ORONO, Maine — A strong finish, a top-notch freshman class, three returning goalies and a promising incoming class have supplied University of Maine men’s hockey coach Tim Whitehead and his returning players with optimism looking ahead to the 2013-14 season.
“It’s really exciting,” said freshman center Devin Shore, who became the first freshman to lead the team in scoring since Gustav Nyquist in the 2008-2009 season.
“We have a lot of players coming back and if we can get one extra goal a game, we should do all right,” said Shore.
After averaging just 1.52 goals per game through the first 23 games, Maine averaged three per game over the final 13 regular season contests before losing as the eighth seed in the league quarterfinals to Lowell on Thursday and Friday (4-2 and 2-1 in overtime).
“We had an unbelievable freshman class this year and they’ll make even more of a difference next season,” said junior goalie Martin Ouellette, another key component in Maine’s strong second-half showing along with a significant scoring increase. “And I’ve heard we have another good class coming in.”
There is a cloud of uncertainty over the team, however, as athletic director Steve Abbott intends to take an in-depth look at the program to see whether the university should retain Whitehead to finish up the final year on his $190,000 per-year contract, buy him out and hire a new coach or give him a contract extension.
The program missed the NCAA Tournament for the fifth time in six years after a run of nine consecutive NCAA Tournament berths that included six Frozen Four appearances and an NCAA championship in 1998-99.
Maine finished 11-19-8 this season, 7-12-8 in Hockey East, barely qualifying for the league’s final playoff spot, but its 6-3-4 finish in Hockey East regular-season play should supply some momentum and confidence to take into next season.
Next year’s team should contend for home ice in the Hockey East standings — the top five will earn home ice and a first-round bye in the tournament instead of the top four as Notre Dame becomes the league’s 11th team — and at least be in the hunt for an NCAA Tournament berth.
Four of Maine’s top five scorers were freshmen and freshmen accounted for a league-best 41.8 percent of the team’s points this past season (82-of-196).
Shore wound up with 6 goals and 20 assists including 4 & 9 in his last 10 games. He figured in all three goals (2 & 1) in Maine’s playoff losses to Lowell.
Shore evolved into a dominant game-changer and he sparked a dramatic turnaround in the power play with 1 & 9 with the man-advantage over the final 13 games as Maine went 15-for-63 (23.8 percent) after being mired under 10 percent for most of the season.
Defenseman Ben Hutton (4 & 11), left wing Ryan Lomberg (7 & 7) and center Steven Swavely (6 & 8) were the other freshmen in the top five.
Swavely notched 5 & 2 in his last 10 games, Lomberg had 3 & 4 in his last 12 games and Hutton had 2 & 5 in his final nine contests.
Lomberg and Shore were linemates and were on the top power-play unit along with Swavely, sophomore defenseman Jake Rutt and senior and tri-captain Joey Diamond.
Returnees Hutton, Mark Anthoine, Stu Higgins, Billy Norman and Connor Leen also saw significant power-play duty.
The power play should be a strength.
Diamond’s goal-scoring touch (a team-high 14 goals to go with 10 assists), his passionate leadership, gritty play and impressive work in the corners and behind the net will be missed. He finished with 104 career points (59 & 45) and many of his goals were pivotal. He had seven career game-winners.
But his school record 467 career penalty minutes, including 147 this season, will not be missed. His meltdown in the season-ending loss to UMass Lowell (two five-minute majors, a two-minute minor and game disqualification) was costly.
Some referees also targeted Diamond due to his reputation and he was assessed penalties other players wouldn’t have received.
The Black Bears were shorthanded 28 times for 65 minutes due to Diamond penalties this season and opponents converted on six of the 28 power plays.
Maine was the 11th most penalized team (14.5 minutes per game) in college hockey but the Bears won’t have to kill as many penalties next season without Diamond. It does need to improve its penalty kill, as it was just 81 percent successful (39th among 59 teams in the country).
Whitehead was right when he said Maine never would have made the Hockey East playoffs without Diamond and that his positives outweighed his negatives. And Diamond played several games with nagging injuries.
Kyle Beattie (7 & 6), who overcame three concussions this season to have a productive finish, creative Adam Shemansky (3 & 3) and defense-minded fourth-line center Klas Leidermark (1 & 2) are the other forwards who will graduate, while reliable defensemen and tri-captains Mike Cornell (3 & 7) and Mark Nemec (2 & 2) will also depart.
A healthy Leen (7 & 5 in 27 games) could give the Bears a major boost. However, the sophomore left wing missed the last 10 games due to a flare-up of Crohn’s disease, which is a debilitating inflammatory bowel disease.
Rutt had three goals and five assists in his last 11 games, all on the power play, and he finished with 4 & 6. He saw duty on the wing as well as on defense and has good offensive instincts and a quick release on his shot.
Freshman LW Will Merchant (3 & 4) had a solid first year, seeing regular service on the penalty kill as well as taking his regular shift. He also received occasional power-play time. He should be more productive offensively next year.
Junior right wing Anthoine slumped to 4 goals from 12 in 2011-2012 and had just one power-play goal after tying for first in the nation with 11. Sophomore center Higgins had 1 & 6 after a 3 & 2 freshman season.
Both are useful checking-line players and penalty-killers as is junior RW Jon Swavely (2 & 5). Those three could comprise a checking line next year but they also need to put up better numbers. Sophomore Andrew Cerretani (0 & 2) will also return.
The defense corps should be quicker and more mobile so the Bears shouldn’t have to spend as much time in the defensive zone.
In addition to the offensive-minded Hutton and Rutt, junior Brice O’Connor (0 & 4), redshirt freshman Norman (2 & 2) and true freshmen Conor Riley (0 & 1) and Kyle Williams (1 & 0) got plenty of ice time and showed improvement.
Norman also saw duty up front.
Ouellette (9-12-8, 2.42 goals-against average and .917 save percentage) had a breakthrough season capped by a brilliant 35-save performance against UML in the overtime loss. He held opponents to two goals or less 16 times.
Junior Dan Sullivan won 22 games in 2011-12 and freshman Matt Morris showed progress so there will be depth and quality in the net.
“We will be as strong in goal as we’ve been in a long time,” said Whitehead.
The incoming freshmen class includes forwards Brian Morgan, Cam Brown, Brady Campbell, Josh Henke, Zach Glienke, Blaine Byron and Tyler Gjurich along with defensemen Daniel Renouf and Eric Schurhamer.