Halifax N.S. – We’re back, baby! The 2023-24 U SPORTS AUS men’s hockey season is upon us and if it’s anything like last year, we’re in for some good hockey.
All the talk in the conference begins and ends with the UNB Reds, coming off yet another national championship and a much-desired first title since the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly the entire championship team is back in Fredericton as the clear frontrunners to win both the conference and country.
But in true AUS fashion, it’s never a linear path. The Saint Mary’s Huskies pose the greatest threat to UNB’s title defence, boasting a battle-hardened and virtually reunited team from 2022-23. They took UNB the distance in last year’s championship.
The StFX X-Men did the same the year before and have much of their core ready to rebound from a disappointing finish to 2022-23. Pesky teams such as the Acadia Axemen and Moncton Aigles Bleus could catch fire at any given point, while the rebuilding UPEI Panthers and Dalhousie Tigers will strive to prove the doubters wrong.
U SPORTS’ notorious easternmost conference will again be a dogfight as up to three U Cup seeds could be up for grabs.
Keep an eye out for 49 Sports’ AUS women’s hockey previews later this week.
It doesn’t seem any team has improved as much since the middle of last season as Acadia. The team won just five of 18 before the holiday break in 2022-23. But they turned that around by winning six of their last 10 regular season games — a preview of what was to come in the playoffs.
They stunned the 2022 U SPORTS bronze-medallist StFX X-Men in two games — thanks in part to backup-turned-playoff-hero stopper Conor McCollum. While they couldn’t continue that success against the SMU Huskies in the conference semis, the team went down swinging and holding their heads high.
Through the team’s four preseason matchups, it’s clear the team has lots of life. The best thing for them? The Axemen are facing the least amount of pressure in a long time, unlike in recent years preparing to host the U Cup.
The team is young, with just one fourth-year (Morgan Nauss) in the lineup and a heavy rookie class. That group includes some exciting names. Forward Ethan Ernst scored at a point-per-game pace with WHL Tri-City last season. QMJHL Saint John’s leading scorer Brady Burns (son of Acadia coach Darren) and his junior teammate Charlie Desroches also join. The two won the Memorial Cup with Saint John in 2022, under UNB Reds coach Gardiner MacDougall.
The returning class is chalked with exciting sophomores. Last year’s four leading scorers — Liam Kidney (19 points), Cole Nagy (18), Corson Hopwo (17) and Bailey Peach (17) — enter their second year with big expectations. The D-corps is dominated by third years, namely Luke Zazula and Reilly Webb. With McCollum’s departure, Zachary Paputsakis will be challenged between the pipes by three recruits: Jett Miller, Brayden Peters and Thomas Couture.
With Acadia’s track record for rookie success, plus positive momentum for many young returnees, the Axemen could again compete for the AUS banner sooner than we think.
It was unfortunate that the loss of Dal’s three best players in 2021-22 was enough to tank the team back into the cycle of misery it endured over the 20 years before. That was their revival season, blasting to a third-place regular season finish.
Less than 19 months later, the Tigers are again in the AUS basement. The team was dead in the water by the 2022 holidays, losing all but two games before then. They missed the playoffs by a gaping 10-point margin. Their minus-72 goal differential was 46 below the next-closest team.
This is where it gets interesting. Remember Derek Gentile and Barrett Kirwin, two of those big names who left for professional opportunities in early 2022? They’re back. Gentile impressively snagged third place in the 2021-22 scoring race despite playing six fewer games than everyone else, with linemate Kirwin packing an equally-heavy punch. They reunite with Shaun Miller and will bring some much-needed excitement to the Halifax Forum this season.
The question becomes: will the return of those talents be enough to reintroduce Dal as an AUS competitor? The top line alone should enhance the AUS’s last-ranked offence and ease the loss of last year’s two leading scorers Matt Green and Campbell Pickard. Evan MacKinnon and Liam Peyton are slated to take some big steps after solid rookie campaigns.
The Tigers have slowly built depth on the blueline with veterans Josh Wainman and Jarrett Baker leading the way. The size stands out — six-foot-seven Jackson van de Leest had a good first season in 2022-23 and the addition of six-foot-six Ethan Martini will be an imposing one. For the first time in years, Reilly Pickard nor Connor Hicks will be in the Dalhousie net. Duties will fall to Alexander MacDonald, who won four of his 13 starts last season.
It remains an uphill climb for coach Chris Donnelly’s squad, who are possibly embarking on their last season before their new on-campus home rink opens. That’s sure to bring hype (and recruiting clout), so this season will be about building up to it.
Moncton Aigles Bleus
The Aigles Bleus are a wildcard. Since the COVID-19-scrapped season, there have been long stretches of time where the eastern New Brunswickans have struggled to keep up with any AUS team. Other times, they’ve crushed everyone — whether by an offensive eruption or goalie Etienne Montpetit’s heroics. Moncton is by and far the most unpredictable team in the AUS.
