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Hockey East 2014-15 Season Preview: Friars the Favorite

Will Providence win its first Hockey East Regular Season Championship in school history?

Providence senior forward Ross Mauermann
Providence senior forward Ross Mauermann
Matt Dewkett

Only two schools that were among the founding members of Hockey East have failed to win a Hockey East Regular Season Championship. That might change this season if members of the media, including this prognosticator, and the coaches, intuition comes true. Providence, along with Northeastern, has never had the best conference record during the regular season, but the Friars are picked to win Hockey East in both the preseason media and coaches' polls.

Nate Leaman, entering his fourth season behind the bench at Schneider Arena, appears to have a nucleus in place, led by a dynamic junior class that includes star goaltender Jon Gillies. Will it be the year the Friars finally break through? Will Jerry York's unbelievably stacked defense lead the Eagles to yet another title or will BU's hyped freshman class bring the Terriers back to glory?

In this column last season, this columnist got some picks right and some wrong. BC won Hockey East, but Northeastern surprised and didn't finish last. Without further ado, here's this season's predictions with previews.

1. Providence

Head Coach: Nate Leaman

2013-14 Record: 22-11-6, 11-7-2 HE

Preseason Coaches' Poll: 1

Preseason Media Poll: 1

Key Returning Players: Forwards Ross Mauermann, Mark Jankowski, Nick Saracino, Noel Acciari; Defensemen Anthony Florentino, John Gilmour; Goaltender Jon Gillies

Top Newcomers: Forwards Brian Pinho, Robbie Hennessey, Alex Cromwell; Defensemen Jake Walman, Logan Day

Captains: Ross Mauermann, Noel Acciari

Year four will be the year that Providence finally ascends to Hockey East royalty. Leaman has assembled an extremely talented squad in just a short time, led by a terrific junior class. The key to it all is Calgary Flames prospect Jon Gillies between the pipes.

A highly regarded NHL prospect, Gillies holds the true key to the Friars being a legitimate contender nationally. He struggled with a groin injury for parts of last season, but when he's on his game, there are few better at stopping pucks from finding the back of the net.

Sophomore defenseman Anthony Florentino, a Buffalo Sabres prospect, is a steady, physical presence on the blue line while junior John Gilmour helps push the puck and is improving in his defensive zone coverage. Two freshmen defensemen will be relied upon heavily. 2014 St. Louis Blues draft pick Jake Walman is someone the coaching staff believes can step right in and fill the void of Steven Shamanski. Seminole, Fla. native Logan Day is less heralded, but his junior coach believes he is a rising star with plenty of potential at the college level and beyond.

Senior Ross Mauermann should be one of the highest scoring forwards in Hockey East. The undersized Mauermann doesn't have the stick skills or skating ability that will leave fans in awe, but he's got a good head for the game and always seems to find the puck and be around the scoring areas.

Junior Mark Jankowski took a huge step in his sophomore campaign. The former first round pick of the Calgary Flames began to use his size and go hard towards the net, a big shift from his freshman season when he largely stayed on the perimeter.

Fellow juniors Noel Acciari, Nick Saracino, Trevor Mingoia and Brandon Tanev will be key components of the offense. Expect freshman Brian Pinho, a former St. John's Prep star who won a USHL Clark Cup Championship in Indiana last season, to be a strong cog up front. The return of Niko Rufo from injury is another addition that will greatly enhance the Friar offensive production.

There is little doubt that the pieces are in place for Leaman's fourth season on Huxley Ave. to be a special one. With Gillies in net, the Friars could make two trips to Boston next spring.

2. Boston College

Head Coach: Jerry York

2013-14 Record: 28-8-4, 16-2-2 HE

Preseason Coaches' Poll: 2

Preseason Media Poll: 2

Key Returning Players: Forwards Ryan Fitzgerald, Austin Cangelosi; Defensemen Michael Matheson, Steve Santini, Ian McCoshen, Scott Savage; Goaltender Thatcher Demko

Top Newcomers: Forwards Alex Tuch, Zach Sanford; Defenseman Noah Hanifin

Captains: Michael Matheson, Michael Sit, Quinn Smith

The Eagles marched through last year's regular season, but faltered down the stretch. There was no denying that the Boston College had the best first line in the nation, but depth issues up front and a lack of experience on the blue line cost Jerry York's club when it mattered most.

