Sometimes the more things change, the more things stay the same, at first glance anyway.
The 2017-2018 Atlantic Hockey season looks to be a wide open affair once again, and then some. The conference contains perhaps one of its deepest fields of contenders this year, with many schools not losing much to graduation at all. However, several top contenders will have to get used to new goaltending situations to start the year with. Potentially as many as six schools could have a chance to make noise at the tournament in Rochester in March this year. Injuries will play a factor, as will expected career progression from upperclassmen and unexpected performances from incoming freshmen.
When the sum of averages are applied, and the veteran leadership starts taking shape, here’s what to look for in the way of the standings. Myself and Alan Saunders of Pittsburgh Hockey Digest were invited to take part in the Atlantic Hockey Conference media poll. Here’s how we picked ’em for the 2017-18 season.
The conference’s coaches also made their selections this week. They agree, picking Air Force as the top contender and Robert Morris at No. 2. The coaches then went with Army, RIT, Canisius, Holy Cross, Mercyhurst, Bentley, AIC, Sacred Heart and Niagara.
2017-18 Season Capsules
Canisius (2016-17 record 21-11-7; 18-4-6): The defending regular season champions will once again be in the hunt for home ice following one of the best years in program history. They were led by the now departed goaltender Charles Williams and his 1.82 GAA, and top point producers Dylan McLaughlin and Ryan Schmeltzer. Like a few of the title contenders, they lose very little off the top lines, and will have questions to answer in between the pipes as sophomore Daniel Urbani and junior Simon Hofley battle for the starting job. If either should put up even close to Williams’ numbers, this team could find itself right back in Rochester in March. They play a physical, disciplined brand of hockey and stay the course with it as well as anyone in the league.
Air Force (27-10-5; 19-6-3): It’s hard not to like the defending conference tournament champions despite the loss of goaltender Shane Starrett, who left after a sophomore season that saw him put up amazing numbers. He elected to sign with the Edmonton Oilers this off season. What the Falcons have coming back though is the basic nucleus of a team that knows Frank Serratore’s system, and executes it with typical, pinpoint consistency and has a great deal of speed. The top forwards all return as does one of the strongest defensemen in the conference in Phil Boje. Merge all of that with the solid goal tending of junior goaltender Billy Christopoulous who made improvements to his game last year, and add in one of the best home ice advantages in the conference, and it’s hard to take them off the podium at the outset of the season.
Army (18-14-5; 15-10-3): The Knights have built a brand of winning hockey over the course of the last three seasons, and most of the team that built that brand, are returning this year. But once again, there will be question marks in the net as senior Parker Gahagen leaves a very large void. Gahagen kept the offensively challenged Knights in every contest and was the difference between two points and one at the end of the night on many occasions. Senior Conor Andrle leads the way up front for Army followed by sophomores Zach Evancho, Dominic Franco and Brendan Soucie. It’s a unit of forwards that could take a giant leap forward this coming season, and could help make Gahagen’s departure not sting so much. If his replacement can come close to the same staggering numbers Gahagen did, this Army team can still have a realistic chance of making another conference semi final appearance.
Robert Morris (22-12-4; 15-10-3): Like the Falcons, the Colonials come in to this year’s campaign with all the pieces necessary for another 20-plus win season and a very good title chance. The Colonials lose high scoring forward Daniel Leavens and a good part of the foundation of the defensive corps in Rob Mann as well as goaltender Dalton Izyk, but were blessed with underclassmen who took giant leaps forward last season and blended with the team concept seamlessly. Brady Ferguson is the top returning scorer in college hockey and forwards Alex Tonge and Timmy Moore as well as defenseman Eric Israel all became all-conference players or very close to that level of play last season. This year, they will probably get some similar results from rising sophomores Matthew Graham and Luke Lynch. If this team stays reasonably healthy and Francis Marotte maintains and possibly even improves his eye popping freshman performance, there’s no reason not to expect to see this team in Rochester in March once again.
