University of Maine athletic director Ken Ralph has a difficult decision to make.
Head men’s hockey coach Red Gendron has one year left on a two-year contract extension signed in March 2018 that pays him $213,282.08 per year. He is coming off a season in which he was named the Hockey East Coach of the Year after leading the Black Bears to a fourth-place finish, his best in his seven years.
UMaine was picked eighth in the coaches’ preseason poll.
Ralph has four options: 1. Bring Gendron back for the final year of his contract, 2. Award him a one-year contract extension, 3. Give him a multiyear extension, or 4. Buy out the final year of his contract at $200,000-plus and begin searching for a new coach.
UMaine finished this season 18-11-5 overall, 12-9-3 in Hockey East.
The coronavirus brought the campaign to a premature end, so UMaine never had the chance to host Connecticut for a quarterfinal series and try to advance to the Hockey East semifinals for the first time in Gendron’s tenure.
Gendron has earned the right to finish out his contract, but his situation should be reassessed after the 2020-2021 campaign.
Hockey East Player of the Year and Hobey Baker Award finalist Jeremy Swayman was the primary reason UMaine finished fourth. The junior goalie has departed after signing with the Boston Bruins, who drafted him in the fourth round (111th overall).
Swayman stole a pair of late-season 1-0 home wins over UConn and Providence, in which UMaine was outshot a combined 89-50. He helped the Black Bears overachieve.
In addition to having an inexperienced goaltender next season, Gendron probably will lose five of his top 10 forwards. Second-leading scorer Tim Doherty has another year of eligibility but is likely to sign a pro contract or transfer to another school. He would be eligible immediately since he would be a graduate student.
If Doherty doesn’t return, right wing Eduards Tralmaks, who will be a senior, will be the only returning forward who has scored more than nine goals in a season.
If Gendron can guide next year’s UMaine team to even a top-six finish in Hockey East, it would be a significant accomplishment.
Ultimately, Gendron’s future with the program boils down to Ralph’s vision for the program and his realistic expectations.
Hockey is the institution’s flagship program. It is the only UMaine team that has won NCAA championships (1993, 1999) and continues to have the best chance to do so. There are only 60 Division I programs and Hockey East is a close second behind the National Collegiate Hockey Conference as the nation’s best league.
Ralph, a knowledgeable hockey man who was the AD at two other Division I hockey schools, Colorado College and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, has discussed the fact Gendron is dealing with a recruiting disadvantage against his Hockey East rivals.
Alfond Arena is 44 years old and badly needs an upgrade. It is the fifth-oldest arena among the 11 Hockey East schools and hasn’t had a significant renovation since 2011.
UMaine’s recruiting budget and coaches’ salaries are at or near the bottom of the league and that isn’t going to change any time soon at the financially- strapped institution.
Despite the challenges, Alfond Arena still has one of the most vibrant atmospheres in the country on game nights. UMaine has a 16-1-3 record in its last 20 games there.
That is a popular selling point to recruits who make a visit to campus.
UMaine is a quality school and its remote location limits distractions, so student-athletes can concentrate on school and hockey and develop in both areas.
If Yale could win a national championship in 2013 without athletic scholarships, UMaine should be at least contending for an NCAA Tournament berth every other year and there’s no reason it can’t win another NCAA title.
Gendron was an assistant coach for that Yale team.
Long-term contracts are dangerous unless you have a special coach who you are convinced will continue to crank out elite teams on a regular basis.
Former UMaine hockey coach Tim Whitehead received a three-year contract extension with one year left on his contract after the 2009-2010 season. He was let go three years later, even though his teams went 40-26-10 (29-18-7 in Hockey East) in his first two seasons after the extension before going 11-19-8 (7-12-8 HE) in his final season.
Whitehead endured two losing seasons before going 19-17-3 (13-12-2 HE) in 2009-2010.
UMaine is 33-29-10 in Hockey East play during the last three years after going 27-50-9 in Gendron’s first four seasons. The Black Bears are trending in the right direction.
But it is incremental.
When Gendron took the job, he talked about returning the program to a level of prominence.
Finishing 15th in the Pairwise Rankings, which mimic the NCAA Tournament selection process, doesn’t qualify as prominent. But it’s better than any other year under Gendron.
Let’s see what he can do next season before his long-term future at UMaine is determined.