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2012-13 Season Preview: The new normal, or: Bad boys for life

October 3, 2012

There was a time in Hockey East, not that long ago, when things were very different from how they are today.

Every year, you could write, in one order or another, four teams to finish with home ice spots. You could write it in pen, if you really wanted. It was that much a foregone conclusion. Boston College, Boston University, the University of New Hampshire, and the University of Maine. These were the best teams in the league every year, indisputably so. And even if an interloper managed to sneak into a slot ahead of them (Amherst and Vermont were surprisingly adept at this for a little while in the middle part of the last decade), their time in the sun turned them very quickly into raisins. That goes a long way to explaining why no team outside The Big Four, such as it has more or less always been, has managed to win both the regular-season and league title since Providence won the cup in 1996. No team not located on Chestnut Hill or Comm. Ave, or in Durham or Bangor, has ever won the regular-season title.

Not that we had to tell you that.

However, the tide seems to be shifting, and may be doing so in a hurry. While it has been impossible to wrest regular- or postseason glory from these titans of Hockey East, the gap between they and the mere mortal programs beneath them has tightened considerably. Who would have thought it possible that, say, Merrimack could give these teams a run for their money? Or that the new Catamounts on the block would have such immediate, if fleeting, success among the clouds?

Alas, power is power, and in this league it’s held absolutely. BC now not only rules the conference, but the country with an iron fist, as Jerry York, with skill and depth and toughness at his back, has wreaked havoc on all who dared cross his path. Most of these teams that rise near to the top, as Lowell did a few years back behind the best class the program has seen since the mid-90s, are swatted back down quickly enough. Most figure Merrimack will be in a fight for one of the final playoff spots, and Vermont is slated, if not completely scheduled, to be in last place for what now feels like the fifth year in a row, which frankly isn’t enough for our tastes.

However, there does seem to be an optimism surrounding one team in this league that doesn’t exist for any save for York’s tyrannical Eagle side, and that is, of course, our beloved Lowell River Hawks.

Which is a little odd, if you think about it. After all, the coaches picked them to finish ninth in the league last season, and eighth before that. And so, to see them second this year, a vote of confidence matched only by the team that 2009-10 team that got screwed out of a Hockey East title, is a little bit of a shock.

Lowell was picked to finish second this season, where it finished last year, prior to disappointingly sputtering out in the league quarterfinals to Providence. But that sounds about right. You cannot, after all, pick against the reigning national champions, as a matter of policy. (But where York is concerned, you can, apparently, pick against the clear second-best team in the league. He selected New Hampshire to finish first, given that rules prohibit him from rightly choosing his own team, and we can only assume he did so as a joke. Nonetheless, it’s disrespect, and will not be tolerated. He’s officially On Notice.) Again, Lowell has been given that runners-up honor in the past.

So why does now feel so different?

In short, there is now a league-wide belief in Lowell because, unlike previous efforts, this is a team that has already done the thing everyone now thinks it can do. Lowell lost that 1-0 title game a few years back, but many may not remember that it finished fifth in the league over the 27-game regular season, then upset Vermont and Northeastern to receive the honor of getting screwed against perhaps the best BU team ever. That second-place vote was not earned. This year’s was.

Lowell was second last year through 27 games behind a number of uncanny performances, nearly all of which were by players who will be back this season. Of course, a lot of that has to do with the program’s Apollonian ascent behind new coach Norm Bazin and his completely overhauled three-zone systems. Going from four league wins in a season to 17 is the kind of jump that lends an absurd amount of credibility to the cause, particularly because that squad, which came but a goal away from the Frozen Four (we’ll go to our grave saying the empty netter shouldn’t have counted), lost so little to graduation. Matt Ferreira and David Vallorani, with their 61 combined points, leave big holes to fill up front, and both Michael Budd and Tim Corcoran will be missed for their varied contributions throughout the season, though obviously to lesser extents than those two point-getters. Ferreira, in particular, isn’t going to be easy to replace, given his ability to be a large presence in all situations and all zones.

But there are questions to answer even before we get to who, if anyone, steps up to replace the lost 30 goals and 42 assists from the everyday contributors.

