Hockey East 2006-07 season preview

By DJ Powers

It looks to be another fierce battle for Hockey East supremacy once again. This season, Hockey East features 55 current NHL prospects. Each conference member team except Merrimack has at least one NHL prospect on its current roster. Boston College leads all Hockey East teams with 12.

Boston University

(Number of NHL prospects on 2006-07 roster: 10)

The reigning Hockey East Champion Boston University Terriers were one of the nation’s hottest teams coming into postseason play last year. Their successful run came to an end in the NCAA Northeast Regional Final versus archrival Boston College. There are a lot of positives to build on and Boston University hopes to do just that when they open their 2006-07 season on Oct.14 at RPI.

The biggest concern for the Terriers entering this season is replacing last season’s top line of David Van der Gulik (CGY), John Laliberte (COL) and Brad Zancanaro (CAR). All three have graduated and took with them 90 (23.4 percent) of BU’s 370 points from last year. Replacing the trio’s leadership could prove to be more difficult than replacing their offensive output.

One player who’ll be able to provide both this season is junior Peter MacArthur. The Hockey East All-Conference second team selection led the Terriers in scoring last season with 39 points (14 goals, 25 assists).

One line to watch this season is the exciting sophomore trio of Brandon Yip (COL), Chris Higgins and Jason Lawrence. Yip, the Hockey East Rookie of the Year, led all Terriers freshmen in scoring with 31 points (nine goals, 22 assists). Lawrence finished with 22 points (eight goals, 14 assists). Higgins, who scored the memorable highlight reel goal versus Harvard in the Beanpot Tournament, finished his rookie year with 21 points (eight goals, 13 assists).

Another returning player who enjoyed a brilliant 2005-06 season is senior goaltender John Curry. The Hockey East All-Conference First Team selection backstopped Boston University to a 26-10-4 record. The Shorewood, MN native posted a 24-8-4 record that included three shutouts. He finished the season with the fifth-best winning percentage (.722) in the nation.

Talented newcomer Brett Bennett (PHX) will challenge Curry in goal this season. Bennett is a part of the excellent freshman class that Boston University brings in. The Williamsville, NY native is noted for his quickness and athleticism.

Two other notable newcomers are a pair of 2006-drafted defensemen in the outstanding puck-moving Eric Gryba (OTT) and the excellent skating Brian Strait (PIT). The two newcomers will be a nice compliment to the veteran leadership of seniors Kevin Schaeffer (NSH) and team captain Sean Sullivan (PHX) on the Terriers blue line this season.

Boston College

(Number of NHL prospects on 2006-07 roster: 12)

For the Boston College Eagles, the heartbreaking 1-2 loss to Wisconsin in the 2006 National Championship game back in April was just too much to bear and they were left with some unfinished business to take of. This season, they look to try and do just that when they open their 2006-07 season on Oct. 10 hosting Northeastern.

There were several questions that surrounded the team this offseason, but the ones that mattered most were regarding the return of two key players from last season in senior Brian Boyle (LA) and junior Cory Schneider (VAN). The Los Angeles Kings pressed very hard to get Boyle to leave the Heights, while the prospect of Vancouver signing Schneider also loomed large. In the end, both players opted to return to Chestnut Hill in hopes of helping Boston College capture the national championship crown that narrowly eluded them last season.

The return of Boyle and Schneider is vital to the success of the Eagles on several fronts. In addition to resuming key roles on the team, both will also provide a tremendous amount of leadership that was lost when Chris Collins (BOS), Stephen Gionta (NJ) and Peter Harrold (LA) graduated. Boyle, an early candidate for the 2007 Hobey Baker Award, will serve as team captain this season. The Hockey East All-Conference First Team selection returns as the Eagles top scorer after posting 52 points (22 goals, 30 assists) last season.

Schneider, another potential 2007 Hobey Baker candidate, was an absolute workhorse in the Eagles net last season. The All-American East First Team selection led the nation in minutes played (2361:08). He posted a 24-13-2 record that included eight shutouts, a new Boston College single-season record.

