percentages over .910 and gave their team a chance to win every night. While Capobianco is capable of carrying the team this season, the big question is if he can successfully do it for the duration of the season. If not, red-shirted freshman Keegan Asmundson and newcomer Adam Harris will be ready to step in.

Harris is one of five newcomers on the Canisius roster this season. One freshman skater to watch is Stephen Miller. The Boxborough, MA native is a 6’2”, 195-pound power forward that can add some much-needed scoring for the Golden Griffins.

University of Connecticut
Number of NHL prospects: 0

The Huskies open their 2012-13 season on Oct. 12 at UMass.

Despite a sixth-place finish in Atlantic Hockey, it was a record year at UConn last season. The Huskies’ 16 overall wins and 10 wins at Freitas Ice Arena both tied school records. One of the keys to their strong 2011-12 campaign was their special teams play. UConn was the only Atlantic Hockey team that ranked in the top 20 nationally on both the power-play (3rd at 25.7%) and on the penalty kill (13th at 84.2%).

The biggest concern heading into the 2012-13 campaign is replacing the offensive production of top scorer Cole Schneider, who opted to forego the remainder of his collegiate eligibility to sign with the Ottawa Senators. Schneider was the motor that drove the UConn offense last season. He finished with 45 points (23 goals, 22 assists) in 38 games and earned a spot on the All-Atlantic Hockey First Team. His 45 points and 23 goals both set new single season school records in the program’s D-1 era.

One player that the Huskies will be depending on to fill part of the hole left by Schneider's departure is junior Brant Harris. The Estevan, SK native returns as the team’s top point producer after posting 33 points (18 goals, 15 assists) in 39 games last season. Where Harris proved to be especially dangerous was on special teams. 11 of his 18 goals last season were scored on special teams, which included his conference-leading ten power play tallies. In addition to being a player that can score timely goals, he is also an excellent skater with speed and he uses those assets to great advantage when creating or finishing plays. None of this has been lost on NHL teams either.  One team taking notice is the Washington Capitals. Harris had a strong showing at their prospects camp this summer and could potentially field some NHL contract offers at season’s end.

One of UConn’s strengths last season will also be one of their strengths this season – goaltending. Senior Garrett Bartus returns after a rock-solid year where he posted a 16-19-3 record that included five shutouts in 39 games. At season’s end, he set a new all-time school record with 2,816 career saves, which will continue to grow in 2012-13. The St. Charles, IL native was also one of a handful of netminders that played in all of their respective team’s games in 2011-12. His 2305:19 minutes played led Atlantic Hockey. Bartus is a 6’2”,190-pound goaltender that possesses great athleticism and made marked improvements in his puck control last season.

Despite graduating Chris Waterstradt and Brad Cooperand barring injuries, the Huskies will have an outstanding blueline this season. Senior Alex Gerke leads the Huskies defense this season. The Tomah, WI native led the team in defensive scoring with 25 points (six goals, 19 assists) while playing in all 39 games. All six of Gerke’s goals came on special teams (five on the power play, one shorthanded).

UConn welcomes ten newcomers this season. One freshman to watch is defenseman Chris Bond. The Centreville, VA native is a defensive defenseman with size (6’2”, 205 lbs.) noted for his strong work ethic and sound defensive play. In 2010, Bond attended the Washington Capitals prospect camp.

College of the Holy Cross
Number of NHL prospects: 0

The Crusaders open their 2012-13 season on Oct. 16 at American International.

After a slow start to the 2011-12 campaign, Holy Cross finished the season with a 20-15-4 record. The Crusaders saved their best for the last two months of the season, going 10-2-1 in their final 13 games. Coming into this season, however, Holy Cross will have some significant holes to fill if they expect to lay claim to the Atlantic Hockey crown in the spring.

The Crusaders suffered most of their losses on the blueline. Four of the team’s top six defensemen from last season in Matt Clune, Mike Daly, Matt Davis and Kyle Atkins have graduated. As a result, Holy Cross will sport a very young defensive corps this season. Among those anchoring the Crusaders blueline is junior Jeffrey Reppucci. The Newburyport, MA native appeared in 26 games last season, posting five points (one goal, four assists). With the losses of top scoring defensemen Daly and Clune, Reppucci will be relied on to help boost the offensive production from the blueline. He is a small (5’9”, 168 lbs.) offensive defenseman that moves the puck well. Reppucci could potentially be among those quarterbacking Holy Cross’ power-play this season as well.

