Hockey: AUS first-half report card

Well I’ve been toying with the idea of a mid-season AUS hockey report card for a while (i.e. procrastinating), but since Evan has handed out his grades for Canada West, I guess it is time now to do my part. Unlike Evan, I’m going to allow myself some flexibility with the overall assessment, and there will be no F’s as these teams are all works in progress. Also, before the comments start I’m not going to apologize for giving UNB perhaps the most ink – they are the CIS champs, a “model franchise," and the team I know best.

UNB Varsity Reds (15-0-0, 1st place)

Forwards: A+
UNB leads the AUS in goals (84), shots per game (40.6), and shooting percentage (13.8%) and in the CIS only McGill scores more goals per game (6.4 vs. 5.6). Hunter Tremblay leads the AUS & CIS with 34 points, and his linemates John Scott Dickson (25 pts) and Chris Culligan (23 pts) are third and fourth (tie) respectively in the AUS points race. Tremblay has an AUS-leading 5 game winning goals. Dickson leads the team with 7 power play goals (2nd in AUS). Culligan leads all rookies for points in the AUS. All three are in the Top 5 for plus/minus in the AUS. Is there a better line in the AUS or CIS? UNB has four other forwards in double digits for points, and only one forward hasn’t scored a goal yet this season.

Defence: A
Graduating three starting defenceman, including their two best, was supposed to make the V-Reds a bit vulnerable. Hasn’t happened. Luke Gallant is UNB’s most improved player, with 23 points and +13. Newcomer and Memorial Cup winner Ben Shutron is +20 with a goal and 15 assists. Jonathan Harty, who’s missed the last 7 games, and Bretton Stamler are having solid second years, and Alex Aldred keeps absorbing extra ice time. Harty’s absence has been missed in physical games, and now that 6’5” rookie Josh Kidd is back in the line-up the team is stronger on the back end. All of the d-men can play UNB’s up-tempo game, and their one weakness may be that they are not built for a slogging game against a hard, grinding forecheck.

Goaltending: A+
As a team, UNB gives up the fewest shots in the AUS, 21.9 per game, which means that their goalies get the least work. When those shots do come, they are often on a rush after a turnover, or in a flurry on the power play, so they have to find a way to stay sharp. The tandem of Travis Fullerton and Derek Yeomans are both undefeated in UNB’s 15 game win streak, and have only given up a combined 29 goals. Fullerton has 2 shutouts in his 11 wins; Yeomans has one shutout in 4 wins. They are both over .900 in save percentages, and both under 2.00 for goals against. Only thrice this season has UNB been equalled or edged in shots, so V-Reds goalies are not expected to steal wins.

Special Teams: A
UNB’s power play hit a high of 30%, before slumping to 26.4% at the break, still good enough for 2nd in the AUS. They sometimes drive their fans nuts as they appear to over handle the puck when they have a man advantage. 35% of the V-Reds goals come on the PP. UNB’s penalty minutes are up 4 PIMs per game over last season, but their penalty killing has improved from 79.4% to an AUS-best 89.9%, so maybe practice makes perfect.

Intangibles: A+
Gardiner MacDougall is UNB hockey’s winningest coach, and he is quick to point out that the large team of staff and volunteers around him is as important as the team on the ice. MacDougall might be a better recruiter than coach, as he continually replaces graduates and those that leave early for the pros with key recruits that keep UNB a perennial playoff powerhouse while they are still one of the younger teams in the conference. UNB’s strength and conditioning is second to none, thanks to Ken Seaman, and is dramatically superior in the early season. When the team is healthy UNB has skaters in the stands who would be regulars on any other team in the AUS. They have the best attendance in the AUS (although the fans could do better some nights), and perhaps the greatest reach into the community. The future looks bright for the spoiled Fredericton hockey community – who really don’t need no stinkin’ Junior!

Overall Grade: A+
This is a very confident and flashy team – they are fun to watch on the ice. You really have to nit-pick to find fault with UNB, yet the team truly lives a continuous improvement process to get better every game. If their skaters were more physical, they would be less mobile. To test their goalies more they would have to give up more shots -- not good for a puck possession team. More adversity in the second half might better prepare them for the playoffs, but UNB was pushed to overtime four times plus two more close games in the first half.