That was their 2022-23. The Aigles Bleus flew out of the gate, winning six of their first eight games of the season. It started going downhill before the holidays, before crashing and burning in the new year with just one win in its final 15 regular season contests.
Remarkably, they snuck into the postseason. That’s when they stunned U Cup host UPEI in three games, thanks to a double-overtime marker from Olivier-Luc Hache. The only team that could stop UdeM’s momentum was UNB — although they didn’t make it an easy out.
A lot of that team will be back this season, including top forwards Hache, Nathael Roy and Edouard St-Laurent. Roy in particular is one of the AUS premier scorers — leading his team in points the last two seasons and tying for third in the 2021-22 scoring race. Sophomore Jeremy Michel and senior Remy Anglehart will have plenty of opportunities in the places of Mika Cyr and Vincent Deslauriers.
Moncton’s blueline has always been understated, despite winning many games by themselves in recent seasons. The face of that D-corps is Jacob Dion, whose 30 points in 2022-23 were the sixth-best of conference defenders. The returns of veterans Yann-Félix Lapointe and Thomas Cusson are big.
Then the goaltending question. Montpetit is finished after four seasons at UdeM. The battle comes down to newcomer Olivier Adam and Félix-Anthony Ethier, who backed up Montpetit last season. It’s expected coach Derek Cormier will let the netminders duke it out most of the season. While unlikely either of them will find Montpetit magic, it may not matter if the team gets hot at the right time again.
Saint Mary’s Huskies
It’s been a long road for the SMU Huskies. They were a U Cup semifinalist in 2020 before COVID-19 cancelled the tournament. The StFX X-Men ended an inspiring postseason run in 2021. And they came within a game of the AUS banner last year, before bowing out in the U Cup quarterfinals.
Now, the Huskies have their best shot of winning the country since their lone title in 2010. Coming off an impressive season, they welcome back an impressive returning group — minus notable departures like Keith Getson and Dawson Theede. The recruits coach Tyler Naugler brought in this summer may just be enough to prevent his group from missing a beat.
Returnees Andrew Coxhead — coming off a 14-goal, 24-point season — and Nathan Dunkley could challenge for the AUS scoring crown. Dunkley led SMU with 28 points in 25 games and tied for the team playoff scoring lead. Cedric Ralph is a returning top-line talent while Thomas Casey joins from UNB to bolster the top six. Liam Van Loon and Charlie Dafonseca boast a ton of upside.
SMU may have the best blueline in U SPORTS. That charge is led by star third-year Justin MacPherson — not only a minute-munching workhorse but a point-per-game talent all season long. Jaxon Bellamy tied for the team lead in playoff scoring as a rookie blueliner. Connor Olson, Dennis Busby and Caelan MacPhee add to SMU’s insane blueline depth.
Speaking of bests, the goalie tandem is the envy of many U SPORTS teams. Jeremy Helvig has cemented the number one spot — coming off a ridiculous .947 percentage in seven AUS playoff games. Behind him, Matt Welsh and Justin Sumarah are also proven U SPORTS starters, impressing when needed.
Coach Naugler said last year all the pieces at SMU were in place and it was a matter of experience to make the next jump. They got plenty of that experience in last year’s run. It will be exciting to see how they use it in this year’s.
StFX is just a season removed from a U SPORTS bronze medal. But heading into 2023-24, they find themselves with many question marks. How will they solve their defensive woes? How will they bounce back from a dismal quarterfinal exit against Acadia? And how will they handle the exit of longtime coach Brad Peddle (now scouting for the Columbus Blue Jackets, but still with X as their general manager)?
The core of Liam Hawel, Matt Struthers, Bailey Webster and goalie Joseph Raaymakers are in their upper years. They can still score at the best of rates and have (and still can) taken this team very deep into the season. However, teams like SMU and Acadia are catching up around them.
But X has one significant intangible: their longevity. That core and most of the forward group have been together for two whole seasons now. With so many returnees, the recruiting class was small yet concentrated on the defensive side. That will turn the attention of associate head coaches Dave Stewart and Sean Donovan to a more all-around game.
The offense contains few worries, despite being hit with a hot Acadia goalie in last year’s quarters. They’re led by two-time AUS MVP Hawel, Struthers and Jacob Hudson — the only AUS players to crack 35 points last season. Elsewhere, Matthew Philip thrives under pressure and plays with the stars in big situations. Josh Nelson led the team in goals last season while Zack Trott is a deadly under-the-radar option.
The defence is deep, with eight on this year’s roster. Bailey Webster and brother Clark will be leaned on in the defensive zone. Rookies Raegan Wiles and Charlie Callaghan look like promising options to fill two-way roles. Brendon Clavelle will get more offensive reps with the star forwards as Patrick Kyte transfers to UNB. In net, Raaymakers enters the season with the starting job after winning half of his games in 2022-23.
