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ECAC Hockey Season Preview and Preseason Rankings

Matt Dewkett

There's an old adage in sports that defense trumps offense. That theory will be put to the test in ECAC Hockey this season as there is a clear distinction between the two front runners for winning the league crown in 2015-16.

Keith Allain's Yale Bulldogs boast a top notch defense and the league's top returning goaltender while Ted Donato's Harvard Crimson will rely on outgunning the rest of the league with their heavy arsenal of offensive weapons.

Yale and Harvard appear to be the two top contenders to make a deep run into post-season hockey from the league, but don't count out St. Lawrence and Quinnipiac. Both return large portions of their teams that finished in the top four of the standings a year ago. Colgate lost some key cogs, but the cupboard isn't completely bare for Don Vaughan's squad.

Without further ado, here is this observer's preseason rankings with a synopsis of each team:

1. Yale
Head Coach: Keith Allain
2014-15 Record: 18-10-5 Overall, 12-6-4 ECAC
2015-16 Coaches' Poll: 3
2015-16 Media Poll: 2
Top Returnees: Forwards Frankie DiChiara, Mike Doherty, Cody Learned, John Hayden; Defensemen Rob O'Gara, Mitch Witek, Ryan Obuchowski; Goaltender Alex Lyon
Key Losses: Forward Trent Ruffolo; Defensemen Tommy Fallen, Matt Killian
Best Newcomers: Forwards Joe Snively, Ted Hart; Defensemen Charlie Curti, Anthony Walsh

The Bulldogs will be just way too good defensively to not finish in first place. There is no better shutdown defender in the league than Boston Bruins prospect Rob O'Gara, who will lead Keith Allain's staunch defense. Goaltender Alex Lyon, who had the top goals against average and save percentage in the league last season, will once again be a workhorse.

Frankie DiChiara, Mike Doherty, Cody Learned and John Hayden should all be expected to take another step with a year more experience under their belts.

Some will question the impact of losing assistant coaches Jason Guerriero and Dan Muse in the same off-season. That will undoubtedly hurt, but Allain is still a tremendous coach and the pieces are in place for a deep run.

2. Harvard
Head Coach: Ted Donato
2014-15 Record: 21-13-3 Overall, 11-8-3 ECAC
2015-16 Coaches' Poll: 1
2015-16 Media Poll: 3
Top Returnees: Forwards Jimmy Vesey, Kyle Criscuolo, Alexander Kerfoot and Sean Malone; Defensemen Desmond Bergin, Clay Anderson, Jake Horton
Key Losses: Forward Brian Hart; Defensemen Patrick McNally, Max Everson; Goaltender Steve Michalek
Best Newcomers: Forwards Ryan Donato, Michael Floodstrand; Defensemen Jacob Olson, Adam Baughman; Goaltender Michael Lackey

There's been a lot of talk this preseason about the issues facing Ted Donato's team defensively. There isn't a lack of talent on the backend, but inexperience will be an obstacle the Crimson will have to overcome.

Freshman goaltender Michael Lackey was a coveted recruit. After de-committing from Princeton, he was offered by BC and BU before choosing Harvard. Sophomore Merrick Madsen is a Philadelphia Flyers pick. One of the two should be more than serviceable between the pipes.

Patrick McNally and Max Everson will be missed on the blue line, but there should be more than enough offense to go around to offset the defensive mistakes which will inevitably be made this season.

Leading the way offensively will be returning Walter Brown Award winner and Hobey Baker Hat Trick Finalist Jimmy Vesey. The Nashville Predators draft pick opted to come back for his senior season. Kyle Criscuolo, Alex Kerfoot and Sean Malone headline a strong supporting cast. The status of Colin Blackwell is the only question mark. The senior who has suffered from concussion issues has yet to be told by the NCAA if he'll have one or two semesters of eligibility.

Boston Bruins draft pick Ryan Donato, the former Dexter star and coach's son, should be one of the more dominant rookie forwards in the league this year.

3. Quinnipiac
Head Coach: Rand Pecknold
2014-15 Record: 23-12-4 Overall, 16-3-3 ECAC
2015-16 Coaches' Poll: 4
2015-16 Media Poll: 2
Top Returnees: Forwards Sam Anas, Landon Smith, Travis St. Denis, Soren Jonzzon; Defensemen Devon Toews, Connor Clifton; Goaltender Michael Garteig
Key Losses: Forward Matt Peca; Defensemen Danny Federico, Justin Agosta
Best Newcomers: Forwards Thomas Aldworth, Scott Davidson; Defensemen Luke Shiplo, Daniel Fritz

Rand Pecknold and his coaching staff have solidly built the Bobcats into a yearly contender for the ECAC Hockey crown. With the facility and recent track record, it's no wonder good players keep lining up to come to Hamden.