BC recruits younger players than almost any other school in the country and that has cost the Eagles in the postseason lately, losing out to the likes of more experienced teams like Union in two consecutive NCAA Tournaments.

The strength of this year's squad lies squarely on the defensive end of the ice. Sophomore goaltender Thatcher Demko returns with a year under his belt after being drafted in the second round of this past summer's NHL Draft. The San Diego, Calif. native showed tremendous poise for a young rookie last season and his athleticism and fundamentals are sure to to be even more refined.

Protecting Demko will be one of the most talented blue lines in the nation, led by three NHL Draft picks and another sure fire first rounder in 2015. Junior captain Michael Matheson is one of the most solid defensive defenseman in the country when he's on his game. He was a little inconsistent as a sophomore, but when he's on his game, he's hard to maneuver around for opposing forwards. Sophomore Steve Santini is a physical imposing presence on the blue line and Ian McCoshen is another highly regarded defenseman.

Scott Savage is an undrafted NHL free agent that many around the Heights believe will have an even more productive sophomore season. Teddy Doherty is probably the best sixth defenseman in the nation.

On top of all that returning talent, freshman Noah Hanifin brings with him a boatload of talent. The Needham, Mass. native accelerated to arrive at BC a year early. Many draft observers have him going in the top five of the 2015 NHL Draft and it won't take Hockey East fans long to realize why. He's big, he's solid defensively and he has elite foot and sticks skill with and without the puck.

The offense is the question mark after the departure of Johnny Gaudreau, Kevin Hayes and Bill Arnold. Sophomores Ryan Fitzgerald and Austin Cangelosi will be counted on to step up their production from their rookie seasons. A line that could really blossom if it gels is a line of large power forwards. Freshman Alex Tuch, a first rounder in 2014, has a rocket of a shot and can impose his will in the slot and in the corners. He will be joined by two sophomores, Chris Calnan and Adam Gilmour, to make one of the biggest lines in the country. Freshman forward Zach Sanford is another rookie that will be counted on by the staff to bring some scoring touch to Conte Forum.

The defense and goaltending should keep BC in every game it plays this winter, but can the offense keep up its end o the bargain? Only time will tell, but as always, York's club will be in the thick of things come March.

3. Boston University

Head Coach: David Quinn

2013-14 Record: 10-21-4, 5-12-3 HE

Preseason Coaches' Poll: 6

Preseason Media Poll: 3

Key Returning Players: Forwards Evan Rodrigues, Danny O'Regan, Robbie Baillargeon, Ahti Oksanen; Goaltender Matt O'Connor

Top Newcomers: Forwards Jack Eichel, A.J. Greer, J.J. Picchinich, Chase Phelps; Defensemen Johnathan MacLeod, Brian Diffley, Brandon Hickey, Brandon Fortunato; Goaltender Connor LaCouvee

Captains: Matt Grzelcyk, Evan Rodrigues, Cason Hohmann

David Quinn's first season at Boston University was marred by an ineptitude in the puck possession game, mainly breaking out of the defensive zone. The Terrier coaching staff believes that problem has been remedied in the form of four rookie blue liners who all have good footwork and skills with the puck on their sticks.

Junior captain Matt Grzelcyk, a Boston Bruins draft pick, is the leader of a blue line that is certainly more than capable of pushing the play up ice, but the question will be how steady and consistent can the young defensemen be in their own zone. Freshmen Johnathan MacLeod and Brandon Hickey were both selected in the 2014 NHL Draft. MacLeod, a USNTDP alum, is a physical wrecking ball, but he wants to prove he can contribute on the power play as well. Hickey is a good two-way defenseman who can step up into the offense. Brien Diffley is the sleeper of the group, a former star at BB&N. A prep school not too far from BU's campus, the Knights aren't usually known as a producer of talent to Division I. Diffley was picked up somewhat late in the game when assistant coach Steve Greeley saw the Burlington native and liked his ability to push the breakout. 2015 NHL Draft prospect Brandon Fortunato came over to BU when assistant Albie O'Connell joined the Terriers from his previous commitment, Harvard. Big, lumbering sophomore Doyle Somerby will add some muscle to the blue line when he recovers from injury.

