Following a year where the Atlantic Hockey Association saw two teams make the NCAA Tournament, the league looks to be deep as ever. The league coaches picked Niagara to repeat as regular season champions, but below is a different take on how the conference will shape up in 2014.
Editor's Note: SBNation's Jeff Cox has compiled the following preseason rankings and team previews for each team in the Atlantic Hockey Association.
2012-13 Record: 19-17-5 Overall, 12-11-4 AHA (6th)
Coaches Poll: T-2nd
Head Coach: Rick Gotkin, Brockport State '82
Top Returners: Forwards Matthew Zay, Ryan Misiak, Daniel O'Donoghue, Daniel Bahntge, Chris Bodo; Defensemen Nick Jones and Tyler Shiplo; Goaltender Jordan Tibbett
Significant Losses: Forwards Grant Blakey and Paul Chiasson; Defenseman Charlie Carkin; Goaltender Max Strang
Best Incomers: Forwards Kyle Dutra and Jack Riley; Defenseman Phillipe Drouin
Mercyhurst is poised to have a terrific season with some of the talent it has coming back, but the Lakers will have to find a way to replace some key contributors. "We lost some very good players: goaltender Max Strang, [forwards] Paul Chiasson and Grant Blakey, and Charlie Carkin on defense," said Rick Gotkin.
Mercyhurst returns five players who found the back of the net at least 12 times last season led by Matthew Zay and Ryan Misiak.
"Both Matt and Ryan had great years for us last year. After a slow freshman year Ryan clearly emerged as one of the top offensive guys in our league. Matt is your typical power forward, being 6'1, 190-200 lbs. He shoots the puck great, goes to the net, finds rebounds, and play with a bit of snarl," said Gotkin of his two biggest offensive threats.
The veteran coach understands the importance of his two offensive catalysts. "If those guys have average years we wont be where we want to be, but I'm confident they'll have good years and we'll be where we want to be."
Mercyhurst lost goaltender Max Strang to graduation, but Jordan Tibbett proved to be a capable replacement when called upon last year. The duo rotated for much of last season, with the coaching staff simply hoping to give Tibbett some experience at first. "Jordan played great and it ended up being his the rest of the way. Jordan ended up great and we believe he is as good as anybody when he's at the top of his game."
2012-13 Record: 19-19-5 Overall, 12-13-2 AHA (T-7th)
Coaches Poll: 4th
Head Coach: Dave Smith, Ohio State '92
Top Returners: Forwards Kyle Gibbons, Patrick Sullivan, Mitch McCrank and Cody Freeman; Defensemen Ben Danford and Duncan McKellar; Goaltender Tony Capobianco
Significant Losses: Forwards Preston Shupe and Torrey Lindsay; Defenseman Ben Parker
Best Incomers: Forward Shane Conacher; Defenseman Geoff Fortman
Canisius finished strong last season winning the AHA Tournament Championship and the NCAA bid that went along with it. Dave Smith's top two players, Kyle Gibbons and Tony Capobianco, saved their best for the month of March. That has resulted in increased expectations for Dave Smith's squad.
"It's been a fun challenge, there's a much different mentality. We've been talking for a while about establishing ourselves and getting to a final four. We're trying to learn from some other team. Now that we've raised the bar lets keep the bar up there."
Senior forward Kyle Gibbons has gotten a lot of attention in the preseason, and he will need to be the offensive catalyst for the Griffins.
"Kyle had a wonderful season after a very tough start. From January 1 on he was in the top, if not at the top of, scoring in college hockey. He grew as a person and a player, in the classroom, off the ice and on the ice with us. He got off to a bad start, we sat him for a game," said Smith.
"He's an elite talent, can absolutely fire the puck, has a wonderful IQ and his compete level is very high. When we got to the tournament, he definitely opened some eyes," added the coach.
The Golden Griffins will need to play better team defense, but the blueline will have a year of added experience, and the comfort in knowing senior goaltender Tony Capobianco is behind them to hold down the fort.
"Tony was at the Minnesota [Wild Development] camp and he played very well. He opened some eyes to how good of a year he had and how good of a goaltender he is. He's not going to sneak up on anybody this year, teams know they need to get a lot of pucks on net," said Smith.
The coach knows how important a reliable goaltender is to having a successful season. "If your goaltender isn't at or near the top of the standings you won't be there as a team. We're going to challenge him and we hope he responds well."
