There’s a palpable buzz around the Northeastern men’s hockey program right now.
The Huskies were voted to finish first in both the Hockey East media and coaches polls, and their No. 8 placement in the first USCHO poll of the year is the highest Northeastern has ever been ranked to begin a season. The Huskies return with a plethora of key pieces from the team that won the program’s first regular season Hockey East title last March.
But is that buzz warranted? What’s the actual expectation for this program this year? It’s time to break down where this Northeastern team stands as it gets ready to drop the puck on a new season.
Let’s start in goal: Devon Levi is back for another season between the pipes for the Huskies. After speculation on his college future after the season ended in the spring — the Buffalo Sabres, who hold his NHL rights, would’ve happily welcomed him to the professional ranks – the reigning Richter Award winner committed to coming back to NU, news that immediately gave the program a jolt. Levi’s staggering numbers from last year include a .952 save percentage (best in the country and tied for second-best all time), a 1.54 goals against average (third in the nation), and a whopping 10 shutouts (T-second in the country). With a summer at the Sabres’ development camp and more experience under his belt, Levi enters the year as not only one of the top goalies, but also one of the top players in the country.
Outside of the crease, the Huskies return their top four scorers and 13 of their top 15 point producers from a year ago. That group is led by captain Aidan McDonough, who similarly decided to come back for his senior season amidst talk about his NHL future. McDonough ended last season with 25 goals, good for second in the country and just one off the top spot. He led Northeastern with 39 points, a number that was second in Hockey East. McDonough brings poise and a consistent scoring presence to the forward group, and his leadership as captain is expected to drive this team.
McDonough isn’t alone around the goalmouth — juniors Sam Colangelo and Gunnarwolfe Fontaine, Northeastern’s second and third top scorers respectively last year, are also back for another season. The former Chicago Steel linemates combined for 52 points last year, even with Colangelo missing 10 games with an injury. Colangelo’s second-half scoring outburst (23 points in 21 games) was key for the Huskies as they chased down the regular season Hockey East title. Fontaine was one of just seven players from last season’s injury-ridden team to play in all 39 games, and he was the top scorer of the bunch. He led the team with 17 assists, and his grit and playmaking ability makes him one of the most important pieces of this team.
The D corps saw three key departures from last year’s six everyday defensemen — Jordan Harris, Julian Kislin, and Tommy Miller. To replace those three, the Huskies not only need their freshmen to adjust to the college game quickly, but they also need returners to step up. The duo of seniors Jayden Struble and Jeremie Bucheler appears likely to start the year as the top pair. The two combined for a +36 rating last season while playing most of the year as a pairing. Both players saw time on the penalty kill last season, and are also likely candidates to see power-play time this year as those units are formed. Both took a step forward last season, and they’ll need to do so again as the new first pair.
With a large incoming freshman class, the Huskies took just two dips into the transfer portal. Liam Walsh, a graduate transfer from Merrimack, joins the forward group with the ability to play both center and on the wing. Walsh is reunited with McDonough, his former teammate with Cedar Rapids in the USHL, and he’s projected to play as the third center with the potential to move to the wing if needed.
Braden Doyle also joins the Huskies D corps from the transfer portal after playing the first half of last season at BU. Doyle is a talented puck-moving defenseman who has been working on his defensive game, and he’s expected to play minutes right away.
From the freshman class, the forward likely to provide the most production is Cam Lund. A local kid from Bridgewater, Massachusetts, Lund became NU’s highest draft pick since 2011 when he was selected 34th overall by the San Jose Sharks in July. He brings a strong shot to the Huskies’ top six, and his ceiling is sky high.
In addition to Doyle, three other key freshmen join the D corps: Hunter McDonald, Jackson Dorrington, and Vinny Borgesi. While McDonald and Dorrington are big, physical, defensive defensemen, Borgesi is a smaller, puck-moving, offensive-minded defenseman. All three are expected to play significant minutes all year.
Freshman Jack Williams projects to play an immediate role as a 200-foot forward, and likely slides into the fourth-line center position early in the year.
The Huskies added two new goaltenders to the mix in Grant Riley and Harrison Chesney. While neither will see time over Levi barring a calamitous year, both goalies will serve as important depth in case of an injury.
Here’s a potential projected lineup — the top three forward lines are groups that have been working together in practice per head coach Jerry Keefe, and they will likely start the season together. The D pairs are a question mark due to handedness — this NU team has an abundance of talented left-shot defensemen, and it’s likely that one of them will play on the opposite side to fit them all in the lineup. Expect the Huskies to roll out seven defensemen early in the year as they try to not only find pairs that work, but also get the young players game time.
AREAS OF FOCUS
This Northeastern team lost three key defensemen from last year. In order to mitigate that loss, the newcomers in the D corps need to adjust to the college game quickly. At the same time, players like Struble and Bucheler need to take another step forward. With Levi behind them, the defense won’t concede many goals. But if this group of defensemen can play up to their potential, the number of goals Northeastern allows could be staggeringly low.
Depth scoring is another key area the Huskies need to improve in. While McDonough and Colangelo poured in goals in the second half, Northeastern needs some secondary scoring this year to add more threat to the offense. Adding a proven scorer in Hockey East like Walsh shows intent to rectify that. Look for Jakov Novak and Jack Hughes to have big breakouts this year on the offensive end.
The Northeastern power play has to replace the first unit’s captain in Jordan Harris. Keefe mentioned that rather than trying to make someone fill Harris’ role, the Huskies are looking to adapt their power play units to fit different skill sets. McDonough, Colangelo, and Hryckowian are all proven scorers with the man advantage, but the key man is Fontaine. His energy and driving cuts through the middle on the power play open up lanes for other players, and with his facilitation, Northeastern could see huge numbers from their power-play units.
The hype around this team is justified. Keefe and his staff have done a great job adding necessary pieces to build a complete roster. The depth of this team is something Keefe is very excited about, and it’s easy to see why with players with skill like Matt DeMelis and Matt Choupani in fourth-line roles. There are scoring threats throughout the lineup, and the Huskies are backed up by the best goaltender in the country.
This team’s goals are clear: win Hockey East, win a Beanpot, and win a national championship. There is genuine reason to believe that all three are possible this year. Expect this team to compete late into spring.