May 18, 2012

From NEHJ: Rookie leaders take steps

By Andrew Merritt

Coaching changes are something of a rarity in Hockey East.

In the 10 years since Tim Whitehead left UMass-Lowell to take over Maine and Blaise MacDonald took his place with the River Hawks, there had been just four coaching changes by league teams — including Vermont’s hiring of Kevin Sneddon two years before it actually joined the conference. 

UMass-Lowell bench boss Norm Bazin led the River Hawks to an NCAA tourney bid. (Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

But the relatively slow-moving Hockey East coaching carousel picked up some serious steam last summer, when three teams found themselves looking for new coaches after the end of the 2010-11 season. Tim Army (East Providence, R.I.) and MacDonald (Billerica, Mass.) stepped down from their posts at Providence and UMass-Lowell, respectively, in March 2011, and Greg Cronin (Arlington, Mass.) opted for a job with the Toronto Maple Leafs three months later, putting Northeastern in the coaching hunt as well.

Only once in the league’s history had three teams entered a season with a different coach than the one with whom it had started the previous season — 1996, when UMass-Lowell and Northeastern had new bench bosses, and Maine started the year with Cronin running the show in the absence of the suspended Shawn Walsh. Even then, Cronin had finished out the previous season as Maine’s coach after Walsh was banned for a year following a recruiting scandal.

Yet in 2011-12, there would be three new faces behind Hockey East benches — Nate Leaman at Providence, Norm Bazin at UMass-Lowell and Jim Madigan (Milton, Mass.) at Northeastern.

On paper, it might have seemed that Leaman had the tallest hill to climb, taking over a team that had missed the playoffs in each of the previous four years. But coming off of leading Union to one of the finest seasons in its history, Leaman began the Friars’ reclamation project with a bang, as PC started the season 8-6-1, and briefly held the first-place spot in Hockey East. A midseason slump put the Friars in danger of missing the playoffs again, but they held on and made a surprising run to the Hockey East semifinals.

UMass-Lowell’s season followed a different trajectory, but by the end of the season, the River Hawks were one of the best teams in the nation and earned the program’s first trip to the NCAA tournament in 16 years, even after getting bounced — by Providence — in the league quarterfinals.

Northeastern, meanwhile, struggled throughout 2011-12. Cronin’s departure put the Huskies in more of a hole, coming in June rather than the start of the offseason. Madigan, a former NU player during the program’s halcyon days in the early 1980s, and a constant presence on campus for years as a Northeastern administrator, tried to meld the gritty Cronin game with his own style (which isn’t exactly lacking in sand), and had limited success. The Huskies also took a hit on the recruiting trail, where top incomer Johnny Gaudreau opted to head to Boston College in the wake of Cronin’s departure, and had a stellar freshman season.

BOSTON COLLEGE

The Good: Where do we start? The Eagles were one of the nation’s best teams all season and rode a 19-game winning streak to the national title — the program’s third in five years. Goaltender Parker Milner overcame some midseason struggles to give BC a rock-solid last line of defense, allowing just 21 goals over that 19-game stretch. Up front, the Eagles suffered no shortage of firepower, with junior Chris Kreider (Boxford, Mass.) leading the team with 23 goals and 45 points, and freshman Johnny Gaudreau adding 21-23-44 totals in his debut season. All told, BC had seven players with 30-plus points, and another three had more than 20. Defensively, senior Tommy Cross (Simsbury, Conn.) and junior Brian Dumoulin (Biddeford, Maine) led a corps that allowed just 27 shots and 2.02 goals per game.

The Bad: BC hit the skids midway through the season, with Milner losing his grasp on the starting job as the team went 6-9-1 from mid-November until a weekend sweep at the hands of Maine on Jan. 27 and 28 — the last time the Eagles lost a game. If anything, that pair of losses to the Black Bears ended up the biggest catalyst in the Eagles’ run to the college hockey treble of the Beanpot, Hockey East and NCAA titles.

The Future: As expected, the Eagles already have suffered heavy losses even before graduation day. Kreider signed with the New York Rangers in time for their playoff run and canceled his senior season, and Dumoulin also opted out early to sign with Carolina. Leaving at graduation this spring are defensemen Cross — a Bruins prospect — and Edwin Shea (Shrewsbury, Mass.), and forwards Barry Almeida (Springfield, Mass.) and Paul Carey (Weymouth, Mass.), who all were integral parts of the program during their four years. That said, Gaudreau leads a talented group of returning players, including Bill Arnold (Needham, Mass.), who scored 17 goals and 19 assists in a breakout sophomore year, and Milner, who showed emphatically over the last few months of the season that he should enter his senior year as the Eagles’ No. 1.

