Red Gendron's second season at the helm of the University of Maine men's hockey program has been a trying one. The 10-17-3 Black Bears enter this weekend's two-game series at Merrimack tied with the Warriors for ninth place in Hockey East.
The last two weekends have seen Maine pick up just one point each week from UConn and Notre Dame. Particularly concerning is that three of the four games were at home and the Black Bears were lifeless in two of them.
It's tough to gauge much when listening to Gendron during post-game press conferences as the former Yale and UMass assistant is very tight lipped. What you can infer from his comments is he doesn't believe the talent is up to par with what is needed to succeed on a nightly basis in Hockey East.
"And then you keep recruiting," he ended his press conference following his team's 5-1 loss to Notre Dame on Saturday. In an era where coaches have been able to turn around struggling programs fairly quickly, some Maine fans have become restless with the lack of improvement.
UMass Lowell's Norm Bazin and Providence's Nate Leaman are tremendous coaches. One could argue, and this writer has, that Bazin is the best game manager in college hockey. How come Bazin and Leaman were able to turn around their programs so quickly? How come Gendron has not?
The answer is quite simple. Gendron inherited some talent, but most of it was at the forward position. Although he has regressed some this year, Devin Shore is one of the best two-way centers in college hockey. Opposing teams have centered their game plans around stopping the Dallas Stars prospect. With Maine's lack of depth offensively, other teams gone on the all-out offensive to stop Shore.
The Ajax, Ontario native still has five multipoint games, but he can't do it alone. Rattle off the team's best players, including Shore, Ben Hutton, Blaine Byron, Cam Brown and Nolan Vesey, Steven Swavely, Liam Pecararo and Connor Leen, and what do you have? A list of all forwards with the exception of Hutton who is primarily known for his offensive capabilities from the point.
Why is this important? It is important because Gendron's team lacks in the area that is needed to consistently win hockey games. The defense has given up far too many easy goals. If you've seen it in person or watched highlights, there are constant examples of Maine's defense being caught flat-footed, out of position, not picking up the proper man in front of the net or turning a blind eye to the trailer.
All one needed to do was watch Notre Dame's defensemen and then Maine's over the two-game series. The Irish blue liners had the speed and agility to retrieve pucks and push the puck up ice. There was a serious speed advantage for Notre Dame over the weekend.
There have been nights where the defense has played pretty well as it did in last Friday's 4-4 tie against Notre Dame. Starting goaltender Sean Romeo was pulled after allowing three goals in the opening period, one of which was from such an impossible angle that it appeared to catch many in attendance, on and off the ice, by surprise.
Matt Morris' numbers have gotten better, but he and Romeo have still allowed too many soft goals for a team in Hockey East to be successful.
Getting back to Bazin and Leaman and why they were able to have success more quickly, the answer lies in the defense and goaltending. Bazin had Connor Hellebuyck and Leaman has Jon Gillies. Both teams have better defenses as well.
How come Maine has struggled to score goals, you might ask. At times the offensive schemes have been questionable. For one, the power play's scheme of passing it to the side door and hoping for a sneak attack hasn't worked well. However, some of the offensive production issues stem from the team's inability to maintain possession. The team has struggled with zone entry as well as zone exits from their own zone.
Gendron and assistants Jay Leach and Ben Guite all come with a defensive background. Even Guite, although a forward, was a terrific 200-foot player in his playing days. Given this, it's perplexing why the Black Bears have struggled in their own zone so much. "It's absolutely frustrating," said a visibly agitated Gendron following Saturday's loss.
What does Maine need to do to improve and see better results in year three of the Gendron era? Recruiting faster players and improving the goaltending position are imperative.
Seeing a half-empty, quiet Alfond Arena isn't good for anyone, including the rest of the league. As nice as new arenas at BU, UMass Lowell and Notre Dame are, nothing exemplifies the tradition and uniqueness of college hockey like the old school barns at Maine, UNH and UVM, especially when they're rocking.
It's tough to see Maine, and UNH to another extent, at or towards the bottom of the Hockey East standings.