November 1, 2013

Hockey East Journal: Rookies worth watching


By Andrew Merritt

Robbie Baillargeon (Enfield, Conn.) is enjoying early success for David Quinn's Terriers after starring in the USHL. (Photo: Indiana Ice)

Of a total of 296 players on Hockey East rosters this season, 80 are freshmen – slightly more than 27 percent. A handful of those 80 will never play meaningful minutes. Many will eventually evolve into regulars for their teams. But a chosen few are already very much a part of the picture for their respective squads.

It’s early in the careers of the fresh-faced freshmen, so there’s no telling who’s going to emerge as the seasons wear on. But for right now, here’s a look at 11 rookies worth watching.

Mike Szmatula (Northeastern) – The early leader among the league’s rookies, Szmatula – one of a whopping 12 freshmen on the Huskies’ roster – leads the nation’s freshmen with 11 points, 10 of which have come on assists. Five of those helpers have come on the power play. Szmatula has only scored one goal, but it’s not for lack of trying – he also leads the nation’s freshmen in shots on goal, with 26.

Vince Hinostroza (Notre Dame) – Just behind Szmatula is Hinostroza, whose eight points have helped the Fighting Irish to one of their best starts since coach Jeff Jackson took over nine years ago. The Chicago Blackhawks draftee is also leading the country’s rookies with a plus-10 rating, and his three goals tie him for the league lead among freshman with UMass’ Steven Iacobellis.

Steven Iacobellis (UMass) As mentioned above, Iacobellis is tied for the lead among Hockey East rookies with three goals, and has centered the Minutemen’s second line all season. He’s also got a game-winning goal to his credit, scored on the power play against Michigan State on Oct. 19.

Robbie Baillargeon (BU) The Enfield, Conn., native went scoreless in his first three games. No matter; he had a goal and two assists, including one on the game-winner, in a breakout performance against Wisconsin on Oct. 19. Former BU coach Jack Parker recently told the Hockey Journal that if Matt Nieto had not left early for the NHL, the Terriers would have the best first line in the country this year. Big shoes for Baillargeon, who’s on the left wing with top-liners Danny O’Regan (Needham, Mass.) and Evan Rodrigues, but he seems to be comfortable in them so far.

Ian McCoshen (BC) It might seem odd to highlight a defenseman for the traditionally high-octane Eagles, but McCoshen is earning big minutes on the top BC pairing with Michael Matheson, and had such a good start that even after being a combined minus-5 over the Eagles’ last two games, he’s still plus-4 for the season.

Michael Kapla (UMass-Lowell) It wasn’t going to be easy for a rookie to make an impression on a River Hawk roster that is largely intact following last year’s Frozen Four appearance, but Kapla’s four points – all assists – ties him for the most among the freshmen defensemen in Hockey East, and he’s got a plus-3 rating to go with it, on a team that has struggled through the first few weeks of the season.

Rob Hamilton (Vermont) Hamilton, like the Catamounts in general, has flown under the radar so far, but he’s tied with Kapla for the most points of any Hockey East rookie defenseman, and he’s done it in half as many games (3). He also has exactly one shot on goal, and he made it count, scoring in the season-opening loss to North Dakota.

Niko Rufo (Providence) – The Stoneham, Mass., native has two goals in the last three games for the Friars, including the game-winner in overtime against Miami on Oct. 25, helping them to grab an early foothold as one of the league’s best teams. It’s unlikely that it’s a fluke, too, as Rufo is playing on Providence’s dangerous second line with Nick Saracino and Noel Acciari.

Blaine Byron (Maine) The Pittsburgh prospect is second on his team with five points – tied with teammate Cam Brown, BC’s Scott Savage and Northeastern’s John Stevens for sixth-most among the league’s freshmen – and that’s despite a three-game scoreless streak. Of course, he snapped that streak with a goal and three assists in the Black Bears’ 8-4 romp over UMass on Saturday.

Tyler Kelleher (UNH) There are just four freshmen on the Wildcats’ roster, but Kelleher (Longmeadow, Mass.) is making waves as a regular on the top line, playing the right wing alongside veterans Grayson Downing and Kevin Goumas.

