Who will finish last in Hockey East? It's a legitimate question. After all, one team always has to finish last. That's just the nature of sports. This year that question might be tougher to answer than any year in the history of the league.
Parity has been a word thrown about by league coaches for as long as one can remember. One month into the season and one full weekend of league action is in the books and it appears that all the teams predicted to finish near the bottom of the standings have made improvements over last season.
Northeastern, picked dead last by both the coaches and the media, has a freshman class that is worth all the hype. Forwards Mike Szmatula, Zach Aston-Reese, John Stevens, Dalen Hedges and Tanner Pond are creating all kinds of excitement with their offensive wizardry. Kevin Roy has returned better than ever and Braden Pimm seems to have finally realized his potential.
Sure the Huskies still have some shortcomings. Their defense made due against the likes of Alabama-Huntsville and Holy Cross, but mental mistakes, execution errors and costly turnovers proved too much to overcome as the Huskies were swept by Boston College this past weekend.
The goaltending looks to be better as well, but there are still some issues there. For the first time all season Jim Madigan went away from the rotation and started Clay Witt both nights. The senior from Brandon, Fla. made some acrobatic saves, but he also looked out of position and went down too quickly at times.
Then there is UMass who was picked to finish one spot from the bottom. The Minutemen were defeated by Boston University and UMass-Lowell in the opening weekend, but bounced back by sweeping Michigan State in the Big 10/Hockey East Challenge.
John Micheletto's squad has two really potent lines, but depth up front and on the blue line will be an issue all season. After losing twice to Maine in Orono the Minutemen tied and defeated the Black Bears in the comfy confines of the Mullins Center.
Steven Mastalerz has been very solid in net after that opening weekend, but consistency was his issue last season. Can the former Kimball Union star keep up his stellar play between the pipes? Can the top two lines carry the offense?
Those are legitimate questions and concerns for UMass fans, but it appears the Minutemen are capable of taking care of business - at least on home ice.
Vermont might be the most improved team in the early going. Kevin Sneddon's squad has been on a slow decline since making the Frozen Four in 2009, but this year could be different in Burlington.
The Catamounts played North Dakota very tough out in Grand Forks. UVM led 3-1 the first night before bowing to North Dakota, 5-3. The next night was an evenly played contest that ended in a 2-2 tie. Vermont then went on a two game winning streak defeating Penn State and Notre Dame. The unthinkable almost happened on Saturday night at Gutterson Field House. Vermont held a 2-0 lead over Notre Dame and looked poised to sweep the highly ranked Fighting Irish, but Jeff Jackson's team roared back with three unanswered goals to force the split.
Jake Fallon and Chris McCarthy will lead the offense with Kyle Reynolds' season ending injury, but there is depth up front and freshman goaltender Michael Santaguida has been solid.
Maine, under the direction of first year head coach Red Gendron, has also improved. The Black Bears are 3-3-1, but have looked more energized and played with more aggression than they did a season ago.
The Black Bears struggled to score last weekend in Amherst, but Gendron's up-tempo style seems to have benefited some of the returning players. Mark Anthoine, looking to regain his sophomore form, had three goals and two assists against UMass at home the week before.
Freshmen Blaine Byron, Josh Henke and Cam Brown have gotten off to good starts and Devin Shore should start to find his zone soon. There are other players such as Steven Swavely, Connor Leen and Ryan Lomberg who could be producers for Maine.
Discipline and defense are the biggest areas of concern for Maine, but goaltender Martin Ouellette should be the backstop Maine needs.
Merrimack has struggled to score like they did for much of last season, but the Warriors are a team that sat in first place in Hockey East as late as February last season. Mike Collins should lead the offense just enough to where the defense and goaltending can do its job. The blue line is the biggest strength of Mark Dennehy's team, but injuries have been an issue in the first month.
New Hampshire is 1-5-1 overall and 0-2 in conference play, but certainly no one expects to see Dick Umile's team stay down for too long.
So who will it be? Who will finish last? Parity is the name of the game in Hockey East. From top to bottom the standings should be as tight as ever heading into the final weeks of the season.
Jeff Cox covers college and junior hockey, NCAA recruiting, NHL Draft prospects and the AHL for SBNation. Follow him on twitter @JeffCoxSBNation.