Clayton Keller was one of four BU players selected in the first round of this year's NHL draft. (Timothy T. Ludwig/USA Today Sports)

Hockey East 2016-17 Season Preview: Excellent freshman class could lift BU to title

Scott McLaughlin
October 03, 2016 - 8:17 am

The Red Sox are back in the playoffs and Tom Brady is back on the field, but I think I speak for all Boston sports fans when I say that the return we're most excited about is that of college hockey. No? Whatever. Here's a Hockey East season preview, power rankings style. 1. Boston University Before we get into the reasons to be excited about this BU team, it's worth pointing out that the Terriers actually do lose a lot from last season, including three of their top four forwards and top defenseman Matt Grzelcyk. They lost 53.1 percent of their points, which is the second-highest mark in the league behind only Providence. Now, onto the excitement. The biggest reason so many people, including myself, are picking them to win Hockey East is that they have what is easily the best freshman class in the country. Forwards Clayton Keller (7th overall, Coyotes) and Kieffer Bellows (19th overall, Islanders) and defenseman Dante Fabbro (17th overall, Predators) were all first-round picks this past summer, defenseman Chad Krys (2nd round, Blackhawks) and forward Patrick Harper (5th round, Predators) were also drafted, and goaltender Jake Oettinger is projected to be a first- or second-round pick next summer. (By the way, those freshmen scored nine of BU's 10 goals in a blowout exhibition win over the University of Prince Edward Island on Saturday.) Fabbro and Krys join four other drafted defensemen on a loaded blue line, with sophomore Charlie McAvoy (1st round, Bruins) and junior Brandon Hickey (3rd round, Flames) leading the way. Up front, look for sophomores Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson (2nd round, Bruins) and Jordan Greenway (2nd round, Wild) to set the pace along with Keller and Bellows. The Terriers are clearly the most talented team on paper and they are rightly being considered the favorite to win the league and one of the favorites to win the national championship. 2. UMass Lowell The River Hawks certainly don't have the star power of BU, but Norm Bazin's teams are never loaded with stars and yet they've finished in the top four in each of his four seasons behind the bench. With a strong core of returning players, there's little reason to think anything will change this year. They bring back all six starting defensemen from a unit that was already very good last year, with seniors Dylan Zink and Michael Kapla leading the way and chipping in on offense as well. Up front, the losses of Adam Chapie and A.J. White could hurt, but their top two scorers -- junior C.J. Smith and senior Joe Gambardella -- are both back. The biggest question will be in goal, where the River Hawks lose Kevin Boyle and his excellent .934 save percentage. But assistant coach Cam Ellsworth is part-wizard when it comes to working with goalies, and this year he'll have two NHL draft picks at his disposal in freshmen Garrett Metcalf (6th round, Ducks) and Tyler Wall (6th round, Rangers). Sure, this could be the year Lowell doesn't figure out its goaltending and the team takes a step back, but that seems unlikely. 3. Notre Dame I'm still not entirely sure why so many Hockey East fans are so eager to get rid of a high-caliber program that brings the league more TV coverage, but they'll get their wish when the Fighting Irish depart for the Big Ten after this season. Don't expect them to go quietly, though, because this year's team looks like an NCAA tournament team that could potentially compete for a league title. Their strength will be on the back end, where they return Sabres draft pick Cal Petersen -- whose .927 save percentage is the highest mark among returning goalies -- and four starting defensemen, including offensive contributors Jordan Gross and Bobby Nardella. The Irish do lose four double-digit goal-scorers up front, but top point-getters Anders Bjork (5th round, Bruins) and Jake Evans (7th round, Canadiens) are both back, and freshmen Andrew Peeke (2nd round, Blue Jackets) and Cam Morrison (2nd round, Blackhawks) should play key roles right away. 4. Northeastern Remember that time Northeastern overcame a 1-11-2 start to go 20-1-2 down the stretch and win its first Hockey East title since 1988? That was awesome. Now the Huskies enter the season as the defending