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2010-11 season preview: It was a very bad year, or: A tragedy in five parts

September 30, 2010

If you were to say that 2010 was the worst year in the history of Lowell hockey, you’d probably be wrong.

But not by much.

So much of the first nine-plus months of year went more or less the opposite of what would have qualified as “even remotely according to plan,” that it’s now kind of hard to even imagine why we once had optimism for this program.

But just because we wish time had stopped before 2009 bustled out the door  (Lowell was 10-6-1 at the time and looking invincible) and 2010 came in a bit disheveled and smelling of cheap bourbon doesn’t mean we can change anything. The terrible four or so months that followed New Year’s Day brought with them creeping and ever-increasing horror. Lowell, it turned out, was not the team we thought it was. In fact, it wasn’t the team most people thought.

Where before Lowell’s senior class had performed valiantly down the stretch run of the prior three seasons, and climaxed with having nearly shocked everyone against BU in the 2009 Hockey East championship game before getting jobbed, last season they went out with a whimper. The River Hawks played 22 games in 2010 and won just nine of them. Most notably, they not only failed to get home ice thanks to a confluence of abhorrent circumstances, but also blew a series advantage in its best-of-three set with Maine, and gave up two leads — including one with less than five minutes to go — in what proved to be the final game of the season.

And things, somehow, got worse.

Part I: …And Now We Haul the Ashes

Of course the promise of Lowell’s last campaign was dropped entirely upon the backs of its 11 seniors, many of whom were some of the best players at their positions the program had seen in a long time.

It turned out that Kory Falite scored more goals for the River Hawks than any player since Ed McGrane. Ben Holmstrom was the best defensive forward in the league. Carter Hutton was statistically the greatest goaltender Lowell ever had (assuming you don’t want to count win-lost record as a stat, and for his sake, and that of our sanity, we don’t). Jeremy Dehner and Nick Schaus were two remarkable defensemen with diverse and uniquely deadly skillsets.

You wouldn’t be wrong in saying that this Lowell class of 2010 was the best the school had ever seen, at least at the Division 1 level, and that they didn’t meet any of the goals they set for themselves or had set for them by others seemed somehow fitting. Whether they were inexperienced freshmen, slightly overmatched sophomores, maturing juniors or “legacy-leaving” seniors, Lowell’s teams were always their teams both on paper and in reality. Jason Tejchma and Co. may have been the outgoing class when they first arrived at Lowell, but you could tell who was running the show for the most part.

They were called upon to contribute from their first practice, probably moreso than any other single class in Lowell history, and they did. Holmstrom and Falite and Dehner and Schaus and Hutton made those teams their teams not just by necessity, but by virtue of their talents, both calculable and intangible.

However, the fate of the Lowell teams on which they played — their teams — it seemed, was always to come up just short of expectations and milestones. Whether it was falling tantalizing close to the playoffs as freshmen, pushing BU to the brink of elimination as sophomores, coming within a dreadful call of overtime in the Hockey East title game as juniors or ever-so-slightly failing to achieve every goal set for them as seniors, there just seemed to be no room for a storybook ending. Not for their teams.

It’s important that we don’t forget that, because the crushing disappointment their final season offered was but a prelude to what would soon follow.

Part II: Deconstructive Summer

Things, as they so often have in the past, only got worse for Lowell as a disappointing March stretched slowly into a long and uncomfortable summer.

There was not much to which we could look forward, except perhaps the promise of seeing a Lowell prospect get selected fairly high up (by River Hawk standards) at the NHL Entry Draft in mid-June. And so it was that Julian Melchiori, a well-regarded, big-bodied defenseman who was viewed as a great get for Lowell, was selected in the third round, 87th overall, by the Atlanta Thrashers after putting up pretty respectable numbers in the OPJHL.

Here was a kid drafted higher than any Lowell player since Ron Hainsey — if you can believe that — and so the promise of his arrival was the one thing that kept River Hawk supporters interested over a summer filled with coulda-beens.

But then some cracks began to show in that facade of golden possibility. First came a report that the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers, for whom a relative of Melchiori’s holds some position of import, were interested in signing the future Lowell freshman to a deal that would have him play for their Major Juniors outfit. But the writing in that article was so embarrassingly poor you’d have thought an Amherst graduate wrote it on Inside College Hockey, and it was quickly dismissed by a number of people, both in the know and out of it, as hogwash.

But that at least got the ball rolling on what would eventually become Melchiori’s turn as a Benedict Arnold to dear Lowell’s West Point. While an Atlanta Journal Constitution article highlighted Melchiori’s desire to attend Lowell, it used terms like “for now” and “what’s best for me.” And that really got the alarm bells going.

So it was no surprise that Melchiori, the most prized recruit Lowell has had in about a decade, eventually signed with Kitchener in mid-August and in doing so torpedoed a considerable amount of the anticipation with which supporters were awaiting the season. Now, the leaden and solemn trudge to October had gotten a bit harder to stomach.

Not long after, when redshirt-but-not-really sophomore Robert Visca, he of the silly OPJHL point totals as an underaged scoring sensation, also made the jump to Major Junior, there was little surprise and the hard feelings were littler still. Visca hadn’t actually redshirted, you see, and as a result had essentially sat around while the River Hawk offense failed to do anything of note for most of the year’s latter half, and never got a single second of ice time.

Maybe Blaise MacDonald just got a bad read on the kid — and with his 28 goals in 49 games in the OPJHL as a 16-year-old, and his 5-foot-11, 200-pound frame, we can see where mistakes could be made — or maybe he just wasn’t a Lowell-type player, but the coaches had a year to look at him and decided he couldn’t contribute at this level. He would have entered the year as a sophomore, but hadn’t gotten an actual game since the spring of his 17th year. Tough break, but what can one do in a situation like that?

In response to these defections, Lowell brought in absolutely no one to fill their roster spots, which is probably the way it should be. That’s one way to even out the class sizes, right?

There is good news, though. We get to check OHL scores and hope everyone beats Kitchener by 30. And Julian’s a stupid name anyway.

Part III: We’re Gonna Build Something this Winter

That brings us to September, and now we all know what this is.

First, let’s just get this out of the way: even with Melchiori and Visca and probably Stephane Da Costa or Cam Atkinson, this was always going to be a team that would struggle to make the playoffs, if it does at all. Which we’re not banking on.

Frankly there’s too much we don’t know about this team right now to expect anything besides a season not unlike the freshman year of the recently-graduated class. Now, we don’t expect that this team will go winless in 20 consecutive games, but could it post a record similar to that year’s 8-21-7 mark? It absolutely could.

To be perfectly clear: This is the very definition of a rebuilding year.

We say that not to denigrate any of the returning talent — and certainly guys like Maury Edwards, David Vallorani, Scott Campbell and Ryan Blair are, in sum, a better set of upper classmen than Jason Tejchma, Jeremy Hall, Cleve Kinley and JR Bria — but any team that’s asking for about seven to 10 freshmen to contribute big-time is at the same time asking for a lot of losses.

And the uncertainty runs from the net out.

Now, it’s not fair to say that Lowell has no experience between the pipes. There is, of course, the several minutes worth of live action faced by TJ Massie before the coaching staff realized its terrible mistake in bringing him into the team and shuttled him off to a successful stint in juniors best described as adequate. How could we forget that third period against BU that he crocked so magnificently? What about his perfectly serviceable win over the Q?

Massie will get a chance to earn the starting job, but the guess here is that, as a junior, he won’t be given quite the same chance as the two legitimately inexperienced netminders. As far as we’re concerned, the prohibitive favorite for the No. 1 spot is Doug Carr, who posted a 2.50 GAA and .919 save percentage in the Central Ontario Junior Hockey League (where Campbell once put up 53 goals and 107 points in 41 games) and was named CJHL Goalie of the Year. The CJHL, we’ll point out, includes the BCHL, AJHL, and another 10 Junior A leagues across Canada. And he was the best in all of them.

The other competition for the No. 1 spot is former AJHL standout Marc Boulanger, whose 2.64 GAA and .911 save percentage qualify as being good but not great. But we expect you’ll see — you guessed it — a rotation all year! Unless, of course, someone plays out of their minds.

Perhaps the position about which we know the most is defense. The bulk of the returning players over whom who we don’t actively cringe when we see them hop over the boards are at the blue line, and we figure you can pencil in Edwards, Blair, Tim Corcoran and Chris Ickert for definite regular spots. You might even see Colin Wright, who’s a natural defenseman, slide back there as well (though we’d prefer he be kept up front where he’s a proven commodity at this level).

So you’ve got three freshmen playing for one or two spots on what appears to be a very thin blue line. All three come from the USHL, which also once gifted us Dehner and Schaus in the same year, though we’d be fools to actively expect anything approaching that contribution again.

Will Rayner, who played for the Lincoln Stars and alternated between the IR and suspensions, is a good-sized kid and doesn’t provide much in the way of offense, but judging by his penalty minutes, might be a bit of a bruiser. Not sure what to make of a kid with disciplinary and injury problems, who will be 21 halfway through his freshman year. We figure he’s one of the odd men out, honestly.

