HALIFAX, NS – Despite being considered the strongest men’s hockey conference in U SPORTS, AUS teams had their hands full going up against the rest of the country in the spring’s U CUP.
For the first time since 2014, no AUS teams made the U SPORTS final. It was also the first time since 2006 that a final between teams from different conferences didn’t involve an AUS team. The mighty UNB Reds were upset in the quarterfinals by a scrappy and upstart TMU Bold, while the Alberta Golden Bears crushed the host Acadia Axemen and eventual national bronze medallists StFX X-Men in consecutive games. Suffice to say, it was a different-looking season.
For those three, the most gruelling thought following their losses might be the fact that they must once again go through four teams that could beat anyone on any night. From the 2023 U CUP hosts the UPEI Panthers and the unpredictable Moncton Aigles Bleus, to the on-the-rise Dalhousie Tigers and the deep, gritty SMU Huskies, any team at their best is a capable one at the U CUP level. If they can make it through the others.
Let’s go back to when Acadia was first awarded the U CUP in 2017-18. They were rolling. Qualifying for the U CUP that year, they’d have a tougher 2018-19 before taking UNB the distance in the next season’s final. Shortly after, COVID-19 hit before hosting their first nationals game in Halifax. Two years later, we know that wasn’t the harshest thing the pandemic has done to them with players leaving in both the off-year and the Omicron break last winter. That resulted in them effectively missing out on the AUS playoffs and, at nationals, getting clobbered 7-0 in their own barn by the Alberta Golden Bears. But with the Axemen bringing in one of the conference’s heaviest recruiting classes, head coach Darren Burns’ crew is planting the seeds for another nationally competitive team within a year or two.
It was a turning of the page for Acadia’s offence last year and, all considered, it wasn’t too bad. Adam McMaster was second in team scoring with 16 points, behind departed defenceman Garrett McFadden’s 20.
Fellow freshman Peyton Hoyt was three points behind McMaster. Eric Henderson is the only other returnee to bury double-digit points, with captain Jack Flaman potting nine. They also have Bailey Peach joining the fold, who scored 78 points in 66 points for WHL Victoria last year. Third-year Morgan Nauss is Acadia’s most veteran blueliner. Meanwhile, Reilly Webb and Luke Zazula will be expected to contribute both ways, each grabbing seven points in 2021-22. With goaltender Max Paddock now playing with the UFV Cascades volleyball team, the battle in goal comes down to veteran Conor McCollum and newcomers Tye Austin and Zachary Paputsakis.
It’s a dynamic time in the Tigers program’s history.
They’re a competitive team for the first time in nearly 20 years, coming off their best playoff performance since 2004. So they can check the success of its newly-youthful program in year one off the list. That came with caveats: the COVID-19 break last January cost them their two best forwards in Derek Gentile and Barret Kirwin, while key defenceman Connor Welsh signed pro following their quarterfinal loss to Moncton in three games. It was a bitter way to end an overall successful season where they finished third in the regular season standings, in part leading to coach Chris Donnelly earning the U SPORTS coach of the year honour. With the team’s trajectory pointing up and it (likely) being Dal’s last full season before their new on-campus rink opens next year, the Tigers have a lot to play for in 2022-23.
The faces of the team moving forward became clear toward the end of the season. One of them is Shaun Miller, who played alongside Gentile and Kirwin as a rookie but came to steal the spotlight in the season’s second half. His 16 assists were the fifth-most in the AUS and his 22 points the 10th-best.
Matt Green and Liam Peyton were other rookie forwards who stepped up late in the season. Campbell Pickard and Cameron Thompson are important veteran returnees on the attack, as Kyle Yewchuk and Jack Hanley will lead the way on defence. Jarrett Baker and Christian Huntley also finished the season well on the blueline. In net, the tandem of Reilly Pickard and Connor Hicks will return as two of the longest-tenured netminders in the league. Pickard is coming off a spectacular season in goal. His career-best .921 save percentage was the second-best number in the AUS last year.
Moncton Aigles Bleus
The Aigles Bleus were not fantastic in the 2021-22 regular season. They lost eight of their last 10 contests heading into the playoffs, plus game one of their AUS quarterfinal at Dalhousie. Something shifted after that — goaltender Étienne Montpetit went off, while scorers such as Nathael Roy and Edouard St-Laurent kept showing up at the right times to dump the Tigers in three games.
They kept relatively close with the Reds in the next round as well, losing both games 2-1 while Montpetit kept his team in it. That was with Judes Vallée behind the bench. Since he left, Derek Cormier took over after serving as an assistant coach. While Cormier steps into the role, most of his key players return as Moncton looks to sustain their postseason success and book their ticket to Charlottetown.
Roy is a significant player not only for Moncton but the conference. He’s arguably the most underrated too; Roy, with 27 points in 2021-22, scored the most of any player excluding those from StFX or skaters that left midseason. Mika Cyr is also a big-time contributor in the scoring department and St-Laurent is beginning to play bigger forward roles.
Jeremy Michel will be a welcome recruit this year after burying 84 points last season with QMJHL Val d’Or. The Aigles Bleus don’t get a ton of offence from their blueline. But two of their best defencemen in 2021-22, Yann-Felix Lapointe and Denis Toner, are prepared to return this season. Vincent Lanoue was a presence for Moncton at D in the playoffs. Montpetit steps into the crease for his fourth AUS season. It’s more than probable he’ll get more than the nine regular season starts he got in 2021-22
Saint Francis Xavier X-Men
I have a feeling the buzz from the U CUP bronze medal game versus TMU is still in the X-Men room. It doesn’t feel like long ago Matthew Philip stripped a Bold defenceman of the puck to set up Zack Trott for the bronze medal-winning goal.
