Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Hockey East First Semester Report Card

The first semester is over, which means the first half of the Hockey East season has come to a conclusion. The second half always separates the pretenders from the contenders, but here is a look at how each team, position-by-position, including coaching staffs, would be graded at the mid-way point.

The grades will be listed in order of standings, not necessarily by highest to lowest grades. There is a discrepancy in terms of games played so conference standings are always skewed a little this time of year.

1. Boston College

The Eagles come in with high regard. They are winners of three of the last five national championships. Countless recent alums are in the NHL. Head coach Jerry York is one win away from holding the record for most career coaching wins all by himself.

The offense boasts two of the most prolific lines in Division I, including the incredible first line of Johnny Gaudreau, Pat Mullane and Steven Whitney. The second line is led by Kevin Hayes and Bill Arnold. The offense would receive even higher marks if not for a lack of scoring depth. The third and fourth lines have not even really broken the scoring sheet.

The defense has been very solid, even after losing Brian Dumoulin, Tommy Cross and Edwin Shea from last year's team. Freshman Michael Matheson is one of the best rookie defenders in the NCAA. Patrick Wey, Teddy Doherty, Patch Alber, Isaac McLeod and Colin Sullivan have all played in every game, as well.

Parker Milner has been the only goaltender to see any action. He has posted very respectable numbers, but has let in some soft goals that he would like to have back. Yet, his numbers from the end of last season and the beginning of this year are off the charts. 

What can be said about this coaching staff that has not already been said? Not much, but to re-affirm the notion that there is no better staff in the country. Jerry York  tied Ron Mason for most wins all-time earlier this month and lays claim to 5 NCAA Championships and numerous Hockey East Regular Season and Tournament Championships. The Eagles usually soar highest down the stretch so no reason to believe this team won't be even better.

Offense: A

Defense: A

Goaltending: A-

Coaching: A

Overall: A

2. New Hampshire

The Wildcats program has been remarkably consistent over the past two decades since Dick Umile took over and got the ball rolling. Multiple runs of 20+ wins seasons and NCAA Tournament appearances has highlighted the past two decades. The one thing missing has been that elusive national title. No one is predicting one this season, but UNH fans have to be pleasantly surprised with a number one ranking, even if only for one week, following last year's out of character 6th place finish.

The offense has been led by Kevin Goumas with eight goals and 16 assists. Grayson Downing, Austin Block, Nick Sorkin, John Henrion, Dalton Speelman and Greg Burke round out an offense that is capable of scoring from different lines.

The defense is led by two multi-dimensional players in Trevor van Riemsdyk and Connor Hardowa. The rest of the defense has been steady for the most part. The one area of concern is the periodic lapses on the back end.

The goaltending has been sensational. Casey DeSmith already has four shutouts on the season, boasting a .939 save percentage to go with his 1.82 GAA. In the one weekend where he struggled, backup Jeff Wyer came on in relief to backstop a win at Denver.

Dick Umile has to get credit for engineering the turnaround this season with largely the same cast as a year ago. His critics point to the lack of hardware, but in reality he has run a consistently good NCAA Tournament caliber team year after year, and this year looks no different.

Offense: A

Defense: A

Goaltending: A

Coaching: A

Overall: A

3. Boston University

The Terriers have gotten off to an acceptable start, considering the youth of the squad, especially in goal. Both freshmen goaltenders have had a rocky outing, but both have showed they are capable of leading BU well into March.

The offense has been led by Cason Hohmann and Wade Megan. When watching the Terriers skate, one can easily notice the skill of the forwards. Look for Danny O'Regan, Evan Rodrigues or Matt Nieto to pick their game up a level in the second half.

The defense has been led by sensational freshman Matt Grzelcyk. The Charlestown native and Boston Bruins draft pick has been solid at both ends of the ice, and is currently third in the team scoring list with two goals and ten assists. Garrett Noonan's play has been solid as well, earning the respect of his coaching staff to give him an "A" on his sweater.

Freshmen goaltenders Matt O'Connor and Sean Maguire have .931 and .930 save percentages, respectively. As long as they do not hit a wall, the Terriers are in good hands between the pipes.

Jack Parker's team has faced a tough early season schedule, two at North Dakota, three with BC and two with UNH. He has guided them through that stretch and has an overall winning percentage of .667. BU has been known to have a little spark in their steps come Beanpot time. Look for an even better grade report come the end of the season.

Offense: B

Defense: B+

Goaltending: B+

Coaching: B

Overall: B+

4. Providence

Nate Leaman's club is a very young, freshman-laden group. The Friars program is certainly heading in the right direction with one of the best regarded "up and coming" coaches in the nation.