In contrast, a late addition to this year’s squad was Dan Furlong, a kid outta Stoneham who played for CM before taking his game to the USHL like all good Massachusetts-born players should. Quality goal total, winning pedigree, and from everything we’ve read in researching this piece, a top-notch kid and teammate. He might be a bit small at 5-9 and 165, though that never stopped Dehner, who was about the same size.

Then there’s Chad Ruhwedel, who is the undoubted pride of this crop of freshman defensemen. He’s from San Diego and played with Furlong in the USHL, where he was a league all-star. We figure he’s a lock for a regular job, and is likely to find time alongside his former junior teammate on one pairing with some degree of regularity.

And finally we come to the forward group, which on paper is not anything you could consider encouraging.

If you don’t count Wright, Lowell’s returning forwards are Campbell, Vallorani,  Mike Budd, Patrick Cey, Matt Ferreira, Mike Scheu, Riley Wetmore, Joe Caveney and Jason DeLuca. This is not a set of worldbeaters, right here. Apart from the first two listed, who combined for 25 goals and 61 points last year, the remaining seven guys scored a total of 18 goals and 51 points. So it goes without saying that the eight freshmen, who are playing for three or four spots (if you figure everyone but DeLuca is a guaranteed regular barring injury, as they were last year) are going to be asked to fill big roles.

The no-doubt, slam-dunk, 100-percent clear prize of the group is Derek Arnold. He’s another local kid (this time from Foxboro) who decommitted from Maine — who can blame him? — to join the River Hawks and immediately saw his season turn around as a result. He didn’t score once in his first 29 games for the USHL’s Waterloo Blackhawks, but then got a pick-me-up call from Blaise MacDonald and ended the season with a line of 20-39-59 in 59 games. To put that into perspective, that’s 20 goals in his teams last 39 games. Which is ridiculous. This kid will be a reason to buy a ticket this year, and he’s already Lowell’s third-best overall forward. Book it. Oh and in addition, Arnold was also given the USHL’s equivalent of the Humanitarian Award, has his own charity and is apparently an all-around super dude. When can we start lovingly crafting a bust of him for Stately TIIL Manner, you ask? We’ll get back to you.

Another forward we may end up liking quite a bit is Shayne Thompson, who comes from the COJHL, and scored 33 goals and 87 points in 57 games on the way to winning a conference title. He was also a COJHL first-team all-star, which rather parallels Campbell’s run through that little circuit.

Nick Curry out of the NAHL, from whence we once got Tejchma, put up a little better than a point a game and seems to be one of those heart-and-soul type players we so often enjoy. Similarly, Joe Pandenza was an EJHL all-star and he, too, put up respectable totals. Figure these two guys are going to be trading paint as they jockey to get that last regular spot, no?

But then again there’s one more forward from out of state, Josh Holmstrom, whose name you might recognize. That’s because his brother was a three-year captain at Lowell and one of the finest defensive forwards to ever come through the program. Josh is two years Ben’s junior (he’s already 21, in fact) and put up significantly better numbers in the USHL than Ben ever did. Of course, he also did it as a 19- and 20-year old, where Benny wasn’t 21 until his sophomore year at Lowell. We’re not sure what to make of all that yet.

The forward group is rounded out with three late additions to the official roster: Cameron Gaudet, Derek McCoy and Rob Badger. The latter two are the sons of former Lowell players, and are likely going to play fill-in roles as necessitated by injuries. The same is true of Gaudet, of course, who, as a kid who came out of preps, was a very, very late addition to the squad. He joined with almost no fanfare in mid-September. You might recognize Gaudet’s name because his brother Ross plays at BU.

That’s the roster, and the underclassmen will dictate almost entirely what happens this year, as well as the next four, and, likely, beyond.

Part IV: We Are Our Only Saviors

Whether it’s fair is for others to judge, but these freshmen are now, officially, the Most Important Class In Lowell Hockey History (though MICILHH is a cumbersome acronym, and one we’ll likely shorten to MIC).

Previously that spot was held by the now-departed seniors of 2010, whose contributions to the program have been profound, as briefly outlined above. But where that class raised Lowell hockey to a level, one where there are real expectations on a consistent basis, this one will not only need to maintain those, but usher in a whole new era of prosperity as well.

Helpful as they were, the Class of 2010 got the ball rolling but ultimately didn’t pick up as much momentum as supporters of the program would have hoped. However, the strides made since they came to Lowell are undeniable: 1) people go to games now in decent numbers, 2) that includes a previously-apathetic student body, 3) the Devils/Lock Monsters are gone forever and left ample schedule space for events that actually generate revenue for the program and the school, 4) the school now actually owns the Tsongas Center, 5) the Tsongas Center is going to be like a new and better building after all the renovations — including a fantastic video scoreboard — are completed prior to the first official puck drop.