2012-13 Record: 12-20-3 Overall, 10-14-3 AHA (10th)
Coaches Poll: 9th
Head Coach: Ryan Soderquist, Bentley '00
Top Returners: Forwards Brett Gensler, Alex Grieve, Andrew Gladiuk, Justin Breton and Brett Switzer; Defensemen Steve Weinstein and Matt Blomquist; Goaltender Branden Komm
Significant Losses: Forwards Brett Hartung and Joe Campanelli
Best Incomers: Forwards Max French and Will Suter; Defenseman Mike Berry
Bentley would have been ranked higher by the coaches if not for their inability to defend their own end last season. The Falcons struggled to keep pucks out of its own net last season. The defense should be better this year, and Braden Komm is one of the top goaltenders in the league.
"I look at our team and basically we're picked third based on past performances," said Ryan Soderquist. "I think we had a lot of growing pains [last year] defensively. We graduated our top defenseman and some freshmen got some valuable time [last season]. They need to take the next step [this year]."
Komm saw a lot of rubber last season, and proved to be one of the most capable backstops in the league. "We're excited to have him for his senior year. Like any team across the country your team will go the way your goalie goes. I know he had a great summer and we need him to come in and play well," said Soderquist.
Offense shouldn't be a problem for the Falcons with former Walter Brown Award winner Brett Gensler returning, along with Andrew Gladiuk and Alex Grieve.
Everyone knows about Gensler's exploits, but Soderquist was glowing in his praise of Gladiuk. "He's a phenomenal player, good two way center. He brings a lot to the table and that's why he got a lot of recognition. He plays both ends of the ice, can score goals, good skater, great student and team guy. He put in the hard work in this summer and we need him to be one of the leaders on our team even as a sophomore."
Soderquist understands that no matter how explosive his offense is, the forwards will need to be better backchecking and playing in their own end.
"Obviously we return nine of the ten top goal scorers from last year. [Brett] Gensler and Gladiuk will chip in for us. We have a lot of depth in our scoring. When I go through the third and fourth lines I think we have some guys that can produce more. We need to be more responsible defensively. If the whole team helps out on the back end we'll be successful."
Soderquist, a 2000 alum of the school he now coaches, has continuously elevated the Bentley program. He hopes that the Falcons can take another step forward this year. "We're returning a lot of great hockey players, and great kids. I've always felt if we had good people we'll win a lot of games."
With that said, Soderquist wants to take it one game at a time, and not get too far ahead of the themselves.
2012-13 Record: 19-14-4 Overall, 14-10-3 AHA (4th)
Coaches Poll: 6th
Head Coach: Mike Cavanaugh, Bowdoin '90
Top Returners: Forwards Brent Harris, Jordan Sims and Trevor Gerling; Defensemen Jacob Poe and Tyler Cooke; Goaltender Matt Grogan
Significant Losses: Forwards Sean Ambrosie and Evan Carriere; Defensemen Tom Janosz and Alex Gerke; Goaltender Garrett Bartus
Best Incomers: Forwards Brent Norris and Sean Gaffney; Defensemen Ryan Segalla and Christian Neumann
New head coach Mike Cavanaugh takes over at UConn for one final campaign in the Atlantic Hockey Association before moving to Hockey East. That possesses a unique challenge for Cavanaugh, but one that he is unwavering.
"Our focus is competing for an AHA regular season title. I think we'd be doing a disservice to our seniors if all we focused on is Hockey East. The AHA is a good league, and a league UCONN has never won."
Senior goaltender Matt Grogan will be the backbone of the squad as he returns for one final season in Storrs. "He finished strong last year, and having that experience and leadership in goal will be a big strength for us," said Cavanaugh.
Cavanaugh preaches taking it one game at a time, and that is what the Huskies will do this season.
2012-13 Record: 23-10-5 Overall, 20-5-2 AHA (1st)
Coaches Poll: 1st
Head Coach: Dave Burkholder, RIT '83
Top Returners: Forwards Ryan Murphy, Patrick Divjak and Ryan Rashid; Defensemen Kevin Ryan and Kevin Albers
Significant Losses: Forwards Giancarlo Ivorio and Marc Zanette; Defensemen CJ Chartrain, Dan Weiss and Jason Beattie; Goaltender Carsen Chubak
Best Incomers: Forwards Patrick Conte and Stephen Pietrobon; Defenseman Vince Muto; Goaltenders Adrian Ignagni and Jackson Teichroeb
The Purple Eagles were picked to win the league by the coaches in the preseason poll, a point of pride for coach Dave Burkholder, but he realizes it's more important to be first in March. "It's an honor to be chosen as the preseason pick. We're certainly not ordering and plaques or trophies, but the AHA is a great league and to be picked is a great honor for our guys and we've got something to live up to."