Acadia Axemen (11-3-0, 2nd place)

Forwards: A-
Although less offensively challenged than last season, Acadia is only the fourth best this season with 55 goals. The top Axemen scorers, Chris Bruton and Phillipe Bertrand, are tied for 12th place in the AUS scoring race with 18 points apiece, followed by Jonathan Laberge with 17. They are +4, +6 and +6 respectively. The last couple of years Acadia had a speed-disadvantage on their Olympic-sized home ice surface against their swifter opponents such as UNB and UdeM; that gap looks a lot less apparent this season.

Defence: B+
Acadia is a defensively minded team, and they have limited their opponents to 27.5 shots per game and 44 goals against. They really missed Zack Firlotte when he was out of the line-up.

Goaltending: A-
Kristofer Westblom has the second most wins in the AUS (8), a 3.28 GAA and a respectable .879 save percentage. Michael Chiasson is 3-1 with a 2.26 GAA and .912 save percentage. Not a bad tandem at all.

Special Teams: B+
Acadia has the third best power play in the AUS (23.7%) and 35% of their offensive production comes with the man advantage. The Axemen continue to be the least penalized team in the AUS. Just as well, as they only have the sixth best penalty kill, at 75.8%.

Intangibles: A
Acadia has the second best attendance in the AUS and they are THE hockey team in the Annapolis Valley, although the new Junior A team in Bridgewater probably takes a bite out of the market. There may be pressure on coach Darren Burns to bring back the glory days of the Nineties, but the V-Reds and Huskies are in their way. There is probably still championship DNA running through the Acadia hockey program, which is never a bad thing.

Overall Grade: A
Acadia has only lost three times this season, twice to UNB and once to SMU. They may not have the stars like those teams, but they find ways to win. The Axemen keep improving and may hold off SMU for the all-important second-place first round playoff bye. Lost in the UNB buzz is the fact that Acadia is riding a nine game winning streak.

Saint Mary’s Huskies (9-3-3, 3rd place)

Forwards: A
Only UNB scores more goals and puts more shots on net in the AUS. SMU has 67 goals and 543 shots so far. Cam Fergus is 2nd in the AUS with 28 points; Marc Rancourt is tied for 5th with 23 points and Cody Thorton is tied for 10th place with 19 points. Their plus/minuses aren’t as impressive as the UNB leaders: +7 for Fergus, +6 for Rancourt and +2 for Thorton. Thorton is tied for the AUS lead with 14 goals, and is tops in the conference with 10 goals on the PP. Fergus has one more shot on net (71) than UNB’s Tremblay to lead the AUS, and has three game winning goals. No other SMU forwards are in double digits in points, but four of them have four or more goals.

Defence: A
SMU gets a lot of offence from two of their defencemen – Andrew Hotham has 27 points to lead all AUS d-men and David MacDonald has 20. However they are +4 and +6 respectively. SMU gives up the second least number of shots in the AUS (364), so the back end is doing its job.

Goaltending: A-
Veteran Brandon Verge is having an off year (3-2-2, 3.83 GAA, .845 save percentage) for him, and looks to have been supplanted by rookie Neil Conway (6-0-1) who has two shutout wins, and both an AUS leading 1.78 GAA and .922 save percentage. The team GAA of 2.93 is second only to UNB.

Special Teams: A
The (in)famous SMU power play had a bit of a slow start, but improved to an AUS leading 27.3% at the break. MacDonald has done a good job replacing Scott Hotham on the “Fab Five”. Forty percent of the Huskies goals come from their power play. Penalty killing has been almost as strong – SMU is second best at 88.6%. SMU has had fewer penalties to kill this year, as they’ve gone from the most visits to the penalty box to become the third least penalized team in the AUS.

Intangibles: B+
The Huskies have played in six overtime games so far, and split the wins, so mixed success. That is a lot of extra points at play in the standings. One wonders if the-period-that-shall-not-be-discussed still haunts this team. The Huskies play in the venerable Halifax Forum, which is far too big for their average crowds. Like Dal, they play in a bit of a vacuum, as the Q's Halifax Mooseheads suck all of the air out of the local hockey market. At Saint Mary's it seems like the hockey team is third fiddle to football and basketball.

