ORONO — University of Maine athletic director Steve Abbott said Friday he has begun the evaluation of the school’s men’s hockey program which will eventually lead to a decision about the future of head coach Tim Whitehead.

Abbott said he expects a decision to be made within three weeks.

Whitehead has one year left on his $190,000-per-year contract and he is coming off a season in which his Black Bears finished eighth in Hockey East before being swept by top seed UMass Lowell in their best-of-three quarterfinal series 4-2 and 2-1 (overtime).

The Bears wound up 11-19-8, although they bounced back from a 2-11-2 start to go 9-8-6 the rest of the way and climb from 10th place into the final playoff spot.

It was the second-worst record in Whitehead’s 12-year tenure and Maine has now missed the NCAA Tournament five times over the past six seasons after making it nine years in a row. Maine made six Frozen Four appearances during that nine-year run and won the NCAA title in 1998-99.

The university would have to pay Whitehead a full year’s salary to buy him out if the decision is made to replace him.

“The team finished strong and built some good momentum to take into next season,” said Abbott Friday. “We’ve got a tremendous group of players returning.”

Four of Maine’s top five scorers were freshmen and the team will return six defensemen and all three goalies. Maine will lose seven seniors, although defenseman Nick Pryor missed the final 19 games due to a concussion.

Next season, the team is bringing in nine Freshmen: seven forwards and two defensmen.

‘We’re evaluating the entire program, not just the coaches,” said Abbott. “We’re looking at everything. And everyone is involved in the process, including the coaches.”

Members of the athletic administration and President Dr. Paul Ferguson are also among those who will weigh in.

Ferguson will eventually make the decision.

Abbott has maintained that the hockey program is very important to the school, the community and the state and he wants to find ways to return it to national prominence.