The meaningless exhibition games are over and Hockey East’s regular season gets started Friday night. Last year marked the first time in the league’s 30-year history that no Boston team reached the tournament semifinals, as UMass-Lowell, Providence, New Hampshire and newcomer Notre Dame were the four teams at TD Garden, with Lowell ultimately capturing its second straight tournament title. This year could be very different, as Boston College, Boston University and Northeastern all have enough talent to end up at the Garden, while Lowell, UNH and Notre Dame could all take a step back given what they lose. Providence, meanwhile, enters the season as the favorite to win the league.
Here is our preseason ranking, with some background on each team:
Jon Gillies and the Friars are the favorites to win Hockey East this season. (Providence College Athletics)
Last year, the Friars reached the Hockey East semifinals for the third straight year and made the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2001. This year, they’re poised to take the next step. Their 97 returning goals are the most in the conference, as they bring back their top five scorers and 11 of their top 13. Leading the way is senior center Ross Mauermann, who broke out to the tune of 19 goals and 17 assists last season. Junior goaltender Jon Gillies is also back after posting a .931 save percentage in each of the last two seasons. If there’s a question mark for the Friars, it’s on defense, where they lose minutes-eaters Steven Shamanski and Kevin Hart to graduation. Look for junior John Gilmour (a Flames draft pick) and sophomore Anthony Florentino (a Sabres draft pick) to be two of the leaders on the back end.
2. Boston College
The defending Hockey East regular-season champs lose more offense than anyone (56.1 percent of last season’s scoring to be exact), highlighted by the departure of the superstar trio of Johnny Gaudreau, Kevin Hayes and Bill Arnold. The Eagles won’t come anywhere close to last year’s 4.10 goals per game, but the good news is that they aren’t going to give up too many goals either. Sophomore goalie Thatcher Demko is back, and junior Michael Matheson leads what might be the best defensive corps in the country. Sophomores Steve Santini, Ian McCoshen and Scott Savage are all looking to build on strong freshman campaigns, and newcomer Noah Hanifin could be a top-three pick in next year’s NHL draft. As for the offense, sophomores Ryan Fitzgerald (a Bruins draft pick), Austin Cangelosi and Adam Gilmour will all be thrust into bigger roles, and freshman Alex Tuch (a first-round pick of the Wild) will be relied upon as well.
3. Boston University
The Terriers’ first season under David Quinn was a tough one, as they went 10-21-4 and finished ninth in the league. Season two should be much better, though. Up front, Danny O’Regan, Evan Rodrigues and Cason Hohmann are all capable of big bounceback seasons after seeing their point totals drop significantly from 2012-13 to 2013-14. Robbie Baillargeon looks to improve on a rookie season that saw him lead the team in scoring, and Jack Eichel — a likely top-two pick in next year’s NHL draft — is one of the most highly-touted freshmen in college hockey history. Defense is the biggest question mark here, but Bruins draft pick and team captain Matt Grzelcyk is back after missing the second half of last season with a shoulder injury, and freshmen John MacLeod (a second-round pick of the Lightning), Brandon Hickey (a third-round pick of the Flames) and Brandon Fortunato should help as well.
The Huskies are going to score this season, which gives them a little more certainty than most Hockey East teams. Junior Kevin Roy (19 goals, 27 assists) could be a Hobey Baker candidate, and Mike Szmatula (15 goals, 24 assists) was the league’s highest-scoring freshman last year. Dalen Hedges, John Stevens and Zach Aston-Reese will all look to build on stellar rookie seasons as well. The Huskies’ defense is once again a question mark, though. They gave up 34.57 shots per game last season and relied far too heavily on goaltender Clay Witt, who returns as a fifth-year senior. When his unsustainably high save percentage started to regress late last season, the Huskies collapsed, ultimately bowing out in the Hockey East quarterfinals and missing the NCAA tournament. Junior Colton Saucerman and sophomore Matt Benning (a Bruins draft pick) should be fine, but the Huskies will need other defensemen to step up.
The Black Bears took a step forward in their first year under Red Gendron, but they wound up stumbling to the finish line and getting swept by Providence in the Hockey East quarterfinals. They’re probably not ready to take the next step, but they should be able to challenge for home ice this season. They have two of the league’s biggest stars in junior center Devin Shore (14 goals, 29 assists) and junior defenseman Ben Hutton (15 goals, 14 assists), and forwards Cam Brown, Blaine Byron and Brian Morgan and defensemen Dan Renouf and Eric Schurhamer all showed some promise as freshmen. The Black Bears’ biggest question is in goal, where they’ll have to find a replacement for Martin Ouellette, who played 92.6 percent of the team’s minutes last season.
