A major theme of the 2013 Hockey East Media Day was the competitiveness of the league from top-to-bottom. The 30th season of Hockey East should be one of the best yet with a tremendous field, including league newcomer Notre Dame.
"I think we've always been a really good league. The emergence of Lowell, Providence and Merrimack has made us stronger. Now we're bringing in one of the real strong national level teams in Notre Dame. We can't help but become a better team," said Boston College head coach Jerry York.
There are six teams that hold serious aspirations to make the NCAA Tournament, including perennial power Boston College and defending Hockey East Regular Season and Tournament Champion UMass-Lowell.
Now let's take an in-depth look at each team in the conference from first to last as picked by SBNation Hockey East Editor Jeff Cox.
1. Boston College
2012-13 Record: 22-12-4 Overall, 15-9-3 Hockey East
Coaches Poll: T-1st
Media Poll: 2nd
Head Coach: Jerry York, Boston College ‘67
Top Returners: Johnny Gaudreau, Kevin Hayes, Bill Arnold, and Michael Matheson
Key Departures: Steven Whitney, Pat Mullane, Patrick Wey, and Parker Milner
Top Newcomers: Forwards Austin Cangelosi, Ryan Fitzgerald, Adam Gilmour, Chris Calnan and Evan Richardson; Defensemen Steve Santini, Ian McCoshen and Scott Savage; Goaltender Thatcher Demko
Jerry York became college hockey's all-time coaching wins leader at the end of December, but the season didn't end as planned for the Eagles. BC was knocked out in the Hockey East semifinals by archrival BU and fell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Union.
Returning Hobey Baker Hat Trick Finalist Johnny Gaudreau returns to lead the offense filled with plenty of new faces. There could be up to six freshmen forwards in the lineup on any given night. They might be rookies to college hockey, but these BC freshmen forwards are skilled.
The Eagles will be even greener in the defensive department with a freshman goalie and five freshmen and sophomores expected to start on the blue line.
There is no denying the amount of talent BC has. The fate of the Eagles will depend on whether or not the youthful group can become a cohesive unit and surpass some of the more experienced teams of the league.
2012-13 Record: 28-11-2 Overall, 16-9-2 Hockey East
Coaches Poll: T-1st
Media Poll: 1st
Head Coach: Norm Bazin, UMass-Lowell ‘94
Top Returners: Forwards Joseph Pendenza, Scott Wilson and Derek Arnold; Defensemen Christian Folin, Joe Houk and Jake Suter; Goaltenders Connor Hellebuyck and Doug Carr
Key Departures: Forward Riley Wetmore and Defenseman Chad Ruhwedel
Top Newcomers: Forwards Evan Campbell, Joe Gambardella and Chris Maniccia and Defenseman Michael Kapla
UMass-Lowell had a terrific season a year ago, taking home regular season and tournament honors in Hockey East and advancing all the way to the Frozen Four. All accomplishments were program firsts. Norm Bazin's team only lost two key players from last year's squad.
Bazin hopes that this year's team makes its own identity while still keeping the same goals as last year's club. "Our goal is to win championships. It's been that way since I got here. We're excited to start a new season and find out what this new group has in store for us," said Bazin.
Goaltender Connor Hellebuyck played about as well as a collegiate goaltender can be expected to play last season. The Winnipeg Jets draft pick will almost certainly have another great season, but it would be nearly impossible to duplicate last year's .952 save percentage.
Bazin did point out that he has two options in net. Doug Carr lost the starting job to Hellebuyck last season, but the senior had a remarkable year as a sophomore.
The offense will be another strength of the River Hawks' team with plenty of depth. "We'll be very deep up front," said Bazin.
Junior Scott Wilson and seniors Joseph Pendenza and Derek Arnold are the three forwards who will be called upon to lead the scoring attack for UML. "Joe Pendenza was quiet for the media, but wasn't quiet for the team in the locker room. He's an excellent hockey player and can play in a number of roles. I consider him one of the best players in Hockey East, and I'm not afraid to say it," said Bazin.
Another issue is although Chad Ruhwedel and Riley Wetmore were the only two significant losses, they were both integral parts of Norm Bazin's 2012-13 team. "Chad Ruhwedel was a big component of our whole team. He was the best transition defender in our entire league. We'll have to replace him by committee. We'll need several guys to chip in to replace Chad," said Bazin.
Some Lowell fans might consider it a slight to be picked below BC here, but this is a team that will be dancing well into March. It would be no surprise if UML did in fact win the Hockey East Regular Season Championship, but instinct says otherwise.
