ORONO — Red Gendron and Devin Shore see bigger things ahead for the Maine men’s hockey team.
Bigger skaters, bigger stakes.
The Black Bears wrapped up a 16-15-4 season with a sweep by Providence in the Hockey East quarterfinals a week ago.
The question was, did the undersized team hit a wall late in the season or did it just find its ceiling?
“I believe we could have done a little bit better than we did in terms of the results. But I don’t think what you can question is how committed these people were to getting that done,” Gendron, in his first year as head coach, said last week.
“You go into the last week of the season and you can finish second in Hockey East, which is a pretty good conference, that says something about the body of work our people had put together to that point. There were a lot of good things. But nobody up here is happy.”
The offseason began with the team voting for its captains for next winter. Shore, a first-line center who led the team in scoring as a sophomore, will wear the C. Defenseman Jake Rutt and winger Stu Higgins, who will be two of the team’s four seniors next season, will be alternate captains.
They will look to build on what Maine was able to accomplish during a two-month stretch that revealed the Black Bears at their hard-charging best. Maine went 7-3-2 from mid-November to mid-January, with a pair of blowouts of Boston University and a stirring 5-1 home victory against first-place Boston College.
The Black Bears were jumping on opponents early, unrelenting on the forecheck.
But that stretch of play masked the team’s stunning inability to win on the road, where Maine finished 1-12-3.
And it also showed that pluck will take you only so far. Maine lacked size and was a relatively young team, with 15 underclassmen.
Shore said fatigue was not a factor in a 1-5-1 finish to the season, but the Black Bears seemed to be playing with heavier legs as the winter wore on.
On the final weekend of the season, they had the chance to secure a first-round bye and home ice in the quarterfinals of the playoffs. Instead they were swept at home by Providence, forced to fend off last-place Merrimack in a one-game playoff, then ousted at Providence last weekend.
“We weren’t able to get it done down the stretch and we weren’t able to score those big goals to win those big games. It still stings a little bit,” Shore said.
“That’s no secret that we were a small team. There’s ways to work through that. And when the season’s on the line, you can’t blame the fact that you weren’t physically able to find the energy or find the strength because that’s what championship teams are able to do.”
Help is on the way. Gendron is bringing in a recruiting class that emphasizes size. Incoming freshmen are expected to include defensemen Malcolm Hayes (6-foot-3, 210 pounds) and Mark Hamilton (6-2, 210), and forwards Joseph Widmar (6-0, 205) and Nolan Vesey (6-1, 185).
Gendron also expects his returning players, like Shore, to pack on some muscle. Shore led the Black Bears with 43 points with 185 pounds on his 6-1 frame. He and defenseman Ben Hutton were named first-team Hockey East as sophomores.
“If his body will handle being 10 or 12 pounds heavier, all muscle, to me he’s a scary player,” Gendron said of Shore. “Because he’s really strong right now. That makes your shot a little bit better, that inch or two that you need to get free and get to the net and get a really good chance. That’s really what it comes down to when you get to this level. An improvement in your strength, your explosiveness, can really show up in your numbers.”
Shore plans to return to his home near Toronto this summer to work on his game. The Dallas Stars’ draft pick said he never gave much thought to turning pro.
“We have so much unfinished business. I see so much potential with this group. And the past two years that I’ve been here, we haven’t been able to get it done,” Shore said.
“That (turning pro) would be something I’d have to talk to my family about, but right now my plan is to come back. It would be a dream come true to get to the (TD) Garden (for the Hockey East semifinals) and to the national tournament, and really put this program back on the map. Because there have been so many legends that have come before us and have put their mark on Maine hockey, and everyone who still gets the opportunity to put on the jersey still wants to leave their own legacy of being one of the championship teams at Maine.”
It will help if the Black Bears can identify a strong goaltender. That is the biggest question for next season. Martin Ouellette set a program record with 926 saves in his senior season. His backup, Dan Sullivan, also graduates.
That leaves a competition among three goalies with limited experience in Division I.
Matt Morris started two games as a freshman before taking a medical redshirt last season. Nik Nugnes came aboard at midseason to get a taste of what major college hockey looks like. And Sean Romeo is expected to arrive after posting an unremarkable 6-19-1 record with a 3.49 goals-against average this year for the Youngstown Phantoms of the U.S. Hockey League.
Despite that uncertainty, Gendron is confident his program is on the upswing. The Black Bears were 11-19-6 in 2012-13, after which Tim Whitehead was dismissed. Reaching .500 was a significant step. But Gendron knows it can’t become the plateau.
“The way that I’ll be judged eventually is whether or not we can win championships here. And that’s it,” Gendron said.
“We’re keeping score. Somebody has to win. And it needs to be us.
Mark Emmert can be contacted at 791-6424 or at: