Much of college hockey’s cognoscenti gathered at the Garden yesterday as Hockey East held its annual faceoff luncheon to start its 35th season, highlighting a rich heritage and bright future as commissioner Joe Bertagna took the opportunity to give a state-of-the-league message.
“It gives us a chance to look back at all the great teams and look back at all the great memories and it’s also a chance for us to look ahead,” he said. “This season we have three new coaches, but all of them are familiar here to hockey fans. All of them have been contributing to the league for many years. You know when people ask me what makes Hockey East so great I usually tell them it’s two things. The first is that the various schools put a lot of resources into it. Hockey is important. The competition level is high. The second part I always say is the coaches. We have some of the best coaches in all of college hockey and whenever there is a replacement there doesn’t seem that we lose a step.”
New coaches are in place at Boston University (Albie O’Connell), Merrimack (Scott Borek) and New Hampshire (Mike Souza).
Another wrinkle is a new playoff format with the elimination of the early round with top clubs drawing byes. The 2019 format calls for eight teams competing in a one round, best-of-three series on campus sites. The four winners advance to the Garden.
“I think we always get a little too caught up in the national rankings but most coaches will tell you that the hardest thing to do is to stay on top of the league for an entire (regular) season,” said Bertagna. “We’ve eliminated the first round so that will mean that three teams won’t make it, and there’s a chance that they’ll be closer to those that do.”
The preseason poll selected Boston College (five first-place votes) as the favorite followed by Providence, BU, Northeastern, Maine, UMass, UMass-Lowell, UConn, UNH, Vermont and Merrimack.
Most coaches cast a jaundiced eye at the poll.
“I think that we’re picked to finish mid-pack but I think that we can finish a little higher than that,’’ said UMass coach Greg Carvel, who returns top performers in sophomore defensemen Cale Maker and Mario Ferraro and sophomore forward John Leonard. “I think we’re at the point where 18 or 19 of our players are freshmen or sophomores. They have an understanding for the culture and identity that we’re trying to build.’’
Another club to watch is NU, which won a Beanpot title and produced a Hobey Baker Award winner in Adam Gaudette of Braintree. Gaudette graduated to the NHL, along with linemates Dylan Sikura and Nolan Stevens.
“Every season brings a different dynamic and definitely we lost the big three in Gaudette, Sikura, and Stevens, but we’re excited to see how our team evolves,’’ said coach Jim Madigan, who returns an All-HE goaltender in sophomore Cayden Primeau, junior All-American defenseman Jeremy Davies, blueline cohort Ryan Shea of Milton and forwards Matt Filipe of Lynnfield, and Lincoln Griffin of Walpole. “I don’t think people are giving us much credit because of who we lost, but I think it’s a very good group. I think they have to take that next step.”
Also, NESN broadcaster Tom Caron won the Joe Concannon Media Award.
“I tell people that the Red Sox are my favorite team but hockey is my favorite sport. It’s the family of hockey that makes it so special,’’ Caron said. “I don’t think that there’s anything better than a packed rink on a Friday night.”