Two returning forwards poised to have a very good season this year are sophomores Benn Ferriero (PHX) and Nate Gerbe (BUF). Ferriero, a Hockey East All-Rookie Team selection, led all Eagles rookies with 25 points (16 goals, nine assists). The speedy Gerbe finished his rookie season with 18 points (11 goals, eight assists).

As great as Boston College is up front, they’re equally as good, if not better, on the blue line. Sophomore sensation Brett Motherwell and stalwart junior Mike Brennan lead an impressive and youthful defensive corps this season. Motherwell posted 23 points (four goals, 19 assists) and was named to the Hockey East All-Rookie Team. Brennan finished with 12 points (two goals, ten assists).

Joining Motherwell and Brennan is the highly-touted Carl Sneep (PIT). The Brainerd, MN native is known for his great hockey sense and puck-moving ability. At 6’3/210lbs. Sneep also brings some size to the Boston College blue line as well.

University of Maine

(Number of NHL prospects on 2006-07 roster: 7)

The Maine Black Bears capped an outstanding 2005-06 season with their tenth trip to the Frozen Four. This year, they look to make it an 11th trip when they open their 2006-07 season on Oct. 6 versus Minnesota in St. Paul in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Game.

The primary concern for Maine coming into this season will be replenishing the offensive production that left with graduates Derek Damon, John Hopson and Hobey Baker finalist Greg Moore (NYR). While the Black Bears return many of last season’s top point producers, Moore’s 28 goals will be a challenge to replace.

Seniors Josh Soares and Michel Leveille, both of whom posted 40-plus points last season, return. Soares finished behind Moore with 41 points (15 goals, 26 assists). The excellent playmaking Leveille, who will serve as team captain, finished third with 40 points (16 goals, 24 assists).

One returning forward that head coach Tim Whitehead is expecting to help pick up the slack is junior Billy Ryan (NYR). Despite battling through a progressively worsening ankle injury last season, Ryan still managed to finish fifth on the team in scoring with 28 points (10 goals, 18 assists). The Milton, MA native had offseason surgery to repair his ankle and Whitehead expects him to be a significant offensive contributor this season.

“I think Billy is one logical player who will elevate his role. His (ankle) injury has been healing but it’s been a slow process. He’s not 100 percent yet, but he’ll be there quickly,” said Whitehead. “Billy’s making a lot of progress. If he can get healthy, he’s going to help a lot.”

The Black Bears have always been known for their stingy defense and it’s not likely to change this season. Where Maine was particularly effective was in penalty killing – the top unit in the nation last season. Their 88.9 percent efficiency rating set a new school record in that category.

One reason for the unit’s success can be attributed to the stellar goaltending that towering sophomore Ben Bishop (STL) provided. The Hockey East All-Rookie Team selection posted a 21-8-2 record last season that included a 2.28 goals against average and a .907 save percentage.

The returning defenseman that all eyes will be on this season is sophomore behemoth Simon Danis-Pepin (CHI). Danis-Pepin was sensational last season, particularly in the second half. After being drafted by Chicago (second round, 61st overall) this summer, talk began to swirl about whether or not the Blackhawks would sign the young defenseman. Much to the delight of the Black Bears faithful, that didn’t happen.

“There had been some rumors about Chicago possibly signing him, but Simon and his family are committed to his education and his development as both a player and a person,” said Whitehead. “I would’ve been shocked if Simon had left. I would highly doubt that they (Chicago) were pushing him to leave Maine considering how much progress he made with us last year. As long as Simon continues to develop here, this is where he’ll be.”

University of Massachusetts

(Number of NHL prospects on 2006-07 roster: 6)

It was an uphill battle last season for UMass that was attributed in part to their continuing offensive woes. This season, the Minutemen look to turn things around when they open their 2006-07 season on Oct. 13 hosting Sacred Heart.

For the last several years, the Minutemen’s offensive output has steadily dropped. Last season, UMass finished 55th in the nation in team offense, averaging just 2.14 goals per game. Coupled with the loss of Stephen Werner (WSH) and Marvin Degon (NYR) to graduation, the challenge of getting more offense becomes a little more difficult.

