For the second season in a row in 2016-17 the Sacred Heart Pioneers finished 9th in Atlantic hockey, collected 10 wins in conference play, 13 wins out of conference and finished with 23 points. That is consistency, just maybe not the consistency fans in Fairfield, Connecticut (the few of those who show up, Sacred Heart was dead last in attendance in all of D1 last season averaging just 373 fans per game) are hoping for. Head coach C.J. Marottolo, entering his 9th season at the helm, is still trying to find the magic he had in his first season at Sacred Heart when he led the Pioneers to a 21-13-4 record, the only winning season he has shepherded. The Pioneers must replace four of their top five scorers from last season, meaning that this could be a tough year for the Pioneers to stay consistent.
While there was not excitement from a step forward in terms of wins last season, the administration at Sacred Heart did show a commitment to the program moving the team from Milford Arena to Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport. Webster Bank Arena is the home of the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers and could be vital to the Pioneers’ recruiting efforts. With a new arena commitment can come increased scrutiny so it will be interesting to see if the Pioneers answer the challenge in 2017-18.
The Pioneers are replacing 10 seniors from last season, with the lowest amount of games played among them being 20. Those graduating seniors take with them 56 of the total 88 goals scored last season, a nervewracking 63% of the total goals gone. Sacred Heart is a team that likes to play with speed to offset size discrepancies and they will be searching for someone to break out this season. The highest returning point total belongs to junior defensemen Liam Clare, who scored one goal last season while collecting 21 assists.
Sacred Heart was 48th in goals scored per game last season, averaging 2.38 per contest but did make a bit of a jump in their underlying possession numbers as they were 35th in the country in Corsi For (48.3%). If Sacred Heart can take better advantage of their possession numbers that goals per game stat may increase. Of course, it could be hard to continue with those possession numbers replacing so many players this season. One way to recover some of the offense lost would be to improve a power play that was in the worst ten nationally scoring on just 14.29% of their chances.
Sacred Heart tied for 40th nationally surrendering 3.14 goals against per game and had a top 10 penalty kill that operated at 85.6%. That was huge for them as Sacred Heart was the 4th most penalized team in the country averaging 17.30 minutes per game. They will need to find some discipline this season if there is to be any improvement in wins.
As mentioned above defensemen Liam Clare returns for his junior season as the leading scorer back from 2016-17. Also back for the Pioneers is Ruslan Rakhmatov a sophomore from Moskva, Russia who will be a sophomore this season. Rakhmatov had a strong freshman campaign playing in 35 games and brings a physical, nasty side to the game as he racked up 106 penalty minutes. Rakhmatov impressed enough in his freshman season to earn a trip to the Columbus Blue Jackets Development Camp as an undrafted prospect. The Pioneers need Rakhmatov on the ice this season and spending less of his time in the box.
In net the Pioneers return 100% of their saves with the tandem of Brett Magnus and Nathan Perry. It is Magnus’ net as he appeared in 27 games last season, compared to Perry appearing in just 13. Magnus saw both his goals against average (2.99) and save percentage (.901) perform more poorly than his freshman season in Fairfield and this team will lean on him early with all the roster turnover.
Player to Watch- Stephen Hladin is the leading returning goal scorer as the sophomore scored 9 goals last season, made all the more impressive if you take into account that he dressed 0 games in his freshman season. Hladin led the OJHL in points in 2014-15 (104) and was voted that league’s MVP. With all the scoring missing from last season this junior year will be a time to shine for Hladin.
Freshman to Watch– Marc Johnstone comes to Fairfield after being the captain of the 2017 USHL Champion Chicago Steel. Johnstone will be a 21 year old freshman who can provide veteran leadership despite being new to campus which will be key for the Pioneers. Johnstone was a point per game player in the 2017 playoffs and had a 9-20-29 scoring line in 59 regular season games.
Breakout Player to Watch- Jason Cotton sat out last season after transferring from Northeastern University in 2015-16. Cotton was a point per game player his two seasons in the BCHL before he enrolled at Northeastern and should be a nice veteran addition to a young team.