Overall Grade: A
Coach Trevor Stienburg proved last season that his teams can beat UNB, and the last game of this half saw them force UNB to overtime in a low-scoring affair (2-1 for UNB). This team should be on a mission to get back to Thunder Bay, but they haven't looked that way every game.

StFX X-Men (7-5-3, 4th place)

Forwards: B+
StFX has the third best offence in the AUS, led by Bryce Swan with 19 points (tied for 10th place). Five other forwards are in double-digits for points. StFX is more focused on a physical game than the teams ahead of them in the standings and as a result take inopportune penalties at times.

Defence: B
StFX graduated their three best defencemen, but rookies Spencer McAvoy, Nick Pageau and Josh Day have stepped right in and should continue to improve in the second half. However as a team StFX give up more shots on net than they take, and have been scored on more than they score. That needs to be better.

Goaltending: B+
Rookie Bryan Gillis and near-rookie Joey Perricone have been pretty solid in nets, when not hampered by the flu. Perricone has the third best save percentage in the AUS (.907) and a 3.35 GAA. Gillis' stats aren't as good, but he does have one more win. Gillis has already stolen a win from SMU and a point from UNB while Perricone stole a point against Acadia in games where they were badly outshot.

Special Teams: C
The X-Men power play is only so-so at 16% and their penalty kill is the worst in the AUS at 71.2%. Luckily for them StFX has improved to be the second-least penalized team in the conference.

Intangibles: B-
The X-Men are 0-3 in overtime. Coach Brad Peddle has a lot of new faces this year, and those rookies are getting a lot of ice time. The fan support is good at just under a thousand. The team graduated a lot of experience. X seems to win and lose in bunches - they lost their last three games heading into the break.

Overall Grade: B
With the young defence and goalies this team should get batter in the second half, and probably won't be fun to meet in the playoffs.

UPEI Panthers (6-7-2, 5th place)

Forwards: B+
As a team, UPEI is in the middle of the pack for goals scored, with Matt Carter tied for 8th place in the scoring race with 20 points, and Chad Locke tied for 12th with 18 points. There are four other forwards in double digits. Two top forwards from last season quit this fall without playing a game.

Defence: B
On average UPEI gives up 9 more shots on net than they take, so the defence could improve. Rookie Dylan Quaile has become the top offensive d-man with 13 points to date as Brett Nasby continues to spend a lot of time on the shelf.

Goaltending: B-
Jhase Snideman is not having a great second year: 5.72 GAA, .833 save percentage, 1-3-0 record. Fortunately Wayne Savage is playing better, and getting more starts as he has a 3.40 GAA, .901 save percentage and a 5-4-2 record. On the bad side, both have been lit up by UNB: Sniderman to start the year and Savage to close out the first half.

Special Teams: C
UPEI has the second worst power play in the conference, at 15.1%, with only 11 goals on the PP. Their penalty killing has been pretty good, at 79.5%, and gets a lot of work, as the Panthers are the most penalized team in the AUS with an average of 29.6 PIM per game, almost 5 PIM worse than the next team.

Intangibles: D
The Panthers are 2-3-0 since the players revolted and forced the coaching change in mid November. New coach Forbie MacPherson has his hands full learning what he has to work with on the ice. This was/is a team in turmoil: some players chose not to come back from last year, some quit in the fall, and more threatened to quit at the break if the coaching didn’t change. Well, the players own the situation now. The fan base has been growing over the last couple of years, and hopefully they stick with the team.

Overall Grade: C+

This team could reinvent itself over the holidays and become a playoff threat again, or it could tailspin into indifference and slide out of the playoff picture. The jury’s out …

St. Thomas Tommies (4-8-2, 6th place)

Forwards: B-
STU needs more goals. They’re tied for 6th place in the AUS with 3.29 goals per game. Rookie Kenton Dulle leads the team with 16 points (but only +1) and only two other forwards are in double digits.

Defence: C+
The Tommies give almost 36 shots per game, so they’re not helping the goalies. Andrew “AA” Andricopoulos leads the D, and captain Erick Tremblay and Brad Gallant have the best plus/minuses at -2 and -1 respectively.

Goaltending: C+
Of the three goalies, only rookie Charles Lavigne has wins, four, and a 3.76 GAA and .895 save percentage. When Lavigne is healthy, he can steal wins or points. When he can’t go, STU stuggles.

