ORONO, Maine — The Red Gendron era begins at the University of Maine when the Black Bears host Dalhousie University of Halifax, Nova Scotia, for an exhibition game at 4 p.m. Sunday.
The former University of Maine, UMass and Yale University assistant and longtime coach in the New Jersey Devils organization will make his debut as a college head coach after replacing 12-year head coach Tim Whitehead, who was fired with one year left on his contract.
Maine, 11-19-8 overall and 7-12-8 in Hockey East, missed the NCAA Tournament for the fifth time in six years after a nine-year run making the tourney.
Gendron inherited a team that ranked 57th among 59 teams in goal production ( 2.03 per game) due in part to the 51st-ranked power play (13.7 percent).
Maine and Alabama-Huntsville are the country’s only two teams that don’t return someone who scored at least eight goals and UAH played just 25 games.
Junior Connor Leen and sophomore Ryan Lomberg are the top returning goal scorers with seven apiece.
Goal production will be the major question mark for Maine, which was picked eighth among Hockey East’s 11 teams in the coaches’ preseason poll.
Gendron has promised to play an attack-oriented, up-tempo, in-your-face style of game. Goal production is a focus.
“We’re working really hard on developing habits required to score goals whether it be by making a nifty play or by running over three guys on the way to the net and shoving the puck in,” said Gendron.
No freshman class in Hockey East accounted for a higher percentage of its team’s regular season points than Maine’s (40.8 percent, 27 goals, 51 assists) and that class should be even more impactful this season.
“The sophomores, juniors and seniors have a lot of confidence and everyone in the freshman class appears to be able to put the puck in the net,” sophomore center Steven Swavely said.
Sophomore center Devin Shore said they have to play with more urgency around the opposing net.
“It’s not enough to create a great chance in the slot and miss the net. We have to take it personally [if we don’t score]. We have to do whatever we can to put the puck in the net,” said Shore, an assistant captain.
Shore led the team in scoring a year ago (6 goals, 20 assists) thanks to a great finish (4 and 9 in his last 10 games).
He has the potential to be one of the country’s elite forwards especially if he shoots more.
Lomberg (7 and 7) and Swavely (6 and 8) had impressive freshman seasons and should be even more prominent.
Leen (7 and 5) could have a breakout season if his Crohn’s disease (inflammatory bowel disease) doesn’t act up. It caused him to miss the last 10 games.
Sophomore Will Merchant (3 and 4) should significantly improve those numbers and senior assistant captain Mark Anthoine needs a bounce-back campaign after slumping to four goals from 12 his sophomore season.
Senior Jon Swavely (2 and 5) and junior Stu Higgins (1 and 6) are effective, hardworking role players who anchor the effort to improve last year’s sub-standard penalty-killing (81 percent, 39th in country).
The freshmen forwards feature a promising blend of playmakers and goal scorers and badly needed size. Shifty Cam Brown, at 5-foot-7, is the only newcomer who isn’t at least 5-11. Brian Morgan, Josh Henke and Brady Campbell are all 5-11, Blaine Byron is 6-0 and Zach Glienke is 6-3.
UMass transfer Andrew Tegeler will help out when he becomes eligible and junior Andrew Cerretani could crack the lineup.
The defense corps isn’t flashy but it is resourceful. Offensive-minded sophomore Ben Hutton (4 and 11) and junior Jake Rutt (4 and 6) are the catalysts along with senior captain Brice O’Connor (0 and 4). All should be more consistent in the defensive zone. Sophomores Conor Riley, Kyle Williams and Billy Norman should be better and freshmen Dan Renouf and Eric Schurhamer will be very much in the mix.
Maine’s goaltending should be a strength behind seniors Martin Ouellette (9-12-8, 2.42 goals-against average, .917 save percentage last season) and Dan Sullivan (22-11-3, 2.59, .909 two years ago).
Shore said being picked eighth will supply them with added motivation and Merchant and Anthoine said their 6-3-4 regular-season finish including road triumphs at Boston College (2-0) and New Hampshire (1-0-1) gave them carryover confidence. Maine had gone 0-17-1 in the previous 18 games at those two rinks combined.
Despite the strong finish, the Black Bears still wound up eighth and that won’t be acceptable under Gendron. Nor should it be.
Gendron and assistants Jay Leach, Ben Guite and John Racine won’t judge the players based on previous seasons.
“What they did last year, good or bad, isn’t relevant,” said Gendron who will seek daily improvement.
Gendron spent much of the summer traveling to drum up statewide interest in the program and regain the 1,700 season ticket holders who didn’t renew the past five years. Last year’s embarrassing 2-9-6 home record certainly didn’t help.
Gendron reached out to former players, fans and boosters who felt alienated during the Whitehead era.
Gendron is a no-nonsense coach who will hold his players accountable on and off the ice.
His Black Bears will be grittier and will finish their checks. They will be more difficult to play against and it will supply them with a needed identity. That physicality and passion will also endear them to the Alfond faithful.
Whitehead preached staying out of the penalty box and several Bears played tentative because they feared being benched for taking a penalty.
The answer is to insist that they finish their checks with their sticks and elbows down. By taking the body consistently, opponents will hurry their decisions and that leads to mistakes.
An NCAA Tournament berth is a stretch but not out of the question if they can show significant improvement offensively.