There is no shortage of questions surrounding the University of Maine men’s hockey team this season as seventh-year head coach Red Gendron’s Black Bears look to improve on last year’s 15-17-4 record (11-9-4 in Hockey East).
No. 1 is, how does UMaine replace five everyday defensemen, including the team’s No. 3 scorer in sophomore Brady Keeper, who signed with the National Hockey League’s Florida Panthers?
The other major question is, will the Black Bears be able to score with any regularity, since none of the returnees reached double digits in goals a year ago?
With so much uncertainty, UMaine was understandably picked to finish eighth among 11 teams in the Hockey East preseason poll.
“I love the team leaders. They have done a magnificent job getting us to this point in a very positive and productive way,” Gendron said.
UMaine has not advanced to the Hockey East semifinals in seven years, and it would be a stretch to expect this team to do so. But there is more parity in the league due to the large numbers of players who leave early to turn pro.
Gendron will be hard-pressed to effectively replace graduated defensemen Rob Michel, Keith Muehlbauer and Sam Becker, along with Keeper and sophomore Alexis Binner, who returned to Sweden to play professionally. Three of them appeared in all 36 games last season, and the other played 33.
The blue line corps should receive a big lift from 6-foot-5, 212-pound J.D. Greenway, a third-round draft pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs. He played two seasons at the University of Wisconsin before skating in the United States Junior Hockey League last season for Dubuque (9 goals, 24 assists).
“He is obviously pretty good. He has played at a high level,” Gendron said.
The only returning defensemen who played significant minutes were two sophomores: dependable, defense-minded Simon Butala (0 goals, 2 assists) and Jakub Sirota (1 & 4). Sirota joined the team for the second semester and displayed some offensive flair.
Junior Veli-Matti Tiuraniemi played in 26 games two years ago (3 & 5) but was limited to six games last season due to injury. Junior Cam Spicer, who played in four games (1 assist), has made big strides, Gendron said.
Freshmen Levi Kleiboer, Dawson Bruneski, Perry Winfree and Adrien Bisson have impressed Gendron.
“They lack experience, but they have talent,” Gendron said. “I really like our group of defensemen. I like the character of this group, and I love the character of our team overall.”
UMaine defensemen must keep things simple and make safe plays out of the defensive zone until they adjust to the speed of the game and gain their confidence.
It will also be important that the forwards backcheck thoroughly to help the defense corps.
Gendron considers goaltending one of the team’s strengths. He is looking for more good things from Boston Bruins fourth-round pick Jeremy Swayman, who was an All-Hockey East third-team selection last season and an All-Rookie pick in 2018.
The talented Swayman can steal victories but is coming off an up-and-down season and needs to play with more consistency. Last season, he held teams to two goals or less 17 times, but allowed three or more goals 18 times and surrendered five or more on four occasions.
He ranked 23rd in the country with a .919 save percentage but his 2.77 GAA was 47th best among 60 division teams nationwide.
Senior Stephen Mundinger and freshman Matthew Thiessen, a seventh-round draft pick of Vancouver, will supply depth.
“We’re pretty strong in that position,” Gendron said.
Center Chase Pearson (16 goals, 13 assists), the only UMaine player to score 10 or more goals last winter, signed with the Detroit Red Wings.
UMaine averaged only 2.5 goals per game and ranked No. 42 in Division I, and its power-play percentage (14.9) was a dismal 49th. UMaine scored two goals or fewer 20 times.
If the Black Bears cannot increase its offensive production, it is going to be a long season.
Senior left wing Mitch Fossier (8 & 28) led the team in points after scoring seven of his eight goals and had 11 of his 28 assists over the past 15 games.
Junior Eduards Tralmaks (8 & 9) is a prototype power forward and should be more productive. Senior center Tim Doherty (9 & 8), sophomore right wing Jacob Schmidt-Svejstrup (6 & 8) and junior left wing Emil Westerlund (6 & 3) are also capable of significantly bumping up their point production.
UMaine has regained the services of the creative Adam Dawe (1 & 6 in 17 games) before a second concussion sidelined him. Seniors Patrick Shea (4 & 10) and Ryan Smith (6 & 3) are useful three-zone players who also have the ability to chip in with timely goals.
Junior Jack Quinlivan (2 & 2) is a hardworking checker, and Niagara University transfer Samuel Rennaker could give the team a boost. Juniors Kevin Hock and Adrian Holesinksky may earn elevated roles.
Sophomore Edward Lindelow and newcomers A.J. Drobot, Brady Gaudette, Ben Poisson and Remy Parker also will be in the mix. Poisson had 13 goals and eight assists in 18 playoff games last season for Prince George of the British Columbia Junior Hockey League.
“I like our forwards a lot. We have a lot of experience,” Gendron said.
UMaine has a favorable nonconference schedule that includes two games each against Alaska Anchorage (3-28-3 last season), Omaha (9-24-3) and St. Lawrence (6-29-2), along with NCAA team Quinnipiac (26-10-2). UMaine has single games with Yale (15-15-3) and Atlantic Hockey champion and NCAA tourney entry American International College (23-17-1).
UMaine opens the season at 4 p.m. Saturday at Providence and hosts defending Canadian national champ New Brunswick Sunday at 4 p.m. Sunday for an exhibition.