Niagara lost two of its top three scorers, three key defensemen and its starting goaltender. "There's turn over every year in college hockey. Carsen Chubak was a Hobey Baker finalist, and he decided to take a pro contract."
Niagara had arguably the best recruiting class in the AHA, led by two very capable goaltenders. "Adrian Ignani is from St. Michael's Buzzers in the in Toronto, one of the top teams [in that league]. I expect his transition to the D-I crease will be seamless," Jackson Teichroeb will be the other rookie battling for ice time between the pipes.
The Purple Eagles will also have to deal with the absence of top returning scorer Ryan Murphy for the first half of the season following his arrest for DWI. "The team will go the way Ryan goes," said Burkholder before news broke of Murphy's indiscretion.
2012-13 Record: 15-18-5 Overall, 11-12-4 AHA (T-7th)
Coaches Poll: 5th
Head Coach: Wayne Wilson, Bowling Green '84
Top Returners: Forwards Matt Garbowsky, Michael Colavecchia, Ben Lynch and Adam Mitchell; Defensemen Greg Noyes and Alexander Kuqali; Goaltender Jordan Ruby
Significant Losses: Forward Jeff Smith; Defenseman Chris Saracino; Goaltender Josh Watson
Best Incomers: Forwards Danny Smith, Todd Skirving, Caleb Cameron and Garrett McMullen; Defensemen Dustin Fostvelt and AlexPerron-Fontaine; Goaltender Michael Rotolo
Rochester Institute of Technology has always been an offensive-minded team, and this year should be no different. Forwards Matt Garbowsky, Michael Colavecchia, Ben Lynch and Adam Mitchell will lead the offense.
"We've always been an offensive type of team," said Wayne Wilson. "Our top line is a year older. We'll look to guys like Ben Lynch and Michael Colavecchia," added the veteran coach.
Greg Noyes, an offensive defenseman, will highlight the blue line that will be charged with protecting the RIT net. Josh Watson moved on, but Jordan Ruby returns and will start the season in goal. "Jordan Ruby will start off as our number one goaltender. We have to see what Kenny McLean and Mike Rotolo can do," said Wilson of his goaltending situation.
Wilson hopes his team can be more consistent this season, and build momentum off last season's strong finish. "I was excited with how we finished, not with the results, but how we played."
7. Air Force
2012-13 Record: 17-13-7 Overall, 15-7-5 AHA (2nd)
Coaches Poll: T-2nd
Head Coach: Frank Serratore, Bemidji State '82
Top Returners: Forwards Cole Gunner, Tony Thomas and Chad Demers; Defensemen Adam McKenzie and Dan Weissenhofer; Goaltender Jason Torf
Significant Losses: Forwards Kyle De Laurell, Stephen Carew and John Kruse; Defensemen Eric Artman and Mike Walsh
Best Incomers: Forwards A.J. Reid and Ryan Doucet; Defenseman Johnny Hrabovsky
Even Falcons head coach Frank Serratore admitted his team's lofty ranking in the coaches poll was at least partially due to reputation. "I look at our team and basically we're picked third based on past performances," said Serratore.
Air Force lost three key offensive players, but someone always seems to step up in Colorado Springs.
"We lost a pile of goals between our senior forwards," said Serratore. "Nobody is going to make up for DeLaurell's 19 goals. We're going to have to make that up collectively within our lineup. A lot of guys are capable of chipping in a few more than they did last year," he added.
"When you talk about our team, it's not about what we have coming in, it's about what we have coming back. We do have a good nucleus of vet players coming back," Serratore added.
Jason Torf might not be as flashy as some of the other league goaltenders, but he makes the saves he needs to make and will keep Air Force in games.
"Jason is a very, very good Atlantic Hockey goaltender. He hasn't won any league awards because we always have good goalies in our league. I think he's a bit underrated in that respect. He brings consistency. You always know what you're going to get with Jason."
Serratore believes his team finished strong last year, but ran into a hot goaltender and had some pucks bounce the wrong way. "Last year we didn't make it because we got upset at home by a hot team [Canisius]. We were a very, very good team at the end of the last year. I thought we were going do it again. All the championships we won, the bounces always went our way. Last year Canisius came in and they were a team of destiny. The bounces went their way, I'm not complaining."