Offensively, the Terriers will be led by freshman and top 2015 NHL Draft target Jack Eichel. The USNTDP alum and North Chelmsford, Mass. native is a once in a generation talent that scouts have been all over for a few years now. His skating ability is a step above and his stick skills and arm span have been compared to Mario Lemieux by former NHL defenseman and NBC Sports analyst Eddie Olcyzk.

There are sure to be players to benefit from Eichel's elite skill level. That player was converted defenseman Ahti Oksanen in the exhibition win over St. Thomas. The big Finn had four goals all on primary assists from Eichel.

Fellow freshman A.J. Greer accelerated to arrive a year early on Commonwealth Ave. after reneging on his previous verbal commitment to Penn State. He's a physical specimen who wins battles and is strong on the puck. J.J. Piccinich, Nikolas Olsson and Chase Phelps are three other freshmen forwards who could see the score sheet often.

It's not all about the freshmen. Evan Rodrigues, Danny O'Regan and Cason Hohmann are three upperclassmen that are expected to contribute after down seasons due to injury or other factors. Last year's returning scorer Robbie Baillargeon is a sophomore who could exceed his freshman numbers.

Goaltending is a position where there remains questions. Matt O'Connor can be solid and has the athletic ability and size to be a difference maker in a game. One problem that has arisen with O'Connor is his rebound control and ability to secure the puck in traffic.

Sean Maguire has left the school due to a medical condition, and the Terriers brought in Connor LaCouvee from the BCHL to fill the void. A late addition to the class, LaCouvee's stock soared at the end of last season and into the junior league's playoffs.

Greeley and O'Connell have been hot on the recruiting trail and have secured several elite commitments for the future so don't expect the Terriers to have any seasons like last anytime soon. BU might be a year away from being truly elite, but there will be no shortage of NHL scouts and fans heading to Agganis Arena to watch a fun and talented squad this winter.

4. Northeastern

Head Coach: Jim Madigan

2013-14 Record: 19-14-4, 10-8-2 HE

Preseason Coaches' Poll: 4

Preseason Media Poll: 4

Key Returning Players: Forwards Kevin Roy, Mike Szmatula, Zach Aston-Reese, Dalen Hedges; Defenseman Matt Benning; Goaltender Clay Witt

Top Newcomers: Forwards Dylan Sikura, Nolan Stevens; Defensemen Garrett Cockerill, Trevor Owens

Captains: Adam Reid, Dax Lauwers, Clay Witt, Torin Snydeman

Northeastern exceeded expectations last season, going from 11th in almost every preseason poll and rankings to a tie for fourth. The Huskies rise up the league standings was due mainly to a red-hot goaltending performance put up by Clay Witt.

The big question this season is can Witt keep up his almost-miraculous numbers from a year ago or will he return to normal with a suspect defense in front of him? The Northeastern defense put in way too many sub-par efforts last season, leading Witt to have to stand on his head for the Huskies to have any chance.

Captain Josh Manson left early, which will strain the blue line even further. Boston Bruins draft pick Matt Benning has improved leaps and bounds, but his skating ability is still in question. Junior Colton Saucerman is adept at moving the puck and quarterbacking the power play. Can the NU defense button up and hold down the fort or will Jim Madigan's team rely on Witt to catapult them to victories again?

The Huskies have a solid nucleus up front led by junior Kevin Roy and Mike Szmatula, two small forwards who both have good vision and skills with the puck on their sticks. Dalen Hedges and Torin Snydeman are two forwards with very good speed that bring energy to the ice. The Huskies lose the goal scoring prowess of Braden Pimm who graduated. A majority of his goals were scored from in close and in the dirty areas. Look to Zach Aston-Reese or John Stevens to pick up some of the slack left by Pimm. Dylan Sikura, a 2014 NHL Draft pick of the Chicago Blackhawks, will be the freshman most likely to contribute on the score sheet.

