The 2014-15 Atlantic Hockey race appears to be a battle of the two champions from last season. 2013-14 Atlantic Hockey Regular Season Champion Mercyhurst and 2014 Atlantic Hockey Tournament Champion Robert Morris are both poised to separate from the pack and have a one-two battle for top honors in the AHA come next March.
Head Coach: Rick Gotkin
2013-14 Record: 21-13-7, 17-4-6 AHA
Preseason Coaches' Poll: 1
Preseason Media Poll: 1
Key Returning Players: Forwards Matthew Zay, Ryan Misiak, Daniel Bahntge, Chris Bodo, Kyle Cook; Defensemen Anthony Mastrodicasa, Tyler Shiplo; Goaltender Jimmy Sarjeant
Top Newcomers: Forwards Jonathan Charbonneau, Kane Elliot; Defensemen Zach Todd, Tyler Enns
Captains: Matthew Zay, Tyler Shiplo, Ryan Misiak
The Lakers return six double digit goal scorers from last year's team that ran through the Atlantic Hockey regular season. Rick Gotkin's team has to replace Nick Jones, a key component to the blue line, but have a strong nucleus to rely on to lead Mercyhurst back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005.
Senior forward Matthew Zay has started to gain the attention of NHL scouts and will be a highly sought after NHL free agent come the end of the season. The Glendale, NY native, who is just four points shy of 100 for his career, is strong on the puck and skates with a powerful stride.
2. Robert Morris
Head Coach: Derek Schooley
2013-14 Record: 19-18-5, 13-9-5 AHA
Preseason Coaches' Poll: 2
Preseason Media Poll: 2
Key Returning Players: Forwards Cody Wydo, Zac Lynch, Scott Jacklin, Greg Gibson; Defensemen Tyson Wilson, Chase Golightly; Goaltender Dalton Izyk
Top Newcomers: Forward Spencer Dorowicz; Defensemen Alex Bontje, Robert Powers
Captains: Cody Wydo, Scott Jacklin, David Rigatti
Derek Schooley's program won the 2014 Atlantic Hockey Tournament, advancing to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history. The pieces are all in place for a return trip to the big dance in 2015, but standing in the Colonials way is a stout Mercyhurst team. History is also in the way of RMU as no team has won back-to-back in AHA history outside of Air Force.
High-flying forward Cody Wydo is a legitimate Hobey Baker candidate and rising sophomore goaltender Dalton Izyk emerged late in the season to take the number one goaltending gig.
Can RMU reverse the AHA curse of repeat winners and head to the NCAA Tournament for a second consecutive season? It will certainly be an interesting race between the Lakers and the Colonials.
Head Coach: Dave Burkholder
2013-14 Record: 15-20-5, 11-11-5 AHA
Preseason Coaches' Poll: T-4
Preseason Media Poll: 4
Key Returning Players: Forwards Hugo Turcotte, Isaac Kohls, T.J. Sarcona; Defensemen Vince Muto, Kevin Albers; Goaltender Jackson Teichroeb
Top Newcomers: Forwards Derian Plouffe, Stanislav Dzakhov; Defensemen Lawrence Smith, Keegan Harper
Captains: Kevin Albers, Matt Dineen
Niagara was hit hard last season with graduation losses and a suspension to a key player, but some of the Purple Eagles' young players got some valuable playing time that they might not otherwise have gotten. Niagara's defense should be strong and two rising sophomore goaltenders now have a year of Division I hockey under their belts.
Freshman Derian Plouffe could have the biggest offensive impact of any rookie in the AHA. Look for Dave Burkholder's team to make a huge leap up the standings this winter.