BOSTON UNIVERSITY

The Good: BU was one of the strongest teams in the league all season, which was remarkable given some of the things we’ll look at in “The Bad.” Led by Alex Chiasson’s 15-31-46 totals, the Terriers had three players among the league’s top 10 scorers (Chiasson, Matt Nieto and Chris Connolly). Their 23-14-1 record was good enough to earn an NCAA tournament berth even after falling to Maine in the Hockey East semifinals, though they suffered defeat No. 15 in the first round against Minnesota.

The Bad: The bulk of what went wrong for the Terriers in 2011-12 came off the ice. Corey Trivino, who already had run afoul of coach Jack Parker (Somerville, Mass.) in the past, was arrested Dec. 11 on several charges after police said he broke into a woman’s room and tried to rape her. Trivino, then the leading scorer in Hockey East, was kicked off the team. Two months later, defenseman Max Nicastro was arrested on charges including rape, and he too was kicked off the team. Amid those dismissals, forward Charlie Coyle (Weymouth, Mass.) decided midseason to defect to Canadian major junior, and finished the season with the Saint John Sea Dogs of the QMJHL, signing with the Minnesota Wild in March.

The Future: The future of BU hockey also goes beyond the rink, as a school initiative to examine the culture surrounding the team was introduced after Nicastro’s arrest. On the ice, the Terriers lose Chiasson to an early pro defection, and captain Connolly and goaltender Kieran Millan graduate this spring. The hole in net is particularly noteworthy, because although Millan didn’t have the greatest senior season, he has been the starter almost without exception for his four years on Commonwealth Avenue.

MAINE

The Good: Two words: Spencer Abbott. The senior ran away with the league scoring title, scoring 21 goals and 41 assists. That put him 14 and 15 points ahead of the next two scorers on the league chart — who just so happen to be his linemates, Brian Flynn (Lynnfield, Mass.) and Joey Diamond. That top line was a fearsome trio that helped push Maine into the Hockey East title game and an at-large berth in the NCAAs. The Black Bears had the league’s third-best offense, and thanks to a defense keyed by Ryan Hegarty, Mark Nemec, Mike Cornell (Franklin, Mass.) and goaltender Dan Sullivan, surrendered the fourth fewest goals per game.

The Bad: Maine was a little shaky early on, and a 3-6-2 start meant that even with a 20-8-1 finish, they were fighting for home ice in the playoffs. A strong power play was offset by the third-worst penalty kill in the league, which stopped just 79.2 percent of the power plays Maine faced. The Black Bears also were a little top-heavy, scoring-wise, with a bit of a dropoff after the top six scorers. They also lost their last two games — the Hockey East final and the NCAA Northeast Regional semifinal against Minnesota-Duluth — by a combined 9-3 score.

The Future: Maine was keyed in 2011-12 by a stellar first line comprised of a junior (Diamond) and two seniors, so there are some holes to fill on offense. The Black Bears also lose high-scoring defenseman Will O’Neill (Salem, Mass.), and swingman Matt Mangene opted for an early defection to the pros (Philadelphia). But Sullivan is just a sophomore, and took the reins in net this year, and Diamond returns some scoring punch to the lineup.

UMASS

The Good: The Minutemen were surprise giant killers this season, stealing wins from BC and BU when each was ranked No. 1 in the nation. They also gave the Eagles two tough games in the Hockey East quarterfinals, and controversial goals played a part in both UMass losses there. Senior captain T.J. Syner (Springfield, Mass.) led the way with 13 goals and 24 assists, and Melrose, Mass., native Conor Sheary (12-23-35) and West Haven, Conn., native Michael Pereira (17-17-34) also had nice years.

The Bad: UMass never really got its goaltending situation figured out, and that’s just the first in a laundry list of problems the Minutemen faced all season. After the abovementioned three leading scorers, there weren’t a lot of goals to be found in the UMass lineup, with just five players scoring in the double digits. Freshmen Kevin Boyle and Steve Mastalerz (North Andover, Mass.) split most of the time in net, with neither really doing enough to take over as a No. 1 (though Boyle saw the majority of the ice time), and no Minuteman goalie had a goals against average under 3 other than senior Kevin Moore, who only saw 1:35 of action in net.