Air Force will look for the return of some of that March magic this season once it breaks in some of their new players and sees improvement from the players already on campus.
8. Robert Morris
2012-13 Record: 20-14-4 Overall, 13-11-3 AHA (5th)
Coaches Poll: 7th
Head Coach: Derek Schooley, Western Michigan '94
Top Returners: Forwards Cody Wydo, Colin South and Scott Jacklin; Defenseman Andrew Blazek
Significant Losses: Forwards Adam Brace and Zach Hervato; Defensemen Tyler Hinds and Brendan Jamison; Goaltender Eric Levine
Best Incomers: Forwards Ben Robillard and Daniel Leavens; Defensemen John Rey and Rob Mann; Goaltenders Brandon Lane and Dalton Izyk
The Colonials have always had the ability to beat some of the best teams in the country, but the challenge for coach Derek Schooley has been to have his team play more consistent.
"I think over the history of our program we've proven we get up for big games. We beat Miami twice when they were number one, beat BU and Notre Dame. Our guys have to realize that there's 34 games in our schedule, not six or seven, or one. We have be consistent from start to finish."
RMU lost forwards Adam Brace and Zach Hervato, but the biggest departure was goaltender Eric Levine who graduated. "We've got three good goalies. Our main challenge is to replace the minutes Eric played. That's going be the big question mark of our season."
"It's one of the most important positions in sports. We like our goaltending. It's just a matter of who steps up and gets the job done. That's our big question going through preseason."
Cody Wydo will be the top returning scorer, having tallied 21 goals last season. The junior from Allen Park, Mich. will be counted upon again by Schooley.
"He was actually second in the nation in his [sophomore] class behind Johnny Gaudreau. He finds ways to score goals. It doesn't matter who you put him with, he'll find ways to score goals. He was a healthy scratch the first five games of his freshman year, but we put him in on the fourth line just to get him in the game. He hasn't stopped scoring since."
9. Holy Cross
2012-13 Record: 20-14-3 Overall, 15-9-3 AHA (3rd)
Coaches Poll: 8th
Head Coach: Paul Pearl, Holy Cross '89
Top Returners: Forwards Shayne Stockton and Adam Schmidt; Defensemen Karl Beckman and Joe McNamara; Goaltender Matt Ginn
Significant Losses: Forwards Brandon Nunn, Rob Linsmayer and Kyle Fletcher; Defenseman Evan Zych
Best Incomers: Forwards Cameron Lawson, Brett McKinnon and John Cross; Defensemen Grant Garvin and Logan Smith
Holy Cross will have to replace three very important offensive contributors from last year's team. "It's a situation you run into when you have outstanding seniors. Hopefully there will be a few freshmen who will come in and compete. We've also got a few guys on campus already that we like."
Pearl believes his team will rely on offense by committee instead of having one or two go-to-players. "We also didn't have any 40-50 point guys, we had a lot of kids who were 15-16 point guys, if we can continue that all hands on deck scoring we'll be alright."
Pearl believes he has some players already on the team that can step up their offensive production. "I do have three junior leftwingers in [Tommy] Dwyer, [Mike] McNamara and [Jake] Youso who are all capable of producing more offensively than they have, through no fault of their own. They haven't been put in that top-six role or the role of the power play guy. If they can kind of run with that, they'll be three I'd put forward to replace what we lost."
Goaltender Matt Ginn returns, and Holy Cross will have five young defensemen coming back who now have a year or two of experience under their belt.
"We had five freshman on our roster last year, Karl Beckman will be out the beginning of the year, so we'll have four to start. They all gained invaluable experience last year in our league and in college hockey. We're looking for an uptick from all of those guys."
2012-13 Record: 7-22-5 Overall, 7-15-5 AHA (11th)
Coaches Poll: 10th
Head Coach: Brian Riley, Brown '83
Top Returners: Forwards Joe Kozlak and Josh Richards; Defensemen Mac Lalor, Maurice Alvarez and Jonathan Gehrt; Goaltender Rob Tadazak
Significant Losses: Forwards Andy Starczewski; Defensemen John Clark and Cheyne Rocha; Goaltender Ryan Leets
Best Incomers: Forward C.J. Reuschlein; Defenseman Connor Costello; Goaltender Parker Gahagan
Army head coach Brian Riley is hoping his young team can build off some of what it learned last season.