3. New Hampshire
2012-13 Record: 20-12-7 Overall, 13-8-6 Hockey East
Coaches Poll: T-3rd
Media Poll: 5th
Head Coach: Dick Umile, UNH ‘72
Top Returners: Forwards Kevin Goumas, Grayson Downing, Dalton Speelman and Casey Thrush; Defensemen Trevor van Riemsdyk, Eric Knodel and Brett Pesce; Goaltender Casey DeSmith
Key Departures: Forwards Austin Block and John Henrion; Defensemen Connor Hardowa and Brett Kostolansky
Top Newcomers: Forward Tyler Kelleher; Defensemen Matias Cleland and Dylan Maller
The Wildcats were one of the hottest teams in college hockey for the first half of last season, but Dick Umile's club faltered in the second half. There were several reasons for that fall, but UNH still had a good season by any standard.
"We had a fabulous first half from the net out, but obviously in the second half we struggled a little bit. Some of the reason was just our league was so tough. It came down to just a few points. Hopefully we can finish a little better this season. It's a tough league," said Umile.
Defensemen Trevor van Riemsdyk and Eric Knodel played a big part in both ends of the ice last season. The two blueliners had the ability to step up and start the offense, but their ability to be shutdown defenders could spark UNH to an even better season this year. Stay-at-home defenseman Brett Pesce will have one more year of experience to help shore up the own zone for UNH.
Junior goaltender Casey DeSmith had unworldly numbers for much of the first half, but his numbers slipped once the calendar turned to 2013. There were times he was at fault, but his lack of success in the second half was more a factor of the team defense as a whole. The Rochester, NH native could be a difference maker for the Wildcats this season.
Kevin Goumas and Grayson Downing will be the offensive catalysts for Dick Umile's team. Besides those two, there always seems to be a player that really makes a big leap from junior to senior season at UNH. Last year it was Austin Block, this year it could be Dalton Speelman or Casey Thrush.
"We made it to the NCAA Tournament and came close to the Frozen Four. Our goal as a team and a program is to get back to the tournament. We have a good nucleus coming back and great leadership. We have to get off to a good start and finish," said Umile.
4. Notre Dame
2012-13 Record: 25-13-3 Overall, 17-8-3 CCHA
Coaches Poll: T-3rd
Media Poll: 3rd
Head Coach: Jeff Jackson, Michigan State ‘78
Top Returners: Forwards Jeff Costello, Bryan Rust, TJ Tynan and Mario Lucia; Defensemen Robbie Russo, Shayne Taker and Stephen Johns; Goaltender Steven Summerhayes
Key Departures: Forward Anders Lee; Defenseman Sam Calabrese
Top Newcomers: Forward Vince Hinostroza; Defensemen Ben Ostile and Justin Wade; Goaltender Chad Katunar
Notre Dame is entering a new league as the only team outside the New England region to be a member of Hockey East. Irish head coach Jeff Jackson downplays the travel, but points to some on ice differences.
"Everyone wants to make something out of it. We're going to be playing more high-end teams on a consistent basis than we did in the CCHA," said Jackson. "I think top-to-bottom Hockey East will be the best conference in the country," added the former NCAA Champion at Lake Superior.
In addition, Notre Dame will have to adjust to new venues, new playing styles, and a different officiating style compared to the CCHA. "We're going to be the new guy on the block. There's only one of us, but there will be 10 new teams we'll be facing. New venues, new styles of play, teams we're not accustomed to. That will be the biggest challenge for us. The officiating will be different for us. This will be all new to us," said Jackson.
Notre Dame has an extremely talented team returning, especially up front with the senior trio of Jeff Costello, Bryan Rust and TJ Tynan. Throw in sophomore Mario Lucia and freshman Vince Hinostroza, and the Notre Dame offense could be very potent.
"This senior class made it to the Frozen Four as freshmen, and they've done an awful lot here. This is the culmination of their time here. I'm hoping they take those experiences of the last three years and take it to a new level," said Jackson.
With Notre Dame being new to the conference, some of the names on defense might not be familiar to Hockey East fans, but Steven Johns is a player that opposing fans will notice. He's a strong presence on the back line for the Irish.
Goaltender Steven Summerhayes is returning, and will see the bulk of the workload for Jackson's team. The Irish have a lot of talent, but Hockey East is going to be a very tough league.
