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2011-12 season preview: Where do we go from here?, or: Oh the Thinks you can think!

October 5, 2011

It would be really easy to be pessimistic.

Just look at last year’s team. Very little in the way of offense. Porous defense. High school-level goaltending. Bad power play. Worse penalty kill. No sense of menace in any zone.

It all added up to the worst Division 1 performance in Lowell history, and the ugliest in Hockey East history this side of the mid-aughts Merrimacks. The coach caught the blame, and was essentially asked to give up his job for the good of the program. Fair enough, though we were willing to give him at least one more pass.

And who’s to say this year would be any different? Who did Lowell lose from last year’s team? Maury Edwards, Ryan Blair and Scott Campbell among others. Big names to be sure (whether they got the corresponding contributions, well, that’s a different matter). And those were just the seniors. A player we quite like by the name of Chris Ickert, who ended last season with two goals and four points in three games, quietly stole from the sinking ship of Lowell hockey and is now pursuing some degree or another in British Columbia.

Yup, pessimism is understandable. But we choose not to see it that way because we have a little something we like to call, “Imagination.”

Don’t get us wrong: this is not going to be a very good team.

But is it going to be as bad as many, like the idiotic Hockey East coaches and even more idiotic Hockey East media, think? No. There are a few teams in the conference that figure to be worse than Lowell.

The Hockey East media — an Algonquin Roundtable if ever there was one — has Lowell dead last in the league by a good margin for reasons we only vaguely understand. Did we miss a memo where Providence’s equally-paltry four league wins last season somehow counted double? Let’s not forget, Alex Beaudry, the most overrated goaltender in the league, was a junior for that hideous season and — guess what — he’s back for another round of abject failure that the yokels will brush off as another case of good-goalie-on-a-bad-team (or: opposite-Kieran Millan). That career 3.17 GAA and .904 save percentage doesn’t even come close to making him the Joe Exter for a new generation. More like the new Jim Healey. Bad goalie on a bad team.

But we digress.

The coaches at least picked Lowell to finish ninth, though only one voting point ahead of the woebegone Friars. That seems fair. Accounts for the continued growth and development of Lowell’s mostly freshman-and-sophomore team but not so much the attrition suffered by the Friars, who lose five of their top seven scorers. Not that that’s saying much. The highest-scoring Friar last year had a whopping 22 points. That would have gotten him a distant third on what we can all agree was a horrible Lowell team. And unless PC is bringing in the kind of recruits BC or UNH pull regularly, which they aren’t, nothing’s going to change overnight. They’re a really bad team that got worse.

It’s very easy to imagine Lowell finishing ahead of these bums in a very sane and real world.

And what of Northeastern, suddenly the darling of the league since everyone decided they love Jim Madigan? The team say they no longer get treated like robots, and are instead free to be treated as what they are: subpar hockey players. It’s hard to imagine that any team in Hockey East history lost as many non-seniors, recruits and head coaches in one summer as did the Huskies. Their top returning scorer is a freshman defenseman, and it’s not the one that got drafted in the first round this year.

That’s two, and you don’t even have to dream up a series of impossible scenarios to get yourself there.

There are also arguments to be made that Amherst and Merrimack will take big steps back thanks to their losses, though Paul Dainton* ain’t exactly Stephane Da Costa in terms of irreplaceability.

Now, we know what you’re thinking: “Do you guys really believe Lowell can finish sixth in Hockey East this year?”

Maybe. There are a lot of factors at play. Just think about it.

The most notable difference, obviously, is the new guy behind the bench, who’s really an old guy if you think about. Norm Bazin is probably well-known to the dyed-in-the-wool Lowell supporters who can tell you about the days of Dwayne Roloson and Greg Bullock in vivid detail, but anyone who tells you they know anything at all about his coaching style apart from his vague descriptions of “up-tempo” and “puck possession” either watch way too much Division 3 hockey or are lying.

Now, up-tempo, hard-to-the-net, puck possession hockey are three things that Lowell has decidedly not played over the last decade, much to the chagrin of River Hawk fans who do not understand that you have to build a team to your strengths and vice versa, not try to square-peg the nearest round hole into submission. We’re a bit dubious about a team we watched for 30-something gutwrenchingly bad games last year and are quite familiar with can suddenly change its entire style of play to suit the new system, and we really quite doubt that this group has enough personnel to do it across four lines and three D pairings.

But that having been said, playing to what we and apparently Blaise MacDonald believed were the team’s strengths last season resulted in a season we’d very much like to forget. Barring a complete catastrophe, and given that the schedule features some truly pathetic out-of-conference opponents, it’s difficult to think Lowell finishes with five wins again this season. And let’s not forget that four of those wins were against league opponents. It’s a number that, because a number of teams took a step back, can easily be improved upon.