Is this the year Northeastern finally breaks through in the Beanpot? The Huskies last won Boston's hallowed tournament in 1988. Northeastern will once again be a fun team to watch, but ineptitude on the blue line will prevent the Huskies from finishing any higher than fourth.

5. Vermont

Head Coach: Kevin Sneddon

2013-14 Record: 20-15-3, 10-10-0 HE

Preseason Coaches' Poll: 8

Preseason Media Poll: T-7

Key Returning Players: Forwards Mario Puskarich, Jake Fallon, Kyle Reynolds, Brendan Bradley; Defensemen Michael Paliota, Nick Luukko, Rob Hamilton; Goaltenders Brody Hoffman, Mike Santaguida

Top Newcomers: Forwards Rob Darrar, Kevin Irwin, Jarrid Privitera; Defensemen Trey Phillips, Alexx Privitera;

Captain: Michael Paliotta

Vermont returns a lot of its key nucleus with the exception of terrific two-way forward Chris McCarthy who is now playing in the New York Rangers organization. Kevin Sneddon's team will once again look to slow down the pace of play and wear teams down with a physical and gritty style.

Last year's Hockey East Rookie of the Year Mario Puskarich returns to lead the offense, but one of the biggest boosts will come in the form of Kyle Reynolds, who sat out last season following a knee injury in the team's exhibition game. Jake Fallon also returns for his senior season. The former Michigan Wolverine, Fallon created a lot of chances, but was snake bitten at times last year. The Texas native could really spark the Catamount offense if he can bury some of those chances this winter. There are several freshman that could add some scoring touch, but Rob Darrar seems to be the most likely.

Senior captain Michael Paliotta might be the best defenseman in college hockey that a lot of fans haven't heard of. The Chicago Blackhawks prospect is a steady, consistent defender who will anchor Kevin Sneddon's blue line. Sophomore Rob Hamilton can add offense, but he needs to shore up his play in his own zone to be a consistent presence this season. Joining the Catamount defense will be junior transfer Alexx Privitera from BU. He played for Dubuque in the USHL last season.

UVM has two known commodities in the crease. Junior Brody Hoffman and sophomore Michael Santaguida both performed well last season. Hoffman brings good size and positioning with a little bit of athleticism while Santaguida is more of an agile, small netminder who moves around in the crease.

Why will UVM exceed expectations this season? Goaltending and defense wins championships and in this columnist's opinion, Sneddon's crew should be as good or better in both positions this season compared to last.

6. UMass Lowell

Head Coach: Norm Bazin

2013-14 Record: 26-11-4, 11-6-3 HE

Preseason Coaches' Poll: 7

Preseason Media Poll: 5

Key Returning Players: Forwards Adam Chapie, A.J. White, Ryan McGrath; Defensemen Zack Kamrass, Michael Kapla, Jake Suter

Top Newcomers: Forwards C.J. Smith, Ryan Collins, Jake Kamrass, John Edwardh; Defensemen Tommy Panico, Tyler Mueller, Chris Forney; Goaltender Jeff Smith

Captain: Zack Kamrass

UMass Lowell has to replace players at each position, including star goaltender Connor Hellebuyck who left after his sophomore season to sign with the Winnipeg Jets. Defenseman Christian Folin left early to sign with the Minnesota Wild as a free agent. Forward Scott Wilson left early to sign with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Other double digit scorers Joe Pendenza and Derek Arnold both graduated. Solid two-way forward and captain Josh Holmstrom graduated as well.

Junior Adam Chapie doubled his offensive production last season from his rookie year. Can he keep that pace up or even exceed it? Can Terrence Wallin, Evan Campbell or Ryan McGrath generate extra offense to offset the losses? Campbell, a draft pick of Edmonton, lit the lamp nine times last season and a big season is expected.

Senior Zack Kamrass will anchor the blue line with the departure of Folin. Kamrass really started to be a force at both ends of the ice last season. Fellow senior Jake Suter and sophomore Michael Kapla will be key cogs on the blue line.

Freshman Jeff Smith, a highly regarded prospect out of the BCHL, is expected to be the number one goaltender, but junior Kevin Boyle, a transfer from UMass-Amherst, and fellow rookie Olli Kälkäjä will push for playing time.

