University of Maine season preview

By DJ Powers

The Maine Black Bears will open their 2005-06 regular season on October 7th when they travel to Colorado College’s World Arena to face off against Air Force in the Icebreaker Tournament.

Maine suffered some significant losses in the offseason but none were bigger than the loss of goaltender Jimmy Howard. Howard opted to forego his senior season to sign with the Detroit Red Wings. With the loss of Howard, goaltending becomes Maine’s most pressing issue.

“The loss of Jimmy will obviously have an impact on our team but that doesn’t mean that we can’t win. We’ll just have to build our team in a different way,” said head coach Tim Whitehead in a recent interview with Hockey’s Future.

Youth and relative inexperience will be in the Black Bears net to start the season. Returning sophomore Matt Lundin and incoming freshman Ben Bishop (STL) will be the tandem that will see most of the ice time. Whitehead plans to rotate his young tandem and he feels very confident that his young goaltenders will be able to get the job done.

“We are planning to rotate the two goaltenders to start the season. I would anticipate alternating them throughout the coming year. We want to try and give both of them a real good opportunity to play this year. We’re not going to put any pressure on just one of them to carry the load. We don’t expect them to be consistently excellent at the very start because it will be a big adjustment for them. You just expect them to train hard, improve, to stay positive and to help the team. We’re very confident that they’ll be able to do those things. As a result, I think they will improve and our team will improve.”

Lundin, who served as Howard’s backup last season saw action in nine games, but got only one decision – a win.

“Matt is a fierce competitor. He’s an excellent puck handler and he’s got great reflexes,” described Whitehead. The towering Bishop comes to Maine from the Gold Cup (NAHL) Champion Texas Tornado, where he compiled a 35-8-0 record that included five shutouts.

“Ben has remarkably great balance and agility for a guy who is 6’6,” said Whitehead of Bishop.

Team defense has traditionally been one of Maine’s greatest strengths and this season looks to be no different, except that they’ll be much younger both in goal and on the blue line. Maine lost four defensemen in the offseason. Troy Barnes and Mathew Deschamps have both graduated. Jeff Mushaluk, who would’ve been a senior this season, has graduated early. Tom Zabkowicz opted to forego his final two years of eligibility to sign with Idaho (ECHL). In addition, Keith Yandle (PHX) ended up signing with Moncton. Whitehead explained what happened with Yandle.

“Basically, things fell through with UNH when Keith was did not get admitted there for the 2005-06 year. So he wanted to explore other options and he called us. We tried to get him admitted. Keith verbally committed to coming here and he had to take some summer school classes in order to get the grades to be admitted. Unfortunately, he didn’t get the grades that he needed so he was not admitted into the school. So at that point he decided to sign with Moncton. The reason why Keith signed with Moncton so late was because he was waiting for his summer school grades to come back.”

Despite the losses, Maine returns five outstanding defensemen led by senior Steve Mullin, junior Mike Lundin (TB) and sophomore Bret Tyler. Mullin, who will serve as an assistant captain this season brings toughness and stability to the youthful Black Bears defense. He finished last season with four points (all assists) playing in all 40 games. The smooth skating, offensive-minded Lundin posted 14 points (1 goal, 13 assists) last year and was one of the least penalized players playing in the most games in the NCAA. In 40 games last season, Lundin posted a grand total of two penalty minutes.

Tyler is a diminutive yet energetic offensive defenseman who was quite impressive last season. He led all Black Bears defensemen in scoring with 20 points (6 goals, 14 assists) in 36 games. His stellar season performance earned a selection to the Hockey East All-Rookie team.

In addition to the returnees, Maine welcomes in a trio of very talented defensemen that all bring considerable size and offensive abilities to Maine. The newcomers include Matt Duffy (FLA) and Simon Danis Pepin. Duffy, a 6’2/190 lbs. fourth round selection of the Florida Panthers in this summer’s draft, comes to Maine from the New Hampshire Junior Monarchs (EJHL), where he posted 35 points (16 goals, 19 assists) last season.

“Matt is a very good skater and he loves to jump up into the play. He brings physical presence and an edge,” said Whitehead of Duffy.