With a very young defensive corps to start the season, the Crusaders will be leaning heavily on their goaltending to help stabilize things on the back end. Holy Cross returns all of three of their netminders, including sophomore starter Matt Ginn. The Lindsay, ON native was brilliant between the Crusaders’ pipes last season. He posted a 17-8-2 record that included two shutouts in 28 appearances. His stellar freshman campaign also earned him a spot on the Atlantic Hockey All-Rookie Team. Ginn is a 5’11”, 167-pound netminder with excellent reflexes that plays his angles well and is very composed under pressure.

Holy Cross’ strength this season lies once again in their forward lines. The Crusaders were one of the best offensive teams in the nation last season, averaging 3.08 goals per game. And, while the team lost some of that depth to graduation, much of it returns this season. Leading the Crusaders’ offensive charge are junior Adam Schmidt and senior Eric Vos. Schmidt led Holy Cross last season with 37 points (18 goals, 19 assists) in 38 games. He finished second on the team with a plus-18 and earned a spot on the All-Atlantic Hockey Second Team. The Warrington, PA native possesses size (6’2”, 193 lbs.), a wicked shot, and superb finishing ability. Although Schmidt didn’t attend a prospect camp this summer, he is very much on the NHL radar.

Vos, who will serve as one of the team’s co-captains this season, finished third on the Crusaders roster with 27 points (13 goals, 14 assists) while playing in all 39 games last season. The Carlisle, ON native is a player well worth watching this season. Vos is an excellent skating winger. He possesses a great stick, is strong around the net, and has developed a real knack for scoring timely goals.

In addition to their returning veterans, Holy Cross will welcome a very sizeable and very good incoming group this season. One newcomer to keep an eye on is Castan Sommer. The Shrewsbury, MA native is the son of current Worcester Sharks head coach, Roy Sommer. Not surprisingly, Castan attended the San Jose Sharks prospects camp in the summer. Sommer is a budding power forward that has size (6’3”, 190 lbs.) and is noted for his great hockey sense and scoring ability.

Mercyhurst College
Number of NHL prospects: 0

The Lakers open their 2012-13 season on Oct. 13 at Niagara.

Mercyhurst was one of the nation’s youngest teams last season. And few teams got as much or more production out of their freshman class than the Lakers did. This season, the team returns nearly intact with more experience under their belts.

Nowhere was the rookie impact felt more last season than on their forward lines. Mercyhurst was one of three teams in 2011-12 whose top two scorers were freshmen. Daniel Bahntge and Nardo Nagtzaam led the team with 31 and 30 points respectively. And they are two players that are well worth a look.

Bahntge earned a spot on the Atlantic Hockey All-Rookie team after leading the Lakers with 21 assists and chipping in ten goals in 40 games. Bahntge is a 5’8”, 170-pound spark plug with great hands. As head coach Rick Gotkin explains, Bahntge’s terrific performance, as a freshman was a pleasant surprise.

“Danny was probably one of, if not our most consistent player for a good chunk of last year. He’s a guy that really does a lot. Danny plays with a lot of intensity, skates well and has good hands. He’s also a tough, hard working kid. I was really surprised by the really complete game that Danny brought last year and we expect him to continue to do that this year.”

Nagtzaam finished second with 11 goals and 19 assists in 38 games and is a player to keep an eye on this season. The Nijmegen, Netherlands native isn’t overly big (6’0”, 185 lbs.) but he can certainly make things happen whenever he’s on the ice. Part of what makes Nagtzaam such a difficult to player to play against is his relentless battles in the difficult areas. And as he continues to add strength, that attribute will become more evident. Nagtzaam, who attended the Washington Capitals prospect camp this summer, has already garnered quite a bit of notice from NHL teams.

“We knew that Nardo would have an impact coming in as a freshman for us last season,” Gotkin said of Nagtzaam. “We knew that he was a high-skill guy that could produce offensively. And because of that I think he and the rest of our team were a little disappointed in his offensive production last year, but we clearly believe that Nardo could be a big time player for us. We need him to find that niche again and have a great statistical year for us.”

