Will the momentum of back-to-back 20-win seasons carry the University of Vermont into the NCAA tournament field this season? Is Norwich primed for another trip to the Division III Frozen Four?
What lies ahead for Middlebury now that veteran coach Bill Beaney has handed the reins to former player and assistant Neil Sinclair? And can St. Michael’s improve on a season that ended in the conference finals a year ago?
Those are the over-arching questions that loom large as the 2015-16 men’s college hockey season edges closer to opening. UVM begins a graduated start for area schools when it plays at Minnesota on Oct. 10 before returning to Gutterson Fieldhouse for a two-game set with Nebraska Omaha the following weekend.
Norwich opens on Oct. 30 at home against Nichols, while St. Michael’s first test is on the road Nov. 6 at the University of New England. Middlebury, which cannot begin formal practice until Nov. 1, will begin its season later in the month.
Here’s a look at what fans can look for on the ice this winter:
Kevin Sneddon begins his 13th season as UVM’s head man and has a hard time hiding his enthusiasm for what he believes this group of Catamounts can accomplish. Last year Vermont finished 22-15-4, reaching the 20-win level in consecutive seasons for only the third time in the program’s Division I history. Included in that record was a best-of-three upset of 9th ranked Boston College on the road in the Hockey East quarterfinals.
“Any time your team has some modest success in the playoffs, it helps the confidence level going into the next season,” Sneddon said. “We may have loftier expectations than maybe we’ve had the past few years, but we don’t dwell on anything that happened last year.”
Vermont must replace All-American defenseman Mike Paliotta, the team’s leading scorer who was signed by the Chicago Blackhawks last March before being traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets over the summer. Also gone are veteran defenseman Nick Luukko and goaltender Brody Hoffman, both of whom signed pro contracts.
But the picture brightens quickly after that, especially when Sneddon surveys his group of 10 juniors.
“That class is arguably our most talented and is certainly the nucleus of this team,” he said. “They have the experience now of knowing what it takes to win, both in the regular season and the playoffs. You can’t buy that.”
Brady Shaw (19 goals, 12 assists), Mario Puskarich (11 and 13), and Brendan Bradley (7 and 17) are the offensive linchpins of the juniors.
“I think we’re very deep up front and I feel really good about the speed, skill set and competitive nature of all our forwards,” Sneddon said.
Seniors Alexx Privatera (7 goals, 19 assists) and captain Yvan Pattyn lead a defensive corps that will be more balanced than a year ago, when Paliotta and Luukko routinely played more than 30 minutes a game.
Bulking up the team
The UVM coaching staff focused on bringing in more bulk in this freshman class and succeeded at both ends of the ice. Liam Coughlin (6-3, 209 pounds) and Brian Bowen (6-0, 221) should help quickly on the attack, while Mike Lee (6-0, 181) is expected to bolster the blue line.
“We’ve been able to add some size in our freshman class but how quickly they adapt to the speed of the game remains to be seen,” Sneddon said. “We are still a quick team, but we’ll be able to handle the physical side of things a little bit more than we have in the past couple of years.
“They way goals are scored now – getting traffic to the net – I think we’ll have the ability to compete for those loose puck more now. We’ll have the size to battle with some of those grinding teams.”
That leaves arguably the most critical position to address: goalie. Despite Hoffman’s departure, Vermont is in a promising position with the return of junior Michael Santaguida.
Because of injuries and then simply how seasons played out, Santaguida essentially split time with Hoffman the last two years. Santaguida played in 25 games in 2014-15 and led the national in most statistical categories for much of the winter. Now, he stands alone in net.
“The coaches gave me an incredible opportunity my first two years which most players don’t see,” he said. “I am really confident I have the experience and the tools necessary both mentally and physically to take this role and run with it.”
Mike McShane has raised the bar so high in his 21 years as Norwich’s head coach that only reaching the NCAA Division III quarterfinals last winter qualified as something of a disappointment. But the Cadets return most key components from a 25-4-1 team that finished fifth in the country.
Like Vermont, the heart of this Norwich team beats in its junior class (the Cadets will skate only one senior).
“This junior class has a lot of really good leaders in it,” said McShane, who has won three NCAA titles and made 11 trips to the Frozen Four at Norwich. “This team will have good speed up front and from an offensive point of view we’re going to be in good shape.”