The Future: Syner was the beating heart of the Minutemen this season, and classmates Danny Hobbs and Michael Marcou provided some firepower as well, but the bulk of the lineup will return next season, including both Boyle and Mastalerz in net. Defenseman Adam Phillips has shown some strength in his first two years, even playing as a center in the Minutemen’s final game of the year, so he’ll be called upon to step up as a junior. But the bottom line is that some of the players who couldn’t find the net in 2011-12 will need to discover it in 2012-13, or it’ll be more of the same in Amherst.

UMASS-LOWELL

The Good: In the first year under Norm Bazin, no one would have expected the River Hawks to do much. Yet they instead made some history, going from worst to first in the league and earning a trip to the NCAA Division 1 tournament for the first time since 1996. Junior Riley Wetmore (Swanton, Vt.) and standout freshman Scott Wilson led the River Hawks’ surge from five wins in 2010-11 to a 24-13-1 record this season, and sophomore Doug Carr (Hanover, Mass.) was a revelation in net, posting the league’s second-best goals against average (2.13) and save percentage (.928). Bazin was named a finalist for the Spencer Penrose Award (national coach of the year) in recognition for his strong debut behind the bench.

The Bad: UML fizzled a bit in the last few weeks of the season, falling to fellow upstart Providence in the Hockey East quarterfinals and getting bounced by Union in the NCAA East Regional final (though that came after a win over Miami in the first round).

The Future: The future looks bright for UMass-Lowell, with the top three scorers Wetmore, Wilson and Derek Arnold (Foxboro, Mass.) all set to return for 2012-13, as well as Carr. The River Hawks lose some leadership in seniors David Vallorani and Matt Ferreira, but most of the roster is back next season, including a 10-man class of rising juniors.

MERRIMACK

The Good: Mark Dennehy’s (Dorchester, Mass.) boys put together another solid season, getting past a rough stretch in December to finish fifth, just one point separating them and fourth-place Maine. The Warriors didn’t have any big-time scorers, but a balanced offense saw 11 players finish with double-digit points, led by Ryan Flanigan’s 11-18-29 totals. In goal, Joe Cannata (Wakefield, Mass.) closed out his college career with another good season, posting a 2.18 goals-against average (third in the league) and .925 save percentage (fourth). The Warriors also made up for having a low-scoring offense with the league’s second-best defense, allowing 2.24 goals per game. 

Northeastern coach Jim Madigan played catch up after his late offseason hire. (Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

The Bad: The Warriors lost senior Carter Madsen to a horrific leg injury in January, and that set the tone for the rest of the year, as they went the rest of the way without putting up back-to-back wins. They never totally faltered, but an inconsistent pace kept them from ascending any higher. While the offensive balance was a plus for Merrimack, the Warriors also could have used a little more scoring punch, as they scored three or more goals just seven times over the final 17 games.

The Future: There are some big names headed out the door with an eight-member graduating class, including Cannata, Flanigan, Madsen, stalwart defenseman Karl Stollery and forward Jesse Todd. Cannata is probably the biggest hole to fill, as Sam Marotta (Bridgewater, Mass.) only played in two games as a sophomore this season. The top returning scorer is Mike Collins (Boston, Mass.), who had 10 goals and 15 assists as a sophomore.

NEW HAMPSHIRE

The Good: It was the Stevie Moses show in Durham, where the senior from Leominster, Mass., scored 22 goals and 35 points to lead the Wildcats. Sophomore Nick Sorkin matched Moses’ point total, mostly on assists as he played alongside the senior star. Freshman Casey DeSmith (Rochester, N.H.) emerged as a go-to netminder over the second half of the season, and he posted a .926 save percentage and 2.33 goals-against average in his 22 appearances.

The Bad: The utter collapse of Matt DiGirolamo’s game necessitated DeSmith’s increased playing time, and though there were a lot of reasons for UNH’s rough start (6-10-2), DiGirolamo’s 3.41 GAA and .883 save percentage through the first half put him on the bench for the entirety of the second half. The Wildcats also suffered from low offensive output, with no player after Moses, Sorkin and Kevin Goumas cracking the 30-point plateau, and only Moses and Grayson Downing scoring double-digit goals. 