Lowell lost a lot of talent, but if any team in Hockey East can withstand it, it could be the River Hawks. Norm Bazin plays a very simple style that relies on the next man up stepping in. UML will take a step back this season, but don't sleep on Bazin's squad to pull some upsets.

7. Maine

Head Coach: Red Gendron

2013-14 Record: 16-15-4, 9-8-3 HE

Preseason Coaches' Poll: 9

Preseason Media Poll: 6

Key Returning Players: Forwards Devin Shoe, Blaine Byron, Connor Leen, Steven Swavely; Defensemen Ben Hutton, Eric Schurhamer; Goaltender Matt Morris

Top Newcomers: Forwards Nolan Vesey, Liam Pecararo; Defensemen Mark Hamilton, Malcolm Hayes; Goaltender Sean Romeo

Captains: Devin Shore, Jake Rutt, Stu Higgins

There is perhaps no better two-way prospect in the entire country than Black Bears junior forward Devin Shore, a Dallas Stars prospect. He's silky smooth on his skates and has an uncanny leadership ability and hockey IQ. In Red Gendron's second season, Maine will go as Shore goes.

Gendron is trying to implement a fast-paced, aggressive style of play that will make Maine difficult to oppose, but does he have the depth he needs? Sophomore Blaine Byron, a Penguins prospect, will be expected to increase his production from his rookie campaign. Connor Leen and Steven Swavely will likely blanket Shore on the top line.

Toronto Maple Leafs draft pick Nolan Vesey is the most well regarded freshman, but Liam Pecararo is a shifty, small forward out of Waterloo in the USHL who could contribute offensively if he can adjust to the bigger bodies in the college game.

Offensive defenseman Ben Hutton is a returning All-American who will anchor the blue line at both ends. He really elevated his play in his own zone last season and there are few NCAA defensemen who can skate as well as he can.

What's been missing for a few years on the Black Bears blue line is a true shutdown defender. The coaching staff hopes they might have one or two in rookies Mark Hamilton and Malcolm Hayes. Hamilton, a former UMass commit, is a veteran of junior hockey and should just quicker, but Hayes has hype as well. The big Cushing alum is a heavy hitter who the staff believes could play a significant role if can adjust to the speed of the Division I game.

A major question mark is in the Black Bear crease where star goaltender Martin Ouellette and backup Dan Sullivan graduated. Filling the void will be redshirt sophomore Matt Morris who returns after a hip injury last season. Freshman Sean Romeo will push for playing time, coming in from the Youngstown Phantoms.

Maine has two very talented returning stars, but will the goaltending and depth hold up? That is the big uncertainty as Gendron and the Black Bears look to return to the top of the Hockey East standings.

8. Notre Dame

Head Coach: Jeff Jackson

2013-14 Record: 23-15-2, 9-9-2 HE

Preseason Coaches' Poll: 3

Preseason Media Poll: T-7

Key Returning Players: Forwards Mario Lucia, Vince Hinostroza, Sam Herr; Defensemen Robbie Russo, Eric Johnson; Goaltender Chad Katunar

Top Newcomers: Forwards Anders Bjork, Connor Hurley, Jake Evans; Defensemen Nathan Billitier, Tony Bretzman, Luke Ripley; Goaltender Cal Petersen

Captains: Steven Fogarty, Peter Schneider, Sam Herr

The Fighting Irish made a late push for the NCAA Tournament last season after an up-and-down first season in Hockey East. Notre Dame upset top-seeded Boston College in three games in the Hockey East Quarterfinals and slipped into the national tournament.

Jeff Jackson's team has a lot of voids to fill at all positions, including in the crease. Steven Summerhayes has graduated, leaving Chad Katunar or freshman Cal Petersen to take over. There are high expectations of Petersen, but he will have to be strong from the get-go in front of a young defense.

Robbie Russo is back from academic suspension to lead the group of blue liners that includes three freshmen. NTDP alum Nathan Billitier and BCHL product Tony Bretzman of Mendota Heighs, Minn. are the two most regarded rookie defensemen.