Chris LeBlanc (Merrimack) – The Warriors have the fewest freshmen of any Hockey East team, but if LeBlanc (Winthrop, Mass.) is lonely with only two classmates on the roster with him, he’s not showing it. He’s playing the second line with fellow rookie Hampus Gustafsson and potential league scoring leader Mike Collins, and he’s making the Ottawa Senators look pretty smart for drafting him in the sixth round earlier this year.

Player of the Week

Connor Hellebuyck – So. G, UMass-Lowell

That’s more like it. After a brutal start to the year that saw him briefly benched, Hellebuyck returned to his stellar ways in a two-game road swing, stopping 62 of 64 shots as the River Hawks beat Michigan State and then-No. 4 Michigan.

Game of the Week

Boston College at Minnesota, Sunday, Oct. 27

The No. 5 Eagles travel to play the nation’s No. 1 team in a game that may decide the inaugural Big Ten/Hockey East Challenge. The challenge is currently in the hands of the locals, as Hockey East holds a 4-1-1 advantage.

Hockey East power rankings

  1. Providence (4-0-1, 0-0-0 HEA) – The Friars picked up a win and a tie at home against Miami-Ohio, thanks to Niko Rufo’s (Stoneham, Mass.) game-winner Friday night, and also stole the No. 3 ranking from the RedHawks.

  2. Notre Dame (5-1-0, 0-0-0 HEA) – The Irish, who fell just short of matching the 6-0-0 start of the 1998-99 team, play their first conference games as a member of Hockey East this weekend with a trip to Vermont.

  3. Boston College (2-2-1, 0-0-0 HEA) – BC fell to earth a bit last weekend, tying Minnesota Friday and then getting smoked 6-1 on Sunday. The No. 7 Eagles didn’t lose a game by more than four goals last year, and you’d have to go back to a 8-1 loss to the very same Golden Gophers on Dec. 30, 2012 to match Sunday’s drubbing.

  4. Northeastern (5-1-0, 0-0-0 HEA) – The Huskies got some good and bad news this week. Sophomore Kevin Roy was named the Hockey Commissioners’ Association national Division I player of the month for October, in which he scored 12 points (7g, 5a) over the opening four games. On the flip side, senior Cody Ferriero (Essex, Mass.) was suspended for this weekend’s games after a slashing incident against St. Lawrence on Oct. 26.

  5. Boston University (3-3-0, 1-0-0 HEA) – The defensemen have given BU 18 points this year – led by the seven each for senior Garrett Noonan (Norfolk, Mass.) and sophomore Ahti Oksanen, tying them with Minnesota for the best mark in the country.

  6. Maine (3-2-0, 0-0-0 HEA) – The Black Bears exploded for eight goals against UMass Saturday night, the second of two games against the Minutemen that won’t count in the Hockey East standings. It was the first time they hit that total since Oct. 8, 2010, and the six goals they scored in the second period was the most Maine has scored in a single period since Nov. 15, 2002.

  7. UMass-Lowell (3-3-0, 0-0-0 HEA) – The River Hawks finally showed signs of being over their Frozen Four Hangover, taking wins at Michigan State and Michigan over the weekend to move to .500 on the year.

  8. Merrimack (2-3-0, 0-0-0 HEA) – The Warriors’ game against Army was in doubt heading into the third period Friday, with the Golden Knights up 2-1. But Mike Collins (Boston, Mass.) scored a pair, including his 100th career point, in a three-goal third to turn it around for Merrimack.

  9. New Hampshire (1-3-1, 0-0-0 HEA) – The three UNH losses this year have come against then-No. 1 Minnesota, then-No. 3 Michigan and then-No. 12 RPI – three teams with a combined 12-2-2 record.  

  10. Vermont (1-1-1, 0-0-0 HEA) – The Catamounts made the most of their only action of the weekend, slamming Penn State 5-2 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, home of the NHL’s Flyers. Peter Luukko is the President and Chief Operating Officer of Comcast-Spectacor, the parent company of the Philadelphia Flyers, and his son, Nick, had the game-tying goal for the Catamounts in the second period.

  11. UMass (2-4-0, 0-1-0 HEA) – It was two steps back for the Minutemen, who, after sweeping Michigan State two weekends ago, lost both games at Maine by a combined 11-6 score, including Saturday’s 8-4 trouncing.

Twitter: @A_Merritt