The Future: Moses and captain Mike Borisenok graduate along with DiGirolamo, forward Kevin McCarey and defenseman Damon Kipp. But it became clear that the Wildcats had their goaltender of the future, even if they were forced into putting him to the test a little earlier than expected, and with DeSmith in net and Sorkin returning on offense, there are some signs of improvement to come.

NORTHEASTERN

The Good: There were, in fact, some positive signs even as the Huskies missed the playoffs in Year 1 of the Madigan era. For one, they took the race for eighth to the last weekend, and even got to play spoiler in their last game, with former Terrier Vinny Saponari scoring an overtime goal to knock his old team out of position. Saponari had a fine season, pairing well with linemates Ludwig Karlsson and Garrett Vermeersch for much of the season, and Karlsson led the Huskies in scoring as a freshman with 10 goals and 16 assists. Chris Rawlings was good, if not great, in net, and showed signs of having the potential to become elite in his final year. 

Providence coach Nate Leaman led the Friars on a surprising run to the league semifinals. (Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

The Bad: Special teams were a killer for the Huskies, who averaged the fourth most penalty minutes per game but just an 80.7 penalty-kill success rate. Even worse was the power play, which posted an abysmal 13.7 percentage and even let in 11 shorthanded goals, more than any other Hockey East team. And though Karlsson’s 10 goals and 16 assists were enough to make him the NU scoring leader, 26 points would put him in the middle of the pack on a lot of other teams.

The Future: Here’s where things get pretty rosy. The Huskies lose exactly two players from this season’s team: senior captain Mike McLaughlin, who had 5-10-15 totals in 2011-12, and defenseman Anthony Bitetto, who signed with the NHL’s Nashville Predators after his sophomore year. But with their top six scorers returning, as well as Rawlings, it seems like a safe bet that the Huskies won’t miss the playoffs in Year 2 under Madigan.

PROVIDENCE

The Good: The Friars got off to a torrid start, and while they couldn’t keep up the pace all season, it was quite the statement that Leaman’s first year behind the Providence bench would not be dedicated to rebuilding and looking down the road. They were the only underdog to win a quarterfinal series, upsetting UMass-Lowell in three games before falling to BC in the semifinals, and they were led in scoring by a freshman, Ross Mauermann.

The Bad: When the Friars fell, they fell hard, going just 8-14-3 over their final 25 games, including a six-game winless streak in February and March that put them in some danger of missing the playoffs. They had the second-worst offense in the league and matched it with the third-worst defense, which isn’t exactly the mix Leaman would like.

The Future: The Friars will take a bit of a hit at graduation, with defensive keystone Daniel New, forward Matt Bergland and goaltender Alex Beaudry among the big names headed out the door. Beaudry in particular leaves a vacancy to watch, as he’s had almost no competition since coming to campus as a midyear transfer in 2008-09, and backup Justin Gates (Cranston, R.I.) is also gone to graduation.

VERMONT

The Good: Here’s a fun one: Before the national title game, the last team to beat Ferris State was the Catamounts. They toppled the Bulldogs in the second round of the Catamount Cup in December, adding to a short list of victories that also included an early-season surprise against Frozen Four participant Minnesota. Junior Sebastian Stalberg had a strong performance in what turned out to be his last year at Vermont, scoring 12 goals and 19 assists to lead the team.

The Bad: It’s tempting to simply list “just about everything” here. The Catamounts were dead last in offense, defense and penalty kill, and eighth out of 10 league teams on the power play. Their six-win season featured several long stretches between wins, including five consecutive losses to end the season. Not that he could have done a lot to change things, but senior Rob Madore never quite got back to the form he’d shown earlier in his career between the UVM pipes, and after Stalberg, Kyle Reynolds and Drew MacKenzie (New Canaan, Conn.), there wasn’t a lot of offense to speak of.

The Future: Stalberg already is gone, having opted out of his final year to sign a pro contract with the San Jose Sharks. So are MacKenzie and the hard-nosed Brett Leonard (South Burlington, Vt.). That leaves Reynolds as the leading returning scorer, but there will be some experience behind him with a lot of returning players. In net, Alex Vazzano (Trumbull, Conn.) would appear to be the heir apparent, heading into his junior year, though he’s only played in 11 career games. Still, the Catamounts are officially in “there’s no way to go but up” territory now.

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Andrew Merritt can be reached at MerrittNEHJ@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter at @A_Merritt.