By Greg Laudani, Staff Writer
Over the last week, UNH has seen two of its top three scorers and one of its best defensemen leave campus to pursue careers in the National Hockey League.
Grayson Downing, Matt Willows and Brett Pesce have all agreed to contracts that will give them the opportunity to play professional hockey.
The news is exciting but alarming for the Wildcats. The absence of these players will leave voids behind in the offensive and defensive zones for the hockey team in Durham.
But Tyler Kelleher is confident that his team will still find ways to win going forward, despite losing three of its most effective players.
“We’re going to lose some of our top guys, but we definitely have a lot of talent on this team,” Kelleher said. “I think all of our guys are capable of stepping in for us. I really believe any of them could perform.”
Kelleher emerged as a standout for the Wildcats this season. The sophomore led the team in both assists (24) and points (41) and his 17 goals ranked third on the team behind only Downing (21) and Willows (19). Although UNH will be without its top two scorers next season, Kelleher has shown he is capable of facilitating the Wildcats’ offense.
As a freshman during the 2013-14 season, Kelleher was productive with five goals and 11 assists for 16 points in 37 games. But seniors like Nick Sorkin (‘14) and Kevin Goumas (‘14) saw more ice time.
But a year can make a big difference. UNH head coach Dick Umile and his staff gave Kelleher more chances to make plays this season, and he took full advantage, emerging as one of the team’s most dangerous offensive threats.
“It feels good that our coaches believed in me and had trust in me,” Kelleher said. “I think coach Umile gave me the opportunity this year and hopefully I can get stronger over the offseason and come back better next year.”
Along with Kelleher, the Wildcats received several contributions from promising newcomers this season. Freshman forward Andrew Poturalski delivered 14 goals and 14 assists for 28 points while playing in all 39 games. Poturalski ranked fourth on the team this season in both goals and points and finished fifth in assists.
Meanwhile, freshman Warren Foegele gave the Wildcats a boost with five goals and 11 assists for 16 points in 33 appearances.
Defenseman Matias Cleland also played a key role in his second season with the team. Cleland tallied 18 points, the most of any UNH defenseman, with six goals and 12 assists. He played alongside Pesce on the team’s top defensive pairing for most of the season.
Despite losing three standouts this offseason, Kelleher believes the Wildcats’ young players with limited experience will step up when they get more ice time next season.
As far as the players who recently departed from Durham, Kelleher sang praises for each of the three.
Downing, UNH’s leading scorer in 2014-15 with 21 goals, signed an entry-level contract with the Minnesota Wild on March 25. Downing tallied 112 career points on 56 goals and 56 assists during his four years in Wildcat blue.
Kelleher said the former Wildcat’s abilities could translate well to the next level.
“Grayson is an unbelievable player,” Kelleher said. “He’s got some unbelievable hands and great size. So he definitely has what it takes to contribute in the NHL.”
As for Willows, Kelleher spoke highly of the senior’s scoring ability. Willows, who scored 19 goals this season, recently inked an Amateur Tryout deal with the Worcester Sharks of the AHL — the farm team of the San Jose Sharks. Willows finished his four-year UNH career with 45 goals and 45 assists for 90 points.
“Matt is a tenacious player and has a great shot,” Kelleher said. “He knows how to score. If you give him an opportunity to put the puck in the net, there is a great chance he’s going to score.”
Kelleher raved about Pesce’s smothering brand of defense. Pesce, who signed a three-year, entry-level deal, with a signing bonus was $277,500, with the Carolina Hurricanes this past week. The junior ranked second among UNH defensemen this season with 16 points. Pesce recorded 43 points on 11 goals and 32 assists in three years with the Wildcats.
“He’s one of the best players I’ve ever played with and one of the toughest one-on-one defensemen I’ve ever gone against,” Kelleher said. “I think guys are really going to struggle against him,” Kelleher said. “He’s got such a great stick and he’s really hard to get around. And I think he’s definitely going to take that to the pro level.”