4. Air Force
Head Coach: Frank Serratore
2013-14 Record: 21-14-4, 15-9-3 AHA
Preseason Coaches' Poll: 3
Preseason Media Poll: 3
Key Returning Players: Forwards Cole Gunner, Chad Demers; Defensemen Alex Halloran, Dan Weissenhofer; Goaltender Chris Truehl
Top Newcomers: Forwards Erik Baskin; Defensemen Kyle Mackey; Phil Boje; Goaltender Connor Girard
Captains: Dan Weissenhofer, George Michalke
The always-dangerous Falcons will be led by two senior forwards, Cole Gunner and Chad Demers, as Frank Serratore's squad looks to make it back to the NCAA Tournament. Another constant in Colorado Springs is the development of the Falcon players as they progress in the system.
Air Force will be without star defenseman Adam McKenzie and stalwart goalie Jason Torf, both of whom graduated. Rising sophomore goaltender Chris Truehl proved he can be an adequate replacement during Torf's groin injury last season. AFA is always in the mix and this year will be no different.
5. Holy Cross
Head Coach: David Berard
2013-14 Record: 14-22-3, 11-13-3 AHA
Preseason Coaches' Poll: 8
Preseason Media Poll: 8
Key Returning Players: Forwards Mike Barrett, Matt Vidal; Defensemen Joe McNamara, Jake Bolton, Logan Smith; Goaltender Matt Ginn
Top Newcomers: Forwards Brett Mulcahy, Scott Pooley, Danny Lopez; Defenseman Tommy Muratore
Captains: Matt Vidal and Matt Ginn
This writer is more bullish on the Crusaders than league coaches and other members of the media. First year bench boss Dave Berard proved he can coach at this level when he led Connecticut to a successful run during the 2012-13 season as an interim head coach.
Coaches need talent to look good and Holy Cross has more of it than a lot of people give them credit. HC will be led by senior goaltender Matt Ginn and senior forward Matt Vidal. A lot of young defenders earned very valuable playing time last year and will be even more seasoned this winter. It won't hurt that Berard is one of the better defensive minds in the game.
HC has three freshmen forwards who could have an immediate positive impact as Berard looks to rebuild the Crusaders program.
Head Coach: Ryan Soderquist
2013-14 Record: 19-14-4, 16-7-4 AHA
Preseason Coaches' Poll: T-4
Preseason Media Poll: 5
Key Returning Players: Forwards Alex Grieve, Andrew Gladiuk, Max French, Brett Switzer; Defensemen Steve Weinstein, Matt Blomquist
Top Newcomers: Forwards Kyle Schmidt, Andrew McDonald, Ryan McMurphy; Defenseman Chris Buchanan; Goaltender Jayson Argue
Captains: Alex Grieve, Alex Kubiak, Steve Weinstein, Brett Switzer
Ryan Soderquist's team has to replace star forward Brett Gensler and all-star goaltender Branden Komm, but there are plenty of offensive cogs left at Bentley. The offense will almost surely be the catalyst of the squad, led by Alex Grieve, Andrew Gladiuk and Max French. Defenseman Steve Weinstein is one of the best puck-moving blue liners in Division I. He has an innate ability to always get pucks through to the net from the point.
The Falcons could finish higher than sixth, but only if freshman goaltender Jayson Argue can live up to expectations and fill the big skates of Komm.
Head Coach: Dave Smith
2013-14 Record: 17-21-3, 11-13-3 AHA
Preseason Coaches' Poll: 6
Preseason Media Poll: 7
Key Returning Players: Forwards Ralph Cudemi, Mitch McCrank, Cody Freeman; Defensemen Doug Jessey, Chris Rumble; Goaltender Keegan Asmundson
Top Newcomers: Forwards David Parrottino, Jeff Murray; Defensemen Jack Stander, David Bennett; Goaltender Reilly Turner
Captains: Doug Jessey, Keegan Asmundson
Canisius battled inconsistency last season, but were there in the end, advancing to the conference championship game from the seventh seed to start. Dave Smith's team has to replace leading scorer Kyle Gibson, but looking to make a move up the scoring lists will be Ralph Cudemi and Mitch McCrank.