As now-departed X forward Will Bower said then, “only two teams in the whole country get to end their season on a win.” StFX has medalled in their last three U CUPS, doing so with 15 first-year players. But those rookies played beyond their years, especially with Liam Hawel dominating the conference all year and Matthew Struthers playing one of the best postseasons of any AUSer in recent memory. They, alongside other young stars on Brad Peddle’s team, will take another step forward in 2022-23 as a legitimate U CUP contender.
With 37 and 30 points respectively, Hawel and Struthers were the only ones to crack the 30-point barrier conference-wide last season. Yet, they weren’t alone. Fellow first-years Trott, Philip, Jacob Hudson and Josh Hudson all cracked 20 points, thriving big-time in the secondary scoring department. All of them will be back. But one key piece won’t be: captain Santino Centorame, a U CUP all-star and one of U SPORTS hockey’s best defencemen the past few seasons. Adam Holwell and Bailey Webster will lead the way in the back as fourth-years. Patrick Kyte is one to watch on the blueline too. Joseph Raaymakers returns between the pipes following a stellar playoffs, posting a 1.59 goals-against average in three AUS playoff games.
Saint Mary’s Huskies
SMU isn’t the first team everyone thinks of coming out of the AUS, but it hasn’t been long since they qualified for the national semifinal back in 2020. Unfortunately for them, nothing ever came out of it with COVID-19 forcing its cancellation.
So starting from scratch last year definitely stung some, given the AUS teams around them had gotten better. This year though? The Huskies could be the conference’s dark horse. They spent a lot of last season’s second half figuring out their offence upon Mitchell Balmas’s midseason departure for pro. It really dried up in the StFX semifinal, a series that could have been a lot uglier if not for Justin Sumarah’s heroics in net. That may ring some alarm bells but since their best playoff performers were first-years, coach Tyler Naugler’s team is poised only to go up.
The youth took over in scoring once Balmas left. Among them was Andrew Coxhead who, after being promoted to a bigger scoring role, went off for five points in four playoff games. Fellow rookies Cedric Ralph and Nathan Dunkley filled the scoresheet all year too, respectively potting 21 and 20 points. Sam King and Keith Getson are important returnees too. The blueline looks scary as Justin MacPherson and Dennis Busby emerged as two of the AUS’s best defencemen in their first years, despite Busby’s injury-shortened season. MacPherson was tied with Ralph in the team’s scoring lead (not accounting for Balmas). Sam Dunn will have a big season on defence too. Sumarah is the frontrunner for the starting job in net following his ridiculous play late last year, but Matt Welsh will get a good share of playing time as well.
Plenty has changed through the past few years across the conference. But one constant has been the UNB Reds remaining the class of the AUS. Even with unexpected breaks and the loss of key players midseason such as Nicolas Guay and Tyler Boland, they lost just four times all year: twice before and twice after the holiday break. Unfortunately, the final loss came in the U CUP quarterfinals at the hands of the TMU Bold, 2-1. Perhaps they weren’t winning all the games leading up to that by a mile. But that’s what makes them so good. Missing two of their best scorers late season? Someone from Gardiner MacDougall’s squad is always ready to step up. And everyone is always ready to shift game plans. That was evident in their low-scoring games last winter and spring. The question is if that will lead them to vengeance at nationals on P.E.I. at the end of the season.
Even now, they’ve avoided salt in the wound, beating the TMU Bold twice in preseason.
Perhaps the best Red at playing anyone’s game was Sam Dove-McFalls, but UNB’s captain finished his stint with the team following the U CUP.
Still, many options at forward remain, from star 2021-22 rookie Austen Keating to Brady Gilmour, who watch Captain Clutch for UNB in the AUS playoffs. Ryan Roth and Isaac Nurse are two more exciting returning forwards. Not to mention three of their OHL recruits — Cody Morgan, Cole MacKay and Mike Petizian — broke the 70-point plateau last year. The Reds again look good on the blueline, led by sophomores Kade Landry and Adam McCormick. Landry was tied for fourth in AUS defence scoring last season. Ross MacDougall and Noah Carroll return to the squad as seniors. Griffen Outhouse is back after backing up the departed Rylan Parenteau in goal last year. Newcomer Samuel Richard has a shot to star in net soon.
The big year has arrived for the Charlottetown-based Panthers program. UPEI hosts the national championship this coming March, so getting there isn’t an issue. It’s how much they can do against the country’s best at home. UPEI has been plagued with early exits for the better part of the last decade. In four of the last five seasons, UPEI’s season ended at the hands of SMU in the AUS quarterfinals. They last won the conference in 1991 and haven’t made the final since the turn of the century. So yes, the odds are stacked against coach “Forbie” MacPherson’s group. But in 2022-23, they will ice arguably their most exciting offensive roster in decades, with other key players around the team giving the Panthers some boosts this season.
The Panthers established something of a “big three” at forward in 2021-22, featuring tenured attackers Troy Lajeunesse, TJ Shea and Kyle Maksimovich. While those three led the team in scoring and cracked the 20-point barrier (aside from Maksimovich, who scored 19), they have a lesser-spoken-for secondary scoring unit featuring second years Carson MacKinnon and Danil Antropov. The Pilons, Drake and Darian, also established themselves as reliable attacking options as rookies. The defence will be relatively young, with Conor MacEachern and Matt Brassard as two third-year options on the back end. Kurtis Henry will bring aggression to the position. The Panthers may be strongest in net with Jonah Capriotti back in goal. His 2.32 GAA was the conference’s second-best in 2021-22, as he was awarded the team MVP honour in the spring.
Regular Season Predictions