2012-13 Record: 17-14-7 Overall, 13-8-6 Hockey East
Coaches Poll: 5th
Media Poll: 4th
Head Coach: Nate Leaman, Cortland ‘97
Top Returners: Forwards Mark Jankowski, Ross Mauermann, Derek Army, Nick Saracino and Paul de Jersey; Defensemen Steven Shamanski, Kevin Hart and John Gilmour; Goaltender Jon Gillies
Key Departures: Forwards Tim Schaller and Kyle Murphy; Defensemen Myles Harvey and Alex Velischek
Top Newcomers: Forward Niko Rufo, Defensemen Anthony Florentino and Kyle McKenzie; Goaltender Nick Ellis
Nate Leaman has been at Providence for just two seasons and has led the Friars to consecutive appearances in the Hockey East Semifinals. The third-year bench boss will be looking to take the next step this season.
For a coach looking to elevate his program, sophomore goaltender Jon Gillies is the type of player to build a team around. The Calgary Flames prospect is an outstanding goaltender that can take over a game.
Leaman continues to increase the talent level at Providence, but the Friars will be a youthful bunch again this season. Sophomores Mark Jankowski, Paul de Jersey, Nick Saracino, Brandon Tanev and Noel Acciari will be counted on to make jumps from their rookie season. Juniors Ross Mauermann and Stefan Demopolous will also play a key role in how the PC offense turns.
Leaman knows his underclassmen will have to make a step up to become even better than they were last season. "How are they going to react to a little success last season? What's their summer going to be like? Are they going to go out and attack it every day to develop and take that next step? Or are they going to allow people to pat them on the back and tell them how good they are? It's really how you attack it one day at a time. We laid that message on them before they left for the summer and reminded them a few times," said Leaman.
Sophomore defenseman John Gilmour was drafted by the Calgary Flames over the summer to make it three Friars whose rights are owned by that NHL franchise. He was one of the underrated rookie blueliners in the league a season ago. Along with senior captain Steven Shamanski, he will be one of the workhorses on the defense.
Providence is certainly a program on the rise, and no one can deny the advantage of having Jon Gillies between the pipes. Nate Leaman's team will be very good again, but it might take one more year for the Friars to be elite.
"We still have 20 underclassmen on the team. We're looking to grow up a bit with our players and our program. We had a winning season last year and competed for a league championship. Now we want to take the next step and establish ourselves a little higher," said Leaman.
That will be no easy task as the coach admits. "It will be tough. This league is extremely competitive this year," said Leaman.
6. Boston University
2012-13 Record: 21-16-2 Overall, 15-10-2 Hockey East
Coaches Poll: 6th
Media Poll: 6th
Head Coach: David Quinn, Boston University ‘89
Top Returners: Forwards Danny O'Regan, Evan Rodrigues, Cason Hohmann and Matt Lane; Defensemen Garrett Noonan, Matt Grzelcyk and Ahti Oksanen; Goaltenders Sean Maguire and Matt O'Connor
Key Departures: Forwards Matt Nieto, Wade Megan and Sahir Gill; Defensemen Alexx Privitera, Ryan Ruikka and Sean Escobedo
Top Newcomers: Forwards Nick Roberto, Robbie Baillargeon and Brendan Collier; Defensemen Doyle Somerby and TJ Ryan
A new era at Agganis Arena begins this year with David Quinn taking over for the retired Jack Parker. The Boston University administration made a great hire in the former Terrier player and coach who most recently worked in the AHL and NHL.
Quinn, a defensive guru, was an integral part of the 2009 NCAA Championship team as an assistant coach, along with defensemen such as Matt Gilroy, Kevin Shattenkirk, Colby Cohen, David Warsofsky, Brian Strait and Eric Gryba. All but Warsofsky have played at least a game in the NHL.
Now to this year's team, BU will have talent up front, but depth could become a serious issue due to losses from graduation and early departure to the pro ranks. Danny O'Regan, Cason Hohmann and Evan Rodrigues will lead the offensive charge, but after a few talented freshmen, the roster is slim.
Boston Bruins draft pick Matt Grzelcyk and senior Garrett Noonan will be the backbone to the Terriers defensively. The blue line will be young and inexperienced outside of those two and Ahti Oksanen.
With such a lack of depth, the large freshmen class will play a huge role in determining the success or failure of this year's BU squad.
"We have ten freshmen. I had never seen any of them play, but there are certainly some things I like from what I've seen in the three weeks we've been on the ice. The good news for them is they'll all have a chance to play," said Quinn of his rookie class.
The goaltending tandem of Matt O'Connor and Sean Maguire is certainly the strength of this BU team. No team in the conference has a better one-two punch in net than the Terriers. "What impressed me about them last year was they're big, athletic, and adjusted to college hockey quickly. It's important to have two guys who can play because you never know what can happen," said Quinn.