Of the three players that the Lakers lost to graduation this off-season, two – Patrick Goebel and Kevin Noble – were defensemen. While the duo will be missed, the returning and incoming defensive group, led by junior tri-captain Nick Jones, is shaping up to be quite good this season. Jones led the team in defensive scoring with 24 points (10 goals, 14 assists) playing in all 40 games last season. The Cranberry Township, PA native is a superb puck-moving defenseman who possesses size (6’2”, 205 lbs.), agility and a heavy shot.

The Lakers return all four of their netminders this season, including red-shirted senior Max Strang. The Gilbertsville, PA native saw much of the work last season and was a crucial part of Mercyhurst’s success. He finished the year with a 16-14-3 record that included three shutouts.

The Lakers will have five freshmen on the roster this season and the one to watch is winger Kyle Cook. The Middleburg Heights, OH native is a budding power forward who possesses size, (6’4”, 215 lbs.), grit and a blistering shot.

Niagara University
Number of NHL prospects: 0

The Purple Eagles open their 2012-13 season on Oct. 6 hosting Bowling Green.

This season, Niagara will push to claim their first conference title since their CHA days. But to do so, they will have a couple of issues to address first.

The most notable is their goaltending with the loss of last season’s starter, Chris Noonan, to graduation. The Portage, MI native was brilliant between the pipes for the Purple Eagles last season. He posted a 14-6-5 record that included two shutouts. His 1.61 goals against average and .944 save percentage both led the nation. Noonan was also the backbone of Niagara’s stifling defense last season. The 81 total goals that the Purple Eagles allowed were the second fewest in the nation.

The three returning players that will be vying to take over Niagara’s starting job this season are juniors Cody Campbell and Carson Chubak, and sophomore Colby Drost. The trio combined to play 808:13 minutes in 16 games. While the Purple Eagles will certainly have some experience returning, getting the same level of consistency this season that Noonan gave them last season will determine their success.

“I think we’re in really good shape between Cody, Carson and Colby, but at this point I’m not sure who will emerge and be the number one,” said head coach Dave Burkholder in assessing his goaltending situation. “They’re all capable of being our starter. We hope that one of them will take the ball and run with it by the second semester. All of them will get the chance to play, get a fair shot and we’re confident in all three of them.”

If the Purple Eagles can once again get consistent goaltending, they could potentially match or better those numbers with the superb defensive corps that returns this season. Anchoring the blueline is senior C.J. Chartrain. The Pointe-Claire, QC native led Niagara in defensive scoring for the second consecutive year, racking up 14 points (six goals, eight assists) in 36 games. During his career collegiate thus far, Chartrain has developed into an outstanding two-way defenseman for Niagara. This summer, Chartrain attended the Washington Capitals prospect camp. As Burkholder explains, the experience benefits both Chartrain and his team.

“C.J. has become bigger, stronger and faster since he’s been here at Niagara. He can create offense and we give him the green light to rush the puck whenever he wants. He’s been on our power play since his freshman year and he’ll be a mainstay there again this season. C.J. went to the Washington Capitals development camp this summer and I think that has added to his confidence level. So I’m excited about how he does in his senior year.”

Aside from Noonan, the other key loss for Niagara was that of forward Scott Arnold, who opted to forego the remainder of his eligibility to sign with the Phoenix Coyotes. The power forward from Pointe-Claire, QC posted 18 points (10 goals, eight assists) in 33 games in an injury-shortened sophomore campaign.

Although they will be without Arnold, Niagara will still have some very good forward depth returning this season. Among those leading the Purples Eagles’ offensive attack is senior Giancarlo Iuorio. The Richmond Hill, ON native led Niagara with 24 points (10 goals, 14 assists) in 31 games last season. Although Iuorio played primarily on left wing last season, he can play center also. And he plays both positions equally well. Iuorio’s success this season will be predicated on his health. If he can stay healthy, Iuorio could rank among the conference’s top scorers by season’s end.

This season, Niagara adds eight newcomers to their roster. One player to watch is winger Dan Kolenda. At 6’4” and 230 pounds, Kolenda brings some much-needed size to the Purple Eagles’ forward lines. He also can add some great offensive depth.

Robert Morris University
Number of NHL prospects: 0

The Colonials open their 2012-13 season on Oct. 13 at Quinnipiac.

