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Hockey East Preseason Storylines

2017 NHL Draft - Portraits Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

BOSTON -- Building success takes time in the game of college hockey.

With that said, it is not unreasonable to expect a big step forward at UMass as Greg Carvel enters his second season behind the bench. With a new look, the Minutemen enter this weekend’s season-opening series at Arizona State more poised to compete than the one that won just two Hockey East games in 2016-17.

The coach is excited to see what he has in his team come Friday, but knows there is still a whole lot to prove.

“We’re picked to finish last, and that’s what we deserve until we win some games,” Carvel said, “but the thing I like about the class is that it’s going to give our program some depth and some foundation to start building up.”

The Minutemen were the least effective team in the league on both sides of the puck last year, allowing close to two goals per game more than they scored.

But, it is no secret that the program building Carvel speaks of can be started from the back end with top-50 draft picks Cale Makar and Mario Ferraro joining the fold as two of 14 newcomers, making up the largest incoming class in the nation.

Makar became the highest-ever UMass draft pick this June as the Colorado Avalanche selected him at No. 4 overall after helping the Brooks Bandits to back-to-back championships in the Alberta Junior Hockey League, while Ferraro was San Jose’s second-round, No. 49 choice after impressing as a USHL rookie with the Des Moines Buccaneers.

Makar and Ferraro combined for 116 regular-season points during their final seasons of junior hockey. Their scoring flair is evident in that total and represents a strength the Minutemen have not had to this extent in two defensemen in years.

“Makar and Ferraro are going to be elite players in the league, and we’re going to let them be from Day One,” said Carvel, whose team opened the season last Saturday with a 1-0 exhibition win over Queens. “We’re going to play the heck out of them, but I’m excited to just see a much different product on the ice this year.”

Although Steven Iacobellis and Ray Pigozzi are gone after leading last year’s team offensively, the Minutemen return 15-point scorer Austin Plevy as a junior and will benefit from Providence transfer Niko Rufo and others. Josh Couturier, a Boston College transfer, also adds depth on the blue line.

There is a mix of youth and experience, skill and toughness. It all adds up to exciting times in Amherst.

“It’s really exciting for us and there are all good vibes right now. Our goal this year is to develop as a team,” Ferraro said. “We have work to do, but we’re a high character group and we also have a lot of skill, and I think we can put that to work this year. Our identity as a team is ‘fast, hard, and prepared,’ and we want to bring it every night.”

Milestone for Umile?

Coaching has long been a strength around these parts ― and Hockey East will be losing another longtime bench boss when Dick Umile leaves the New Hampshire program to current associate head coach Mike Souza at this season’s end.

Umile enters his 28th and final season at the helm of the Wildcats sitting 16 wins shy of the 600-win mark that only 11 college coaches have ever reached.

Can the Wildcats achieve their highest win total since 2015 to send their longtime skipper out on a milestone note? It could be a tough task following the graduation of both reigning All-American Tyler Kelleher and standout defenseman Matias Cleland, but there is still plenty of talent in Durham. UNH returns 88 of its 124 goals scored and just four seniors from last season’s team; senior Jason Salvaggio and sophomore Patrick Grasso combined for 43 of them.

The ‘Cats will need the likes of senior Michael McNicholas, sophomore Liam Blackburn and junior Ara Nazarian to make the next step, and there is another Kelleher on the roster as Tyler’s younger brother Charlie is a freshman out of the USHL.

Two teams with question marks, but major reputations

Boston College was the youngest team in college hockey last season and holds that superlative again. Combining the early loss of Colin White to the Ottawa Senators, the graduation of three 30-point forwards, and defenseman Scott Savage, the Eagles that narrowly missed the NCAA tournament are without their top five scorers.

BC also enters the season without a single senior on its roster, a scenario that Jerry York has not experienced in his 46-year collegiate head coaching career.

Scoring is a question mark, naturally. Like at UNH, role players will need to step up, and the Eagles have strong candidates to do so in J.D. Dudek, whose 13 goals as a sophomore lead the team’s returners, as well as junior captain Christopher Brown and sophomore David Cotton.

Without even considering the potential contributions of USA Hockey-experienced Jacob Tortora and Logan Hutsko, calling the Eagles out altogether would be foolish, especially with a youthful but strong defense corps and a game-changing goaltender in sophomore Joseph Woll, who averaged more than 27 saves per game last season.

Even without 50-point scorers Joe Gambardella and C.J. Smith and stalwarts Dylan Zink and Michael Kapla in back, don’t doubt that UMass Lowell will piece it together, too.

The River Hawks still have a top-line performer John Edwardh, impressive rising sophomores Ryan Lohin, Kenny Hausinger and Mattias Goransson. Tyler Wall, who led all Hockey East goaltenders with a 2.06 goals-against average overall and won 26 times last season, also fits in the latter category.

Quick hits

Six Hockey East teams primarily had freshmen in between the pipes last season, while now-junior Hayden Hawkey was a first-time starter for a Providence team that looks to be a major contender again.

There could be more youngsters taking right over in the league’s nets this season as Maine’s Jeremy Swayman and Northeastern’s Cayden Primeau enter college after being drafted in June. Swayman, a fourth-round choice of the Boston Bruins, and returning Maine senior Rob McGovern both attended NHL development camp in Boston this summer.

Speaking of the draft, four Boston University freshmen heard their names called in June. Forward Shane Bowers went to Ottawa two picks after his sophomore teammate and goaltender Jake Oettinger went to Dallas at No. 26 overall, while defenders Cameron Crotty and David Farrance were taken in the third round.

Providence had four double-digit goal scorers last season, and they’re all back. Newly-elected captain Brian Pinho had 40 points and is an early Hockey East Player of the Year favorite. Junior Erik Foley is not a bad guy playing “second fiddle.”

Northeastern is the only team in college hockey returning two 50-point scorers in senior Dylan Sikura and junior Adam Gaudette. They both picked up right where they left off in Saturday’s 9-1 exhibition win over Prince Edward Island, scoring two goals and two assists apiece.

Vermont is another team poised to rise, although four of its top seven scorers from a year ago are gone. The Catamounts have depth with sophomore Ross Colton and junior Brian Bowen coming off 27-point campaigns, senior Trey Phillips on defense and sophomore Stefanos Lekkas.

Merrimack has five of its top-six scorers back, but will have to deal with the early loss of goaltender Collin Delia to the pros. UConn’s key offensive losses are at the top in Tage Thompson and Evan Richardson, but it has Maxim Letunov returning to lead the offense and yet another second-year stopper, Adam Huska.