Up front, the Minutemen return an excellent group of forwards but the big question will be if they can all boost their offensive numbers.

One player who blossomed into a more complete player last season, despite his struggles scoring goals was junior P.J. Fenton (SJ). What he didn’t contribute on the scoresheet, he made up for with some toughness, smart defensive play, and hard work. Fenton finished with 17 points (five goals, 12 assists) last season. This season, he’ll be one of the players that head coach Don Cahoon will be relying on to not only be a leader but also to be a significant offensive contributor as well.

“We’ll be looking for bigger and better things from P.J. going into this year. He’s a player that puts a lot of pressure on himself to be productive,” said Cahoon. “He was very good in the second half of last season, playing with a lot more poise and more enthusiasm. He wasn’t worried about (scoring) points. For P.J., it was just about what could he do to chip in, play well and contribute to the team’s effort.”

Amongst the newcomers who should fit in nicely with the Minutemen this season is defenseman Martin Nolet. The 2006 draft selection of the Los Angeles Kings (fifth round, 144th overall) brings good size, agility and outstanding skating ability to the UMass blue line.

“Martin is a very intelligent kid. I think his skating is the biggest dimension that he brings to the table,” said Cahoon. “He has good puck skills and the ability to be able to jump on turnovers and transition the puck. I think he’ll be able to make contributions in all three zones for us.”

Nolet is a part of a very solid, and suddenly bigger defense for UMass this season. Defense, along with goaltending, could potentially be the Minutemen’s area of strength.

For sophomore goaltender Jon Quick (LA) last season was quite the learning experience. Despite a 4-10-1 record and facing an average of 33 shots per game, he played remarkably well. Quick posted a .920 save percentage and a 2.98 goals against average. This season, he has the potential to be even better. How well UMass fares this season will depend largely upon what kind of goaltending Quick can give them.

University of Massachusetts-Lowell

(Number of NHL prospects on 2006-07 roster: 1)

One team in Hockey East who is in serious rebuilding mode this season is UMass-Lowell. The Riverhawks will have a very different look when they open their 2006-07 season on Oct. 13 at Minnesota-Duluth.

To say that UMass-Lowell lost players in the offseason is an understatement. Fourteen players from last year’s squad are gone, including starting netminder Peter Vetri, who has transferred to Quinnipiac. With the vast turnover of personnel, the Riverhawks will be extremely young. UMass-Lowell will have just eight upperclassmen this season. So how the team fares will depend largely upon how well and how quickly the newcomers make the adjustment to the collegiate game.

The task of guiding the young team this season will fall to a pair of senior co-captains in forward Jason Tejchma and defenseman Clive Kinley. Tejchma (pronounced “teach-muh”) is the top returning scorer from last year’s team. He finished the 2005-06 season fifth on the team with 26 points (ten goals, 16 assists). Kinley, who missed six games due to injury last season, is hoping to bounce back from a goal-less junior year when he posted just 12 points (all assists).

With Vetri’s departure the biggest concern for UMass-Lowell coming into the season is goaltending. Sophomore Vinny Monaco will likely start the season with newcomers Nevin Hamilton and Carter Hutton competing for time as well. Between the three netminders, there are three games and just under 110 total minutes of collegiate experience.

While goaltending is the position with the least amount experience coming into this season, defense looks to have the most. In addition to Kinley, the Riverhawks will also return seniors J.R. Bria and Jake Pence and junior Kelly Sullivan. The stability that the veterans provide will go a long way towards helping the goaltenders gain the confidence that is so vital to playing the position effectively.

Up front, UMass-Lowell has a good mix of veterans and newcomers with some scoring ability. With so much of the Riverhawks’ scoring from last season having left, the incoming freshmen will immediately be relied upon to contribute offensively.

One newcomer to watch this season is UMass-Lowell’s lone NHL prospect, forward Chris Auger. The 2006 draft selection (sixth round, 169th overall) of the Chicago Blackhawks is noted for his great hands and on-ice vision.

