Marty St. Louis, Eric Lang, Rick Bennett? Plus a look at the recruiting situation in Burlington
Hi guys, I’ve been working on my new uncommitted list and some other projects that will be up here soon but I figured I would spend some time writing about some potential candidates for the new coaching staff at Vermont in the wake of Kevin Sneddon’s hiring. I’ll also look at the recruiting situation at Vermont.
Vermont, having not won a game in Hockey East for over a calendar year, will almost certainly start fresh with a new coaching staff. A factor in bringing on the best candidate for head coach very well could be giving said hire the ability to put together his own staff. Here are some of the candidates that pop out to me especially after talking with some coaches in Hockey East and others in the hockey world.
A very likely candidate for the job is American International College (AIC) head coach Eric Lang, who did a great job bringing the Yellowjackets (a program with some of the fewest resources in all of college hockey) to pseudo-National relevance as of late. Last season was the program’s most successful ever, with a win in the NCAA tournament over a top seeded-St. Cloud State. Lang turned down the St. Lawrence job last year, but the job at Vermont is of a different quality — both in terms of conference and salary.
It would be a big jump to go from Atlantic Hockey to Hockey East — one coach underlined how recruiting is an entirely different game between the two conferences — but Lang checks all the boxes in the sense that he’s brought a program up to winning form and proved himself as a head coach. There are a lot of qualified associate head coaches who could be candidates for this job, but it doesn’t seem likely that Vermont takes a big risk with this hire. Their athletic department could end up with a program middling in a hyper-competitive Hockey East for years to come should said risk not pan out.
If the Cats were to make a big risky splash with this hire, the one that seems remotely plausible is famous alum Martin St. Louis, who retired from the NHL in 2015. His only coaching experience is in youth hockey, to my knowledge. St. Louis’ son, Ryan, is currently on the NTDP U17 team and I believe he spent some time coaching his teams over the last few years. St. Louis could add some needed star power to charge up a turn-around and get recruits to buy-in to a rebuild in Burlington.
There are also former NCAA head coaches with NHL links, like the recently-fired Jim Montgomery, or even now-Maple Leafs assistant Dave Hakstol, but those don’t seem particularly likely. I think it’s much more likely that Union head coach Rick Bennett or Providence associate head coach Ron Rolston end up there, assuming the job doesn’t go to Lang or St. Louis. There are other intriguing candidates to be head coach were they to keep going down the list, especially Clarkson head coach Casey Jones, as well as BU’s Paul Pearl, OSU’s Steve Miller and even UMass’ Ben Barr, but I don’t think they are odds-on favorites, especially in the cases where they’d be giving someone their first head coaching position. One other name I think would be worth checking out is Nashville Predators assistant Dan Muse, who has made his way to the show after going from prep school up to the ECAC and then serving as head coach for the USHL’s Chicago Steel for two seasons.
As for assistants, those last few names I mentioned could all be great were they to be interested. UMass’ Jared DeMichiel has done a nice job recruiting for the Minutemen and Maine assistant Ben Guité is another hard-working recruiter, in this case from Quebec, and his ties to la Belle Province could serve UVM’s new staff well from a recruiting perspective. Nebraska-Omaha assistant Dave Noël-Bernier could be appealing for the same reason. Merrimack’s Josh Ciocco was a great hire in my opinion and if the Warriors hadn’t cleaned house and picked him up as well as head coach Scott Borek in 2018, they would have been strong candidates to build a staff around as well. I imagine both are likely committed to re-building Merrimack rather than wanting to reset the process elsewhere.
Cornell’s Ben Syer and Quinnipiac’s Bill Riga could both be valuable assets to a new staff in Burlington, especially if the Cats did go for someone like St. Louis, who will need an experienced staff around him. If they wanted experience and connections in the hockey world, they could even look at prep school, where former Maine skipper Tim Whitehead has fashioned Kimball Union into a prep dynasty.
Looking at the recruiting situation at Vermont, it strikes me as pretty unique. While technically in New England, they are closer to the heart of Quebec than the heart of New England. Quebec does produce college hockey talent, but for a number of reasons it has proven to be one of the more difficult provinces for D1 programs to reliably draw talent from.
As far as recruiting New England goes, UVM should follow the lead of most of their conference and basically de-prioritize it. UMass Lowell, currently 2nd in the Hockey East standings, have five players from New England. UMass Amherst — in the pole position — are blessed with a star scorer from their back-yard in Johnny Leonard, but he’s the exception that proves the rule on that roster. Even BU and BC, who generally get their pick of the litter in New England, aren’t even close to having half of their line-up from the region.
While New England and the East Coast in general produces its share of talent, it’s not nearly enough to stock the rosters of the thirty (or so) Division 1 schools that could be classified as Eastern. Vermont as a state does not produce a wealth of talent, so it’s not like they can even benefit from the fact that they are the only Division 1 school there. The top player in Vermont in a given birth-year may not even play in Division 1. So a recruiting staff with experience who understands these realities and already has connections around the country is paramount. They’ll likely have to set up a pipeline whether that’s in New York and the Atlantic region at large, or Quebec and Eastern Canada, out in Western Canada or even in Europe— maybe all of the above.
UVM’s top recruit in New England is actually from Quebec — again, a trend that they should look to continue — Salisbury’s Lucas Mercuri, a top 2020 draft prospect out of prep. A pretty productive power forward who has signed his NLI, luckily for the Cats. The old recruiting configuration where schools competed for younger and younger players saw the old staff go really out of the box with college hockey’s youngest recruit ever: then 13-year-old Anthony Cipollone, who is also now in prep, playing a big role for one of the top prep teams in Loomis Chaffee. That was likely a side effect of the intense competition for players in New England and generally, the East.
The rules have changed and shifted recruiting slightly older, but that won’t make competition any less fierce. A hire like St. Louis or even Lang might be able to sell recruits on a new wave in Burlington, but I don’t think the Catamounts will get to a place where they are even sporadically winning battles against BU, BC, or whoever happens to be the top dog in New England over the next few years. It’s important to have a competent, experienced head coach, but he has to have good players, too.
Whether they go with Lang, who managed to bring some really solid players to AIC (no small feat), St. Louis, or someone else — recruiting is always the life-blood of an athletic program and that has to be prioritized. Sneddon announcing his retirement ahead of the end of the season should allow Vermont to find the best staff possible and get the ball rolling as soon as possible. Unfortunately they’ve already lost a top goaltender recruit in Devon Levi to Northeastern last month — ahead of the announcement. For their sake, hopefully they won’t lose much more in the interim.