The highest expectations on the University of Maine men’s hockey team have been placed on the Black Bears by themselves.
The Hockey East coaches have picked them to finish eighth, which is understandable considering Maine has finished ninth and eighth, respectively, the past two seasons after nine consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances.
Maine has gone 26-40-7 overall, 16-32-6 in Hockey East, during the last two seasons combined.
And the Black Bear faithful aren’t used to seeing their team play sub-.500 hockey at home. Maine has gone 5-7-2 and 3-7-3 in Hockey East home games the past two years.
Ninth-year head coach Tim Whitehead and his players are expecting a turnaround.
But they aren’t the only ones.
Even a couple of the league’s coaches and one of the league’s best players anticipate a significant improvement.
“Maine is one of my surprise teams,” said Northeastern University coach Greg Cronin, a former assistant and interim head coach at Maine. “They’ve got a good group of defensemen back, their goalie [Scott Darling] is really good and they have two players, [Brian] Flynn and [Gustav] Nyquist, who are dynamic. Maine played with an identity at times last year. They looked like the old Maine teams: They had good puck pursuit and played at a good pace with a built-in second effort.”
Boston University coach Jack Parker predicts that Maine and Boston College will be the two most improved teams in the standings.
“I was really impressed with Maine when we played them in the playoffs, and they have enough players coming back who gained a lot of confidence at the end of the year [to turn things around],” said Parker, coach of the defending national champions.
Maine dealt BU its only loss over the final 25 games, 6-3, in the second game of their best-of-three Hockey East quarterfinal series at BU. BU won the first game 2-1 and the finale 6-2.
“They were a very young team last year and they’re only going to get better,” said BU junior center Nick Bonino. “Darling is a real good goalie. I think they’re going to have a good season.”
Maine had a variety of problems last season.
Freshman Darling had a miserable second half after a terrific first half. And junior Dave Wilson had his share of ups and downs between the pipes.
In addition, Maine was held to two goals or fewer 23 times, going 5-15-3 in those games.
And they went just 6-11 in one-goal games, including four consecutive one-goal losses during a late-season stretch which contributed to their 3-17-3 finish.
“We have all of our top scorers back and we had the top-scoring freshman class in the league last year, by far,” said Whitehead. “And we didn’t lose anyone early to the pros for the first time in three years. That’s big.”
Maine lost talented wingers Teddy Purcell and Andrew Sweetland after their freshman seasons and goalie Ben Bishop after his junior year.
Maine’s returning sophomores produced 36 goals and 58 assists last season as freshmen.
Maine returns its top three scorers, including sophomore linemates Nyquist (13 goals, 19 assists) and Flynn (12 & 13). Junior captain Tanner House (10 & 14) was the third-leading scorer and centered the top line between LW Flynn and RW Nyquist.
Sophomore Spencer Abbott (7 & 9), junior Robby Dee (6 & 5), senior Kevin Swallow (1 & 3) and sophomores Kyle Solomon (0 & 2) and Theo Andersson (no points) should be more productive point-getters.
Maine struggled to get scoring to complement the top line, but Whitehead and the players feel they will have better scoring depth thanks to the improvement in the returnees and the promising freshman class.
They averaged just 2.2 goals per game last year.
“We should score a lot more goals,” predicted sophomore defenseman Will O’Neill (4 & 12), the second-leading point-producer among the defense corps behind departed Matt Duffy (7 & 10).
“We lost a little bit of size, but energy-wise and speed-wise, we should be a lot better,” said House. “We have smaller, more-skilled guys.”
Five-foot-seven Joey Diamond headlines the encouraging list of freshmen. He is coming off a 42-goal season for the Hamilton Red Wings Junior A team.
Swede Klas Leidermark had 22 goals and 22 assists for the Brynas Super Elite team in his native country last year, and Kyle Beattie had 20 goals and 40 assists for the New Hampshire Junior Monarchs in the Eastern Junior Hockey League. Beattie is joined by Monarch teammates Adam Shemansky (18 & 38) and speedster Matt Mangene (12 & 25).
“Joey Diamond is a goal scorer who can win loose pucks and set up plays. He’s tough as nails. He’s a great hockey player who will help us right away,” said Whitehead. “Leidermark is a smart, crafty center who can score. Mangene has looked really good. He’s fast, wins loose pucks and is a versatile two-way player.”
Beattie and Shemansky are considered fast, highly skilled forwards by Whitehead.
Seniors Brett Carriere (2 & 0) and David deKastrozza (0 & 1) should be useful checkers and penalty-killers.
Graduated Chris Hahn (7 & 12) is the only player from the top two lines who has left.
Maine’s forwards will average 5-11, 183 pounds, so they will have to move their feet, pass the puck quickly and play with grit and tenacity to battle through checks and compensate for their size deficiency.
The defense corps should be one of the better ones in the league, although Duffy and his ability to one-time the puck and 6-foot-7 Simon Danis-Pepin (0 & 13) and his great reach will have to be replaced.
Smooth-skating junior Jeff Dimmen (6 & 9) supplies the Bears with an offensive presence and shutdown potential on the blue line. Sophomore O’Neill is a point-producer with grit, junior Mike Banwell is an effective, hard-nosed defensemen with shutdown capabilities and junior Josh Van Dyk (0 & 8) and sophomore Ryan Hegarty (0 & 3) should also be valuable assets.
Redshirt freshman Mark Nemec and freshmen Mike Cornell and Nick Pryor could see significant minutes, too.
Freshman Mike Cornell is a tough two-way defenseman, Nemec has respectable mobility for a 6-4 blue-liner and former U.S. Under-18 regular Pryor, a freshman, will give the Bears another offensive catalyst with good puck skills who could see power-play duty.
The defense corps should play with a physicality that has been lacking since Prestin Ryan graduated in 2004.
The goaltending should be much improved, according to Whitehead, who expects more consistency from Darling (10-14-3, 2.76 goals-against average, .895 save percentage) and senior Wilson (3-8-1, 2.82, .901). Promising freshman Shawn Sirman will also vie for playing time.
They must receive consistent goaltending or they can’t expect to finish higher than eighth.
Players who scored 31 of Maine’s 41 power-play goals return, so the power play should improve on its respectable 18.3 percent showing last year. The penalty-killing (85.4 percent) should be at least as good.
The Bears will also benefit from the fact every Hockey East team, with the exception of UMass Lowell, has taken significant hits between graduations and early pro signings.
Whitehead and his players have noted a distinct improvement in attitude and team chemistry and a greater focus.
But most teams feel that way at the outset of a season.
Maine could finish anywhere from third to ninth, so look for something in between like a sixth- or seventh-place finish.