HALIFAX, NS – Much like 2019-20, the 2021-22 AUS men’s hockey season should be among the tightest and competitive ones in recent history.
That will be driven by Acadia’s second chance to host the U Cup men’s hockey national championships from March 17-20 2022, after having their first attempt cut off partway through their 2020 tournament by COVID-19. You’ll be able to catch that in person at the Scotiabank Centre in Halifax and by broadcast on CBC Sports.
But until then, there will be a lot to digest. How will two different rookie classes in one season look on each team?
How do the young guns square off against significant returnees like 2019-20 leading scorers Tyler Boland and Mitchell Balmas, among others?
Has Acadia strengthened enough to make the most of its second chance?
Can anyone usurp SMU, the third and final AUS seed in 2020, for that final berth this time around? Will long offseasons at StFX and Dal be enough to give them a shot at a national berth?
And, importantly, can anyone dethrone the mighty UNB Reds?
Those, and many more of our questions, will finally be answered this week as AUS men’s hockey action gets underway.
The Acadia Axemen are the team to watch this season. They came within a win of the AUS title in 2019-20. Coming so close in 2020, coach Darren Burns and his staff have worked to make the most of two years of recruiting as several key pieces from the last team have left. The Axemen have been a by-committee team in recent years, having only one player in the top 15 for scoring in 2019-20. Their trap-minded defensive philosophy has been their strength over that time and is shaping out to be the same this season.
Upfront, Acadia’s leading scorers in 2019-20, Cristiano Digiacinto and Stephen Harper, headline graduates who will not return this season. 20-point scorers from last season Jordy Stallard and Mason McCarty will take the reigns this season offensively. Rookies Tyler Hinam and Nick Deakin-Poot have shown flashes of brilliance too at forward so far.
The Axemen’s highest-scoring returnee is blueliner Garrett McFadden, fourth in the league among defensive scoring in 2019-20 with 28 points. First-years Orlando Mainolfi and Rielly Webb are expected to get steady workloads at the back end. Perhaps Acadia’s most important returnee, however, is 2019 AUS MVP Logan Flodell between the pipes. In 26 2019-20 regular season appearances, Flodell put up a save percentage of .918 and won 15 games.
The Tigers hope 2021-22 is the start of something new for them. Approaching two decades with close to no playoff appearances, a couple of factors could hint the sails soon changing direction. One is the monumental announcement of a new on-campus rink to be built in time for the 2023-24 season. Dalhousie has played at the Halifax Forum off-campus since 2012, making the playoffs just once since. The other is the team’s youth, hinting at a shift in team culture. 15 first-years are listed on the roster and although they may not all play, only two players on the Head Coach Chris Donnelly’s roster are in their fourth or fifth-year of eligibility.
Despite losing last season’s top scorers Jonathan Cyr and Colton Heffley, Campbell Pickard and Chandler Yakimowicz are back to lead the forward group. They registered 17 and 14 points in 2019-20, respectively. A lot of offence is expected to come from the rookie group too, including Derek Gentile and Shaun Miller.
The defence has a mix of veterans and rookies. Returnees, Aiden Jamieson, Kyle Yewchuk and Connor Welsh, who led Tigers blueliners in scoring last season, will eat up most of the minutes. First-years Josh Wainman and Darien Kielb shouldered plenty of responsibility in the preseason so far. In goal, the Connor Hicks-Reilly Pickard tandem is slated to continue for the pair’s third year running the Dal crease.
Moncton Aigles Bleus
Moncton is at a bit of a crossroads this year. They put up a spirited fight against SMU in the consolation series in the 2020 playoffs, coming within two wins (including a triple-overtime game) from a U CUP berth. Although COVID-19 didn’t end their 2020 season, it cost them the opportunity to build on their semifinal playoff appearance.
Now, many pieces of their core have moved on and it will be on 2019-20’s secondary scorers and first-years to fill that gap. There’s a ways to go to catch the top tier of the conference in the standings but if a game or two goes their way, just like with SMU last season, they can make noise.
Maxime St. Cyr, who tied for the conference goal-scoring title in 2019-20, has graduated. There will be no Robbie Graham or Alexis Roy either. Vincent Deslauriers is Moncton’s big-name returnee this season, after posting 24 points in 28 games last season. After that, the Aigles-Bleus will need to dig deeper into their depth for production. Perhaps Gabriel Vanier, Samuel Guilbault or first-year Nathael Roy could be those guys.
Aside from Danick Crete, nearly all of UdeM’s blueline will return for 2021-22. That includes Alexandre Bernier, Vincent Lanoue and Francis Thibeault. Freshman Alexis Arsenault will join them too. Their starting netminder this year isn’t much of a debate. Etienne Montpetit comes into his third year of eligibility after playing the second-most minutes in the conference in 2019-20, while still posting a .907 save percentage. That was good for fourth in the AUS.
Saint Mary’s Huskies
Yes, it was heartbreaking for the host Acadia to be sent home without a U CUP game played in 2020, but it wasn’t any easier for the SMU. The hometown Huskies dominated OUA champs Guelph and secured a semifinal berth in the final game before the tournament’s cancellation. The fact it was coach Trevor Stienburg’s final game at the Huskies’ helm didn’t feel any better for the players. But now, a year in the half later with head coach Tyler Naugler leading them into the new season, SMU is set to compete again behind a healthy squad of returnees, many new faces and a scoring touch. The Huskies scored the second-most goals in the AUS in 2019-20.