Quinnipiac lost some key parts in forward Matt Peca and defensemen Dan Federico and Justin Agosta, but there is an abundance of talent waiting in the wings. Junior Sam Anas has been nothing but a scoring machine since arriving and he'll be supported by Landon Smith and Travis St. Denis.

The defense has some holes to fill as mentioned above, but Devon Toews and Connor Clifton are two juniors that should be solid anchors to the blue line. Michael Garteig has been oft-criticized since taking over the starting job for the departed former Hobey finalist Eric Hartzell. He'll never be a game changer, but he's been adequate for the most part, sans a few soft goals here and there.

4. St. Lawrence
Head Coach: Greg Carvel
2014-15 Record: 20-14-3 Overall, 14-7-1 ECAC
2015-16 Coaches' Poll: 2
2015-16 Media Poll: 4
Top Returnees: Forwards Mike Marnell, Brian Ward, Tommy Thompson; Defensemen Eric Sweetman, Gavin Bayreuther, Nolan Gluchowski, Mike Purmal; Goaltender Kyle Hayton
Key Losses: Forwards Patrick Doherty, Gunnar Hughes, Justin Bruckel; Defenseman Chris Martin
Best Newcomers: Forwards Jacob Pritchard, Michael Ederer; Defenseman R.J. Gicewicz

There's a lot to like about the team the Saints have returning in Canton. The Saints return several key players at each position and will have a more experienced blue line.

Carvel's squad boasts one of the top goaltenders in college hockey. The difference Kyle Hayton made last season was remarkable. His presence in the crease and the confidence he inspired in his teammates seemed to free up the team to play better hockey around him.

Sophomore Mike Marnell was the second leading goal scorer on the team last year with 11. SLU is a team that can skate with any other team in the league. The only concern is whether or not Hayton can keep pace with his numbers from rookie season.

5. Union
Head Coach: Rick Bennett
2014-15 Record: 19-18-2 Overall, 8-13-1 ECAC
2015-16 Coaches' Poll: 6
2015-16 Media Poll: 6
Top Returnees: Forwards Mike Vecchione, Matt Wilkins, Spencer Foo, Ryan Scarfo; Defensemen Jeff Taylor, Sebastien Gingras, Noah Henry; Goaltender Alex Sakellaropoulos
Key Losses: Forwards Daniel Ciampini, Max Novak; Defenseman Charlie Vasaturo; Goaltender Colin Stevens
Best Newcomers: Forwards Brett Supinski, Ryan Walker, Sebastian Vidmar, Cole Maier, Brendan Taylor; Defenseman Greg Campbell; Goaltender Jake Kupsky

At first glance, it might be easy to slide the Dutchmen further down in the preseason rankings. Rick Bennett's team lost starting goaltender Colin Stevens and leading scorer Daniel Ciampini, two key figures in the program's 2014 NCAA Championship.

However, upon closer review, Union returns some key pieces and has a defense that should be older, less green and more reliable in 2015-16. Pittsburgh Penguins prospect Jeff Taylor is one of the more underrated defensemen in college hockey. He's a mobile defender that can push the puck up ice and quarterback a power play.

J.C. Brassard, Sebastien Gingras and Nick DeSimone all return on the blue line as well, as do Noah Henry and Connor Light. Freshman Greg Campbell should challenge for ice time immediately.

Alex Sakellaropoulos returns between the pipes. He was good at times last year in place of Stevens, but will be pushed by freshman goaltender and San Jose Sharks prospect Jake Kupsky.

Junior captain Mike Vecchione is a complete, two-play center who should be a strong pivot on the top line. Look for Ryan Scarfo and Spencer Foo, who will be counted on to continue their strong play from their freshman seasons.

6. Colgate
Head Coach: Don Vaughan
2014-15 Record: 22-12-4 Overall, 11-7-4 ECAC
2015-16 Coaches' Poll: 5
2015-16 Media Poll: 5
Top Returnees: Forwards Tylor Spink, Tyson Spink, Darcy Murphy, Mike Borkowski; Defensemen Jake Kulevich, Kevin Lough; Goaltender Charlie Finn
Key Losses: Forwards Kyle Baun, Joe Wilson, John Lidgett; Defensemen Spiros Goulakos, Ryan Johnston
Best Newcomers: Forward Hunter Racine; Defensemen Willie Brooks, Rory McGuire, Kenny Citron

Finding the right spot to put the Raiders in the preseason was an interesting dilemma. Don Vaughan's team lost several key cogs over the offseason, including former captain Spiros Goulakos. Also gone from Hamilton are Ryan Johnston and Kyle Baun, who left eligibility on the table to sign pro deals.

