2008-09 Record: 9-21-4
2008-09 HE Finish: 9th
Head Coach: Mark Dennehy (5th season, 30-89-17)
Why they’ll finish 8th
So, as I attempted to come up with my 1-10 Hockey East predictions, I had the Warriors all over the place. In some cases I had them as high as sixth. In others, they were in the basement. Not so much because Merrimack is a tough team to gauge, but rather the rest of the league has some considerable question marks.
Merrimack finishes ahead of Maine and Providence because the Warriors have better goaltending than both teams, their defense is also better, and the offense is good enough. Out of the three teams we’ve looked at thus far, Maine has the best offense and Providence is second best. But the disparity between the Warriors’ offense and the Friars’ and Black Bears’ isn’t as wide as the disparity in defense/goaltending in which the Warriors have the edge over both.
Pat Bowen, Karl Stollery, Adam Ross and Fraser Allan bring experience and toughness to the blue line – Stollery is a PP quarterback and Bowen can play the point on the PP as well. Allan, who has been among the Warriors’ best defensemen since joining the team in 2007-08, is finally healthy (he’s been battling knee issues his first two seasons).
Losing Joe Loprieno to the NHL hurts, but Kyle Bigos will do more than pickup the slack. Bigos will make an immediate impact.
On offense, the Warriors should have to see increased production from guys like Chris Barton, whose development continued as a sophomore last season. Rob Ricci’s graduation leaves an opportunity for someone else to step into the go-to role, and expect that to be freshman Stephane Da Costa.
As I said, I had them higher in some other projections, but Northeastern and UMass will finish higher simply because those teams have shown that winning big games isn’t going to be as much of a hardship as it will be for the Warriors.
Make no mistake about it, Merrimack has to prove to me that it can score goals. From a defensive standpoint, they can shut down any team on any night – that’s thanks to head coach Mark Dennehy’s systems and a very good goalie tandem (the best in the league? I’d put Braithwaite/Cannata up against any other 2 goalies in Hockey East).
The Warriors lost an eye-popping 14 one-goal games last year (winning four). If you consider some added experience turns just three of those one-goal losses into wins, then the Warriors would have finished higher than Maine last season.
But, this is a team that needs to prove that they can score goals, and prove that they can win those one-goal games. It’s not a given, just because some players have another year under their belts, that those 14 losses automatically turn into some more wins.
In theory, it sounds nice. But the Warriors have some proving to do before the rest of the league will even consider respecting them.
Why they could finish higher
Joe Cannata and Andrew Braithwaite, for my money, is the best one-two goaltending punch in the league. Cananta was stellar as a freshman, he needs to avoid the “sophomore slump” (i.e. John Muse last season), but there have been other goalies, like former Maine netminder Ben Bishop, who really solidified themselves as top players in the league as a sophomore.
Teams are going to have a hard time scoring goals against this Merrimack team. Kyle B
igos brings a new dimension to this defense – a big guy (6-foot-5) who isn’t your typical “big” defenseman. He can move, he can hit, and he’s a pest to play against. He’s also a guy that is used to winning.
If Da Costa has the type of season I and many others believe he can have, even as a rookie, and others like Barton, Francois Ouimet, Joe Cucci, etc. can carry the offense, the Warriors could finish as high as fifth or sixth. It really depends on goal-scoring – that was Merrimack’s biggest weakness last season.
Player to Watch
J.C. Robitaille needs to have a big season. He was one of the best freshmen in his class in 2006-07 (a miserable year for the team, just 37 goals in 34 games). In 2007-08 he had a quiet start to the year before coming on as a first-line winger that January. But as a junior, there were times when he was almost invisible.
Robitaille has to establish himself as a first-line forward for this team. He’s a senior, he one of the guys the Warriors have to look to for some goals. He doesn’t need to score 20 goals – in fact, I don’t think that’s his style, but 10-15 goals and 20-25 assists is what this team needs from J.C. Robitaille. His game lends itself to being more of a playmaker than a goal-scorer, and that’s OK. He showed that when he took some shots as a sophomore, pucks were going in.
He has the ability to make anyone on his line better, and the Warriors need him to be that player. He needs to fill that hole left by Ricci.
Edit: here's the logo...found by my girlfriend, who is better at searching than me or Dirty.