Merrimack College

(Number of NHL prospects on 2006-07 roster: 0)

Hockey East’s perennial cellar dwellers, Merrimack will look to make the climb out this year when they open their 2006-07 season on Oct. 13 against host Alaska-Anchorage in the Nye Frontier Classic.

Like their counterparts at UMass-Lowell, the Warriors lost a big portion of last year’s squad. For a team where attracting elite talent is extremely difficult, if not nearly impossible, replacing 12 departures and trying to move up the Hockey East standings becomes a daunting task.

Recently, that task became even more daunting when Merrimack announced that last season’s top scorer, sophomore Rob Ricci, has been suspended for the entire 2006-07 season due to team rule violations.

With the loss of Ricci and the graduation of forward Matt Johnson and defenseman Bryan Schmidt, the Warriors will need to find a way to replace the offensive production that these top scorers leave. In 2005-06, Merrimack finished dead last in the nation in team offense. They scored a mere 64 goals in 34 games (1.88 goals per game). Of the Warriors’ 64 goals last season, nearly half (30) were scored by Ricci, Johnson and Schmidt. So the biggest concern for Merrimack coming into this season will be figuring out ways to generate more offense by both veterans and newcomers alike.

Senior Mike Alexiou returns as the top scorer, but he amassed just 13 points last season (two goals, 11 assists). Merrimack’s top returning goal scorer is junior Hank Carisio, who posted six goals. Alexiou and Carisio will be relied on heavily to lead the offense but if the Warriors want to have any chance of moving out of the Hockey East basement this season, they’ll need to get scoring by committee.

Help could come from several of their newcomers. Freshmen Pat Kimball and Mike Vaskivuo both had very good offensive seasons last year with their respective junior/high school teams. Junior Carmen Posteraro, a transfer from Bentley College, could also become a top offensive contributor as well.

While the offensive situation still needs sorting out, goaltending looks to be Merrimack’s strength coming into the season. Despite sophomore Pat Watson’s six-game suspension due to team rule violations to start the year, the Warriors look solid in goal. When Watson returns to the lineup, he’ll be battling senior Jim Healey and freshman Andrew Brathwaite for playing time. While Healey played in more games last season, Watson posted the better numbers in save percentage (.920) and goals against average (2.72).

University of New Hampshire

(Number of NHL prospects on 2006-07 roster: 6)

Last year, the University of New Hampshire capped a solid 2005-06 campaign with their fifth straight trip to the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats will look to make it six straight when they open their 2006-07 season on Oct. 20 at Colorado College.

The Wildcats look poised to make a strong push for the Hockey East crown this season. New Hampshire lost few players in the offseason. However, the losses were significant ones, specifically that of Daniel Winnik (PHX) and Brian Yandle (BOS). Winnik opted to leave early to sign with Phoenix and Yandle graduated. Despite the losses, the Wildcats should be in very good shape.

Goaltending will be the one position to watch this season. With the graduation of Jeff Pietrasiak, the goaltending duties will fall to a pair of excellent young netminders in junior Kevin Regan (BOS) and newcomer Brian Foster (FLA). Regan, who is likely to start the season, was superb last year. He posted an 8-8-5 record that included three shutouts in 22 games last season. Foster also enjoyed a superb season last year when he helped backstop Des Moines (USHL) to a Clark Cup Championship. Both players bring an impressive skill set and competence to their position that will benefit New Hampshire greatly both this season and beyond.

Foster is one of five newcomers to New Hampshire this season. One player well worth keeping an eye on is forward Peter LeBlanc. The 2006 draft selection of the Chicago Blackhawks (seventh round, 186th overall) is a very smart player noted for his quickness and speed.

Up front, the Wildcats return most of their top scorers from last season, including seniors Jacob Micflikier and Brett Hemingway (COL). The elusive Micflikier led New Hampshire in scoring last season with 42 points (16 goals, 26 assists). Hemingway finished second with 41 points (19 goals, 22 assists) and did much of his damage to the opposition on the power play. Of his 19 goals, 11 came with the man advantage.