Danis-Pepin was a late addition to the Black Bears’ 2005-06 roster, namely due to Yandle not being able to get into Maine. Danis-Pepin is a very young (an 88-born) and a very big (6’7/208 lbs.) defenseman who comes to Maine from Gatineau (Quebec AAA Midget League), where he had 37 points (6 goals, 31 assists).

“Simon will be one of the youngest players in the country. Obviously his size is one of his strengths. He has great hockey sense. He’s very good and very poised with the puck. It’s going to be a tough adjustment obviously for him, especially since he’s missing that junior “A” step and going right from midget to college hockey. We’re confident that by the second half of the season he’ll be emerging for us,” said Whitehead.

Increased offensive production is one area where Whitehead would like to see his team improve this season.

“We certainly want to improve our offense from last year. We felt last year we were one goal for less than what we would’ve wanted. Clearly, we don’t want to lose any strength defensively and do need to add some offensive punch, but I think we’re in a position to do that.”

Maine will see most of its veteran leadership this season coming from their returning forwards. The Black Bears lost four forwards in the offseason. John Ronan, Ben Murphy and Matt Greyeyes have all graduated. Tim Maxwell has transferred to Bowling Green. Among the returning players that will be counted on to help lead the Black Bears this season include fifth year senior Derek Damon, senior Jon Jankus and juniors Michel Leveille and Mike Hamilton (ATL). Damon and Jankus have become one of Maine’s best and most reliable forwards. Damon led the team in scoring last season with 27 points (14 goals, 13 assists) in 39 appearances. Jankus finished second in scoring with 25 points (8 goals, 17 assists).

The superb playmaking Leveille will look to pick up his offensive production this season after seeing his numbers dipping last season from his sensational rookie season two years ago. He finished the 2004-05 season with 24 points (12 goals, 12 assists). One reason for the drop in his numbers can be attributed to the seven games he missed early in the season due to a shoulder injury.

Hamilton became one of Maine’s most effective penalty killers last season. This season they are hoping to get some increased offensive production out of him. Hamilton finished the 2004-05 season with 18 points (3 goals, 15 assists).

In addition to the returning players, Maine will welcome four new forwards including Alaska-Anchorage transfer John Hopson. Hopson, who will be a senior this season, is the older brother of sophomore forward Keenan Hopson.

Two players that will be well worth watching this season are team captain Greg Moore (NYR) and sophomore Rob Bellamy (PHI). Moore, who will be a senior this season, opted to return to Maine to finish out his collegiate career and get his degree this season. The New York Rangers had tried to persuade him to leave Maine, but Moore decided to return.

“I know that New York did approach him to forego his senior year and sign with them, but he declined to do so,” said Whitehead. “He wanted to stay for his senior year and serve as our captain. He is looking forward to the experience of being a captain here and he wanted to finish his degree. He had a great rookie camp with New York. They were so impressed with him that they asked him if he would consider coming out and he just say no, I’d rather stick to my plan and be the captain of Maine this year and join the Rangers organization next year.”

Moore has become in many ways the “heart and soul” of the Maine Black Bears. He brings a tremendous work ethic, strong yet quiet leadership as well as great abilities both as an offensive and defensive player to his team. Nowhere was Moore’s value to his team seen more often than on the Black Bears power play. Of the 14 goals he scored last season, ten came with the man-advantage. Moore finished the 2004-05 season either leading or tying the team lead in goals, power play goals and shots (105).

The hard-hitting Bellamy, who was impressive in freshman campaign, saw his season come to an abrupt end just before the Hockey East conference semi-finals when he broke his hand.

“It happened in the practice that we had before we left for Boston for the Hockey East semi-finals that he broke his hand,” described Whitehead. “He had gone down to block a shot and it hit his hand and broke it. It was very typical for Robbie to put his body on the line like that in practice. It was a surprisingly big blow for us when we lost him for the duration of the season. He’s a player who brings great toughness and a tremendous physical presence to our team. He hits as hard as any player I’ve ever coached. We’re very excited to have him healthy and back in the lineup this year.”

Bellamy ended up playing in 28 games in rookie season, posting seven points (three goals, four assists).

(Number of NHL prospects on 2005-06 roster: 7)

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