Holy Cross (14-15-7; 11-10-7): Solid defense and special teams carry the Crusaders wherever they go and will probably determine how far they go this season. They return this season as intact as any team can be, losing their second leading scorer Mike Barrett, but have some scoring depth at the top with forwards Danny Lopez, TJ Moore and Scott Pooley preparing for their final seasons this year. At the back end, Spencer Trapp leads the way coming off a 20 point season and in the net, senior Paul Berrafato gives the Crusaders a chance to win every game. If they can find some scoring help, they could make a run to Rochester a possibility this season.
RIT (14-22-1; 13-15): It would be hard to imagine the Tigers suffering back to back sub par seasons. 2016-17 did not go their way for a variety of reasons from injury to goal tending issues, to a Niagara team that managed to pull off an unthinkable road upset in the playoffs, ending the Tigers bid for another trip to the conference finals. The rebound most likely starts this season as they return virtually all of their top scorers and high scoring defenseman Matt Abt as well. Their biggest question mark is in between the pipes. where Christian Short will probably fill the void left by departing starter Mike Rotolo. If the Tiger net is solid, watch the young forwards to keep progressing and by the midpoint of the season and watch for the Tigers to be on the prowl, hunting home ice and a first round bye.
Mercyhurst (15-20-4; 11-13-4): The Lakers are always a threat to make a run, but the amount of quality teams at or near the top might make it a bit more challenging this year. Up front, they lose solid forwards Jack Riley and Kyle Dutra, but return a deep, veteran defensive corps led by junior Lester Lancaster. In between the pipes, Colin DeAugustine and Brandon Wildung split time equitably and provide a reasonable level of performance, but should one emerge and take a step forward in progression, it could improve the Laker’s outlook considerably.
Bentley (13-19-7; 10-12-6): Earning ninth this year in the preseason rankings is in no way indicative of how the Falcons play. They bring passion and energy night in and night out. It’s a really deep field of talented schools that know how to win. Bentley does too, and though they lose leading scorer Max French, it would surprise no one if they made a deep playoff run. Ryan Soderquist’s teams do not quit, and will make the most of their opportunities. The Falcons do return a lot of depth, including second leading scorer Kyle Schmidt and the solid goaltending tandem of Jayson Argue and Aiden Pelino and talented defenseman Alexy Soloyvev which gives them a chance in any game.
Sacred Heart (13-19-5; 10-15-3): The Pioneers lose their top two scorers as Justin Danforth and Jordan Minello have departed upon graduation leaving more questions than answers, especially when you consider they also lost fourth leading scorer Evan Jasper to graduation as well. Brett Magnus and Nathan Perry do a reasonable job in holding things together in the net, but the Pioneers look to be in a rebuilding mode this season and will need to rely on some freshman surprises to help make up for the lost production up front.
American International (8-20-8; 7-14-7): There’s one surprise in ever preseason poll, and the Yellow Jackets look like a team ready to open some eyes this year. Following a coaching change and a large rebuilding effort that saw new coach Eric Lang get creative and get commitments from several European players last year, the Jackets started to come together from the midpoint of the season on. It’s a team that works hard and will need to expand on the connectivity factor, but if it does so and keeps progressing, may just lay the foundation for a new level of results for the program. Up front, four freshman led the way last year including Blake Christiansen, Martin Melberg, Hugo Reinhardt and Dominik Florian. If they can take another leap forward, they may find themselves in the second round of the playoffs. If goaltender Zacharias Skog can find some consistency to his game and the defense can limit some chances against, they could even find a way to Rochester perhaps.
Niagara (3-23-2; 5-31-3): The Purple Eagles new coach, Jason Lammers, will have his work cut out for himself this season as he takes over for the departed Dave Burkholder, taking over a team that won just five games all of last year, though they did end on a high note, beating RIT in the second round of the playoffs last year on the road. Still, there are questions in all phases for the Eagles who look to develop a new identity which will take time. Look for Lammers to waste no time getting to find out who meets the standard and who does not.