The first is whether, as with previous pretenders to the upper echelon of Hockey East, last year was a repeatable performance, both as a whole and through the sum of its myriad parts. Doug Carr, for instance, may have set the world very much on fire with his sensational goaltending performances, but the extent to which we can reasonably expect he and the team in front of him to effectively keep so many pucks out of the back of the net is, we’ll concede, debatable. Carr is perhaps the most positionally sound goaltender we’ve seen at Lowell in a long, long time, and even if you want to say Carter Hutton is there with him, or even ahead of him, well then that’s good enough company to keep as far as we’re concerned. It is therefore easy to forget that Lowell conceded a whole lot of shots last season (sixth-fewest in the league) and therefore Carr was very busy, making more saves in-league than all but three netminders. The question, then, becomes whether the percentages catch up to him.

It’s very easy to forget just how porous Lowell’s defense was in Carr’s freshman year, and how many easy tap-ins it allowed on the backdoor. We still have nightmares about it. And what it’s also easy to forget, given that Carr so deservedly dominated headlines for Lowell last season as a sophomore, is that his terrible numbers as a freshmen led Bazin to split his time in the early goings. Carr only played in five of Lowell’s first nine games. The team had to learn, in a way, how to play in front of him — goaltending is a very defense-dependent position, after all — and vice versa. Once the two tailored themselves to each other, the symbiotic relationship was extraordinarily beneficial, to say the least.

Can Carr be as good as he was last year? Yes. He seemed to do well when working the most, and this is now his horse to ride until Bazin is given a reason to take the reins back from him. Improving on his stats last season might be a little more difficult, given the sterling quality of his work from mid-November through the beginning of February, when he gave up three goals in a game, and never more than that, just three times in 15 starts. Despite the clear lack-of-thinking from the Hockey East media, who picked Parker Milner as a pre-season all-star, Carr is the best goaltender in this conference and it’s unlikely that it’s even close. Best-goaltenders don’t lose their jobs to Brian Billett and Chris Venti for almost two months. We expect that Carr will be able to at least replicate last season with some amount of ease despite whatever qualms may exist elsewhere.

But again, goaltending is very dependent upon defense, and if Lowell had a problem last year, it was very glaringly that. Carr typically bailed out defenders on his team who made bad decisions more often than they should have, and a sub-80 percent penalty kill against Hockey East opponents (seventh in the league) is something that will need to be improved upon considerably. This was Bazin’s biggest challenge in the offseason, but he seems to believe that the blue line will be better, because it has to be.

It’s all well and good to point to Lowell having conceded the third-fewest goals in conference games last year, but those who watched closely saw the problem: A lack of depth. Any team that wants to finish second in the league again has to do a better job of shoring up its depth. Obviously, there are standouts who will be counted upon to improve. Chad Ruhwedel was rightly selected a first-team preseason all-star and was, we would assume, a regular feature in the nightmares of opposing forwards all summer. If he can take another step forward, he, like Carr behind him, could be the best at his position in this league.

It will be interesting, too, to see how Lowell’s best defensive defenseman, Jake Suter, improved his game this summer. His freshman mistakes were few and far between last year, and whether he’s been able to round out his abilities a bit more will be perhaps one of the biggest questions for this team. There are other now-sophomores to account for as well, and Zack Kamrass, who was selected as an all-league rookie defenseman at the end of last season, could be the team’s second-best returning blue liner. Injuries derailed a decent start to his season, but when he returned, he came on gangbusters, particularly at the end of the season when Lowell was in the teeth of its Hockey East schedule. If the ‘Hawks can get more of the kid who scored 11 points in his final 20 games, this is at least starting to look like a corps that can produce big-time results at both ends of the ice.

Others, like Dan Furlong, Malcolm Lyles, and Billy Eiserman were occasionally revelatory but more often frustrating, and will be pushed for their jobs this season if they can’t make headway. The fewer headaches they cause this season, the better, obviously. We believe in the abilities of each of them, particularly Furlong, but we and, again we assume, Bazin will need to see more of the good before we can declare the defensive problems to be truly fixed.

What’s strange about all this expectation is that when you get right down to it, and despite the occasional bossanova performances, Lowell’s offense didn’t really score a ton of goals last season, which brings us to the final question. It only finished fourth in league play in terms of goals scored, which, if it wants to finish second again, is something that will have to improve. Again, this is a team that loses 31 of its 126 total goals last season, and where they will be found in the lineup this time around is very much up for debate.