The Wildcats also return an outstanding group of defensemen led by senior Chris Murray and junior Craig Switzer (NSH). Murray, who will serve as one of the team’s assistant captains, will provide both leadership and stability to a very good New Hampshire defensive corps.

Switzer really came into his own last season. The Peachland, BC native made significant strides in virtually every facet of his game in 2005-06 and as a result became arguably New Hampshire’s most consistent defenseman. He finished his strong sophomore campaign with 16 points (two goals, 14 assists) and was one of only two players on the Wildcats roster who played in all 40 games last season.

Northeastern University

(Number of NHL prospects on 2006-07 roster: 3)

The Northeastern University Huskies labored through a 2005-06 season with a myriad of injury problems followed by lots of offseason changes. This season, the new-look Huskies are hoping to shake things up in Hockey East when they open their 2006-07 season on Oct. 10 at Boston College.

The best news that Northeastern got coming into this season is the long-awaited return of redshirted senior Mike Morris (SJ). The Braintree, MA native missed the entire 2005-06 season due to the effects of post-concussion syndrome. While head coach Greg Cronin is thrilled to have Morris back in the lineup this season, he also remains cautious about Morris’ situation.

“We’re at that stage with Mike where his dexterity, timing, and more importantly his confidence are going to be critical to transitioning back to playing. We’re not in any rush to get him back out on the ice. It’s going to be up to him. He’s going to take his time and with the discretion and feedback from the medical and training staff we’ll move from there. We do however expect him to be in the lineup at some point this season,” said Cronin. “Mike started training about mid-June/early July. His balance and agility are back. His strength is starting to take some traction in terms of his ability to put on weight. All of those things are clear indications that he’s moving in the right direction.”

An area where Morris’ return will vastly help improve is the Huskies offensive production. Northeastern struggled mightily in scoring goals last year. Their miniscule 1.97 goals per game ranked 56th in the nation last season.

One of the most notable changes to the team this season is the turnover in personnel. Two players who will not be returning to the Huskies lineup are forward Carter Lee (SJ) and defenseman Stephen McClellan (COL). Lee has supposedly transferred to Lake Superior State, while McClellan’s status is currently unknown.

“We made our decisions throughout the year based on the image that the players themselves gave us. If we felt that the image was compatible with the direction that we were going then we were going to keep them. If not, and that includes the behavior off the ice, then we’d move on,” said Cronin. “If they’re not going to be in your plans then you have to give them the latitude to move on, so that was the decision that we made. We talked to them about it and I think it was a very amicable divorce.”

While increased offensive production is the biggest challenge facing Northeastern, the defense looks poised to be even better this season. A pair of seniors in goaltender Adam Geragosian and defenseman Steve Birnstill will provide a solid foundation and some stability to the predominantly young Huskies team this season.

While he only posted a 3-14-6 record last season, Geragosian did post a respectable .902 save percentage and a 3.24 goals against average. The smooth-skating Birnstill logged a ton of ice time for Northeastern last season and that’s not likely to change this season. The one element that the Huskies are hoping that Birnstill will be able to contribute more of this season is offense from the blue line. The Commack, NY native led all Huskies defensemen in scoring last season with 16 points (two goals, 14 assists).

Providence College

(Number of NHL prospects on 2006-07 roster: 6)

One of the most pleasant surprises to come out of Hockey East last season was Providence College. The Friars wide-open style propelled them to a fifth-place finish. This season, Providence will look to build on the successes of last year when they open their 2006-07 season on Oct. 13 hosting Clarkson.

The Friars will have a bit of a different look but a whole new attitude this season. The emphasis this year is on speed, offensive creativity and consistency. All of that begins with the senior leadership of co-captains Colin McDonald (EDM) and Tony Zancanaro. McDonald returns after a stellar junior season, posting 28 points (nine goals, 20 assists) in 36 appearances. He co-led the team in plus/minus (+6). The diminutive and energetic Zancanaro finished the season with 19 points (11 goals, eight assists). Both players are expected to not only provide strong leadership but to also contribute more offensively.

Despite the loss of James Pemberton, the Providence defense looks very strong with a great mix of solid returning veterans and a talented group of newcomers.

