1. Boston College – Boston University saw the impact a good freshman class could have on a season last year when its two goaltenders, top-scoring forward and top-scoring defenseman were all first-year players. BC’s freshman class has the potential to have an even bigger impact than BU’s did last year, with five recruits drafted within the first four rounds of the NHL draft and two others who played with the United States National Training and Development Program U-18 team. Throw in Hobey Baker finalist Johnny Gaudreau, preseason first-team Hockey East defenseman Michael Matheson and a couple of highly-skilled seniors, and Jerry York has a chance to capture his third Hockey East regular season championship in the past four years.
2. University of Massachusetts-Lowell – It would be foolish to ignore what Norm Bazin and UMass-Lowell have done over the past two years. In 2010-11, the Riverhawks lost 25 games. Since then, the Bazin-run Lowell squad has lost 24 games over two seasons and made it to the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back seasons for the first time ever. This year’s team is not much different from last year’s, only losing captain Riley Wetmore to graduation and top-tier defenseman Chad Ruhwedel to a pro contract. Lowell will have four “second lines” of forwards again this year, and return the bulk of a solid defensive unit. Connor Hellebuyck will continue to build on his stellar freshman season, and the preseason No. 1 team in the country will likely make its third trip to the NCAA tournament in a row.
3. University of New Hampshire – UNH’s roster is not flashy, as there is only one player on the team that has been drafted into the NHL. The Wildcats, however, have strong college hockey players throughout the lineup, including its top scorer from last season Kevin Goumas and preseason All-Hockey East defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk. UNH led the league in team defense in conference games last season (2.15 goals-against per game), and was the best team on the penalty kill by far — killing 92.3 percent of the penalties it took. Expect captain Eric Knodel to once again head a strong defensive effort that leaves UNH among the top teams in Hockey East.
4. University of Notre Dame – Notre Dame is a bit of a wild card entering its first season in Hockey East. The Fighting Irish have perennially been among the top teams in the nation and are returning a talented group of senior forwards in Bryan Rust, Jeff Costello and T.J. Tynan. Add highly-touted sophomore Mario Lucia to the list, and Notre Dame is sure to have one of the best offenses in the league. A tough travel schedule coupled with a transition to a new league, however, are variables that could potentially make this a more difficult season for Jeff Jackson’s crew.
5. Boston University – BU can be among the top five teams in Hockey East as long as it stays healthy. The departures of Alexx Privitera and Sahir Gill this offseason leave the Terriers’ depth thin this year, so an injury to a key forward or defenseman would likely drop BU behind quality teams like Providence College or Merrimack College. The goaltending tandem of Sean Maguire and Matt O’Connor is an area of strength for BU, which will look for big contributions from a thin group of upperclassmen that features senior defenseman Garrett Noonan and junior forwards Cason Hohmann and Evan Rodrigues.
6. Providence College – The Friars success begins and ends with its goaltender, as last season’s Division I Hockey Commissioners’ Association Rookie of the Year Jon Gillies gives his team a chance to win every game it plays. In front of him, though, Providence did not have any studs in terms of goal scoring last season, as only three of its forwards had double-digit goal totals. Nonetheless, those three players are all returning for the Friars this season, as is the majority of Providence’s core group of players. If sophomores Mark Jankowski, Nick Saracino and Paul de Jersey continue to develop as offensive threats, the Friars could be looking at a deep postseason run this year.
7. Merrimack College – Similar to the way the Friars will rely heavily on Jon Gillies to win games, Merrimack will ask senior forward Mike Collins to carry a heavy load of the team’s offense this season. Collins was fifth in the league in scoring last season with 38 points, 14 of which came on the power play. The Warriors will also need a strong year from their goaltending one-two punch of Sam Marotta and Rasmus Tirronen, who no longer have 6-foot-5 mauler Kyle Bigos in front of them on defense.
8. University of Maine – Like BU, Maine get its first look at a new head coach this season. Red Gendron will have leading scorer Devin Shore back, which is a plus for him. He will also not have to deal with killing off Joey Diamond’s 147 penalty minutes from last season, which is also a plus. This looks, however, to be another rebuilding year for the Black Bears, who finished last season as the worst offensive team in Hockey East (2.03 goals per game). Goaltender Martin Oullette is a senior now and is a solid starter, but he is not the type of goalie that can carry a team out of the bottom-tier of the league.
9. University of Massachusetts – UMass is always a good enough team to make games close, but always finds itself toward the bottom of the league. Do not expect anything different this year, even with the team returning its top three forwards in Branden Gracel, Conor Sheary and Michael Pereira. Senior defenseman Joel Hanley will be a strong option on the blue line for the Minutemen, but there are too many questions at goaltender for them to have much success this season. Junior Steve Mastalerz, who had a 2.96 goals-against average and an .898 save percentage last season, is the only goaltender returning for UMass. Those numbers were both outside of the top 10 for goaltenders in the league, and show that the Minutemen need some stability in goal if they want to start winning.
10. University of Vermont – Coach Kevin Sneddon has some talented players to work with, like leading scorer Chris McCarthy and former second-round pick Connor Brickley. The Catamounts, however, have minimal offensive skill behind their first line and have several question marks along the blue line. Sophomore Brody Hoffman will be asked to move mountains again after a strong showing in his freshman season, but it will likely be another long year for fans at the Gutterson Fieldhouse.
11. Northeastern University – Kevin Roy is a great player, and Cody Ferriero can make things happen offensively. However, this year is primed to be another disappointing one for Jim Madigan and the Huskies, who still have defensive and goaltending question marks. Things just do not look good for Madigan, who has already rejected top recruit Michael Szmatula’s request to be released from his National Letter of Intent. Roy will win the Huskies some games, but it will not be many.