The cupboard isn't bare, especially up front where Tyson and Tylor Spink and Darcy Murphy will lead the way. The Raiders likely won't have any problems scoring goals. Watch out for Hunter Racine to have a big impact in his rookie season.

Leading the way defensively will be junior Jake Kulevich. He's a late-bloomer who came to Colgate and has prospered. He's steady and reliable each time over the boards.

Junior Charlie Finn has been a solid goaltender ever since his arrival in Hamilton. He will have to be on top of his game this season to help bail out a young and inexperienced defense.

7. Clarkson
Head Coach: Casey Jones
2014-15 Record: 12-20-5 Overall, 8-11-3 ECAC
2015-16 Coaches' Poll: 8
2015-16 Media Poll: 8
Top Returnees: Forwards Troy Josephs, Jeff DiNallo, A.J. Fossen; Defensemen Paul Geiger, Kevin Tansey, James de Haas, Kelly Summers; Goaltenders Steve Perry, Greg Lewis
Key Losses: Forward Joe Zarbo, Defenseman James Howden
Best Newcomers: Forwards Marly Quince, Juho Jokiharju; Defenseman Aaron Thow; Goaltender Matt Robson

This is really a case of believing in a big, physical defense and the style of play that head coach Casey Jones is hoping to put out on the ice each and every night. The blue line has a good amount of experience and has the horses to clog the middle and keep opposing teams from transitioning quickly.

The biggest question for the Golden Knights is whether or not one of the four goaltenders on the roster can consistently keep pucks out of the net. Steve Perry and Greg Lewis have proven they can perform well at times, but the duo have also had some rough outings.

Pittsburgh draft pick Troy Josephs leads the offense. He's a strong, rugged forward who plays well in all three zones and can win battles along the boards. He does a good job of gaining possession and feeding open teammates. Jeff DiNallo is another key piece up front.

8. Brown
Head Coach: Brendan Whittet
2014-15 Record: 8-20-3 Overall, 5-14-3 ECAC
2015-16 Coaches' Poll: 11
2015-16 Media Poll: 11
Top Returnees: Forwards Mark Naclerio, Nick Lappin, Sam Lafferty, Tyler Bird, Max Willman; Defensemen Josh McArdle, Tyler Wood; Goaltenders Tim Ernst, Tyler Steel
Key Losses: Forwards Matt Lorito, Massimo LaMacchia; Defenseman Joey de Concilys
Best Newcomers: Forwards Tom Marchin, Alex Brink; Defensemen Conner Wynne, Brady Schoo, Will Scherer, Max Gottlieb

The Bears are a team that could jump up a few spots if their goaltending and defense plays higher than expectations, but they are also in danger of finishing more in line with where the coaches and rest of media picked them.

The downfall of Brown's season last year, besides injuries, was an ineptitude among the blue liners in transitioning, breaking out of their own zone and keeping possession. Four freshman defensemen have been brought in with the hopes some of them can step in and contribute immediately.

Brendan Whittet and his staff has done a very good job in the recruiting process as far as finding forwards who can really skate. Tyler Bird, Sam Lafferty and Max Willman, now sophomores, are good examples of that. The Bears will need the three NHL Draft choices to continue their development this season.

Mark Naclerio and Nick Lappin are upperclassmen that will be counted on the carry the offense. With the questions on the blue line remaining, it will be key for the offense to come through as some shootouts are likely. Tom Marchin and Alex Brink are two older freshmen who could play a role as grinders right from the outset.

9. Cornell
Head Coach: Mike Schafer
2014-15 Record: 11-14-6 Overall, 9-9-4 ECAC
2015-16 Coaches' Poll: 7
2015-16 Media Poll: 9
Top Returnees: Forwards Christian Hilbrich, Matt Buckles, Jake Weidner; Defensemen Ryan Bliss, Reece Willcox; Goaltender Mitch Gillam
Key Losses: Forwards Cole Bardreau, John McCarron, Joel Lowry; Defensemen Joakim Ryan, Jacob MacDonald
Best Newcomers: Forward Beau Starrett, Anthony Angello; Defensemen Alec McCrea, Brendan Smith, Trent Shore, Matthew Nuttle

There will surely be some folks who consider this too low a preseason ranking for the Big Red, but Mike Schafer's team lost three of their top five scorers. The two returnees in the top five had just 28 points combined between the two of them.

Cornell also lost Joakim Ryan, a defenseman who was stellar in all three zones. CU will lose some of its transition ability with his departure. NTDP product Ryan Bliss is back with a year under his belt and will be expected to log more significant minutes.

