April 27, 2004
10 For '05: The Questions

We're only three weeks removed from the 2004 national championship game, but here at Inside College Hockey we can't resist casting our gaze toward the future. A lot can change between now and the drop of the puck in October, but that doesn't stop our 10 For '05 feature.

We already took an early look at the top 10 teams headed into next season and 10 candidates for the Hobey. Today we wrap things up with a look at 10 burning questions on our minds as we head to next year.

1. Who will be the most exciting newcomer next season?

Well, we can’t wait to see a fresh face out of western Pennsylvania named Robert Morris. The Colonials embark on their first season of Division I hockey in 2004-05, a welcome addition given the programs that have disbanded over the course of the last two years. Obviously, coach Derek Schooley won’t have a powerhouse right away but if he can lure some of the local talent to Robert Morris – Pittsburgh area products include former Ohio State players Mike Betz and R.J. Umberger, Harvard’s Dylan Reese, Mike Handza of Denver and ex-St. Cloud State star and current Penguin standout Ryan Malone – he’ll be in good shape.

2. Who are six guys ready to make the leap to stardom?

Here at Inside College Hockey, we loved Steve Saviano from UNH. Not just because of the way he played, but also because he made us look like, as one coach called us, “prophets.” We had a feeling that he’d go from very good player to superstar in his senior season. We expect similar progressions from this group of players, none of whom was an all-league player this season:

G: Bobby Goepfert, Providence
D: Matt Carle, Denver
D: Drew Bagnall, St. Lawrence
F: David Booth, Michigan State
F: Brett Sterling, Colorado College
F: Stephen Werner, Massachusetts

3. How about a few non-tournament teams ready to make the leap?

The two potential surprise teams we mentioned in our 10 Teams for ’05 head this list: UMass Lowell and Northern Michigan.

The River Hawks were ridiculously young last season, but they made great strides—especially the sophomore class led by Elias Godoy, Ben Walter and Andrew Martin. Those guys will be juniors and real leaders on Blaise MacDonald’s team next year. They also add some talent, led by Niagara transfer Jeremy Hall (eligible at midseason), while only losing one player.

In the CCHA, Northern Michigan went 11-5-3 to close out the season and knocked a surging Michigan State team out of the CCHA Super Six – again. Next year, Walt Kyle’s third behind the Wildcat bench, could be the year when they take that next step. Tuomas Tarrki had a playoff performance that showed he should be ready to take over in goal. Craig Kowalski, who seemed like he was in Marquette longer than a 1980s Kansas basketball player, has graduated.

Let’s throw one more in this mix, from a surprising source: College Hockey America. Bemidji State was the CHA’s best team for most of the season, but lost in the conference title game to Niagara. The Beavers will have the talent to make up for that disappointment in 2004-05. Their top six scorers return, although they’ll have to overcome the loss of all-league defenseman Bryce Methven and goaltender Grady Hunt.

4. Your early top 10 had some surprising omissions. Who are some teams you can’t count out in 2004-05?

Certainly the defending champions fit the bill here. Denver didn’t make the cut because of the guys they lose – led by the heroic trio of Ryan Caldwell, Adam Berkhoel and Connor James. But if one team taught us not to count them out in 2003-04, it certainly was the Pioneers. They’ve got two big things going for them: head coach George Gwozdecky’s ability to get the most out of his team, and his staff’s ability to bring talent to Magness Arena. Young talent like Matt Carle, J.D. Corbin, Glenn Fischer and the incoming Paul Stastny will headline the Pioneers in the absence of this year’s seniors.

Another easy team to overlook is New Hampshire, which loses its two most important players in Steve Saviano and Mike Ayers. Here’s the thing, though: the Wildcats seem to lose their best players every year, and every year there’s a guy like Saviano (or Lanny Gare or Jason Krog before him) who turns in a monster senior season. It wouldn’t be a stretch if that guy was Sean Collins next year, although the smart money might be on 21-goal-scorer Preston Callander. Most important for UNH will be improved defensive play – if they get that, the Wildcats will be in the thick of the Hockey East title race (yet again).

5. Who are some teams that could backslide in 2004-05?

The prime candidates here are teams that aren’t regulars among the conference contenders, but produced surprising results in 2003-04. With those criteria, our eyes turn toward Colgate, Miami and Holy Cross.

Colgate doesn’t have much turnover this fall, with only five players lost to graduation. The big change occurs behind the bench, as Don Vaughan returns to the head coaching role and Stan Moore steps back as an assistant. More importantly, everything seemed to go right for the Raiders in 2003-04, at least until the ECAC semifinal. That included career years from several players – among them Jon Smyth up front and Steve Silverthorn in goal – something they'll need to repeat for the Raiders to live up to increased expectations.

Miami welcomed some fantastic freshmen last fall, and has another good group coming in. But what could trip up the RedHawks is the loss of three offensive leaders – Hobey finalist Derek Edwardson, Mike Kompon and Greg Hogeboom.

Holy Cross has some work to do if the Crusaders want to return to the NCAA Tournament. Their best players – Greg Kealey, Jeff Dams and R.J. Irving – all graduated, which could be too much to hold off a Mercyhurst team that seems poised for a big year.

6. What coaches need to produce results in 2004-05?

With only one job vacancy this off-season, the potential for wholesale changes at this time next season is quite high. Situations to watch in 2004-05 include (in alphabetical order):

• Harvard – Mark Mazzoleni salvaged a disappointing regular season by guiding the Crimson to the ECAC playoff championship. There’s still a formidable array of talent at Harvard, and another .500 effort won’t be tolerated.