Perhaps the guy who personifies this best is Scott Wilson. You remember him. 16 goals, 22 assists in 37 games. Hockey East Rookie of the Year. Skilled as all get-out. Physical when required. Goes to the hard areas. While we’re of the belief that he can be just as good as that this season, if not better, we also don’t know whether a step back isn’t entirely out of the question. The upside with his game is that he can score goals more or less at will from several parts of the ice, the kind of offensive threat Lowell hasn’t boasted since Ben Walter at least. But how much of that was the result of his being able to operate under the radar? Wilson might have been the best freshman Lowell had arrive on campus in a while, but was he really someone opponents were watching as closely as we tended to until at least mid-season? It’s tough to say.

However, to counterbalance that, there is the very nice note that he didn’t even get to play with his regular linemates (Riley Wetmore and Derek Arnold, both of whom should take their own steps forward this season as well) until after Lowell lost to Providence 1-0 on the road back on Jan. 24. The bond those three forged in no time at all was absurd, and they piled up a combined 19-37-56 in just 21 games together, mostly against the top competition opponents could muster, which proved not effective enough more often than not. Those three together from start to finish could, in theory at least, make up a bulk of the lost 31 goals by themselves.

But there is of course room for improvement in others. The three we’re most interested in, however, are Terrence Wallin, Joe Pendenza and Josh Holmstrom. They will be asked to carry a lot of the burden when — if? — Arnold-Wetmore-Wilson can’t find its legs in any particular game, and they will likewise need to improve to do so. Wallin too often went missing for stretches of the season (he only had one goal in the final month and a half of the season, and it came in the very last game of the season), and that’s something that has to be corrected. And while Pendenza and Holmstrom seem to be relied upon as two-way forwards, added offensive menace from both will be necessary.

Stephen Buco, too, is an intriguing case. Only two goals and 12 points, and he missed a lot of time in the back half of the season, but he was also a Rookie of the Month last December for scoring two goals and four assists in six games. Lowell will certainly need far more of that guy, who scored 44 goals in his final season of juniors, than the one who had three assists from the start of January on.

All of the above, of course, goes without mentioning that Bazin has a sizable freshman class coming in, which will, like last year’s group, figure rather considerably into the team’s success or failure in attempting to reach that second-place goal that has been laid out for them by all observers partisan and otherwise.

It’s headlined by a pair of players on the defensive side of the puck, both of whom were selected by NHL teams at this year’s draft. The most notable is probably Connor Hellebuyck, a netminder of whom big things are expected both by the Winnipeg Jets, who took him in the fifth round, and those at USA Hockey, who think he could be very good at the college level. However, given that Doug Carr has two years left at this school, one wonders just how much work he’ll actually get not only this season, but next. Certainly, we’d shuffle him to the primary backup role ahead of poor Brian Robbins, who likely never got that fair a shot (but then, look what Carr did once he wrested control of the No. 1 job), and hope to see him spell Carr a bit more than Lowell was able to do last season. It can be said that there was some wear and tear on Lowell’s top netminder as the season approached its conclusion, and the upsetting gaffes occasionally piled up on the bad nights. If Hellebuyck can just give Carr a break every now and again, and do it without scaring the bejeezus out of Lowell backers, then that’ll be a great thing.

The other drafted player is the redshirted Russian, defenseman Dmitry Sinitsyn, who reportedly dazzled teammates at practice with a top-quality shot, using sticks that weren’t even his. He hasn’t played much in the way of competitive hockey in a year, so it will be interesting to see how slowly he’s eased into the mix, but if Dallas took this kid in the seventh round, there must be something there worth liking. The hope, and perhaps it’s a bit optimistic, is that he can be a feature on the power plays and help the team improve on its 21 percent efficiency in conference games last season.

Another newcomer who might be able to help with that power play is of course Joe Houk, a redshirt junior who came to Lowell from Hamilton College with Bazin. We trust Bazin’s eye implicitly. If he says Houk can cut it in Hockey East, we believe him, and the Division 3 stats he posted speak to the kind of menace he provides at the attacking blue line. He scored 21 goals and 52 points in 51 games for Hamilton, and even half that point-a-game production would be a welcome addition to a blue line that netted just 12-50-62 last season. Likewise, Christian Folin, who comes to Lowell from the NAHL, had 11-20-31 in 54 games last season, could help in that regard as well. Both the above freshmen defensemen are big boys, as is their counterpart Greg Amlong of the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders USHL program, which should be a plus as well.

