Niagara University, which won the Atlantic Hockey regular-season title and advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history last year, was tabbed to repeat this year, the league announced Tuesday during its season-opening conference call.
As a whole, the league is coming off an extremely successful year with a pair of teams – Niagara and Canisius - advancing to the national tournament.
"I think we're always going to continue to get better," longtime Holy Cross coach Paul Pearl said. "All the landmarks (like getting two teams in the tournament for the first time) are really good, but the biggest thing for us is how competitive the league has become."
"I think with the type of programs we have and the commitment behind them, nationally, we will get better."
The middle of the league sees a tight race, with Connecticut ranking atop New England teams in the No. 6 position.
Mike Cavanaugh is entering his first year at the helm of UConn after 18 years as Jerry York's top assistant at Boston College. UConn is entering its final season in the AHA as it awaits next year’s move to Hockey East.
He will have 23 returning skaters from a 2012-13 team that finished a respectable 19-14-4 overall, in addition to senior goaltender Matt Grogan, who appeared in 23 games and was named an All-AHA third-team member.
Massachusetts rivals Holy Cross and Bentley were separated by a very narrow margin for eighth and ninth place, respectively.
The Crusaders see 20 letter winners and a pair of regular starters returning this season, after completing back-to-back 20-win seasons for the first time in program history. Following a 13-goal, 28-point year, Shayne Stockton leads the Crusaders’ returning cast.
Bentley has several key returners who sat among some of the nation's best a year ago, including senior Brett Gensler, who led the team in scoring with 16 goals and an even 40 points.
In addition, forward Andrew Gladiuk's 29 points put him among the top ten rookie scorers in the nation, while Steve Weinstein chipped in 25 as a second-year on the backline.
The 11th-ranked AIC Yellow Jackets will have to cope with the loss of All-Conference goalie Ben Meisner, who signed a contract with the East Coast Hockey League's Utah Grizzlies following graduation.
Rounding out the poll is Sacred Heart University, which will look to improve upon last season's 2-30-4 mark. The Pioneers enter the year as one of the youngest units in all of college hockey with 12 true freshmen on the roster, but still return five of their ten top point scorers, including junior Brian Sheehan, who posted 11 goals and 17 assists last year.
2013-14 Atlantic Hockey Pre-Season Coaches Poll:
1. Niagara (3 first-place votes) – 102 points
T-2. Mercyhurst (4) – 98
T-2. Air Force (2) – 98
4. Canisius (3) – 92
5. RIT – 81
6. Connecticut – 79
7. Robert Morris – 66
8. Holy Cross – 59
9. Bentley – 53
10. Army – 28
11. American International – 22
12. Sacred Heart – 16