Lack of scoring punch, team speed hurt Maine; Black Bears will build around solid freshmen

This story was published on March 11, 2008 on Page C1 in all editions of the Bangor Daily News

Injuries to vital point-producers and Maine’s inability to score consistently cost it a spot in the Hockey East men’s playoffs for the first time since the 1996-97 season when it was banned for violations that resulted in an NCAA-imposed ban from the NCAA tournament.

The valiant Bears went 5-1 in their last six games, but it was too little, too late. A 2-14-2 stretch in Hockey East play did them in.

The ninth-place Black Bears, 13-18-3 overall, 9-15-3 in Hockey East, set school records for being shut out (6) and for games in which they were held to one goal or less (13).

It wasn’t for lack of effort.

Maine’s inability to replace players who scored 67.7 percent of its goals in 2006-2007 reduced its margin for error.

A lack of team speed also hurt.

Turnovers, blown defensive zone coverages or soft goals would often spell defeat because the Bears weren’t able to compensate for those mistakes by scoring enough goals to offset them.

Maine held teams to two goals or less 19 times but went just 10-8-1 in those games.

The two forwards Maine could ill afford to lose to injury wound up getting hurt.

Senior Billy Ryan, the only returnee who scored more than eight goals a year ago (13) and the top returning scorer with 33 points, missed nine games with a stress fracture in his hip. He played the last six games hampered by the injury.

Maine went 1-7-1 in his absence.

Senior Keenan Hopson, the second leading returning scorer among the forwards with 22 points, missed six games with a separated shoulder.

Ryan finished with 6 & 10 in 25 games this year and Hopson had 3 & 11 in 28 games.

Junior Chris Hahn, who had four goals in his first 12 games, missed the next 12 games due to two injuries, and senior Wes Clark, this year’s leading scorer (10 & 11), missed four games.

“I don’t want to use injuries as an excuse. But we didn’t have the weapons to replace the players we lost,” said senior defenseman and captain Travis Ramsey.

They were often replaced with inexperienced forwards, primarily freshmen, who had their ups and downs as they made the transition to college hockey.

Maine coach Tim Whitehead pointed out the fact the freshmen received more playing time than anticipated “will help us down the line.”

“They should be good next year,” said senior right wing Rob Bellamy. “Obviously, they’ll be young, but the freshmen all gained experience.”

The speedy Bellamy (5 & 13), a physical force who became an offensive threat with his determined dashes down the wing, will be difficult to replace.

So will talented point-producing defenseman Bret Tyler (8 & 12) and the rock-solid Ramsey (4 & 8), who rarely made mistakes.

The playmaking abilities of Ryan, Hopson and Tyler will be sorely missed, especially on the power play.

Whitehead had considerable praise for the way the seniors persevered during a year full of adversity and how they led the team to a strong finish.

In looking ahead to next season, Maine will have to replace eight seniors who accounted for 50.6 percent of its goal production and 54.8 percent of its assists.

Six of its top seven scorers will leave, but it won’t be nearly as devastating as a year ago since 21 points led the team. Eight players had more than 21 a year ago.

The current freshman class will be the foundation for the future and Whitehead is excited about its potential.

“It’s a very deep class that has a little bit of everything,” he said.

In all likelihood, Maine will also have to compensate for the loss of junior goalie Ben Bishop, who will probably sign with his hometown St. Louis Blues of the NHL.

Bishop had a 1.60 goals-against average and a .947 save percentage over Maine’s last eight games.

That would likely leave the goaltending to incoming freshman Scott Darling, who is 24-6-2 with a 2.83 GAA and a .914 save percentage with Indiana in the U.S. Hockey League, and seldom-used junior Dave Wilson.

“Ben led us to the Frozen Four as a freshman,” said Whitehead.

Up front, freshmen Andrew Sweetland (8 & 9) and Tanner House (1 & 10) plus Hahn (6 & 4) could give the Bears a solid top line.

Freshmen Keif Orsini (3 & 2), Glen Belmore (1 & 3), Lem Randall (1 & 1) and Robby Dee (1 & 2) all played in at least 23 games and should take on more prominent roles next year.

Junior Jeff Marshall (5 & 6) flourished as a dependable role player.

Maine should get noteworthy contributions from redshirts Kevin Swallow, a Dartmouth College transfer, and Nick Payson, a freshman, who both practiced with the team.

Swallow had 22 points in 32 games at Dartmouth a year ago and should be on one of the top two lines, and Payson should bring a physical presence to the table.

In addition, sophomore David deKastrozza, who underwent season-ending knee surgery, could be useful as a grinder and penalty-killer.

Maine has some promising incoming freshmen in Swedish Under-17 and Under-18 player Gustav Nyquist, a speedy scorer; Spencer Abbott (42 & 41 in 48 games in the Ontario Provincial Hockey League), Joey Diamond (11 & 7 in 26 games in the USHL) and Brian Flynn (26 & 14 in 41 games) and Kyle Solomon (17 & 25 in 33 games) from the Eastern Junior Hockey League.

On the blue line, juniors Simon Danis-Pepin and Matt Duffy are poised to become among the better defensemen in the league.

Danis-Pepin (4 & 8) improved offensively and just needs to become more consistent in the defensive zone. Duffy (6 & 2), who also played forward, played some of his most consistent hockey at the end of the year.

Freshman Jeff Dimmen (2 & 4) had an outstanding first year and Josh Van Dyk (no points) finished strong. Gritty Mike Banwell (0 & 2) also showed promise.

Sophomore Brett Carriere (0 & 1) can play both defense and forward.

Maine should get immediate help on the blue line from incoming U.S. Under-18 team member Ryan Hegarty (6 & 10 in 42 games) and Diamond’s USHL teammate, Will O’Neill (4 & 16 in 49 games).

Both are hard-nosed defenders with good mobility.

Six-foot-3 Mark Nemec (1 & 8 in 43 games in the EJHL) has good feet for a big man.

There is nowhere to go but up next season.

Going from ninth to a top-four finish is unrealistic, but fifth or sixth is reasonable.

The offseason will be critical as the returnees must improve their quickness and strength.