One of those returning is sophomore Cody Wild (EDM). Wild, who was selected to the Hockey East All-Rookie Team last season, added both excitement and tremendous offensive ability to the Friars blue line last season. He led all Providence defensemen in scoring with 21 points (nine goals, 15 assists). This season, head coach Tim Army is expecting much more from the local product.

“This year, we want Cody’s game to continue to evolve where he can assume more ice time and be able to handle the responsibilities that come with having more ice time,” said Army. “We want him to become more active with the puck and become more efficient in his reads and his ability to respond to those reads when he doesn’t have the puck. We certainly believe that he is more than capable of doing that.”

The size and toughness on the blue line that went with Pemberton’s departure were attributes that the Friars needed to replace this season and that replacement comes in the form of freshman Mark Fayne (NJ). The Sagamore Beach, MA native brings a combination of size (6’3/220 lbs.), mobility, physicality and some nastiness to the Friars.

“Mark is a defenseman that can play in any situation. He has those capabilities because of his whole package. He’s a guy that will be active offensively but he is also very physical and mean,” said Army. “Mark is a guy that we’re really going to push because I think there’s a lot offensively that he can explore.”

Equally, if not stronger, for the Friars this season is goaltending. Junior Tyler Sims was brilliant between the pipes last season, posting a 17-15-2 record that included three shutouts. His three shutouts tied a school single-season record.

Sims will get some stiff competition from newcomer Ryan Simpson. The youngest member of the Providence team this season is coming off of a season where he led the New England Junior Monarchs to an EJHL Championship and was named the league’s Goaltender of the Year.

University of Vermont

(Number of NHL prospects on 2006-07 roster: 4)

The University of Vermont’s inaugural season as a member of Hockey East was a successful one, despite finishing in sixth place. They’ll be looking to better that when they open their 2006-07 campaign on Oct. 6 versus Colgate in the Icebreaker Tournament in Oxford, OH.

Coming into this season, Vermont’s most pressing issue will be filling the roles that graduated forwards Brady Leisenring, Jeff Corey and defenseman Jaime Sifers have left. What makes filling those roles even more crucial is the fact that the Catamounts will also need to find ways to generate more offense, specifically five-on-five. Vermont ranked a disappointing 42nd in the nation in team offense last season, averaging just over two and a half goals per game.

One player who will certainly be able to provide some significant offensive production is junior and co-captain Torrey Mitchell (SJ). Mitchell, a potential candidate for the 2007 Hobey Baker Award, led the Catamounts in scoring last season with 40 points (12 goals, 28 assists).

“He is such a real good player all-around and does all of the little things. The best thing about Torrey is that he is never, ever complacent. He wants the team to have success and is willing to do whatever it takes for him and the team to get better,” said head coach Kevin Sneddon. “This summer, Torrey has put on some more muscle mass that will allow him to be more durable, stronger and to be able to win even more one-on-one battles this year.”

In addition to a very good returning group, Vermont will also welcome seven new forwards this season. One newcomer well worth watching is Gothenburg, Sweden native Viktor Stalberg (TOR). Stalberg brings a great combination of finesse, speed and scoring ability to the Catamounts roster.

“Viktor’s got all of the talent and tools to be an excellent offensive player for us. We are certainly going to demand that he play hard in his own zone and but he’s also a player that we’re going to have to allow to be very creative offensively. I certainly wouldn’t want to stifle any of his creativity,” said Sneddon. “We really feel like we got a great player in Viktor and I think Toronto drafted very wisely in selecting him.”

Vermont has long had a reputation of being an excellent defensive team and this season looks to be no different. The Catamounts ranked third in the nation last season in defense, allowing an average of 2.16 goals per game. A big reason for that could be attributed to the superb play of junior goaltender Joe Fallon (CHI). Last season, the Bemidji, MN native set a new single season school record with his six shutouts and along with that broke Tim Thomas’ career shutout record. What makes the feat even more remarkable is the fact that Fallon did it in just two years. He finished his sophomore season with a 14-14-5 record along with a .907 save percentage and a 2.02 goals against average.

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