This year marks the 30th year for coach Rick Gotkin behind the bench for the Mercyhurst Lakers. Gotkin has guided the program since 1988-89, saw it move to Division II in 1992-92 and then Division I in 2000-01 leading the program to the NCAA tournament in Division I 3 times. The Lakers have only one of those NCAA berths since joining Atlantic Hockey in 2004-05. However, since that season the Lakers have won less than 15 games just once, finding themselves as a consistently middle of the pack program in Atlantic Hockey. This season with their 6 top scorers back from last season the fans in Erie, Pennsylvania will be hoping the Lakers have what it takes to be in position to make a run at the Atlantic Hockey Playoff Championship and an NCAA auto-bid.
2016-17 was a season of close games that could have swung the season in a different direction for the Lakers. They played in 14 one goal games, winning 6 while losing 8. Of those 6 wins half came in overtime while only 2 of the losses were in the extra frame. The Lakers also skated to 4 ties. If the team can find a way to win more close games than they lose this season, while also continuing to find ways to win in OT it could be the difference in possibly reaching the top 4 spot needed to earn a bye to hosting a 2nd round playoff series. Last season the Lakers finished 7 points out of that spot that was claimed by Robert Morris.
The underlying advanced stats show that Mercyhurst may have finished slightly a bit better than expected, while also highlighting their struggles in winning close games. Mercyhurst had the 3rd worst Corsi For in close games, meaning within one goal in periods 1+2 or tied in period 3, in the conference (46.7). However, Mercyhurst had an overall Corsi For of 47.9 which was good enough four league opponents which would translate perfectly to their league finish. This shows that Mercyhurst racked up shots in “blowouts”, inflating their numbers when they were running away with games or losing against teams who took their foot off the gas, and that they struggled to stay even with teams that were playing strong systems in close games. This inability to control more of the play in close games will hold back Mercyhurst from making the strides they need to this season.
On the bright side the Lakers return 78% of their goals from last season including their top four goal scorers. Three of those four goal scorers were sophomores who if they can find another level as they are now upper class men could lead this team back to the 3rd weekend of the playoffs. Mercyhurst needs to find increased output from their power play which was a bottom quadrant unit last year at 15.35%, which was a killer as the Lakers were given the 3rd most power play opportunities in the entire country, 202. This decrese was a 20 place dropoff and 3.2% denigration from where the Mercyhurst power play was in 2015-16. This unit has to be better in 2017-18 if the Lakers want to find more offense in their game.
The Lakers actually saw some solid contributions from their blue line in terms of goals, as the defense corps potted 16.9% of the teams total goals (18 of 106). Only 2 of those goals are lost due to graduation and all three defensemen who scored 5 goals a piece are back. Joseph Duszak was one of those defensemen who contributed 5 goals last season, with only one coming on the power play. Duszak also was a +5 on the season good for third among defensemen. More impressive for Duszak is that he did this in just 29 games played so hopefully a full sophomore season this year can lead to increased output. Jeremy Wu is a thoughtful defensemen who led the defense with a +8 last year playing in all 39 games and should be a leader this season. Lester Lancaster who scored 5 power play goals in his freshman campaign in 2015-16 while being 2nd on the team in points is back for his junior season looking to return to his goal scoring prowess.
Mercyhurst split the net last season, but does return all 100% of its saves made, with senior goaltender Brandon Wildung and sophomore Colin DeAugustine. Wildung was given the net early in the season but sputtered out of the gate surrendering four or more goals in 50% of his appearances (5/10) before January. DeAugustine surrendered 4 or more goals just 3 times in 20 games and replaced Wildung in the 3rd period of game 1 of Mercyhurt’s 1st game against Army in the AHA Quarterfinals. DeAugstine would get the next two starts going 1-1. This will be a competition to start the season but the Lakers need better from both goaltenders than a low .9 save percentage.
Player to Watch- Jonathan Charbonneau has scored 16 goals in back-to-back seasons for the Lakers and returns to Erie for his senior campaign in 2017-18. Charbonneau was tied for the team league with 5 power play goals also matching his number from 2015-16. Charbonneau is a consistent offensive threat and should be looking for something to prove as he plays for a pro contract.
Breakout Player to Watch- Matthew Whittaker, tied Charbonneau for the team lead in power play goals last season and saw his goal total jump from 3 to 9 in his sophomore season. Whittaker could help provide some more offense again this season helping Charbonneau carry the load and give Mercyhurst a power play with some more teeth.
Freshman to Watch- Dalton Hunter is a right wing who was a point per game player for the Johnstown Tomahawks of the NAHL last season. This was an explosion for Hunter who in his first two seasons scored 8 goals and then saw that number jump to 30 last year. This season was good enough to allow Hunter to commit to Mercyhurst in February and make the NAHL’s All-East Division Team.