The latter two points are, in our opinion, the most important. The Tsongas Arena was always considered a strong selling point for the school when it came to bringing in new recruits, but the luster of the building, through the 11 years of its existence, had admittedly worn off a bit. There were aspects of it, such as the Lite Brite scoreboard and sterile look and feel, that hadn’t aged well by any standard. But now with the school owning the rink, serious work has begun on making it irrefutably the Home of the River Hawks, and 21st-century amenities have been added to underscore that fact.

And so the stewardship of this program for this baker’s dozen of freshmen begins in just a few weeks, and the gravity of their role, while not considerable from the outset, will certainly follow them through each of their four years in the Mill City. They inherit a program that’s a good deal healthier than it was just three years ago, and their prime directive is to build it still further by not only succeeding on the ice, but off it as well.

The 2010 seniors made a respectable climb, but as we pointed out in our postmortem last spring, it never seemed good enough relative to what they could have done. A suitable base has been established, however, and believe that these kids need to improve on it. With them rises and falls the status of this program for the next decade. Last year’s River Hawk seniors nearly put the program on a map from which it had been absent, and frankly nowhere near, for around a decade. Lowell is once again a destination for recruits of a quality we haven’t seen in quite some time; a Doug Carr or Derek Arnold wouldn’t have come to the Lowell of five or six years ago.

The last six or seven years have proven an interesting time for Lowell hockey. Expectations were heaped on the Class of 2005 only for them to fall hopelessly short of all goals without goalscoring wunderkind Ben Walter. Similar expectations were eventually dropped at the doorstep of last year’s group, and while they, too, came up empty in the big-picture view of things, they were at least measurably closer than those that came five years previous.

This group has no such luxury. Missing goals can no longer be seen as acceptable or even understandable. The Lowell program has gotten a nibble of winning hockey once again, and with the renewed support of the university, anything less for this group than smashing success over their four-year careers is going to seem a regrettable disappointment and a waste of all the goodwill it’s gotten in the last two or three years.

Part V: We Gotta Stay Positive

But no pressure or anything. Not this year at least.

For all the reasons detailed above, there’s no way there should be; it simply wouldn’t be fair to expect anything from a Lowell team with eight or nine freshmen in the lineup every night. People will talk about the loss of goalscoring and the loss of impact players and the loss of sure-thing goaltending, and while all of that is true, it loses something more important: identity.

For each of the last three seasons, we knew who this hockey club was. We knew what to expect from it most of the time. And now we don’t have that any more. There are enough players around from the past few seasons that the players won’t be the complete set of strangers they were four years ago, but this won’t be last year’s team by any stretch of the imagination.

These freshmen need to make this their team as soon as possible so that they can begin to develop their own culture. “Almost” simply won’t cut it any more, so while this year is essentially a free pass from us, we know internally there will be demands, both individually and collectively, placed on this team. Make the playoffs is a likely demand and, if we’re being honest, an attainable one. Providence will continue to stink despite how the whole world apparently feels about Alex Beaudry — what, we ask, ever became of Matt Bergland? — and woe be unto Amherst, because that roster is ugly (in fact, that’s probably one of the nicer things you can say about any roster on which TJ Syner is the top returning scorer).

But until we see something from this Lowell team, and start to get a feel for how all the parts fit and move together, we can’t realistically hope for anything this year. We’d love for Derek Arnold to turn in a Greg Bullock-like rookie performance, and for Chad Ruhwedel to be the next Ron Hainsey, and Doug Carr to be Carter Hutton 2.0. If even one of those things happened, it would be fantastic.

But in all likelihood, it won’t. And that’s fine.

We can’t expect anything yet.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Steve DeSimone permalink
    September 30, 2010 4:34 pm

    Very well written (especially Part IV). I have been thinking much of the same (though you articulated it much more eloquently) while looking at transformation of the campus and Tsongas this summer. The groundwork is there for something great, now the team needs to execute over the course of the next few years to bring it to the next level. I am looking forward to seeing the Tsongas in person and the team in action.

  2. October 1, 2010 3:05 am

    Welcome back, fellas. Nicely done first post, no rust to be found.

    Look at the brightside, at least Lowell fans are free to boo your star recruit who jumped to major juniors. If UMass fans do that we’re branded unpatriotic traitors to our country.

  3. jjmc85 permalink
    October 1, 2010 5:08 am

    Welcome back!

  4. October 1, 2010 6:41 pm

    Nice to see you are back – Best LRH Hockey info source on the net – Looks like N’Eastern , Lowell, Providence and that other school near NY fihgting for the last two playoff spots with the top six teams on another much higher level. Could be a long season, hope they keep it interesting.

  5. October 2, 2010 5:28 am

    The Hold Steady always deserves a nod of approval. Welcome back.

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