September 23, 2019

UMaine seeks return to lofty status Young Black Bears relishing challenge as season opens tonight in Alaska

Providence College defenseman Matt Taormina racked up 27 points last season.

When you look at the top returning scorers for their respective teams in Hockey East, that is the second lowest total.

The lowest total belongs to University of Maine defenseman Simon Danis-Pepin, who finished with 12 points.

Maine is the only team in Hockey East that lost its top six scorers and its starting goalie.

Nobody else in Hockey East lost more than two of its top six scorers from a year ago.

Maine is the youngest team in Hockey East and fifth youngest team in men’s college hockey with 19 freshmen and sophomores.

As a result, the Black Bears were picked to finish ninth by the league’s coaches.

Rightfully so.

Eighth-year head coach Tim Whitehead and his players are relishing the challenge.

They are determined to prove people wrong, to regain a healthy measure of respectability as they hope to begin an ascent to their usual perch among the nation’s elite.

“It’s not right not having Maine in the Final 16 [NCAA Tournament],” said freshman defenseman Ryan Hegarty. “We have to do this program justice and bring it back to the top as quickly as we can.”

Until last year’s ninth-place finish and omission from the eight-team Hockey East tournament, Maine had earned nine consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances.

Maine wound up 13-18-3 a year ago, 9-15-3 in Hockey East. The Bears open their season tonight against the University of Alaska-Anchorage in the Alaska Goal Rush tourney.

“Obviously, a lot of people are counting us out,” said senior left wing Chris Hahn. “But if you ask our players and our fans, we expect to finish higher than ninth place, for sure.”

“There’s no way we’re going to finish ninth,” insisted senior defenseman Matt Duffy.

If the Black Bears do surprise this year, it will be because their 12 newcomers made a dramatic impact and junior Dave Wilson or freshman Scott Darling were able to provide steady goaltending in spite of their inexperience.

There isn’t an elite player among the returnees. None of them has earned any kind of Hockey East postseason honor.

The Bears had three elite players in wingers Teddy Purcell and Andrew Sweetland along with goalie Ben Bishop but all left prematurely and signed pro contracts.

However, that doesn’t mean the returnees can’t have break-through seasons.

And that’s what it will require to get the Bears headed in the right direction.

“I think we’re going to be a lot more dynamic than people give us credit for. Our young guys have been impressive,” said senior right wing and co-captain Jeff Marshall. “And this is one of the tightest-knit groups I’ve seen since I’ve been here.”

The strength of the team will be its defense corps. It could be one of the most mobile groups of blue-liners they’ve had in 10 years.

The 6-foot-7 Danis-Pepin (4 goals, 8 assists last year) appears ready to be a top-level defenseman. He’ll get additional minutes.

The senior co-captain has evolved into a point-producer thanks to his increased confidence and strength. He has good offensive instincts.

Sophomore Jeff Dimmen (2 & 4) is a fluid skater who plays with grit and makes good decisions.

Duffy (6 & 2), who has also played some forward, has an exceptional one-timer and should rack up some points. He needs to play with more consistency, especially in the defensive zone.

Sophomores Josh Van Dyk and Mike Banwell received valuable playing time a year ago and should be ready to contribute more this season. Van Dyk has some offensive skills and Banwell is a useful stay-at-home defenseman.

Hegarty opened some eyes with his physical confrontation with Bear tough guy Rob Bellamy when his U.S. National Team Development Program Under-18 squad visited Maine for an exhibition game last season. He passes the puck well and his offensive abilities make him useful on the point on the power play. He also has a good shot.

Freshman Will O’Neill should make an immediate impact after playing for the Anderson Cup (regular season) and Clark Cup (tournament) champion Omaha Lancers in the U.S. Hockey League. He is a hard-nosed defenseman with offensive talents.

Six-foot-four freshman Mark Nemec has been a pleasant surprise, according to Whitehead.

Up front, the top three lines currently contain four freshmen and three sophomores.

Swift-skating freshman right wing Gustav Nyquist, a fourth-round draft pick of Detroit, could be Maine’s most dynamic forward and fellow freshman Spencer Abbott, a left winger, is a creative playmaker who is an adept passer. Sophomore center Tanner House (1 & 10) is a resourceful two-way player who should significantly improve his goal total although he isn’t a natural goal-scorer.

Freshmen center Kyle Solomon and left wing Brian Flynn have been impressive, according to Whitehead, and could provide scoring punch.

Senior left wing Hahn (6 & 4) is coming off his best season and will have a more elevated role. He is capable of doubling his goal output.

Sophomore right wing Lem Randall (1 & 1) will inherit Bellamy’s role as a punishing body checker; sophomore center Keif Orsini (3 & 2) is a versatile player who is healthy after battling a sore shoulder that required off-season surgery. Sophomore LW Robby Dee (1 & 2) is much stronger physically and that should be good for at least eight goals.

Freshman Theo Andersson from Sweden has a scoring touch and will get every opportunity to prove himself.

Marshall (5 & 6) and junior David deKastrozza (0 & 1) are effective third- or fourth-line defensive specialists and penalty-killers. DeKastrozza missed all but eight games with a knee injury in 2007-2008.

Redshirt freshman Nick Payson is a physical presence with skill; Dartmouth College transfer Kevin Swallow could be a key offensive contributor after he returns from an ankle injury; sophomore Glenn Belmore (1 & 3) is a resourceful all-around player and physical presence currently sidelined by a knee injury and junior Brett Carriere supplies depth up front after being converted from defense.

In goal, the 6-foot-6 Darling reminds you a lot of the 6-foot-7 Bishop and if he learns to economize his movement to take full advantage of his size, he could fill Bishop’s skates nicely. Wilson played in just four games last season and must be more consistent and avoid allowing soft goals.

Josh Seeley is the third- string goalie.

“They’re definitely capable but we’ve got to take care of them by taking care of second shots and making sure they can see all the shots,” said Marshall.


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