NHIAA preview: Boys' ice hockey races appear to be wide open
Three wide open boys' divisions and a girls' division with a clear-cut favorite.
It's high school hockey season again.
In the boys' Division I ranks, defending champion Manchester Memorial won't call it a rebuilding year despite the loss of 11 players. In Division II, Bedford will try for its third straight title. The Division III ranks saw John Stark/Hopkinton end Kennett of Conway's championship dominance.
And in the girls' division, Hanover remains the team to beat.
Memorial defeated in-city rival Manchester Central in last year's championship. But the Crusaders lost 11 players (nine to graduation, one to prep school and one to junior hockey).
Head coach Mark Putney refuses to call it a rebuilding year and expects to contend for the title again despite wearing the bullseye.
"We are going into this with a target on our back as any state champion does," Putney said. "We have significant new players and we've been working on our systems for a few weeks. Once the new players start learning our systems, I know we'll be competitive."
Central should be right back in the hunt as well, using last year's trip to the finals as a building block.
"I think we should be very influenced by that experience. They got a taste of what it's like to get there," said Central coach Brian Stone. "They know what it takes to work hard every day."
The Little Green will be built from the net out with senior goalie Ian Beliveau anchoring and senior defenseman and co-captain Tim Tetrault leading the blue line.
"I think we should be in the middle of things," Stone said. "The big question for us is who is going to put the puck in the net."
Other teams expected to contend for top slots in Division I are Concord, Hanover, Bishop Guertin, Londonderry, Salem and St. Thomas.
That's most of the teams in the division, with the rest of the pack expected to be tough to play against on a nightly basis.
"In our division, there's no nights off. Every team can play," said Exeter coach Jim Tufts. "It's a very, very competitive league and it's going to stay that way."
Tufts' Exeter squad lost 12 players to a combination of graduation, junior and prep hockey.
The Blue Hawks return four senior forwards: Michael Cashman, Cam Johansson, Ty Mezquita and Ryan Mello. In goal, senior Tyler Lucchini and sophomore Bryson Desjardins are battling it out.
"I'm very pleased with our preseason and attitude and competition. We have a good group," Tufts said. "We're optimistic. We've been out of the playoffs a few years and we want to get back."
And don't count out Bishop Brady, Nashua North and South, Trinity and Pinkerton Academy of Derry under new head coach Joey Lee.
"I think like last year there will be a lot of parity," Putney said. "There were a lot of programs that won a lot of close games thoughout the year last season."
The largest division in the state with 16 teams, Division II might be the most wide-open as well.
Bedford won its second state title in as many years with a 5-2 win over Merrimack. The Bulldogs should be right back in the mix for a third title.
"I think Bedford will be there again," said Bow head coach Tim Walsh. "Dover is strong, Spaulding is always tough to play against, Goffstown is never easy for us. Keene, too."
The backbone for Bedford will be goaltender Stevan Tempesta, who already has two state titles under his belt as he enters his senior campaign.
Meanwhile, Merrimack returns Jason Fortin (junior defenseman), Shane Foye (junior forward), and top defenseman Mark Feeney (senior). The Warriors lost goalie Brett Glendye and Dom Valuzzi to graduation and two more to junior hockey.
"We're going to have to take care of our own zone. We've got a young group of kids so we've got be defense-focused," said Merrimack coach Kurt Mithoefer. "Our first goal is to make the playoffs and once you get into a single elimination situation, anything can happen."
In Bow, Walsh likes his recipe of experience and youth.
"I think we have a fairly good mix of older and younger kids. We have strong leadership. I have high expectations," Walsh said. "A lot of teams are young right now and we've got older guys and I hope to use that maturity. Our goal is to get to the Verizon and win it."
The Falcons return defensive co-captain Nate Corriveau, senior defensemen Tyler Herrick and Josh Lacasse, leading scorer (co-captain and senior) Chris Fournier and assistant captain Jake Rand. Goalie Robbie Margerson is a first-year starter.
John Stark/Hopkinton is considered a strong team once again as the combined team shoots for a second state title.
They did lose Senior tri-captain Simon Hunter, who scored the game-winning goal in overtime, but most of the roster returns.
But the JS/Hopkinton team won't be alone in contention.
"They took it to us in the finals and they return a solid team," said coach Mike Poulin, whose Berlin squad lost to JS/H in the finals, 3-2. "We expect Belmont/Gilford to be good. Laconia/Winnisquam could step up and Portsmouth has some good young players. And Kennett, they're so well-coached."
But there's one team Poulin has his eye on.
"I think Souhegan will be a force to be reckoned with," he said.
As for Berlin, the Mountaineers lost three key players on defense, but up front will be loaded with the return of top scorers Connor Jewett (senior, last year's Division III Player of the Year) and sophomore Justin Vien. Goalie Brenden Williams is only a sophomore but went 10-0 last year in split duty.
The smallest division, Division III should be tough throughout with the rest of the field, Manchester West, ConVal, Kearsarge, Hollis-Brookline and Moultonborough/Inter-Lakes all in the mix for a playoff spot.
In the ranks of girls' hockey, there has been Hanover and then everyone else over the past four years and indeed for most of the life of the sport at the varsity level.
Hanover has won four consecutive state titles and five of the six awarded. St. Thomas has the only blemish on the Marauders record, having won in 2009.
This year, the Marauders will play more out of state competition. That's good news for everyone else since Hanover is 68-4-2 against Granite State schools over the past four seasons.
Hanover lost very little from last year's championship team. Top players such as Sarah Wagner, Matti Hartman and Eliza Laycock are all back.
Last year's runner-up Oyster River of Durham, should be strong again. The Bobcats return goalie Emily Croot and senior forward Hannah Herz-Kahn among others.