Junior goaltender Mitch Gillam is the only real reason for optimism in Ithaca. Schafer and company have a proven track record, but there just doesn't seem to be enough pieces in place this season for a strong finish.

10. Dartmouth
Head Coach: Bob Gaudet
2014-15 Record: 17-12-4 Overall, 12-8-2 ECAC
2015-16 Coaches' Poll: 9
2015-16 Media Poll: 7
Top Returnees: Forwards Brad Schierhorn, Grant Opperman; Defensemen Brett Patterson, Tim Shoup, Ryan Bullock; Goaltenders James Kruger, Charles Grant
Key Losses: Forwards Eric Neiley, Tyler Sikura, Eric Robinson, Brandon McNally; Defensemen Rick Pinkston, Andy Simpson
Best Newcomers: Forwards John Ernsting, Kevan Kilistoff; Defensemen Connor Yau, Cam Roth

The Big Green are always a fun team to watch. Bob Gaudet always seems to have his players skating hard and competing each shift. Dartmouth finished strong last season after a mediocre first half, but couldn't get past Colgate in the ECAC Hockey Quarterfinals.

This could be another rough first half for Dartmouth as the Big Green lost their top three scorers from a year ago. Also lost to graduation is Rick Pinkston, one of the most underrated defensemen in ECAC Hockey. His plus/minus of +14 was the best on the team. He was just solid and dependable in his own zone.

Brad Schierhorn and Grant Opperman return to lead the offense while Brett Patterson, Tim Shoup and Ryan Bullock will receive the most minutes on the blue line. Goaltender James Kruger emerged as the starter after splitting time and backing up fellow classmate Charles Grant.

This observer isn't as bullish on the Big Green as others in the media, but if Dartmouth is going to meet preseason expectations, it will be because of strong goaltending and a scoring by committee approach.

11. Rensselaer
Head Coach: Seth Appert
2014-15 Record: 12-26-3 Overall, 8-12-2 ECAC
2015-16 Coaches' Poll: 10
2015-16 Media Poll: 10
Top Returnees: Forwards Drew Melanson, Milos Bubela, Mark Miller; Defensemen Mark Prapavessis, Jared Wilson, Chris Bradley; Goaltender Jason Kasdorf
Key Losses: Forwards Jacob Laliberte, Matt Neal, Mark McGowan; Defensemen Curtis Leonard, Luke Curadi
Best Newcomers: Forwards Jesper Ohrvall Alex Rodriguez, Evan Tironese, Brady Wiffen, Defenseman Tommy Grant; Goaltender Cam Hackett

It's tough to see Rensselaer having a good season. The Engineers lost two of their three leading scorers from a team that struggled to score as it was. Two key defensemen are also gone. Sophomore Drew Melanson returns after leading the team in scoring as a rookie.

RPI has to hope that Buffalo Sabres prospect Jason Kasdorf returns to the form he had his freshman season when he was named the ECAC Hockey Rookie of the Year. He's never fully regained the confidence or ability to stop pucks at the same rate he did since suffering that ankle injury two seasons ago.

Freshman Cam Hackett from the USHL's Lincoln Stars was brought in as a last minute recruiting replacement for Alec Dillon, who opted for the WHL. Hackett will be waiting in the wings if Kasdorf falters.

12. Princeton
Head Coach: Ron Fogarty
2014-15 Record: 4-23-3 Overall, 2-18-2 ECAC
2015-16 Coaches' Poll: 12
2015-16 Media Poll: 12
Top Returnees: Forward Tucker Brockett; Defensemen Aaron Ave, Tom Krushus
Key Losses: Forwards Jonathan Liau, Ben Foster, Kyle Rankin; Defensemen Tommy Davis, Kevin Liss, Joe Grabowski; Goaltender Colton Phinney
Best Newcomers: Forwards Alex Riche, Max Veronneau, Ryan Kuffner; Defenseman Josh Teves; Goaltender Austin Shaw

Ron Fogarty and his staff are doing the best they can to bring some talent into the Tigers' program, but the rebuilding process won't be an easy one. Year two of the Fogarty era at Princeton isn't shaping up to be much better than the first.

Princeton scored just 39 goals in 30 games played last season. All three of the team's double digit scorers from a year ago are back, but whether or not they will be able to make a significant jump is certainly in doubt. One player that has the pedigree to maybe have a breakout season is senior Kyle Rankin.

Goaltender Colton Phinney returns between the pipes. The Chatham, NJ native had a .910 save percentage last season as a sophomore.

Princeton is a difficult place to win so Fogarty and his staff should be given time to bring in their players and their philosophy before rushing to judgement on the success of the hire.

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