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Hockey East Season Preview: This really might be ‘the deepest the league has ever been’

10.07.13 at 9:22 am ET

If you go to enough Hockey East media days, you’ll realize that there are certain lines you’re bound to hear from coaches year after year.

“Anyone can beat anyone in this league.”

“There isn’t much of a difference between the first-place team and the last-place team.”

“This might be the deepest the league has ever been.”

“There’s more parity now than ever before.”

The first quote is obviously true. That’s how sports work. We see upsets all the time, and Hockey East is no different. Just last year, we saw conference champ Massachusetts-Lowell drop the season series against eighth-place Maine (Lowell went on to sweep Maine in the playoffs, though), and second-place Boston College lose games against each of Hockey East’s bottom three teams.

But the fact that the first quote is true doesn’t necessarily mean the second quote is true. Let’s face it: the worst teams really only have a chance of beating the best teams when the best teams are off their game. There’s a reason Lowell and BC ended up with significantly better records than Massachusetts and Northeastern last season — because Lowell and BC were significantly better teams. And barring something crazy, they’ll be significantly better teams again this year.

As for the third and fourth quotes, when you hear them every year, you start to wonder if coaches would say those things even if they didn’t actually believe them. The league can’t really get deeper every single year, can it? There can’t really be more and more parity every year, right?

While it’s hard to judge depth and parity from one year to the next, there’s no doubt that we have seen an increase in parity over the last decade-plus. Since 2001, nine of Hockey East’s 10 teams (we’ll leave Notre Dame out for now since this is its first year in the league) have reached at least one conference championship game. Northeastern is the only team that hasn’t, but the Huskies have still reached the semifinals at the TD Garden twice during that time.

And this increased parity isn’t a matter of the top teams regressing to the mean — if that were the case, Hockey East wouldn’t have four of the last six national champions. It’s a matter of other programs stepping up their game and being competitive every year rather than once every five or six years. In other words, the league has indeed gotten deeper.

Last year, Lowell became the first school other than BC, Boston University, Maine or New Hampshire to win the regular-season title. That was history in and of itself for the league, but the race that led to that title was perhaps even more indicative of how far Hockey East has come.

With two weekends left in the season, six teams still had a shot at the regular-season title. Three were usual suspects in BC, BU and UNH, but the other three were Lowell, Providence and Merrimack. Going into the final weekend, four of those teams (BC, UNH, Lowell and Providence) still had a chance. The way things worked out, we ended up with a de facto regular-season championship game between Lowell and Providence on the final night of the season.

It’s probably unrealistic to expect this year’s race for first to be as great as last year’s, but it’s absolutely realistic to think there could be just as many teams — if not more — vying for the title. Given how much returning talent there is on so many teams, this really might be the deepest the league has ever been.

For starters, those six teams — Lowell, BC, BU, UNH, Providence and Merrimack — that were in the race last season all look to be pretty strong again this year. And then there’s that whole adding Notre Dame thing. The Fighting Irish won the CCHA tournament title last year and return five of their top six scorers, led by third-round NHL picks Bryan Rust and T.J. Tynan and second-round pick Mario Lucia.

Lowell — coming off its first regular-season title, first conference tournament title and first Frozen Four appearance — returns 99 goals, more than anyone else in Hockey East. The River Hawks lose two of their top players (and leaders) in Riley Wetmore and Chad Ruhwedel, but bring back two of the league’s best forwards in Scott Wilson and Joseph Pendenza and one of its best defensemen in Christian Folin. Stud goalie Connor Hellebuyck — who posted an otherworldly .952 save percentage as a freshman — is also back.

BC loses two of its top three scorers, one of its top two defensemen, and its starting goalie, but as we know by now, Jerry York‘s teams don’t rebuild; they reload. Hobey Baker finalist Johnny Gaudreau is still there, as is two-way standout Bill Arnold and dynamic defenseman Michael Matheson. The Eagles also bring in the best recruiting class in the nation. Thatcher Demko is the country’s top-ranked goalie recruit and a potential first-round pick in 2014. Defensemen Ian McCoshen and Steven Santini were both second-round picks this year. Forwards Chris Calnan, Ryan Fitzgerald and Adam Gilmour are all NHL picks as well.

BU loses more scoring than anyone else in Hockey East (46.7 percent to be exact), but the Terriers still have enough talent to be in the hunt. Danny O’Regan, Evan Rodrigues and Cason Hohmann all broke the 30-point mark last season, and Garrett Noonan and Bruins draft pick Matt Grzelcyk are two of the best defensemen in the league. They’ll need guys like sophomore Sam Kurker and freshmen Robbie Baillargeon, Brendan Collier and Doyle Somerby (all NHL picks) to play big roles if they’re going to compete for a title, though. And not to bury the lead, but the biggest story for BU is the transition from 40-year bench boss Jack Parker to new coach David Quinn, who served as Parker’s associate head coach from 2004-2009 before moving on to an AHL head coaching job and most recently an assistant coaching job with the Colorado Avalanche.

UNH joins BU and Lowell as one of three teams to return three 30-point scorers. Kevin Goumas, the league’s fourth-leading scorer last season, is back. So are defensemen Trevor van Riemsdyk, who led Hockey East blue-liners with 33 points a year ago, and Brett Pesce, who was drafted in the third round this summer after a strong freshman season. Goalie Casey DeSmith put up solid numbers for the season last year, but showed the potential to be even better, especially early on. If he plays that way consistently, the Wildcats could be one of the best teams in the country.

Providence still has star goalie Jon Gillies in net, meaning the Friars should have a chance in every game they play. They’ll rely on a balanced scoring attack again, but it will be interesting to see if 2012 first-round pick Mark Jankowski can step up his game and emerge as a force to be reckoned with after an up-and-down freshman season. The Friars have plenty to be excited about off the ice as well, as the school recently completed a $14-million renovation to Schneider Arena.

Another school that just finished major renovations to its arena is Merrimack. And like Providence, the Warriors have a lot to like on the ice, as they lose just two starters from a team that was in the race for first until the second-to-last weekend of the season. Mike Collins, who finished second in regular-season league scoring, is back to lead the offense, and minutes-eater Jordan Heywood is back to lead the defense. The Warriors will need better secondary scoring if they hope to take the next step, though. Other than Collins, no Warrior had more than eight goals last season.

As for the other four teams in Hockey East — Vermont, Maine, UMass and Northeastern — Vermont and Maine probably have the best chance to challenge the top seven. Vermont returns 88 percent of its scoring, which is nice, but the caveat is that its offense ranked second-to-last in the league a year ago. Maine brings in Red Gendron — who served as an associate head coach for national champion Yale last year — to replace Tim Whitehead behind the bench. The Black Bears have a solid goalie in Martin Ouellette, but their offense, which ranked last in the conference last season, could hold them back again.

UMass and Northeastern have the most question marks. For starters, neither has anything even close to an established goalie, which could be very problematic. And to make matters worse, defense isn’t exactly a strength for either team. Both have forwards worth watching, though. Northeastern’s Kevin Roy is arguably the best pure scorer in the conference, while UMass’ Branden Gracel — a dependable two-way center — might be the league’s most underrated player.

Predicted order of finish:

1. Massachusetts-Lowell
2. Notre Dame
3. Boston College
4. Providence
5. New Hampshire
6. Boston University
7. Merrimack
8. Vermont
9. Maine
10. Massachusetts
11. Northeastern

Read More: Boston College, Boston University, Hockey East, maine
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