ORONO – You don’t have to be a Rhodes Scholar to discover the question mark for the University of Maine men’s hockey team this season.
The Bears will have to replace players who produced 67.7 percent of their goals and 57.3 percent of their assists last season. Maine went 23-15-2 and made the Frozen Four for the fourth time in six years.
Seven of their top 10 scorers are gone and a 10-member freshman class, including seven forwards, will be counted upon to help fill the void.
The Maine players are optimistic they can compensate for the loss of players such as two-time All-American center Michel Leveille, All-Hockey East selections Josh Soares and defenseman Mike Lundin and Hockey East Rookie of the Year Teddy Purcell.
“We obviously lost a lot of guys but, every year, we have guys who step up and fill those roles,” said senior right wing Rob Bellamy.
“We have some returning players who haven’t gotten as much ice time in the past due to the great forwards that we’ve had, so they’re ready to get some [more] ice time. They’ve put up some points in their junior leagues and they’re ready to put up some points now,” said junior goalie Ben Bishop.
“The freshmen have a lot of speed and talent,” added senior center Keenan Hopson.
Maine, picked fourth in the preseason Hockey East coaches poll, shouldn’t have to score a lot of goals to win games.
Bishop is a two-time NCAA East Regional goalie who will enter the season with a career record of 42-17-4 to go with a 2.21 goals-against average and a .916 save percentage.
The Bears will also have the services of four defensemen who have at least 63 career games in seniors Bret Tyler (109) and Travis Ramsey (100) and juniors Matt Duffy (67) and Simon Danis-Pepin (63).
“Our teams have always been built around defense,” said Ramsey. “And we’ve always had great goaltending.”
Back-up Dave Wilson (2-6, 3.00, .899 a year ago) needs to emerge as a dependable backup who can spell Bishop, who suffered two injuries last year.
Both goalies are exceptional shooters and handlers of the puck and that has been a big aid to the defense corps.
That will be important if Maine uses the neutral-zone trap because opponents will try to dump the puck into the offensive zone and forecheck and Bishop and Wilson can clear it.
Shane Foley is the No. 3 goalie.
Senior left wing Billy Ryan (13 goals, 20 assists) is the leading returning scorer. He had 13 points (6 goals, 7 assists) in his last 13 games.
Ryan had off-season ankle surgery two summers ago which hampered the start of his 2006-2007 season.
He is healthy this season and will need to add a physical element to his game to complement his exceptional hands and stickhandling abilities.
Hopson (7 & 15), who was moved to defense in the playoffs, should be able to score at least 10-12 goals if he can improve his strength and physicality.
Ryan averaged just 1.9 shots on goal per game and Hopson averaged 1.5 so both need to shoot the puck more.
Bellamy (1 & 7) should score 6-10 goals while also providing his bone-rattling checks.
“I think we’re going to have a real gritty team,” said Bellamy. “We have a good crop of freshmen who can put the puck in the net and they’ll also go out and play the body every night. We lost guys like [Brent] Shepheard and [Josh] Soares who played the body, so we’ll need a little more of that.
“We’ll work hard every game and work the corners. We’ll produce goals that way,” added Bellamy.
“We should have a balanced attack,” said Bishop.
Senior center Wes Clark (8 & 5) is the second-leading returning goal scorer but will need to take his game up a notch as he should get more ice time.
He scored just twice in his last 18 games.
Juniors Chris Hahn (0 & 6) and Vince Laise (1 & 3) saw fourth-line duty with Clark last season and will have to battle for playing time.
Hahn didn’t register a point in his last 17 games and Laise went point-less in his last seven.
Sophomore David de Kastrozza (0 & 3) was a pleasant surprise and supplies a physical presence and useable skills. He could be an important third- or fourth-line center.
Junior Jeff Marshall can play both forward and defense but has to prove he’s worthy of ice time.
The freshman forwards bring a wide array of talent to the table. Five of them weigh at least 198 pounds.
Andrew Sweetland headlines the list of freshman forwards as he led the Maritimes Junior A Hockey League in scoring a year ago with a club-record 56 goals and 61 assists for the Amherst (Nova Scotia) Ramblers. He should make an immediate impact on the scoreboard.
Lem Randall and Keif Orsini are aggressive, hard-nosed forwards who will win loose pucks and punish opposing defensemen; Tanner House and Glenn Belmore are effective two-way players; Robby Dee was the top high school goal-scorer in Minnesota three years ago and Bangor’s Nick Payson will be a role player with some goal-scoring instincts.
Ramsey and Tyler will spearhead the defense corps. Ramsey (0 & 8) is a prototype reliable, stay-at-home defenseman and Tyler (6 & 20) is one of the league’s best offensive defensemen.
Duffy (5 & 5) has good offensive instincts and a great shot and the 6-foot-7 Danis-Pepin (2 & 4) can also be a point-producer, but both need to be more consistent defensively.
Freshmen Josh Van Dyk and Jeff Dimmen are point-producing defensemen and Mike Banwell is a hard-nosed blue-liner.
Sophomore Brett Carriere will challenge for playing time.
The special teams will take time to develop but Tyler, Ryan and Hopson are power-play veterans and Duffy has a good one-timer from the point. The penalty-killing should be respectable.
Maine will be hard-pressed to earn its 10th straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
But the freshmen are instilling a new enthusiasm and if the Bears can stay above water early, they should be significantly improved in the second half as the youngsters gain experience.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys who are itching to play. It’s fun to be in the locker room,” said Bishop.
Coach Tim Whitehead’s Black Bears open with an exhibition game against the U.S. Under-18 National Team next Saturday in Orono.
6 – U.S. Under 18 National Team (exhib.), 7 p.m.
12 – at Denver, 9:37 p.m.
13 – at Denver, 9:07 p.m.
19 – Mercyhurst, 7 p.m.
20 – Mercyhurst, 7 p.m.
26 – at Northeastern, 7 p.m.
27 – at Northeastern, 7 p.m.
2 – at Boston College, 7 p.m.
9 – Providence, 7 p.m.
10 – Providence, 8 p.m.
16 – at Merrimack, 7 p.m.
17 – at Merrimack, 7 p.m.
25 – Vermont, 2 p.m.
1 – New Brunswick (exhib.), 7 p.m.
8 – Merrimack, 7 p.m.
16 – at New Hampshire, 4 p.m.
28 – vs. Clarkson (Estero, Fla.), TBA
29 – vs. Cornell or UMass-Lowell (Estero, Fla.), TBA
4 – Northeastern, 7 p.m.
6 – RPI (at Portland), 2 p.m.
12 – Boston University, 7 p.m.
19 – at Providence, 7 p.m.
25 – Boston College, 7:30 p.m.
26 – Boston College, 7 p.m.
1 – at UMass-Lowell, 7 p.m.
2 – at Massachusetts, 7 p.m.
8 – New Hampshire, 7 p.m.
9 – New Hampshire, 7 p.m.
15 – at Boston University, 7:30 p.m.
16 – at Boston University, 7 p.m.
23 – Massachusetts, 7 p.m.
24 – Massachusetts, 4 p.m.
29 – at Vermont, 7:30 p.m.
1 – at Vermont, 7 p.m.
7 – UMass-Lowell, 7 p.m.
8 – UMass-Lowell, 7 p.m.