Up front, the Irish will be led by junior sharp shooter Mario Lucia and shifty sophomore Vince Hinostroza. Junior Sam Herr will be another key component of the offense. Montreal Canadiens prospect Jake Evans and Buffalo Sabres pick Connor Hurley are the two key additions up front.

Notre Dame relies on a puck-possession game that compares very favorably to the style many NHL teams play. Can Jeff Jackson's squad transition from its many offseason losses or will the Irish struggle with youth in many key positions?

9. New Hampshire

Head Coach: Dick Umile

2013-14 Record: 22-18-1, 11-9-0 HE

Preseason Coaches' Poll: 5

Preseason Media Poll: 9

Key Returning Players: Forwards Grayson Downing, Matt Willows, Tyler Kelleher; Defensemen Brett Pesce, Matias Cleland

Top Newcomers: Forwards Warren Foegele, Shane Eiserman, Andrew Poturalski; Defensemen John Furgele, Dylan Chanter, Cameron Marks; Goaltender Adam Clark

Captains: Matt Willows, Casey Thrush, Grayson Downing

Hockey East coaches must haven't looked at the UNH roster close enough or seen the news that star senior goaltender Casey DeSmith had been suspended indefinitely when picking the Wildcats to finish fifth. There are many question marks. DeSmith is likely out and the blue line is absent Trevor van Riemsdyk, Eric Knodel and Justin Agosta. Last season's two top scorers Kevin Goumas and Nick Sorkin both graduated.

Grayson Downing, Matt Willows and Tyler Kelleher are the key returners up front while freshmen Warren Foegele and Shane Eiserman are two NHL Draft selections who will be looked upon to add offensive production.

Carolina Hurricanes prospect Brett Pesce is a steady defenseman who goes unnoticed often because of his ability to make very few mistakes. Can he and a young blue line protect freshman Adam Clark? The former BCHL netminder is a big presence in the crease. It has been rumored that Dick Umile will bring in former Cedar Rapids and current Junior Bruins goaltender Danny Tirone at the semester break.

The Wildcats have to replace a lot of key cogs which will prevent Umile's club for reaching the NCAA Tournament for a second consecutive season.

10. Merrimack

Head Coach: Mark Dennehy

2013-14 Record: 8-22-3, 3-15-2 HE

Preseason Coaches' Poll: 10

Preseason Media Poll: 10

Key Returning Players: Forwards Quinn Gould, Brian Christie, Vinny Scotti; Defensemen Dan Kolomatis, Jonathan Lashyn; Goaltender Rasmus Tirronen

Top Newcomers: Forwards Brett Seney, Jace Hennig; Defensemen Jared Kolquist, Marc Biega, Braxton Bilous; Goaltender Colin Delia

Captains: Dan Kolomatis

After a run of successful seasons Merrimack took a step back last season with an inability to find offense. The Warriors struggled with a lack of skill and difficulty finding the scoring areas. Mike Collins graduated as did two offensive defensemen in Brendan Ellis and Jordan Haywood.

Mark Dennehy's squad will look to some of its big forwards to crash the net and find open shooting lanes in the slot. Quinn Gould, Chris Leblanc and Hampus Gustafsson are all power forwards who could make that happen. Vinny Scotti, Brian Christie and Justin Hussar have some skill and could bring some much needed ability to move the puck in the offensive zone. Brett Seney and Jace Hennig are the two freshmen forwards who will be expected to contribute the most.

Defensively, the Warriors have big skates to fill in Ellis and Haywood's. Captain Dan Kolomatis has been a steadying presence since his arrival in North Andover. He'll lead a young defense that will likely play several rookies each night. Lincoln Stars product Jared Kolquist has high hopes placed upon him as does Salisbury alum Marc Biega, whose three brothers played at Harvard.

Rasmus Tirronen played admirably last season considering the pressure placed upon him with the lack of offensive support. He's a big goaltender who needs to improve on his consistency in order to be counted on all the time. Freshman Colin Delia is expected to push for playing time.

It's a tough league, a fact Merrimack knows all too well. Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy has talked a lot about changing the culture back to where it was when the Warriors enjoyed success. However, there just doesn't seem to be enough offense to sustain anything higher than a 10th place finish.