"We got off to a great start [last year] and played a lot of young guys in key situations. We just kind of ran out of gas. I'm hoping we learned a valuable lesson from that, a lot of young guys played big minutes and I hope that can help us sustain a little bit of a more consistent effort this year.
Regardless of experience, the Black Knights are going to need to score more this season. Army's leading returning scorer is defenseman Mac Lalor. Forwards Joe Kozlak and Josh Richards will have to make a huge step from last season in terms of production.
Riley insists that his team's offensive ineptitude is not why it struggled last year. "I wish I could say that we have a bunch of 25 goal scorers, but we've never been a high scoring team. We have to be better defensively. That was a huge problem last year."
The goaltending situation is certainly not a concern to Riley. Junior goaltender Rob Tadazak will finally have complete control of the crease after splitting time his first two years.
"I think coming in this year [Tadazak] knows he's our number one guy and hopefully that'll give him some confidence. He came to us from the North American league where he was Player of the Year last year. If we're going be better defensively we need good numbers in goal and I think he's capable of that, for sure."
2012-13 Record: 12-17-6, 9-12-6 AHA (9th)
Coaches Poll: 11th
Head Coach: Gary Wright, Vermont '76
Top Returners: Forwards Jon Puskar, Blake Peake and Chris Porter; Defensemen Brandon Lubin and Jake Williams
Significant Departures: Forwards Adam Pleskach and Richard Leitner; Defenseman Jeff Ceccacci; Goaltender Ben Meisner
Best Incomers: Forwards Daniel Clairmont, Sean Federow and David Norris; Defenseman Dominic Racobaldo; Goaltenders Ty Reichenbach and Hunter Leisner
American International will have some key players to replace, but none more so than departed goaltender Ben Meisner.
"He had a particularly strong year for us last year, most importantly down the stretch in that second semester. That'll be a big factor. We have two incoming freshman and a senior who has played some. There will be competition, it's wide open as of now, but it's certainly a change and that will be a big factor," said Gary Wright.
AIC lost two of its top offensive scorers in Adam Pleskach and Jeff Ceccacci. "We lost [Adam Pleskach] and Jeff Ceccacci from the all-conference team. He was our power play quarterback. Adam, for all four years, was a consistent player," said Wright.
"Goal scoring is going to be a concern coming in. Obviously we feel good about some of our freshman so we're hoping they'll chip in and give us some help. We have some returning forwards that we think can be more potent as well. We lost 35 goals total, we're going to have to replace that," explained Gary Wright.
AIC starts the season with a brutal nonconference slate, facing Providence, Michigan State, UMass-Lowell, Maine and UMass-Amherst. That's four Hockey East teams, including the top ranked team in the country in the River Hawks.
12. Sacred Heart
2012-13 Record: 2-30-4 Overall, 2-21-4 AHA (12th)
Coaches Poll: 12th
Head Coach: C.J. Marottolo, Northeastern '89
Top Returners: Forwards Brian Sheehan and Chad Barthelmess; Defensemen Jacob Brightbill and Will Rayner
Significant Losses: Forwards Ben Ketchum and Eric Delong
Best Incomers: Forward Justin Danforth; Defensemen Tyler Shaw, Erlich Doerksen and Mitch Nylen; Goaltender Alex Vazzano
Sacred Heart had a brutal season last year, and there is no beating around the bush regarding what a tough year it was. However, head coach C.J. Marottolo said there were some positives to be taken from his team's play down the stretch. "No question we were [playing our best hockey], going down the stretch. We definitely will try to build on that."
Marottolo is trying to look forward and not dwell on last season. He will have a lot of new faces to help usher in a more successful season, he hopes. "Our record is indicative of where we stand, not where we're going. We have a lot of new faces player wise and coach wise. I'm excited about where we're going and where we are within the group."
Marottolo will have 12 freshmen and a transfer goaltender to help turn the tide. "We have 12 freshman, but I'm going to let some water go under the bridge before I comment on those guys. They all bring different skills, they're competitive, overall they are pieces of the puzzle we were trying to fit together. Needless to say they will all play a role for us going forward and we're excited to welcome them," said the fifth-year head coach.
Alex Vazzano, a former Vermont Catamounts goalie, transferred to Sacred Heart and fulfilled his year in residence requirement last year. "He was here last year, he practiced with us last year. He's a part of the team, and he's excited about the opportunity to play. He's going to compete for the starting job."
The offense will again be led by Brian Sheehan who scored 11 goals and added 17 assists last season. "Brian Sheehan has been a very effective point producer for us. We'll look to him to continue that."