Freshman goaltender Jon Gillies certainly deserves the highest marks, coming in with a .928 save percentage. The Calgary draft pick is currently off at the World Juniors. Leaman will look to the South Portland, ME native to ride throughout the second half.

Up front, the offense doesn't have a point per game producer, but the scoring by committee approach has worked fairly well so far, averaging just under three goals per game. Junior Derek Army and senior Tim Schaller currently are tied for the team lead with 11 points. However, if PC is going to keep home ice, they must have their most talented players - albeit freshmen - step up. Mark Jankowski, Paul de Jersey and Noel Acciari are the rookie trio who have potential to carry this program to the next level.

The defense certainly has its holes, but freshman John Gilmour has been a steadying force on the blueline. Senior Alex Velischek has been consistent as well, but some of the other upperclassmen have been mistake prone.

Nate Leaman is trying to re-build this once proud program back to where it was in the 1980s under Lou Lamoriello. He has a long way to go, but with his current crop of freshmen he is certainly making good progress. After leading PC to a quarterfinals upset last year, he has done a good job of steering the team in the right direction this fall.

Offense: B

Defense: B-

Goaltending: A

Coaching: A-

Overall: B+

5. Vermont

Vermont is off to a better start than a year ago, but that is not saying much. The Catamounts are still struggling to score goals, but have eked out some wins by playing strong defense and getting above average goaltending from freshman Brody Hoffman.

The offense has started to come around the last two games, scoring five against St. Lawrence and four at Providence. Up front, UVM will get a boost when Connor Brickley and Colin Markison return from injury, which could happen in the next few weeks. Chris McCarthy currently leads the team in scoring with 13 points.

The defense is young with two freshmen getting significant minutes and only one senior dressing. UVM really tries to clog the neutral zone and keep chances to the outside. It is certainly a recipe for boring hockey, but the defense has tightened up significantly compared to a season ago.

Freshman goaltender Brody Hoffman has played well with a .911 save percentage. He replaced Rob Madore, who after a spectacular first couple of years, fell on hard times. The Wilkie, Saskatchewan native could possibly be the key to UVM remaining a playoff caliber team in the second half.

Offense: C-

Defense: C-

Goaltending: B

Coaching: C

Overall: C

T-6: Merrimack

When you think how much talent Merrimack has lost over the past few seasons, it is remarkable for a program of its stature that the Warriors are .500 in conference play at the break. Merrimack's list of losses include Stephane Da Costa, Chris Barton, Joe Cucci, Jesse Todd, Ryan Flanigan and Jeff Velleca on offense and Karl Stollery and Joe Cannata on defense and in goal. So Merrimack's standing is really a testament to the coaching ability of Mark Dennehy.

Mike Collins has been the spark on offense with nine goals and ten assists. Josh Myers got off to a hot start, but has cooled down. The offense will need some other guys to step up in order to keep the three goals-a-game pace.

The defense has stepped up into the offense nicely. Second year captain and junior Jordan Heywood is tied for second on the team with nine points. However, he has made some uncharacteristically bad turnovers and mistakes. Along with him, Brendan Ellis, Kyle Bigos and Dan Kolomatis, the Warrior defense certainly is capable of holding down the fort.

Both goaltenders have had their highs and lows, but overall Rasmus Tirronen and Sam Marotta have done admirably well in replacing program leader Joe Cannata in net. Warrior fans should be confident that one or both can get the job done in the second half.

The coaching staff deserves a ton of credit for keeping the Warriors in the thick of the home ice race, especially with all the talent that left North Andover. Mark Dennehy used a lot of the non-conference games to experiment and see what worked and what didn't. Merrimack's second half is tough, but with Dennehy in the mix, that gives the Warriors an edge over some of their nearest competitors.

Offense: B

Defense: B-

Goaltending: B

Coaching: A-

Overall: B

T-6: UMass-Amherst

The Minutemen have been extremely inconsistent, being one of only two teams to knock off New Hampshire, yet losing some games that are inexplicable. First year coach John Micheletto's team is a tough read right now based on the performance of the last few weeks.

Up front, Branden Gracel, Rocco Carzo and Steven Guzzo are three top scorers, which would have been mind boggling to consider going into the season. While those three have emerged, Conor Sheary and Michael Pereira have regressed so far this year. If all five can get on track, the Minutemen might have something cooking.

Defensively, Conor Allen is one of the better blueliners in the league with four goals and six assists. Joel Hanley has also been a steadying presence with three goals and six assists. 

Goaltending is the biggest question mark, heading into the season. Sophomore Kevin Boyle emerged as the clear cut number one after the first month and a half, but the past four games have been disastrous. The success or failure of the second half could hinge on the play of Boyle.