X is getting some new faces where they need it most. If they can hold opponents off the board without sacrificing too much of their own scoring, there’s no doubt they can make noise in the AUS and return to the national stage.
Ladies and gentlemen, the mighty UNB Reds. In March, UNB delivered a hockey masterclass in Charlottetown to capture the University Cup (a trophy known intimately to the Reds as Irene) for the first time since 2019. There’s no question UNB has been considered a dynasty with their four U Cups in the last six seasons and eight wins in the last 15. The Reds could even be considered the greatest dynasty in modern Canadian hockey history.
In 2023-24, they remain by and far the favourites to repeat as AUS and U SPORTS champions. UNB’s returning cast is the best in a conference full of outstanding returning casts. Only four players who played in the national final versus the Alberta Golden Bears aren’t returning: veteran defencemen Ross MacDougall, Connor Hall and Noah Carroll, plus scoring gem and AUS playoff MVP Simon Pinard.
Those are some strong departing players, but coach Gardiner MacDougall’s teams are as win-by-committee as it gets. Just look at the “first-year veteran” performances at the U Cup: MVP Samuel Richard in net, plus Cody Morgan and Michael Petizian delivering in the biggest moments.
It’s hard not to be excited about this entire team. At forward, 2022-23 team leading scorer Brady Gilmour and captain Jason Willms return. Austen Keating is a premier offensive talent in the country and Morgan continues to rise after finishing tied for sixth in AUS scoring. The physical Macauley Carson, speedy Isaac Nurse and calculated Petizian round out a frightening offense.
The blueline will see the most reform. It will be an incredibly mobile group led by Adam McCormick, who proved himself as one of U SPORTS’ best 200-foot players last season. Kade Landry is among the AUS’s most underrated defencemen, while Kale McCallum will be eager to bounce back after missing the U Cup hurt. Additionally, StFX veteran Patrick Kyte will bring leadership and an offensive flare from the backend. In net, Richard enters his second season following a career’s worth of accomplishments in his rookie season.
Winning the country back-to-back is hard and UNB will face those obstacles right away in a difficult AUS conference — especially from 2022-23 AUS final opponent SMU. But this Reds team, winners of five straight AUS banners, is built for these challenges. After all, all they know is winning.
The Panthers didn’t medal when they hosted nationals in Charlottetown in March, but they achieved so much more. UPEI made crucial statements on the national stage — knocking off the U SPORTS top-ranked Calgary Dinos in the tournament quarters and giving the 2022 national champion UQTR Patriotes all they could handle in the bronze-medal matchup.
The team’s first win at a national tournament since 1987 in front of a sold-out Eastlink Centre was the highlight of its first national appearance in more than 30 years. Not even a controversial semifinal against Alberta could shake the Panthers’ positives.
Six months later, it’s a very different time. A seemingly endless list of players played their final games in green and white against UQTR: Kyle Maksimovich, Troy Laujenesse, Matt Brassard, TJ Shea, the Pilon twins. And many more.
Now, UPEI’s roster has an insane 70 per cent of players entering their first year of U SPORTS hockey. Last year’s lineup was star-studded, especially at forward. The only returning bonafide AUS star in 2023-24 is veteran goaltender Jonah Capriotti. Yet, he’s a great piece for coach Forbie MacPherson to build from as the Panthers return to the drawing board in many respects.
The forward arrangement will be interesting to see unfold. U SPORTS is notorious for allowing low-scoring junior talents to blossom into scoring leaders — and even the opposite. Kaleb Pearson will lead those new faces up front after a stellar U Cup. Some of the new guys include NCAA-experienced Cade Kowalski, tenured Erie Otters Noah Sedore and Elias Cohen, plus P.E.I. product Keiran Gallant.
The defence will face the loss of star defenceman Brassard but is in steady shape with four returnees. Third-year Kurtis Henry and senior David D’Agostino join sophomores Logan Kelly-Murphy and Leon Denny in that group. Cameron Morton and Cole Larkin join out of major junior. Meanwhile, Capriotti will hold the reigns in goal with Jacob Ranger and Jakob Robillard battling for backup.
It would take a miraculous performance for UPEI to pull off anything close to their sky-high accomplishments last season. But with a group this large sticking around for at least four whole years, the Panthers will have a good shot at the AUS banner again within a couple of seasons.
Luke’s regular season predictions
- UNB Reds
- Saint Mary’s Huskies
- StFX X-Men
- Moncton Aigles Bleus
- Acadia Axemen
- Dalhousie Tigers
- UPEI Panthers
AUS final: Saint Mary’s Huskies def. UNB Reds two games to one
Potential third-place matchup: Acadia Axemen def. StFX X-Men
COVER PHOTO – The UNB Reds celebrate after defeating the Saint Mary’s Huskies 4-1 in game three of the 2022-23 AUS championship series on March 9, 2023.