11. Massachusetts

Head Coach: John Micheletto

2013-14 Record: 8-22-4, 4-13-3 HE

Preseason Coaches' Poll: 11

Preseason Media Poll: 11

Key Returning Players: Forwards Steven Iacobellis, Ray Pigozzi, Frank Vatrano, Troy Power; Defensemen Oleg Yevenko, Ben Gallacher; Goaltender Steven Mastalerz

Top Newcomers: Forwards Dennis Kravchenko, Keith Burchett, Dominic Trento, Patrick Lee; Defensemen Jake Horton, Brandon Montour *; Goaltender Henry Dill

Captain: Troy Power

UMass lost its top three scorers off of last year's 10th place squad that struggled to maintain consistency. The Minutemen have a lack of depth and are very young which could lead to some growing pains in Amherst.

Frank Vatrano and Ray Pigozzi are two forwards with good hands and quick feet that will bring skill up front. Steven Iacobellis and Troy Power are two other returning players who can add scoring punch. Forward Dennis Kravchenko is the biggest new addition up front.

The biggest key to UMass' season this year will be junior goaltender Steven Mastalerz. The North Andover, Mass. native will have to carry the Minutemen on his back as a young team takes time to develop. Mastalerz battled some injuries at the start of the season, but he has the ability to stand on his head.

Defensively, John Micheletto's team lost three key blue liners in Joe Hanley, Adam Phillips and Colin Shea. Junior Ben Gallacher is the most offensive-minded defenseman of the returnees while senior Oleg Yevenko is a big-body on the back end. Freshman Jake Horton should see significant minutes right away as will Anaheim Ducks prospect Brandon Montour when he joins the team at the semester break. The former USHL Player of the Year didn't pass the NCAA Clearinghouse and is playing with Waterloo until December.

12. Connecticut

Head Coach: Mike Cavanaugh

2013-14 Record: 18-14-4, 15-9-3 HE

Preseason Coaches' Poll: 12

Preseason Media Poll: 12

Key Returning Players: Forwards Shawn Pauly, Trevor Gerling, Brent Norris, Patrick Kirtland; Defensemen Ryan Segalla, Joona Kunnas, Kyle Huson, Jacob Poe; Goaltender Rob Nichols

Top Newcomers: Forwards Spencer Naas, Jeff Wight, Will Golonka, Jesse Schwartz; Defensemen David Drake, Derek Pratt; Goaltender Steve Thulin

Captains: Ryan Tyson, Patrick Kirtland, Trevor Gerling

It's a tall task, skating into the best conference in college hockey, but that's what's been placed up UConn and second year head coach Mike Cavanaugh. The former BC assistant and assistants Joe Pereira and Mike Souza have hit the recruiting trails hard and have scored some gems for future classes, but the transition will be tough.

A young, but large group of defensemen will patrol the blue line in the Huskies' inaugural season in Hockey East. Led by sophomore Ryan Segalla, the Huskies have a physically imposing defense that will need to be strong night in and night out against stiffer competition. Joona Kunnas (6-3), Kyle Huson (6-5), Jacob Poe (6-3) and Tyler Cooke (6-1) return on the blue line. Newcomer David Drake is another big body out of Des Moines in the USHL and is a Philadelphia Flyers prospect.

Matt Grogan graduated, leaving Robbie Nichols as the lone goaltender with serious Division I experience to occupy the crease. Nichols proved to be more than capable in his first season of college hockey last year, but he will be pushed for playing time by freshman Steve Thulin.

The three leading scorers from last year all graduated, leaving Shawn Pauly, Brent Norris, Trevor Gerling and Patrick Kirtland to pick up the pace. Freshman Jeff Wight is a big power forward out of the BCHL who could generate some offense right away. Spencer Naas out of Benilde St. Margaret High School in Minnesota is a dynamic offensive talent, but undersized. If he can adjust to college hockey, his skill level could be a much needed lift to the Huskies offense.

Jeff Cox covers college, junior and high school hockey, NCAA recruiting and NHL Draft prospects. Follow him on Twitter @JeffCoxSports.