Coaching is difficult to judge after only a few months, but Micheletto has proven he can get his teams up for the big games, judging on close calls with BC and upset win over UNH. However, bad losses to Colgate and this current stretch where the team is 1-4-1 leaves more questions than answers.

Offense: B-

Defense: B

Goaltending: C+

Coaching: C

Overall: C

T-8. UMass-Lowell

The River Hawks got off to a brutal start, in part due to a brutal early season schedule that included three games against UNH and two against BC. A trip out west to face perennially strong Colorado College and Denver didn't help.

Up front, it was clear the loss of Matt Ferreira and David Vallorani was more crucial than a lot of people expected. It took a while for Scott Wilson to rebound into last year's form. The Penguins draft pick will need to continue his climb up the scoring charts. Riley Wetmore and Derek Arnold have also gotten off to disappointing starts while Joseph Pendenza and Josh Holmstrom have been pleasant surprises.

The defense has been the biggest issue so far, albeit against tough competition. UML will have to clamp down on the blueline and avoid the costly turnovers and undisciplined play that hurt in the first half.

Doug Carr has also been a disappointment in net for Norm Bazin's club. The junior, coming off an unbelievable sophomore campaign, has a .893 save percentage in conference games. Freshman Connor Hellebuyck has a .939 save percentage and two shutouts in a row going into the break. Expect Carr to be pushed by the rookie and the goaltending to improve dramatically in the second half.

Bazin and the coaching staff had to battle a tough schedule and has gotten UML through it without being too far down to recover. An easier second half schedule and games in hand should help UML climb right up the standings in the second half. A sixth place finish should be the worst UML does.

Offense: C

Defense: C+

Goaltending: B-

Coaching: B-

Overall: C+

T-8. Northeastern

The Huskies started off 2-0 with home wins over Merrimack and top ranked Boston College. It has been all downhill since then, including a goaltending controversy, players leaving the program and recruits de-committing to go with the ugly record on the ice.

Up front, freshman Kevin Roy is the lone bright spot with seven goals and six assists. Vinny Saponari is second with 11 points and Ludwig Karlsson has piped in five goals. Other than that, the offense has a serious lack of depth, which will only increase with the departure of Joseph Manno and Cam Darcy.

Defensively, the Huskies are very weak, turnover-prone and lacking in Hockey East level talent on the blueline. The only defender that would be coveted by other league teams is Colton Saucerman.

In goal, Chris Rawlings and Bryan Mountain have respectable statistics with .924 and .918 save percentages, respectively. However, that doesn't begin to tell the story. The pair have given up some seriously soft goals which has killed momentum and deflated the team.

Jim Madigan's stock is dropping by the day. The former Huskies player was out of coaching for nearly two decades, having worked in the Development Office at NU and doing some scouting. He might still have an eye for talent, but he clearly cannot develop talent or grasp the x's and o's necessary to coach in this league. The players leaving school and recruits de-committing, both show this theory is widely accepted throughout hockey circles.

Offense: D-

Defense: D+

Goaltending: C

Coaching: D-

Overall: D+

10. Maine

The Black Bears are off to one of the worst starts in school history in almost every possible category, whether it is wins or losses overall, conference record or home record.

The offense clearly misses the departed Brian Flynn and Spencer Abbott as well as Matt Mangene. Joey Diamond, Mark Anthoine, and Kyle Beattie are better players than their numbers currently indicate. Injuries have also hurt the Black Bears. Devin Shore leads the offense with a goal and six assists for seven points. Fellow freshmen Will Merchant and Ryan Lomberg have shown flashes of skill, but haven't yet gained the knack for finding the back of the net.

The defense has given up 30 shots a game, a troubling statistic to be sure, but the blame cannot be placed solely on the blueliners. The Maine defense ranks 7th in the conference, which would have led to a few more wins had the offense not been so inept. Mark Nemec has been his usual stay-at-home solid presence while freshman Ben Hutton has displayed skill at both ends of the ice. Untimely breakdowns and bad turnovers have led to some odd man rushes for the opposition.

In goal, junior Martin Ouellette has taken over Dan Sullivan's number one job, having come on strong. The Columbus draft pick has a .915 save percentage, and his goals against average is better than either of his cohorts by a goal.

Tim Whitehead's time has come in Orono. It truly is as simple as that. He took over for the legendary Shawn Walsh and with capable assistants like Grant Standbrook, he kept the engine running temporarily. However, he has now shown a clear inability to recruit or manage in game situations without Standbrook. It should be easy to recruit at Maine with the amazing tradition and atmosphere of the Alfond, but he has failed to recruit consistently. Sure, he has recruited some guys who have made it to the pro ranks, but not consistently enough, and the supporting cast just isn't there.

Offense: F

Defense: C

Goaltending: C

Coaching: F

Overall: D-