Norwich returns its first line of Dean Niezgoda, Will Pelletier and Austin Surowiec, which teamed to score 42 goals with 48 assists last winter. The second line has co-captain Tyler Piacentini at one wing and Nick Pichette at the other, as he moves up a line from a year ago. Justin Charbonneau shifts to center from wing.
“Our first line produced last year and should be even better this season, and I am really excited about the potential of our second line,” McShane said. “We’d like our third line to be a little more offensive while we’re looking to the fourth line to be more of a true checking line.”
The Cadet losses came on defense, beginning with former Essex standout Bryce Currier, who is now an assistant coach. Freshmen Ben Hull and Dave Robertson should help quickly.
“That’s going to be the big question,” McShane said. “We lost three really good players who gave us size and experience.”
Norwich used a rotation of freshman Braeden Ostepchuk and sophomore transfer Ty Reichenbach in net through all of 2014-15, with Reichenbach logging the most minutes. McShane sees a similar two-headed approach this season.
The Cadets have a favorable schedule with most of their most challenging games coming at Kreitzberg Arena. Among the visitors will be defending national champion Trinity, along with Plattsburgh and Middlebury.
“This year I don’t think we’re the strongest team in the country, but that’s because Division III has become so tough,” McShane said. “Ten years ago there maybe six, seven schools that could win the national championship. Now you could name 20.
“But our goal is to win national championships. I think we’ve good chemistry – the locker room is really tight. We just need some key guys I won’t name to step up and if they do, we’ll be fine.”
There is a cliché in coaching that says you never want to be the man who succeeds a legend – you want to be the coach who follows the successor. But that did not deter Neil Sinclair from stepping up to become the Panthers’ head coach when Bill Beaney announced his retirement last March.
Beaney walked away as the winningest coach in NCAA Division III history with more than 600 victories. He won eight national championships during his 28 years at Middlebury. Now it is up to Sinclair to revive a Panther program that has struggled in recent seasons.
Middlebury finished 10-12-3 overall and 7-8-3 in the New England Small College Athletic Conference last year. After years of being the conference’s top dog, Amherst, Trinity, Williams and others have passed the Panthers.
No one will have a better handle on Middlebury’s history, culture and challenges than Sinclair, who was an All-American defenseman for the Panthers in the early 1990s and was the school’s interim coach in 2002-03 when Beaney took a year’s sabbatical. He returns to his alma mater after 10 years as Skidmore’s head coach, coaching the Williams’ women’s team for two seasons prior to that.
Sinclair is only the fourth men’s hockey coach at Middlebury since 1946, following Duke Nelson, Wendy Forbes and Beaney.
“There is a lot of success and a lot of history wrapped up with those men.” Sinclair said. “But we’re not necessarily looking back. We’re looking at how we are going to write the next chapter and embrace what Duke Nelson, Wendy Forbes and Coach Beaney stood for and built.”
One of the challenges for Middlebury has been the shift toward recruiting players out of the junior hockey ranks, rather than right out of high school or prep school. The Panthers have not followed that trend as heavily as many schools (roughly 90 percent of Norwich’s roster comes from junior hockey, for example). Their first year players are 18 or 19 years old, not 20 or 21.
“Junior hockey is a prevalent part of the game now and we’re wrestling with that in terms of finding the student-athlete at the junior level who is going to be a good fit at a private liberal arts college,” Sinclair said. “That’s a big charge because it’s not a large pool.”
That said, Sinclair thinks this Middlebury team can make some good things happen. It returns eight senior skaters and goaltenders Stephen Klein and Liam Moorfield-Yee. The top six scorers are back, led by Jake Charles and Evan Neugold.
“This is a veteran team that has been through some of the ups and downs,” Sinclair said. “These seniors want to establish a strong legacy for themselves in this next chapter of Middlebury hockey. Our goal is to be a top four team in NESCAC and challenge for the NESCAC title. I think that is a very real possibility for this group.”
Damian DiGuilian begins his fourth season leading the Purple Knights with a singular purpose – finding a way to win the Northeast 10 Conference playoffs. SMC’s season has ended in the conference title game the past two years.
St. Michael’s (9-16-2 overall, 5-12-1 in conference last year) lost four of its top six scorers from last season and one of the returnees is studying abroad for the first semester. That leaves Kevin Altidor (8 goals, 8 assists) as the Knights’ top gun.
The defense centers on Danny Divis and Stephen Inman while Michael Comitini has the inside track in goal. He has made 10 career starts and played well last season in losses to nationally ranked UMass-Boston and Babson.