Not surprisingly, the vast majority of the freshman class being brought in is comprised of six forwards, of whom there are a few notables. Logan Johnston might be the most interesting. His junior stats weren’t exceptional (12-19-31 in 35 games), but the BCHL team he played for was. His Penticton Vees, which he captained, went 54-4-2 last season. That’s not a typo. They played 60 games, they won all but six of them, and 42 of those were in a row. That’s also not a typo. Not surprisingly, the Vees collected every trophy they played for, including the RBC Cup, which is like a Champions League of Canadian Junior A hockey. That a team of that quality would select Johnston as its captain speaks to many things about him as a player, and none of them are bad.

Or, if more substantial offensive production is your thing (and it is indeed ours), maybe Adam Chapie or Michael Colantone are more your speed. Both scored more than 30 goals last season with their respective junior teams (Colantone had 33 in 59 for the BCHL’s Prince George, and Chapie put up 31 in 60 for New Mexico of the NAHL). AJ White was no slouch either, with 28 in 60 for the NAHL’s Michigan Warriors. Nor is Ryan McGrath’s 17 in 39 in the USHL, where he was a teammate of Amlong’s. Michael Fallon rounds out the class with 19 goals in 48 games for the USHL’s Chicago Steel, and his 48 total points led the team.

What you have to keep in mind about these kids is that they are almost uniformly older players, as nearly all will be at least 20 when the season begins. The exceptions are Hellebuyck and Sinitsyn, who have ’93 and ’94 birthdates, respectively. And again almost uniformly, they are all larger players as well, as all but McGrath, Colantone, and Fallon are north of six feet. The latter two outliers are merely 5-foot-11, and McGrath is listed at just 5-foot-7. The age issue naturally leads to the size issue, given that these players have had more time to mature physically and fill out their frames, which we often heard was a potential concern for Sinitsyn last winter. He’s now listed at 6-2 and 205 pounds, so that’s more like it.

The reason the added size will be a boon for Lowell is that another of its faults last year was that it simply found itself pushed around by larger teams far too often. The reason UConn beat the River Hawks and then took them to overtime last season, for instance, is that they bullied them physically. Those games were tough to watch and that was by design. Now that Lowell has a bit more heft to its roster, literally, that likely won’t take place as frequently. Lowell’s average player this year is about 6 feet tall and 187 pounds. Last season, those numbers were 5-11 and 183.5. Not the biggest difference, but certainly a step in the right direction.

Altogether, as we attempt to sum up this mountain of information, we think it’s important to note that Lowell is picked to neither go forward or move back. The league at large believes it will be in stasis. Stasis is acceptable if you’re in second place, trailing only the best NCAA hockey team of the last decade, but we also don’t think it should be good enough for this team if it’s going to be serious about things going forward. Now is the time for Lowell to prove to us and everyone else that its wondrous performance last season wasn’t a fluke, but rather an indicator that this is something we can expect to happen regularly for the remainder of Bazin’s tenure, may it be long and overwhelmingly successful. This is now a team other schools will circle on their schedules, and hope to punch in the nose.

The bar for success has been moved considerably upwards, and while it may be unfair to ask a team that just won 24 games for the first time since 1996 to go out and do it again, that’s just the way things go when you’re great, which is something Lowell will considered until it gives everyone a reason to believe otherwise. But remember, even at the best of times, disrespect for this team is rampant; everyone will have out a magnifying glass, meticulously searching for that reason.

It’s very much our hope, and indeed our belief, that the much sought-after reason won’t be uncovered this year. Lowell’s going to be this good for a while. Might as well start getting used to it now.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Monty permalink
    October 3, 2012 6:27 am

    Great preview and a very good job of listing out some of the concerns for this season. Interesting to note, Lowell hasn’t had back to back 20 win seasons since the seasons ending in 93 and 94. Not good.

  2. Rich permalink
    October 3, 2012 10:58 am

    Glad to see the post, its a reminder the season is almost here. Can’t wait to see some catamount ass get kicked in a little over a week!

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