league champs and one of the favorites. If there's one thing we know they'll do, it's score. After finishing second in the league in offense last year, they bring back five of their top six scorers in seniors Zach Aston-Reese and John Stevens, juniors Nolan Stevens (5th round, Blues) and Dylan Sikura (6th round, Blackhawks), and sophomore Adam Gaudette (5th round, Canucks), while also adding freshman Matt Filipe (3rd round, Hurricanes) to the mix. There is some uncertainty behind the forwards, though. The Huskies lose four starting defensemen, and while freshmen Ryan Shea (4th round, Blackhawks) and Jeremy Davies (7th round, Devils) will help, the blue line still has to be considered a question mark. In net, sophomore Ryan Ruck was very good for part of Northeastern's turnaround, but it needs to be noted that he did fall off a bit in the final month and finished the season with a save percentage of just .909. 5. Boston College The good news is that the defending regular-season champs still have some high-end players at the top of their roster. Senior Ryan Fitzgerald (4th round, Bruins) and sophomore Colin White (1st round, Senators) were two of Hockey East's top four scorers last season, senior Austin Cangelosi had a breakthrough 20-goal campaign, and defenseman Casey Fitzgerald put up 27 points as a freshman and got drafted by the Sabres in the third round this summer. The bad news is that the Eagles lost seven other high-end players to early departures, including four of their top eight scorers, their top two defensemen and star goalie Thatcher Demko. They bring in a whopping 13 freshmen to help overcome those losses, but while the class is good, it's not nearly as loaded as previous BC classes that were filled with first- and second-round picks. Joe Woll (3rd round, Maple Leafs) should be a solid replacement for Demko, but only two other members of this class -- forwards Graham McPhee (5th round, Oilers) and David Cotton (6th round, Hurricanes) -- have even been drafted. It would be foolish to ever dismiss a Jerry York-coached team, but this year's BC squad may have a tough time competing for the league title. 6. Providence Nate Leaman is another coach who's so good that his teams should never be counted out. That said, the Friars return just 40 percent of their scoring from last season, the lowest percentage in the league. Their top four forwards from last year all graduated, as did two of their top four defensemen. On top of that, goalie Nick Ellis, who led the league in save percentage last year, left early to sign with the Oilers. There are still some returning players to be excited about, though, headlined by junior defenseman Jake Walman. The Blues draft pick was arguably the best defenseman in college hockey last year before suffering a season-ending injury in mid-February, and he'll enter this season as a clear Hobey Baker candidate. Junior Brian Pinho (6th round, Capitals) and sophomore Erik Foley (3rd round, Jets) will lead the effort up front, and sophomore goalie Hayden Hawkey (6th round, Canadiens) will take over the starting job after posting a .940 save percentage in limited minutes last year. The Friars also bring in a pretty strong freshman class, led by forwards Kasper Bjorkvist (2nd round, Penguins) and Brandon Duhaime (4th round, Wild), as well as Penn State transfer Scott Conway, who led the BCHL in scoring last year. 7. UConn There's definitely some talent here, led by an impressive sophomore class that features forwards Maxim Letunov (2nd round, originally Blues, now Sharks) and Tage Thompson (1st round, Blues) -- who put up 40 and 32 points, respectively, as freshmen -- and defensemen Joseph Masonius (6th round, Penguins) and Miles Gendron (3rd round, Senators). The Huskies also add freshman goalie Adam Huska, a Rangers seventh-round pick who was the USHL Goaltender of the Year last season. He'll be expected to push, and maybe even beat out, senior Rob Nichols, who was basically a league-average goalie last season after slipping a little off his sophomore pace. Once you get past the NHL picks, though, depth still looks like an issue for the Huskies, as only two other returning players had double-digits points last season. They'll also have to find a way to be a much better possession team, as their 44.6 Corsi-for percentage was the third-worst mark in the league last year. 8. Merrimack The Warriors are in some ways an inverse of UConn. They've been a much better possession team (they had a 