Wow. Now that is some parity.
It's like the Pac-10 of hockey, but with real talent that can match up to any in the nation! Last year was pretty much BC, Maine, and everyone else. However, this year, the playing field has been leveled, thanks to the graduation of such stars as Ben Eaves, J.D. Forrest, and Tony Voce… BC's four year starters and All-American's. Maine returns goalie Jim Howard, but lost some offense. And the rest of Hockey East, is salivating at the prospect of revenge in a league that could finish with UMass-Lowell at the top.
What? No. Really. Stay turned.
First order of business… The pre-season! This is that fun time for speculation, whereby if a sportswriter is correct, he constantly points it out for the rest of the year. If he's wrong, he's constantly defending that he made the right choice based upon the evidence and intelligence that was available to him at that moment. So without further ado, I give to you, my own Hockey East Weapons of Mass Destruction:
1. Jim Howard (Junior) G Maine: Why does he stay at Maine? (oh, right, the lockout) This kid has ‘NHL starter' and ‘future Team USA goalie' all over him. He's quick, rarely gives off the big rebounds even on low shots, which is very rare for a kid who stands at 6'1." The only way to beat him is to somehow make him not square up to the shot, practically impossible unless you're doing rapid triangle passing on a three on oh. His fundamentals are solid; he has a quick glove, and unlike other tall goalies, does not immediately drop to the butterfly.
This is one person I would not want to play chicken against... nor want to face with the H.E. championship on the line. He's the one player this year that can win a game all by himself, maybe even pulling a ‘knuckle puck' from his own crease to score the game winner. I wouldn't put that past Jim Howard. Oh, and his numbers from last year? How about a .956 save percentage, with a 1.19 G.A.A. I think it's safe to say that Howard is the best in the country.
2. Patrick Eaves (Junior) F Boston College: He came to the Heights even more highly touted and recruited than his older brother and two-year captain Ben. So far, his time has been limited in two seasons because of injury, but if he can avoid the bad luck and the bug, he has the potential to lead Hockey East, and the nation in scoring this season.
While much of BC's firepower graduated (Voce, Eaves, Forrest) what's left is still very formidable in Chestnut Hill, and even with Eaves missing a few games last year, he finished second in points in Hockey East with 41 total points in 34 games. Look for him to be paired on the first line with crafty Ryan Shannon, and either speedster Dave Spina (another oft-injured Eagle) or Chris Collins.
3. Elias Godoy (Junior) F UMass-Lowell: 14 points in his freshman campaign, and in his sophomore year, he reversed those digits. Not only did he see a lot more ice time in he second year, he also had a knack for finding the net on the Power Play (seven goals).
Blaise MacDonald's River Hawks lost all of one senior to graduation last year. With the nucleus of his young team back together they are looking to improve on last year's travesty. Godoy's their top sniper, and one of the best pure goal scorers in H.E., so defenses had better be aware of his presence at all times.
4. Ryan Shannon (Senior) F Boston College: Quietly, very quietly, Shannon was one of the leading scorers in Hockey East last year. But the senior captain of the Eagles can do it all- he runs the point on the Power Play, sets up the offense on five-on-five, and is routinely out there on the penalty kill. Though not as flashy or overtly talented as Pat Eaves or the seniors who graduated, Ryan Shannon has a knack of being the calm hand on the ice that's always consistent. His foot speed is adequate, but not fast, and his shot is hard, but not blinding, and yet he possesses some intangibles that few players have: vision, anticipation, and a work ethic that shows why he's the captain of the Eagles this year.
5. Andrew Alberts (Senior) D Boston College: He's come a long way from a frosh who had too many stupid penalties. He's become a tall, enforcer on the ice who has a cannon of a shot and a scoring touch when he wants to. With the departure of J.D Forrest he is now the Eagles' number one defenseman. And with his shot and physical presence, teams have to gameplan for him, much like Hockey East had to deal with UMass-Amherst's Thomas Pock last season. For his 6'4" frame he's a relatively mobile defenseman. Again, he needs to retain his cool in some situations as penalties are usually the only way he stays off the ice.
6. Brian Yandle (Junior) D New Hampshire: With the loss of Steve Saviano, the Wildcats need to look elsewhere for offensive production. Last year, UNH could win low scoring games because Mike Ayers would steal many of them away from opposing teams. This year, UNH has no such luxury of a proven goalie behind them. With some of their more explosive scorers now graduated, the Wildcats will turn to their mobile 6 footer with the quick shot. Nine power play goals and Twenty-eight total points last year makes this defenseman more than just a one-way player.
There you have it: my picks for the All-Hockey East team. But there are many who could be mentioned on that list. Sean Collins of UNH could easily crack into the top scorers, and if David Van der Gulik (BU) can live up to his potential he could make the Terriers a top contender for the Hockey East crown. Again, parity is the rule this year, and the league's MVP, as well as title are up for grabs. And now, my ‘Axis of Evil,' placing where I believe teams will end up this year in the Hockey East standings:
1. Maine: Going against the experts and the grain, but I just think that Jim Howard is too strong, and their team too experienced to not squeak out a regular season title over the Eagles. In a two horse race, I choose the blue and black over the maroon and gold.
2. Boston College: Returns the top offense in the league even with departures of their superstars. Look for Pat Eaves to lead the league in scoring, but look for inconsistency in the pipes, as Matti Kaltiainen (.907, 1.76) should be challenged by incoming Freshman Cory Schneider.
3. New Hampshire: A good mix of offense and experienced defense should overcome the inexperienced goaltending early in the season. Saviano graduates, but most of the first and second lines are intact. The question is, can they survive life after Ayers? Yes. They can.
4. UMass-Lowell: The loss of only one senior and with one of the top coaches in college hockey (Blaise MacDonald) makes this squad dangerous. They could finish as high as two or three, or as low as six or seven. It all depends on how well this team rebounds and uses this experience to their benefit. Godoy could lead the league in Game Winners, and perhaps in Goals scored.
5. Boston University: Again, another one of those wildcard teams. But a Jack Parker squad will not finish in 8th position this season. Chris Bourque (son of that ‘other' Boston Bourque) heads a very talented freshman class. Now, they need to find some offense, and a goalie to try to replace what they lost in Sean Fields.
6. UMass-Amherst: Coach Cahoon's team seems to have taken a step backwards this year. With the losses of Thomas Pock, and Greg Maudlin, they lost a lot of scoring and experience. The play of Gabe Winer (.887 2.60) needs to improve to make up for the lack of offense and threats available to the Minutemen.
7. Merrimack: Everyone picks them last. They never finish there. They won't again this year. Brent Grough (Junior F, 12 G, 17 A) could finish as one of Hockey East's top scorers. A lot of players return, but a key loss is Marco Rosa, one of the fastest players from last year. The Guenther-Healey tandem in net is adequate, but not special.
8. Northeastern: Can Bruce Crowther keep his job on Huntington Ave? Husky faithful can only be so patient. A key win over BC last year helped, but it's important that this up-and-coming Husky team be taken care of seriously by the other teams in Hockey East.
9. Providence: Too many losses of too many key players in a two year stand. The goaltending is weak, the experience is low, and the size of the team is small. Making noise in such a tough conference like Hockey East will be close to impossible for the Friars. But, I mean, they can go out golfing the quickest!
Stay tuned for Bill Ratkus' picks for This Week in Hockey East.