By Scott McLaughlin, Daily Free Press Staff
1) University of Massachusetts-Lowell
After reaching their second Hockey East title game in program history, the River Hawks return 22 letter-winners, including their top seven scorers and two senior goalies (Nevin Hamilton and Carter Hutton). Defenseman Maury Edwards leads the way at both ends of the ice. The junior was named a Hockey East First-Team All-Star and Second-Team All-American a season ago after leading all Hockey East defensemen with 25 points (9 goals, 16 assists) in conference play. The River Hawks ranked in the top three in Hockey East in scoring offense, scoring defense, power-play percentage and penalty-kill percentage last year, and there’s no reason to think they won’t be able to match that production this season.
2) Boston University
Yes, the Terriers are the defending national champions. Yes, they won every other trophy they could possibly win along the way last year. And yes, they placed first in this year’s Hockey East preseason coaches’ poll. But the fact remains that this team lost five-sixths of its top two forward lines and its top defensive pairing. Of course, there’s still a lot of talent coming back –– junior forward Nick Bonino, junior defenseman and captain Kevin Shattenkirk, sophomore defenseman David Warsofsky and sophomore goalie Kieran Millan should all be All-American candidates at the end of the season. The Terriers should still be a very good team, but they have more question marks than the River Hawks at this point.
3) Boston College
Even though they lost two of their top three scorers (Brock Bradford and Benn Ferriero), the Eagles are simply too talented to finish sixth again. Senior forward Ben Smith saw his point total drop from 50 in 2007-08 to 17 last year. Junior forward Joe Whitney saw his plummet from 51 to 15. If they land somewhere in between this year, that would be a huge boost for BC. Also adding to what should be a turnaround season are a strong freshman class and a healthy John Muse in net. Five Eagle rookies were selected in the first four rounds of this year’s NHL Draft, including 19th-overall pick Chris Kreider. Muse battled a hip injury throughout last season, but offseason surgery should have him back to freshman form.
4) University of Vermont
After reaching their second Frozen Four in program history, the Catamounts know exactly what they’re getting on defense. All six starting blue-liners and sophomore goalie Rob Madore return from a unit that tied for fourth in the conference in scoring defense. On the other hand, Vermont loses four of its top seven scorers, including Hobey Baker Award finalist Viktor Stalberg, leaving plenty of questions to be answered up front. If opening weekend was any indication, though, the Catamount offense might be just fine. It put up 10 goals in a weekend split against the then-No. 1/2 University of Denver. Another cause for concern, though, is the penalty kill, which ranked a measly ninth in Hockey East last year.
5) University of New Hampshire
The Wildcats saw last season come to a heartbreaking end at the hands of BU in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, but they should be a contender again this year. Despite losing leading scorer James van Riemsdyk, UNH is one of only two Hockey East teams (BU’s the other) to return three 30-point scorers –– junior Mike Sislo (31) and seniors Bobby Butler and Peter LeBlanc (30 each). However, depth could be a problem both up front and on defense. Three other 20-point forwards and two starting defensemen departed. If senior goalie Brian Foster can be more than the middle-of-the-pack goalie he was last year and some of the underclassmen can step up, UNH could be in the NCAAs for the ninth straight season.
6) University of Massachusetts-Amherst
Junior James Marcou, whose 1.21 points per game were second only to Colin Wilson, and sophomore Casey Wellman, whose 33 points were best among Hockey East rookies, should form one of the most lethal scoring duos in the league. Senior Justin Braun (23 points) and sophomore Matt Irwin (18) are both defensemen who know how to create offense as well. Junior goalie Paul Dainton was fourth in save percentage in conference play. The Minutemen don’t have a lot of depth on either offense or defense, but those five guys provide a stable core that should help bring along the underclassmen. If the underclassmen do produce, UMass could find itself competing for its second NCAA berth in program history.
7) Northeastern University
Husky fans who are expecting a repeat of last year’s second-place finish are in for a disappointment. Gone is Hobey Baker finalist and Hockey East Player of the Year Brad Thiessen. Gone are starting defensemen Louis Liotti, Denis Chisholm and Daniel Nycholat. Gone are forwards Ryan Ginand (32 points) and Joe Vitale (27). And if that wasn’t enough, sophomore forward Steve Quailer (25 points) is out indefinitely with an ACL injury. On the bright side, leading scorer Wade MacLeod (35 points) is back along with three other 20-point scorers. But if the freshman defensemen and freshman goalie Chris Rawlings can’t adjust to the college game, it might not matter how much the offense scores.
8) Merrimack College
There’s definitely reason to think that this could be the year the Warriors make it to the postseason for the first time since 2004. They return 11 of their top 12 scorers and have a strong defensive corps led by senior Pat Bowen, junior Fraser Allan and Hockey East All-Rookie Team selection Karl Stollery. Merrimack also brings back sophomore backstop Joe Cannata, who ranked fourth among Hockey East goalies with a .918 save percentage last season. As a team, the Warriors tied with Vermont for fourth in Hockey East with a 2.62 goals-against average. Continued improvement from the young forwards plus more stellar defense and goaltending should equal mid-March hockey for the boys from North Andover.
9) University of Maine
After reaching 11 Frozen Fours from 1988 to 2007, the Black Bears could be looking at their third straight season of finishing eighth or worse. Maine has a strong sophomore class, led by Swedish sensation Gustav Nyquist, who was second among Hockey East rookies with 32 points last year. But unless that group shows tremendous progress, it will be another disappointing season in Orono. Maine ranked last in Hockey East in scoring offense during conference play and ninth in scoring defense. Chief among those who need to improve is the goaltending tandem of senior Dave Wilson and sophomore Scott Darling, who ranked 10th and 11th, respectively, among Hockey East goalies in save percentage last year.
10) Providence College
The Friars missed the Hockey East playoffs for the first time in program history last year. They finished ninth in the conference in scoring offense, last in scoring defense, last in power-play percentage and last in penalty-kill percentage. Normally, you’d be tempted to say something like “There’s nowhere to go but up” or “Things can’t get any worse” after a season like that. Unfortunately for Providence, that might not be true. The team loses three of its top five scorers from a season ago and still has a big question mark in net. Alex Beaudry was brought in halfway through last season to try and solve the goaltending enigma. It didn’t work –– he ranked 13th in Hockey East in save percentage and 13th in goals-against average.