It's hard to imagine a team with the talent of BU finishing sixth, but issues with experience and depth will keep the Terriers from landing a first round bye in the Hockey East Tournament.
2012-13 Record: 11-19-8 Overall, 7-12-8 Hockey East
Coaches Poll: 8th
Media Poll: 8th
Head Coach: Red Gendron, New England College ‘79
Top Returners: Forwards Devin Shore, Ryan Lomberg, Mark Anthoine, Connor Leen and Steven Swavely; Defensemen Jake Rutt, Ben Hutton and Brice O'Connor; Goaltender Martin Ouellette
Key Departures: Forwards Joey Diamond and Kyle Beattie; Defensemen Mark Nemec and Mike Cornell
Top Newcomers: Forwards Blaine Byron, Josh Henke and Brady Campbell; Defensemen Daniel Renouf and Eric Schurhamer
Maine comes into this year with a new head coach and a new positive outlook for the program. Red Gendron has made it clear throughout the preseason that he doesn't care what happened last season and that all the returning players and rookies alike have to prove themselves.
"It starts with establishing a championship culture and how hard we work and how hard we compete. We need to do the things we're supposed to do and do the right things with intensity," said Gendron.
"The thing I'm confident talking about is the intensity and work ethic of the players. They've been terrific during this preseason phase," said Gendron. "You don't have a chance to win unless you stick together and work hard," the coach added.
Gendron has preached a high-intensity, attacking style of play since he was named coach back in May. The key will be for the Black Bears to generate more offense than a season ago without forfeiting the effort in the defensive end.
Goaltender Martin Ouellette will be the key to the season for the Black Bears. The offense should be improved over last season and the coaching regime will spark life into the Maine team.
Look for sophomore Devin Shore to make a huge jump from his freshman campaign. Shore, a Dallas draft pick, is not only a talented player, but a great leader on and off the ice. Classmate Ryan Lomberg is a player that could surprise some Hockey East fans this season. He's a smaller, gritty player, but has the potential to be an offensive sparkplug. The Richmond Hill, Ontario native played through injuries for much of last season.
2012-13 Record: 15-17-6 Overall, 13-11-3 Hockey East
Coaches Poll: 7th
Media Poll: 7th
Head Coach: Mark Dennehy, Boston College ‘90
Top Returners: Forwards Mike Collins, Shawn Bates and Rhett Bly; Defensemen Jordan Heywood, Brendan Ellis and Dan Kolomatis; Goaltender Sam Marotta
Key Departures: Defenseman Kyle Bigos
Top Newcomers: Forwards Chris Leblanc and Hampus Gustafsson and Defenseman Jonathan Lashyn
Merrimack was in first place as late as February last season, but the Warriors inability to score goals cost them down the stretch. Mark Dennehy's club was relying too heavily on the defense and the heroics of goaltender Sam Marotta.
"I think we've competed with the top teams in the league over the last five years. We finished five points out of first place and that wasn't good enough. Right off the top we need five more points in the league because we want to finish first," commented Dennehy.
Mike Collins is one of the best all-around players in the country. The Boston, Mass. native came to Merrimack with offensive upside, but has really become a complete player since arriving in North Andover. The problem is he can't do it on his own. His 17 goals a year ago were nine more than the next closest player on the team.
"We return 91 percent of our offense and have both goaltenders back. We lost one defenseman out of our core, but we have to have is the same effort if not more. We need to have guys take a step in the right direction and really improve."
The question facing Merrimack is whether that will be good enough to make up those points in the standings.
2012-13 Record: 11-19-6 Overall, 8-13-6 Hockey East
Coaches Poll: 9th
Media Poll: 9th
Head Coach: Kevin Sneddon, Harvard, ‘92
Top Returners: Forwards Chris McCarthy, Kyle Reynolds, Jake Fallon and Connor Brickley; Defensemen Nick Luukko and Michael Paliotta; Goaltender Brody Hoffman
Key Departures: Forward Brett Bruneteau; Defenseman Anders Franzon
Top Newcomers: Forwards Mario Puskarich, Brady Shaw and Tom Forgione; Defensemen Rob Hamilton and Chris Muscoby; Goaltender Mike Santaguida
Vermont has some pieces in place to have a good year, but what will ultimately hurt the Catamounts is the inability to compete after the top two lines.
Coach Kevin Sneddon doesn't necessarily agree with that assertion. "I think we have some pretty good depth. We have a mix of senior leadership and youthful exuberance," said Sneddon.
Chris McCarthy, Kyle Reynolds, Jake Fallon and Connor Brickley are familiar names to fans, but only McCarthy finished last season with double-digit goal totals. UVM has two freshmen forwards that might step in and contribute immediately in Mario Puskarich and Brady Shaw.