Special Teams: B
The Tommies power play is fourth best in the conference, at 21.3%, and accounts for 37% of STU’s goals. The penalty kill is the fifth best in the AUS as 77.5%, and STU is the second heaviest penalized team in the conference.

Intangibles: B-

Coach Mike Eagles has recruiting challenges: he shares a campus with mighty UNB and his school doesn’t offer the same breadth of academic programs. The LBR doesn’t compare to the AUC, and STU’s attendance keeps dropping as the team struggles. Like Eagles the former NHLer, his teams work hard and they have twice this season pushed UNB to OT.

Overall Grade: C+
Right now the Tommies look like they will go as far as Lavigne can carry them, but should be able to hold onto their playoff spot.

Dalhousie Tigers (3-8-3, 7th place)

Forwards: C+
The Tigers score the same number of goals as the Tommies, and have one less win. The good news is that scoring is spread through the lineup; the bad news is veteran Patrick Sweeney leads the team with only 11 points.

Defence: C-
Rookie Benoit Gervais, although -10, and veteran Ryan Jenner (+5) are probably the best Tigers on the back end right now. Hopefully the newer players can continue to improve, as right now they’re giving up 38.5 shots per game.

Goaltending: C-
The bane of coach Pete Belliveau’s existence last season, on the whole goaltending has improved by more than half a goal allowed per game, but it is not enough. To be fair, Dal’s goalie troika was hit hard by the flu in the first half. Rookie Bobby Nadeau is the only goalie to earn W’s, just 3, with a 4.48 GAA and .884 save percentage. He does lead the AUS with 352 saves, or 32 per game.

Special Teams: C-
Dal’s special teams weren’t so special last year, and they have improved some. The power play is the sixth best, cashing in 15.4% of the time. The penalty kill is the second worst, at 71.6%.

Intangibles: B
Belliveau had added more than ten players this season, so it would be understandable that it will take time for this team to gel. The Dal hockey program is reportedly well funded and Belliveau has a history of building winning teams, so the future looks bright, but maybe not quite yet. Unlike SMU they have a comfortable on-campus rink, but the Huskies still outdraw them. I guess winning is important in Halifax. One plus is that Dal is the largest school in the hockey conference with a wealth of academic choices. However, instead of chasing high-end recruits who spurn school for the pros, Dal perhaps needs to aim one level down and build a core of good meat-n-potatoes players who will stick around.

Overall Grade: C-
This is another rebuilding year, so expectations perhaps shouldn’t be too high, especially when Nadeau isn’t in nets.

Moncton Aigles Bleus (3-11-0, 8th and last place)

Forward: D
Almost unbelievably Moncton has scored the fewest goals in the AUS, 38, or 2.71 per game. Captain Pierre-Andre Bureau leads the team with 14 points, but is -4. Every player with more than four games played is a minus, other than Alexander Soucy who is at 0.

Defence: D
To add to their woes Moncton has given up the most goals in the AUS. The injury to Mathieu Richard certainly hasn’t helped the defensive corps. While UdeM has size, they don’t have speed this year and get exposed too often.

Goaltending: D
It has been a nightmare year for veteran goaltender Kevin Lachance. His 3.13 GAA of last season has ballooned to 4.61 this season. His save percentage last year? .910. This year? .856. Understudy P-A Marion is not finding life much easier.
Special Teams: C
UdeM’s power play is dead last, at 14.9%. Penalty killing is much better – third place and 81.5% successful. That’s good, as penalties are up 6 PIM per game over last season.

Intangibles: C
How the mighty have fallen. U de M didn’t replace their graduates with players of similar skills. Quite simply there aren’t enough QMJHL grads on this team to make them competitive. New coach Serge Bourgeois has a more team defence orientation, but the lesson doesn’t seem to be taking yet. The remodeled J-Louis Levesgue Arena is much more casual-fan-friendly, they still have great ice, and the fans are still coming, and there are still four CIS banners hanging up, so all is not lost ...

Overall Grade: D
Hopefully Moncton can turn their season around in the second half, as the first half had everyone watching scratching their heads. On paper this should be a playoff team, and they look that way many nights. Then there is that 11-0 stinker at SMU on Nov. 14, probably a record loss for U de M. Which team will it be down the stretch?
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