Let’s start in net and, again, keep in mind that there’s nowhere to go but up. We haven’t seen goaltending that bad, well, ever. Naysayers might point out (rightly) that even if Lowell’s goals against total improves by 25 percent, it still finishes in the bottom half of the league in goals allowed per game, which is a sickening statistic. But this will hopefully be a benefit of the new puck-possession game Lowell will purportedly play. Prior to last season, Lowell typically had a very good if not great team defense because it had a total commitment to keeping the other team from possessing the puck in dangerous areas.

Doug Carr and to a lesser extent Marc Boulanger were victimized the most, of course. A mountainous team GAA of 3.95. A Jules Verne-esque team save percentage (we’re talking Center of the Earth, by the way, as 20,000 leagues under the sea would be too kind) of .886. Both goalies had their bad moments, and MacDonald’s everlasting inability to trust what is his clear No.1 goaltender (Hutton v. Hamilton also stands as eternal testament to this) certainly did little to help when Carr was making 70 saves on 73 shots in a weekend and splitting time the next, just as an example.

We’re really hoping that incoming goalie Brian Robbins doesn’t get that much time this season. Not because we harbor any ill will, but because it will likely be indicative of far more concerning problems, be they injury or depthlessly woeful performances.

Lots of experts who, we presume, watched this team once or twice last season, say that goaltending was Lowell’s biggest problem last year. Those experts are wrong.

Despite obvious holes in their games (Carr’s inability to defend shots from the right wing, Boulanger’s inability to defend shots from inside Lowell’s defensive blue line, etc.), these kids were most often betrayed by lazy defending, especially around the net. If you can come up with the number of undefended backdoor tap-ins Lowell allowed last season, we might just give you a prize. Hint: It’s a ton.

First, let’s lay the blame at the feet of Edwards and Blair, whose regression following their sophomore years was really quite something. They finished a combined minus-47 last season (Edwards, for his part, was a minus-31), which doesn’t seem like it should be possible. Not that plus-minus is the end-all stat or anything close to it, but in this case it’s fairly indicative in this case of what Edwards and Blair were doing and not doing at both blue lines. They ate a lot of minutes despite their myriad problems and as a consequence were on the ice for a lot of goals as well.

The kids, on the other hand, are something we feel pretty okay with going forward. Freshman mistakes are freshman mistakes and it’s the rare rookie indeed that will avoid them in a league of this quality. The problem, really, was most had their errors come in the latter half of the year after an acceptable start. Chad Ruhwedel, for example, is a player we believe can become a quality defenseman in this league. He was often Lowell’s best defenseman last year (though, we understand that would not have been the hardest honor to win) and often looked poised beyond his relative experience. We would also be remiss in forgetting Dan Furlong, who had more and more frequent strong performances here and there as the season went on.

Those three, as well as Tim Corcoran (the blue line’s only senior) and Rob Badger, will be bolstered by much-talked-about junior transfer Malcolm Lyles, ex of Boston College. He was a big-time player in the BCHL last season and helped lead his team to a runner-up spot in the Canadian Junior A championship (he also attended the Florida Panthers’ junior development camp over the summer). He’s joined by freshmen Jake Suter, son of Stanley Cup champion Ryan Suter and cousin of the even more noteworthy Jeremy Dehner, Zack Kamrass, Billy Eiserman and Micki Mihailovich.

What’s all that mean? Well, it means Lowell’s going to have two definitively open blue line spots and a third up for contention. You can go ahead and pencil in all but Badger among the returning players, and we suspect those he will compete for a role with the freshmen, since Lyles likely has a spot already. So it’s down to the four freshmen playing for maybe two spots, which is a good deal better than last year when it was two ineffective seniors and a whole bunch of rookies.

Hopefully these guys will be better suited to playing the possession style Bazin espouses than they were to dumping it into the offensive zone and waiting to get their shingles blown off in transition after the change. While no one complained about the “dump and chase” style Lowell played when it was one of the best teams in Hockey East from 2008-2010, that was because Lowell was winning and had the personnel to carry it off. The downside of that is if the team is bad in the neutral zone, as Lowell was, ceding control of the puck to change lines, as Lowell so often did, essentially invites the other team to score goals. In this regard, we think Bazin’s emphasis on puck possession will be a benefit to the team if only because it will at least slow the flow of goals into the Lowell net because the other team will actually have to work to turn it over. The old adage goes, “You can’t score if you don’t have the puck,” and that works both ways.