• Lake Superior State: Frank Anzalone likely wouldn’t have been back this season, but cash-strapped Lake Superior State couldn’t afford to buy out the final year of his contract. Barring a miraculous turnaround, it won’t be an issue this time next year.

• Michigan State: With all but two players returning from last year’s team, the Spartans will be the CCHA’s best outfit not clad in maize and blue. It’s doubtful Rick Comley will get dismissed, but expectations for 2004-05 are justifiably high and the natives are restless.

• Nebraska-Omaha: The Mavericks have been beset by numerous player defections over the past two seasons. Some attribute that to coach Mike Kemp’s edgy style. UNO will be hard pressed to finish higher than 11th in the CCHA next year.

• Northeastern: If Bruce Crowder spends any more time on the hot seat, he’s going to have to invest in a pair of Kevlar pants. He’s another coach at the end of his contract. What will he have to do to keep his job? Not sure, but qualifying for the Hockey East playoffs would be a start.

• Providence: Paul Pooley has lured some decent talent to Providence over the years, but it’s rarely translated to on-ice success. With BC, Maine and UNH entrenched in Hockey East’s upper division and Massachusetts and UMass Lowell on the rise – and let’s not forget about Boston U. – these are tenuous times for the Friars’ head coach.

7. What’s a roster of six guys any coach would love to have on his team?

George Gwozdecky told his team before the national semifinals in Boston that he wouldn’t trade any player on his team for any other player in the country. That doesn’t mean that coaches don’t love the talent of players like Junior Lessard or Ben Eaves, but here’s what they really covet – heart-and-soul types who do the dirty work, never take a shift off, and get better every day. Denver was full of those guys, and so is this list. They may not have the natural gifts of a Lessard or Eaves, but this group works for everything they get, and you’ll never hear them complain:

G: Jordan Sigalet, Bowling Green
D: Cleve Kinley, UMass Lowell
D: Andy Schneider, North Dakota
F: Stephen Gionta, Boston College
F: Brendan Bernakevitch, Harvard
F: Mike Lalonde, Michigan State

8. What would an NHL labor impasse mean for the college game?

A lot of things, but the most intriguing outcome might be the chance for greater exposure. Without the NHL, regional sports networks would be looking for ways to fill the programming void. Perhaps more exciting is the possibility that ESPN could turn to college hockey as an alternative, which is not as far-fetched as one might think. All in all, more games on cable and/or satellite may not only lead to a growing fan base, but would help to remove the regionalization that divides the nation’s college hockey fans.

9. Would the lockout keep college kids from turning pro?

One would think so, but there are two factors that may entice underclassmen to make the leap. First, a lockout would force many teams to option younger players to the American Hockey League, which in turn would make the AHL the world’s best developmental league. Second is a scenario posited on a recent “Hockey Night in Canada” telecast by respected analyst John Davidson, who said that in the event of a lockout, NHL coaches could opt to work with players in the minors, quite a benefit for a young player learning the pro game.

10. Who are some guys who will make us proud at the NHL level next year?

This space is reserved for players like John-Michael Liles and Tom Preissing, both of whom stuck with the parent club right out of training camp, or Michigan's Jed Ortmeyer, who was summoned from the minors midway through the season and never went back.

• Thomas Pöck, New York Rangers: The moment he debuted with the Blue Shirts in March, the former Umass standout became the Rangers' top offensive threat from the blue line. That's as much of a credit to Pöck's talent as it is to the sorry state of affairs with Manhattan's hockey club.

• Junior Lessard, Dallas Stars: Maybe it's not a reach to predict that the reigning Hobey Baker Award winner will transition smoothly to the NHL (although you might want to ask Peter Sejna what he thinks). And sure, the Stars have a collection of all-stars at forward. Unfortunately, with guys like Arnott, Val Bure, Corson, Guerin and Turgeon up front, it's the Campbell Conference all-stars. Dallas' first-round exit from this year's playoffs likely signals the start of the youth movement.

• Zach Parise, New Jersey Devils: With three Stanley Cups in the last decade, one can argue that the Devils have been the NHL's top franchise during that time. Still, as good as Martin Brodeur is in goal his job becomes much easier if his teammates can score more than 2.6 goals per game. New Jersey can definitely use some scoring pop behind its top line of Elias, Gomez and Gionta. You think a finisher like Jamie Langenbrunner would benefit from playing on a unit with Parise?

• Chris Kunitz, Mighty Ducks of Anaheim: Kunitz was expected by Anaheim brass to make the parent club this season, but was dispatched to the team's AHL affiliate in Cincinnati following a disappointing training camp. Kunitz got off to a slow start in Cincinnati but finished strong, closing the regular season with 19 goals and 44 points in just 59 games in addition to six assists in 21 games with Anaheim. He also showed some grit, earning 101 penalty minutes, and should be ready to make an NHL splash in the fall.

• Ryan Caldwell, New York Islanders: Of the Isles' six regular defensemen, four (Adrian Aucoin, Eric Cairns, Roman Hamrlik and Kenny Jonsson) will be 30 or older at the start of the 2004-05 season, Janne Niinimaa will be 29, and the team's farm system doesn't boast a blue-chip defensive prospect. Enter Caldwell, the Denver captain who proved his mettle by playing with two wonky knees during the last two months of the season with no noticeable drop-off in his game. He may require a year of seasoning in Bridgeport, but Caldwell is solid defensively, exhibits an offensive flair and makes smart decisions. We can't wait to see him when he's healthy.

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