Vermont gave up over three goals a game last season, and much of that blame goes to the defense. Sophomore goaltender Brody Hoffman was spectacular at times last season, but even his coach Kevin Sneddon admitted that fatigue could have been a detrimental factor at times. Rookie netminder Michael Santaguida is expected to push Hoffman for the job, and at the very least take some of the workload.
"We didn't have that option [of giving Hoffman rest] last year. At times I think Brody needed a night off to rest or regroup, but we didn't have that luxury. This year we do. I think Brody will be pushed right out of the gate. Michael Santaguida is a very good albeit smaller goalie than Brody, but is very technically sound and competitive. I think it will see Brody a better goalie. We'll see the net shared by a freshman," said Sneddon.
One thing that hurt Vermont last season was its league-worst power play and penalty kill. The Catamounts must get better on the special teams and find a way to get more players involved in the scoring.
2012-13 Record: 12-19-3 Overall, 9-16-2 Hockey East
Coaches Poll: 10th
Media Poll: 10th
Head Coach: John Micheletto, Dartmouth ‘90
Top Returners: Forwards Brendan Gracel, Michael Pereira and Connor Sheary; Defensemen Joel Hanley, Colin Shea and Adam Phillips; Goaltender Steven Mastalerz
Key Departures: Forward Rocco Carzo; Defensemen Conor Allen and Darren Rowe; Goaltender Kevin Boyle
Top Newcomers: Forwards Ray Pigozzi, Frank Vatrano and Steven Iacobellis; Defensemen Marc Hetnik and Brennan Baxandall; Goaltender Alex Wakaluk
Second year UMass coach John Micheletto did some house cleaning over the summer to try to start making his own mark on the program. The former Vermont assistant will have his top three forwards returning, but there are question marks beyond that.
The trio of Brendan Gracel, Michael Pereira and Connor Sheary will have UMass fans smiling when they hit the ice, but no other returning forward scored more than 14 points.
The Minutemen lost defenseman Conor Allen a year earlier than expected to the New York Rangers, but will have Joel Hanley and Adam Phillips to anchor the blueline.
The real question mark is in goal where Micheletto booted co-starter Kevin Boyle in favor of Steven Mastalerz and two freshmen. Mastalerz was solid at times, but inconsistent. Rookie Alex Wakaluk, the reigning Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League MVP, will challenge Mastalerz for playing time.
2012-13 Record: 9-21-4 Overall; 5-18-4 Hockey East
Coaches Poll: 11th
Media Poll: 11th
Head Coach: Jim Madigan, Northeastern ‘86
Top Returners: Forwards Kevin Roy, Braden Pimm, Mike McMurtry; Defensemen Josh Manson and Colton Saucerman; Goaltender Bryan Mountain
Key Departures: Forwards Vinny Saponari, Ludwig Karlsson; Goaltender Chris Rawlings
Top Newcomers: Forwards Zach Aston-Reese, Michael Szmatula, Dalen Hedges, John Stevens, Tanner Pond and Nathan Ferriero; Defenseman Matt Benning
Two things must happen in order for Northeastern to not finish in last place. The offense needs to be seriously productive and one of the three goaltenders on the roster needs to play far better than expected.
Jim Madigan is entering his third season behind the bench on St. Botolph Street with an offense that could be better than people would expect for a team picked last by the coaches and media.
Sophomore Kevin Roy, the second highest rookie scorer in the league last season, will be the offensive catalyst. Everyone remembers him for his hat trick performance in the 2013 Beanpot against BU, but he had a very solid rookie campaign. Freshmen Zach Aston-Reese and Michael Szmatula will be counted on to contribute right away.
"I like our offense. I like our defense, but we just need to play better team defense and cut down the numbers of goals allowed from last year," said Madigan.
The question marks on this team are on defense and in goal. Outside of Josh Manson and Colton Saucerman, the final four spots on the blue line will be up for grabs. The goaltending position is anyone's guess between seniors Clay Witt and Bryan Mountain and redshirt freshman Derrick Roy.
"I've got three goaltenders who will compete for that top job. All three of them will get a chance to play early. I think when people look at our team, they see uncertainty there because Chris Rawlings played the bulk of the games over the last two years. Witt, Mountain and Roy are all capable goalies and have come back in great shape ready to go," said Madigan.
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Jeff Cox covers college and junior hockey, NCAA recruiting, NHL Draft prospects and the AHL for SBNation. Follow him on twitter @JeffCoxSBNation.