Preventing goals is, we’re fairly sure, only half of hockey. We’ve been led to believe that scoring them is the other, though we haven’t seen much of that in the last two years to stand as evidence in support of such a theory. The good news is that Lowell does have all of its six highest-scoring forwards coming back. The bad news is that only two of them cracked 20 points last season. Yes, both reedy senior David Vallorani, who piled up the points in the dying days of the season (i.e. 10 points in the final THREE games, when the results mattered 0 percent) to lead the team with 31, and Riley Wetmore, who piled up 30 and would have gotten more if his regular linemates could have kept up, are back. Having 60-plus points between two Lowell forwards, no matter when they came, isn’t exactly the most common of occurrences (the only ones to do it since the Ben Walter years were Kory Falite and Scott Campbell in 2009-10), so the team would do well to hope for and encourage that kind of production again this season. The same is true of Mike Budd’s second-half offensive output. He did what he had to do on a line with Vallorani and Wetmore at the end of last season, amassing seven of his 13 points in three of the last four games. Now, if they can rekindle that chemistry that’s one line we don’t have to worry about.

As for the rest? That’s a little iffy.

The team is very much laden with known quantities (with two notable exceptions, which we’ll get to in a minute), which isn’t necessarily a good thing. The next-highest scorer returning to the team is Matt Ferreira, who came in with a lot of hype around his scoring prowess but has produced just 27 points over three seasons. We’re sure the team would take another 10 goals from him at least, but he has to increase his production as a senior. Add in sophomores Joe Pendenza (13 points) and Derek Arnold (12) and you can count on at least a little more production. But how much? Both kids excelled in areas last year but never quite presented a complete game. And hey, remember Josh Holmstrom? He started the year with six points in nine games. He finished with 11 in 34. He’s going to need to carry more weight up front as well.

The rest of last year’s forwards, make up a hodgepodge of bottom-six guys, with Shayne Thompson, Nick Curry and Derek McCoy having scored a combined 12 points, of which nine were Thompson’s.

So who are the two exceptions? They’re Colin Wright and Joe Caveney. Wright had a good freshman season, scoring seven goals, and nearly edged out Riley Wetmore for our Rookie of the Year at the time. But 30 games, and only four assists later, we’re wondering which Wright we’ll be getting. Will Lowell get the crash-bang, garbage-cleaning energy winger we got two seasons ago, or will the ineffectual passenger? We’re hoping for the former and preparing for the latter. It’s only reasonable.

Caveney is a different story entirely. He’s a junior, but he’s played just 18 games in his Lowell career due to a slew of injuries. Last year he had five points in 10 games which is a respectable if underwhelming total. The hope is obviously that he can stay healthy and contribute offensively, but obviously at this point we’d take one or the other without much complaint.

And that brings us to the freshmen, of whom there are a good amount and from whom a lot will be expected. It’s worth noting that almost none are Bazin’s recruits, but a good number are considered to be good players nevertheless. The two biggest names are Scott Wilson, who was drafted in the seventh round by the Pittsburgh Penguins over the summer after scoring 61 points in 42 games last season, and Terrence Wallin, who starred for the Gunnery. They’re going to be asked to carry the most water offensively, though Mike Conderman may be able to contribute right away as well. Christian Cowles, Tyler Brickler and Stephen Buco round out the freshman class, but who knows what to expect out of them? Given the state of the bottom six, they’ll all get their chance to play a few games, at the very least.

Yes, we really do think this is a team that can recover from the embarrassing, torturous season and actually pile up a healthy number of points in the league as long as a few things break their way. Sixth? That’s not outside the realm of possibility. More realistically, though? Yeah, Lowell’s going to finish 10th again. Bazin has basically warned as much.

Still, we’re optimistic, if only because it would be hard, if not impossible, to replicate that kind of putrescence the team typically turned out last season. A new star arises, a new day comes again. All that stuff.

Really, it’s not hard to imagine Lowell shuffling back into the middle of the pack, and we believe it’s a goal that’s both respectable and achievable.

Oh, the Thinks you can think up, if only you try. Bring on the Bazin era.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Gary permalink
    October 6, 2011 6:02 pm

    Nice read.

  2. Monty permalink
    October 7, 2011 7:10 am

    Welcome back. Good job on the write up. There’s definitely a lot of questions going into this season, starting with not just the netminders, but as you said with the defense. I hate to take a shot at the seniors that left, but they didn’t seem to lead last year … hopefully some of the veterans this year can do what those guys didn’t, which is to step up their game a bit.

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