Undoubtedly, this is Keith Getson’s and 2019-20 AUS rookie of the year Mitchell Balmas’ team. Combining for 70 points last season, they form two-thirds of SMU’s top line and work in an unbelievably efficient manner around the opposing net. Be sure to watch forwards like Cedric Ralph and Andrew Coxhead too, as they make their AUS debuts in 2021-22.
The Huskies were blessed with one of the best defencemen in U SPORTS, Nick Welsh, over the past couple of seasons. Now that he’s gone, SMU’s defence is very young with only Zachary Hoffman and Sam Dunn not in their first years of eligibility. Names like Walter Flower III and Justin MacPherson are among the several rookie blueliners. There will be a young face in net too: Welsh’s younger brother Matt. He all but cemented his position as frontrunner for the starting job beginning with a couple of exhibition games last winter, following a five-season stint with QMJHL Charlottetown.
Saint Francis Xavier X-Men
Getting swept by Moncton in the 2020 AUS quarterfinals was a letdown for the X-Men. They’ve made the AUS final in four of the last five seasons, winning in 2016 and 2017, so last year’s results were atypical to their expectations. It won’t be any easier of a season to reachieve those expectations either. Acadia and SMU jumped ahead of StFX in AUS men’s hockey’s Big Three (alongside UNB) in 2019-20 and the former two, as hosts and a hometown team, will not let up as they aim to make an impact nationally. Coach Brad Peddle’s squad has the odds stacked against them but as we’ve seen before, the X-Men can be dangerous if results start shifting their way.
The X-Men are expected to have just one returning forward: third-year William Bower, who registered 10 points in 28 games last season. 2019-20 StFX leading scorers Bryson Cianfrone, Matt Needham and Jeremiah Addison are among the many departed attackers. In their place, keep an eye on Jacob Hudson and Liam Hawel, the latter coming off a stint in the AHL with Laval last winter.
Cole MacDonald and Daniel Robertson are noteworthy losses on the back end. MacDonald’s 29 points in 2019-20 were third-most amongst AUS defencemen. The defence this year will feature a top four of Santino Centorame, Bailey Webster, Adam Holwell and William Thompson. Four others will compete for the final two spots in the lineup. It will be a tandem in the StFX crease again this season, as Blade-Mann-Dixon and Joseph Raaymakers are slated to split starts much like 2019-20. Ideally, they also split higher win percentages than the identical .400s they each earned last season.
To severely understate things, UNB is still a very good team. We rave about the improvements other teams made over the off-year and two off-seasons, but at the end of the day, UNB still grabs each of them by the scruff of the neck – They have in the preseason anyway. The Reds still haven’t had a goal scored on them since the 2020 AUS finals. Enough about the preseason though, because a long regular season can and will change the landscape. But as we’ve seen, UNB almost always comes out at the end at or near the top of the conference. Offensively, defensively or otherwise, coach Gardiner MacDougall’s troops have next to no weaknesses.
With much of the forward core being turned over to the youth this season, 2019-20 AUS leading scorer Tyler Boland will be front-and-centre as he returns for his fourth year. Samuel Dove-McFalls and Mark Rassell will be relied on to lead the offence, while major junior standouts Thomas Casey and Brandon Saigeon should get plenty of opportunities in their first years.
Blueline pillars Joe Gatenby and Noah Carroll will serve as the Reds’ veteran presence in 2021-22. Swiping fourth-year defenceman Ross MacDougall from Acadia is a great addition too. As goalie Samuel Harvey made the jump to the pros, Rylan Parenteau will have another busy season after splitting starts with Harvey last season. With 12 wins in 14 games, his 1.86 goals-against average was tops in the conference in 2019-20. Rookie Griffen Outhouse will get starts too after a solid preseason.
UPEI didn’t make anything easy on themselves in 2019-20. Going a league-worst 2-8 in their final 10 games in the regular season, they couldn’t get by the red-hot SMU Huskies in the AUS quarterfinals. Between them, Moncton and STFX, who they were neck and neck with in 2019-20, along with an improved Dal team, they’re stuck in a cage match for the likely one remaining semifinal spot. They will need to tighten up on the 139 goals they allowed last season if they want a shot at that. Also, they’re only a season away from hosting the U CUP in Charlottetown, in spring 2023. The road to that tournament begins this season for the Panthers.
Kameron Kielly finished behind only SMU’s Balmas and UNB’s Boland two years ago, but he will not be back. Neither will Filip Rydstrom, and the story on 2019-20 39-point scorer Kyle Maksimovich isn’t clear. But the forward group will have Darian Pilon and Jordan Maher after 20 and 17-point rookie seasons, respectively. Danil Antropov, Carson MacKinnon and Brodie
MacArthur are among the Panthers’ recruits debuting this season.
The Panthers’ biggest return is almost certainly Owen Headrick. He led AUS defencemen with 13 goals in 2019-20 and was named team MVP for his performance. UPEI’s almost complete return of its defence from two years ago features the likes of Douglas Blaisdell, Tanner McCabe and Conor MacEachern. Simon Hofley is no longer in net after starting every game in 2019-20. Now, newcomers Lucas Fitzpatrick and Jonah Capriotti will compete for starts, which will be interesting as the Panthers want to bounce back from having a league-worst .874 save percentage in 2019-20.
Regular Season Predictions
Cover Photo: UNB Men’s Hockey