The University of Maine’s men’s hockey team will finish higher than 10th among 11 teams in Hockey East, which is where the Black Bears were picked in the preseason coaches poll.
But the team won’t crack the top six as Ben Barr makes his debut as a head coach after serving as the associate head coach for first-time NCAA champion UMass last season.
The 39-year-old Barr, who had been an assistant at five Division I programs and helped recruit players for national championship teams at Union College and Providence College as well as UMass, has inherited a team that went 3-11-2.
UMaine had to play all 15 of its regular season games on the road due to COVID-19 restrictions, and then got thumped by archrival New Hampshire 7-2 in its only home game during the first round of the Hockey East playoffs.
In the offseason, the players had to cope with the death of head coach Red Gendron, who collapsed and died on April 9 while playing golf at the Penobscot Valley Country Club in Orono.
The Black Bears return seven of their top eight scorers and 11 of their top 13 off last year’s team. Seven defensemen are back as are all three goalies.
This team will take its lumps early in the season but as it adapts to the new coaching staff and the systems, it could make a second-half run and evolve into a tough playoff opponent.
But it is easy to see why the league’s coaches picked UMaine 10th.
On top of the team adapting to a new head coach, nobody allowed more goals than the Black Bears a year ago. They surrendered 4.25 goals per game.
They scored 2.69 goals per game, which was only 32nd among 51 teams and they were the second most penalized at 15.3 penalty minutes per game.
Several schools, including eight in the ECAC, decided not to play.
The team also needs to stay out of the penalty box this season. Quinnipiac University gave the Black Bears a harsh reminder of that reality by converting its first four power play chances in last Saturday’s 7-0 exhibition game win over UMaine.
The Black Bears don’t have any elite-level scorers. None of the eight forwards on the roster who have played in at least 50 games have more than 18 career goals.
But teams can win without a prolific goal scorer if they get balanced scoring.
UMass had just two forwards score more than nine goals in their 29 games en route to a national title last season.
UMaine seniors Jacob Schmidt-Svejstrup and Adam Dawe and graduate student Emil Westerlund will be important components offensively and are capable of putting up some good numbers this season.
Schmidt-Svejstrup had three goals and six assists in 11 games last season. He has an NHL-caliber shot but needs to hit the net more often rather than firing high or wide.
The crafty Dawe (five goals, nine assists) was the team’s leading scorer and is also one of its most physical players even though he is just 5-foot-8 and 161 pounds. He is its best playmaker and he has produced 15 goals and 26 assists in 67 career games.
Westerlund, who was just cleared to play this week after undergoing off-season surgery, had four goals and five assists last season and should reach double figures in goals along with Schmidt-Svejstrup and Dawe.
Transfers Keenan Suthers, a 6-foot-8 center who had nine goals for St. Lawrence two years ago and sat out a transfer year at UMaine last season, and Grant Hebert, who had eight goals for Robert Morris last season, are also capable of double-digit goal production.
Lynden Breen (3 & 8) was the team’s best freshman last season and is ready to take his game to the next level as is junior Ben Poisson (4 & 4).
Quinnipiac transfer Matthew Fawcett (4 & 5) and promising freshman Nolan Renwick, who scored 22 goals in the United States Hockey League a year ago, could also be important offensive contributors along with sophomore Brad Morrissey, who scored three goals in eight games.
Graduate student and captain Jack Quinlivan (1 & 1) and junior A. J. Drobot (2 & 2) will again supply grit and a defensive presence up front and sophomores Tristan Poissant (2 & 1), John Mulera (0 & 4) and Donavan Houle (0 & 2) should benefit from last year’s ice time to potentially supply supplemental scoring along with senior Edward Lindelow (1 & 0).
The defense corps is limited skill-wise and speed-wise. They don’t have anyone quick enough to be a one-man breakout.
But Barr does feel his defensemen can be efficient in their own end if they keep things simple and win one-on-one battles for the puck.
And that is his hope.
Senior Jakub Sirota (1 & 10) is the team’s most talented defenseman and is capable of being a consistent point-producer. Graduate student Cam Spicer (0 & 1), senior Simon Butala (0 & 2) and junior Adrien Bisson (2 & 4) are more defensive-minded, although Bisson saw some time as a forward on the power play.
Butala and Bisson led the team in blocked shots last season with 17 and 16, respectively.
Merrimack College transfer Dominic Dockery (1 & 6), who has 108 career games to his credit, and freshman David Breazeale have looked, good according to Barr, and juniors Dawson Bruneski (0 & 2) and Perry Winfree, sophomore Kabore Dunn (0 & 2) and freshman Tim Gould are also in the mix.
Barr is confident in his goaltending trio of sophomores Victor Ostman and Connor Androlewicz and junior Matthew Thiessen, saying they are all “capable of winning games.”
Ostman won the starting job early in the season and had games in which he made 56, 43 and 40 saves and allowed just three goals in each. He finished with a 3-6-1 record, a 3.77 goals-against average and a .902 save percentage. Thiessen was 0-5-2, 4.23 and .878 and Androlewicz didn’t play in a game.
Ostman could be an elite level goalie but needs to reduce the number of soft goals he allows. Thiessen has shown flashes of brilliance but has to become much more consistent.
Barr has loved his team’s attitude, desire and energy and said it is a matter of
“learning how to compete as a team” and outworking its opponents to earn wins this season..
Dawe said the team has plenty of motivation after being picked 10th.
“We took that personally,” he said.
UMaine opens its season at Nebraska Omaha on Friday and Saturday nights.