The Catamounts won nine more games last year than the year before and made the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010. After playing good defense last year (fourth in Hockey East in goals against, third in shots against), they return five of their top six defensemen — including standout senior Michael Paliotta — while adding a potential top-pairing guy in BU transfer Alexx Privitera. The offense loses top scorer Chris McCarthy but returns Mario Puskarich, who posted 19 goals and 17 assists en route to winning Hockey East Rookie of the Year honors. Kyle Reynolds, who posted 20-plus points in both his freshman and sophomore seasons, is back after missing all of last season with a knee injury. In goal, the Catamounts return the tandem of Brody Hoffman (.925 save percentage) and Mike Santaguida (.912).
The River Hawks won their second straight Hockey East tournament title last season, but they could be in for a step back this year. They lose four of their top seven forwards, top defenseman Christian Folin, star goalie Connor Hellebuyck and sturdy backup Doug Carr. The defensive corps should still be solid with seniors Zack Kamrass and Jake Suter and sophomore Michael Kapla as its leaders, but offense and goaltending will be question marks. They’ll look to juniors Adam Chapie, A.J. White and Ryan McGrath to lead the way up front, while junior Kevin Boyle and freshmen Jeff Smith and Olli Kalkaja will battle it out in goal.
8. Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish are looking to build on a Hockey East debut season that saw them reach the conference semifinals and make the NCAA tournament, but they could have a tough time this year. They lose three of their top six forwards, three of their top four defensemen and goalie Steven Summerhays, who played 97 percent of the team’s minutes last season. On the bright side, forwards Vince Hinostroza (8 goals, 24 assists), Mario Lucia (16 goals, 15 assists) and Sam Herr (14 goals, 13 assists) are all back, as is defenseman Robbie Russo, a two-way threat who missed the second half of last season for academic reasons.
9. New Hampshire
The Wildcats reached the Hockey East championship game last year, but they’re longshots to get back there this season. They lose four of their top seven forwards and three of their top four defensemen, and if that wasn’t bad enough, three-year starting goalie Casey DeSmith is suspended indefinitely — possibly for the season — after getting arrested on domestic violence charges in early September. That leaves freshman Adam Clark and unproven junior Jamie Regan between the pipes. The offense will turn to seniors Matt Willows (18 goals, 21 assists) and Grayson Downing (10 goals, 12 assists) and sophomore Tyler Kelleher (5 goals, 11 assists) to lead the way, while junior Brett Pesce is the No. 1 guy on the blue line.
The Warriors scored the fewest goals in the league last year (1.88 per game), and losing top scorer Mike Collins to graduation won’t help. Their next seven highest-scoring forwards are all back, but none of them scored more than seven goals last season. They’re going to need some of those guys to find the back of the net a lot more this season, and sophomore Chris LeBlanc (a Senators draft pick) might be the most likely candidate to lead the way. At the other end of the ice, Dan Kolomatis — a steady senior and the team captain — and the rest of the defense will need to make up for the losses of Jordan Heywood and Brendan Ellis, and Rasmus Tirronen will need to do better than last year’s .908 save percentage.
The Minutemen ranked 10th in the league in both offense and defense last year, and they lose their top three forwards and top two defensemen. Their 34 returning goals are the fewest in the league, and they have just three players (Steven Iacobellis, Troy Power and Ray Pigozzi) who scored more than two goals last year. Goaltending is also a big question mark, as expected starter Steve Mastalerz had the worst save percentage in the league among qualifying goalies last year (.907). If there’s anything to be excited about, it’s Anaheim second-round pick Brandon Montour, but the offensive defenseman won’t arrive in Amherst until the second semester, reportedly due to a clearinghouse issue.
This will be the Huskies’ first season in Hockey East, and they could be in for a rude awakening. They tied for third in Atlantic Hockey last year, but Atlantic Hockey is no Hockey East. In their seven non-conference games last season, the Huskies got outshot by 19.86 shots per game. They will now be facing that level of competition on a nightly basis, and they’ll do so after losing their top three scorers to graduation. There are a couple reasons for optimism, though. After leading Atlantic Hockey in team defense last season, the Huskies return their top five defensemen — with Penguins draft pick Ryan Segalla the most notable of the group — as well as sophomore goalie Rob Nichols, who posted a .939 save percentage in 13 games last year.