A very solid freshman class will help offset the losses to graduation. The Golden Griffins move in to the brand new Harbor Center complex right next to the First Niagara Center, the home of the Buffalo Sabres. That is sure to help in recruiting down the road.
Head Coach: Wayne Wilson
2013-14 Record: 12-20-5, 10-14-3 AHA
Preseason Coaches' Poll: 7
Preseason Media Poll: 6
Key Returning Players: Forwards Todd Skirving, Dan Schuler; Defensemen Brad Shumway, Alexander Kuqali; Goaltenders Jordan Ruby, Mike Rotolo
Top Newcomers: Forwards Mark Golberg, Myles Powell; Defensemen Matthew Abt, Chase Norrish
Captains: Andrew Miller, Alexander Kuqali, Brad McGowan, Matt Garbowsky
It was a struggle when deciding where to put RIT in the preseason. Wayne Wilson's team has some talent and two reliable goaltenders, but the Tigers lost two key components from last year's squad. RIT begins play this season at the beautiful new Gene Polisseni Center, a state of the art on-campus facility.
Forward Todd Skirving could be one of the best players that very few fans outside of western New York know about. It wouldn't surprise me to see RIT finish higher than eighth, but this is a good spot for them.
9. Sacred Heart
Head Coach: CJ Marottolo
2013-14 Record: 12-24-0, 11-16-0 AHA
Preseason Coaches' Poll: 9
Preseason Media Poll: 9
Key Returning Players: Forwards Justin Danforth, Drew George, Jordan Minello; Defensemen Mitch Nylen, David Iacono; Goaltender Alex Vazzano
Top Newcomers: Forwards Kory Kennedy, Casey Miller, Alec Butcher;
Captains: Will Rayner, Ben Lake
SHU head coach CJ Marottolo and his staff brought in a tremendous freshman class last season that will be sophomores this year. Sophomore Justin Danforth is poised to pace the offense while classmate Mitch Nylen leads the blue line. Vermont transfer Alex Vazzano enters his second season between the pipes for the Pioneers.
Head Coach: Brian Riley
2013-14 Record: 6-28-0, 5-22-0 AHA
Preseason Coaches' Poll: 10
Preseason Media Poll: 10
Key Returning Players: Forwards C.J. Reuschlein, Joe Kozlak; Defensemen Maurice Alvarez, Mac Lalor; Goaltender Parker Gahagen
Top Newcomers: Forward Tyler Pham; Defenseman Mike Preston; Goaltender Cole Bruns
Captains: Brian Schultz, Mac Lalor, Josh Richards
Brian Riley and his staff made some noise when they pulled in a solid recruiting class, including Omaha Lancers product Cole Bruns in goal and former junior teammate Tyler Pham up front. The rookies can't single-handily turn around the program, but Army should be much more competitive than it was last season. Sophomore forward C.J. Reuschlein and senior defenseman Mac Lalor are two fun players to watch.
11. American International
Head Coach: Gary Wright
2013-14 Record: 10-25-1, 9-17-1
Preseason Coaches' Poll: 11
Preseason Media Poll: 11
Key Returning Players: Forwards David Norris, Alexander MacMillan, Chris Porter; Defensemen Jake Williams, Brandon Lubin;Goaltender Hunter Leisner
Top Newcomers: Forwards Bryant Christian, Jackson Dudley; Defenseman Andrew DeBrincat
Captains: Steven Hoshaw, Chris Porter, Nathan Sliwinski
The AIC hockey program has improved leaps and bounds over the past few years, but the biggest problem for Gary Wright is that the rest of the league has also gotten better. This year will be similar. The Yellow Jackets have some nice players returning, but it looks as if it might be a season marred in the basement. David Norris has good vision and Alexander MacMillan can really shoot a puck, but the depth is an issue.
Jeff Cox covers college, junior and high school hockey, NCAA recruiting and NHL Draft prospects. Follow him on Twitter @JeffCoxSports.