Robert Morris got off to a slow start last October before getting things going last season. While the Colonials finished the year sixth in the conference standings, they played much better than their 17-17-5 record would indicate. However, this off-season Robert Morris graduated a large senior class that has left some significant holes that will need to be filled this season.

The Colonials suffered most of their losses upfront, including their top three scorers from last season in Trevor Lewis, Cory Crichton and Nick Chiavetta. The trio accounted for 28 percent of the team’s scoring.

Among the players that will be leading Robert Morris’ offensive charge this season are senior Adam Brace and sophomore Cody Wydo. Brace is the returning top scorer after racking up 23 points (14 goals, nine assists) in 29 games last season. Many of Brace’s goals came as a result of his hard work and willingness to pay a price in front of the net. Wydo led the Colonials in rookie scoring with 20 points (13 goals, seven assists) in 34 games. The Wyandotte, MI native is a fun player to watch. Wydo isn’t big (5’10, 175 lbs.) but he has great hands, a great stick and possesses outstanding finishing ability.

Another position where Robert Morris suffered a key a loss was in goal with last year’s starter Brooks Ostergard having graduated. The Chagrin Falls, OH native was rock solid between the pipes, finishing his senior campaign with an 11-13-4 record that included one shutout. Ostergard was also the backbone of the excellent Colonials defense that allowed 2.64 goals per game and the nation’s best penalty killing team that clicked at nearly 90 percent last season.

With the departure of Ostergard, the starting job will fall to senior Eric Levine. The Wheeling, IL native played quite well as Ostergard’s backup last season. He posted a 6-4-1 record that included one shutout in 12 appearances. Levine is a big (6’3”, 180 lbs.) netminder that possesses some good athleticism.

Robert Morris’ strength coming into this season will be their defensive corps. Other than losing Josh Jones and James Lyle to graduation, the Colonials blueline returns intact. One rearguard well worth watching is sophomore Tyson Wilson. The Brockville, ON native led the team in defensive scoring with 17 points (three goals, 14 assists) in 32 games and earned a spot on the Atlantic Hockey All-Rookie team. Wilson is a smooth skating, puck-moving defenseman with a good frame (6’1”, 210 lbs.). Among the NHL teams that have already taken notice of the young rearguard is the Washington Capitals, whose prospect camp Wilson attended this summer.

Among Robert Morris’ ten-player freshman class this season, one player to keep an eye on is David Friedman. The Toronto, ON native is one of the youngest players on the Colonials squad this season. He is noted for his great offensive prowess and shot. Friedman, who is draft eligible in 2013, has also been on the NHL radar for quite some time. He attended the Los Angeles Kings’ prospect camp in 2011, and attended the New Jersey Devils’ prospect camp this summer.

Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT)
Number of NHL prospects: 1

The Tigers open their 2012-13 season on Oct. 11 at Michigan.

For the last two years, RIT has come up short in their quest to return to the NCAA Tournament. This year they hope to remedy that. In order to do so, they will have some big holes to fill.

The most notable is in goal. Shane Madolora, who has graduated, was the backbone of the stingy Tigers defense for the last two seasons. The Salinas, CA native posted an 18-9-5 record in 32 games. He also co-led the nation with seven shutouts. Sophomore Jordan Ruby, junior Josh Watson and newcomer Ken MacLean, will be vying for the starting job this season.

Madolora was one four key players on the back end that the Tigers lost to graduation. The others comprised three of the team’s top six defensemen, including top scoring rearguard Chris Haltigin. The Oakville, ON native posted 21 points (five goals, 16 assists) in 39 games last season.

The good news for RIT’s defense is that senior captain Chris Saracino is healthy to start the new season and anchors a blueline that will feature a very good mix of veterans and talented newcomers. The St. Louis, MO native was hampered by injuries and was limited to just 14 games and nine points (two goals, seven assists) last season. What Saracino lacks in size (5’10”, 190 lbs.), he more than makes up for with his strong leadership, excellent two-way play and hockey sense.

“Chris has been healthy since the summer and I think that time off was good for him to get to where he needed to be,” said head coach Wayne Wilson. “We missed him a lot last year, not just his play but his leadership as well. So we’re happy to have him back. He’s going to add an awful lot to the team this year.”