52.8 Corsi-for percentage last year), but they don't have the top-end talent that can make the difference in a close game. Junior Brett Seney (6th round, Devils) and senior Hampus Gustafsson led the team with 26 points apiece last year, and they'll make for a solid top two centers this year. But the Warriors lost their next three highest-scoring forwards, including their only double-digit goal-scorer, to graduation, and no other returning forward had more than six goals or 13 points. As has generally been the case for Merrimack over the last few years, it's hard to see where its goals are going to come from. On a positive note, the Warriors' defense and goaltending should keep them in a lot of games. They return all six starting defensemen from a team that gave up the second-fewest shots per game in the league, and sophomore goalie Drew Vogler, who ran with the starting job down the stretch, is also back after posting a .926 save percentage in 16 games. 9. Vermont The Catamounts are another positive possession team (53.2 Corsi-for percentage) that struggled mightily to finish their chances last year, as they averaged just 2.15 goals per game, the second-lowest mark in the league. There are reasons to think that number will go up this year, though. Seniors Mario Puskarich and Brady Shaw were the team's top two shot-takers last season, and they both have a 19-goal season in their past, but they shot just 5.7 and 3.9 percent, respectively, last year and combined for just 14 goals. There's about a 99 percent chance their shooting percentages will rise, which means their goal totals will too. In addition, the Catamounts add a talented freshman forward in Ross Colton, a fourth-round pick of the Lightning. On the back end, the Catamounts lost their top two defensemen -- Alexx Privitera and Yvan Pattyn -- to graduation and No. 1 goalie Packy Munson to a transfer to Denver, so there are plenty of question marks there, too. Freshman Jake Massie (6th round, Blackhawks) should help on the blue line. In net, senior Mike Santaguida will look to regain his sophomore form after seeing his save percentage drop from .923 to .913 last year. 10. New Hampshire Let's start with the positives. Senior forward Tyler Kelleher is back after ranking second in the league with 1.24 points per game last year, and senior defenseman Matias Cleland, who put up 28 points last season, is one of the more underrated blue-liners in the league. And… that's about it. Also, it's a safe bet that Kelleher's point total will drop after losing linemate Andrew Poturalski, the league's top scorer, to the Hurricanes. The Wildcats are a bad possession team (44.0 Corsi-for percentage last year), they don't have much scoring depth, their defense wasn't very good, goalie Daniel Tirone had his save percentage drop from .924 in half a season as a freshman to .907 as a sophomore, and the freshman class looks underwhelming on paper. The Wildcats should still be better than Maine and UMass, but it really wouldn't be a surprise if they finished last, which is something we're certainly not used to saying about a Dick Umile team. 11. Maine If there's a reason for optimism for Maine fans, it's that this year's freshman class looks promising. It features three NHL draft picks in forwards Chase Pearson (5th round, Red Wings) and Patrick Shea (7th round, Panthers) and defenseman Patrick Holway (6th round, Red Wings). The Black Bears will need those guys to get up to speed quickly because they return the fewest goals and points in the league after ranking last in offense last year, and they also lost top defenseman Dan Renouf to the Red Wings (side note: the Wings really seem to have a thing for Maine players). Goaltending is also a question mark, as senior Matt Morris and sophomore Rob McGovern both fell off a cliff in the second half after getting off to good starts. 12. UMass New coach Greg Carvel will undoubtedly be an upgrade over John Micheletto, but expectations for Year 1 should be tempered. The Minutemen were bad in every area other than the power play last year and finished the season on an embarrassing 2-21-0 slide. They lose their top two goal-scorers from a year ago, goaltending is still a major question mark, and Carvel could only do so much over the spring and summer to fill out the lackluster recruiting class Micheletto left behind. Carvel is a good coach, and it wouldn't be surprising if the Minutemen move up a spot or two because of that, but he's not a miracle worker.