Although RIT lost four key forwards to graduation, they will have some good depth up front this season. But the Tigers will need to increase their overall goal production, as well. Top scorer Michael Colavecchia was the only Tiger that posted ten or more goals last season. The returning junior led the team with 13 goals and 32 points in 39 games. The bad news for RIT is that Colavecchia is on the shelf to start the season recovering from off-season surgery.

Sophomore assistant captain Matt Garbowsky is a returning veteran that is well worth watching this season. The St. George, ON native posted 20 points (nine goals, 11 assists) last season. The 5’10”, 180-pound center plays with an infectious energy. He possesses good puck skills and vision. But Garbowsky’s greatest asset may be his tireless work ethic. And as Wilson explains, it’s that work ethic that makes Garbowsky such a special player.

“Matt’s a man of few words that just kind of leads by example. Everything Matt does, he does hard and well. He’s got a high motor, a great skill set, and plays in all situations for us. I think what separates Matt from most players is his heart and effort level.”

One newcomer that will be relied on to help boost the Tigers’ scoring this season is sophomore Anthony Hamburg (MIN). The Phoenix, AZ native is a transfer from Colgate and holds the distinction of being the first NHL-drafted player on the team’s roster. As Wilson explains, Hamburg’s renewed commitment to his development will have a positive impact on his team.

“Anthony is a very skilled player that we think highly of that’ll be able to help the team. He has very good hands, a great offensive mind for the game and sees the ice very well. Anthony lost about 15 pounds over the summer and has come back in great shape. I think having lost that weight will help his foot speed and allow him to be quicker this year. Anthony’s committed to becoming a better player and I think all of these things will also help us be successful this year.”

Sacred Heart University
Number of NHL prospects: 0

The Pioneers open their 2012-13 season on Oct. 12 at Providence College.

Sacred Heart finished with just six wins for the second consecutive year last season. The 2011-12 campaign got off to a horrendous start that saw the team win just one game in the first half. The Pioneers fared much better in the second half and capped the final two months with a 4-5-2 record. This season, Sacred Heart will be looking to build on that.

The biggest concern heading into the 2012-13 season will be improving the team defense. The Pioneers allowed an average of 4.68 goals per game and the 178 total goals surrendered were the most in the nation. If Sacred Heart is to make a push up the Atlantic Hockey standings this season, they will need to find a way to bring those numbers down.

The Pioneers return much of their back end this season, which includes their goaltending tandem of senior Stephen Legatto and sophomore Andrew Bodnarchuk. Legatto, who started most of the games last season, posted a 3-19-1 record in 26 games. Bodnarchuk, who was Sacred Heart’s go-to guy in the team’s final seven games, posted a 3-9-2 record in 19 appearances. If Bodnarchuk can continue to build on that, and Legatto can regain his magic from four seasons ago, it will go a long way towards making the 2012-13 campaign a successful one for the Pioneers.

Sacred Heart also lost two of their top six defensemen in Ryan Miniaci and Chris Bailer to graduation. But despite the two departures, the Pioneers will have a solid and experienced defensive corps this season that includes sophomores Jared Eng and Bryan Felice. Both defensemen played well last season, despite playing in a limited number of games. Eng posted five points (one goal, four assists) in 19 games. The towering Felice posted two assists in 13 games. Eng and Felice should see an increase in both their ice time and point production this season. Sacred Heart also adds two newcomers to their blueline in Matthew Solomon and diminutive offensive-minded defenseman, Jacob Brightbill.

Coming into the 2012-13 season, the biggest hole that the Pioneers will need to fill is that of graduated top scorer Matt Gingera. The Winnipeg, MB native led the team in almost every category, including goals (17) and points (33), last season. While the loss of Gingera is significant, Sacred Heart does return the rest of their top point producers.

Sophomore Drew George returns as the Pioneers’ top scorer. The Regina, SK native was perhaps the best story coming out of Sacred Heart last season. George posted 23 points (14 goals, nine assists) in 33 games. He also led the team with four power-play goals. George is a player that is well worth watching this season. He is creative with the puck and has excellent finishing ability. George also has the potential to be among Atlantic Hockey’s top scorers by season’s end.

Follow DJ Powers on Twitter via @DJPowersHF