University of Maine men's hockey player Donavan Houle tries to angle the puck past University of Alaska Fairbanks goalie Gustavs Grigals at the Alfond Arena on Jan. 7, 2022. UMaine lost 6-2. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The rebuild has begun.

The 10 skaters and two goalies who will return and lead a youthful 2022-23 University of Maine men’s hockey team had their first workout Monday morning.

First-year head coach Ben Barr, who replaced the late Red Gendron, did the best he could with what he had, which was a last-place team.

The Black Bears wound up 7-22-4 overall, 5-17-2 in Hockey East.

While the team had many close losses and some thrilling wins, it simply didn’t have enough talent. The Black Bears finished ranked near the bottom in the four major categories, leaving them nowhere to go but up as the team begins looking toward next season and an expected influx of as many as 15 new players in Barr’s first recruiting class.

Among the  Black Bears’ noteworthy wins were the 3-2 overtime triumph at UMass over the defending national champions, the 6-3 win over UNH and the 8-1 Senior Night thrashing of nationally ranked and red-hot Boston University.

And the team was competitive, with 21 of its 33 games decided by two goals or less. 

But victories were few and far between.

UMaine simply wasn’t good enough to escape the Hockey East basement, as evidenced by the fact UMaine was one of just three schools in the 11-team league — along with New Hampshire and Vermont — that didn’t put a player on any of the three All-Hockey East teams or honorable mention list.

The team finished ranked 46th to 49th among 59 Division I schools in the four major categories: goals scored (2.24, 48th), goals allowed (3.36, 48th), power play percentage (15.1, 49th) and penalty-killing success rate (77 percent, 47th).

They were more disciplined as they finished 38th in penalty minutes (9.94) instead of in the top eight where they usually wind up.

There is nowhere to go but up as this program will seek its first spot in the Hockey East semifinals since 2011-12 next season.

Barr and his staff have increased the talent level through recruiting and Barr will implement a  more demanding off-season workout regimen than in previous years so the players will be in better physical condition than they were this season.

Barr intends to change the culture into one that expects to compete for championships.

To go from last place to the middle of the pack next season might be a stretch but Barr recruited for three NCAA championship teams at Union, Providence and UMass and knows what it takes to build a program and is confident he can do it at UMaine, where there is a hockey tradition that  includes two NCAA titles and 11 Frozen Four appearances and one of the nation’s liveliest crowds.

Barr and his coaching staff have identified the players they want to build around.

Just three players from the 2021-22 team didn’t have any eligibility remaining in graduate students Jack Quinlivan and Keenan Suthers, both forwards, and defenseman Cam Spicer.

Others with eligibility who won’t return include goalie Matt Thiessen; defensemen Simon Butala, Adrien Bisson and Tim Gould; and forwards Adam Dawe, Edward Lindelow, A.J. Drobot, Tristan Poissant, Jacob Schmidt-Svejstrup and John Mulera.

At the top of Barr’s priority list is a significant upgrade in mobility on defense. UMaine spent too much time in its own zone because it didn’t have enough defensemen who were quick enough to pull away from forecheckers.

The news that senior defenseman Jakub Sirota plans to return is a huge plus for the program. 

Sirota was its best defenseman but underwent knee surgery and missed the last seven games. He had four goals and 10 assists, quarterbacked the power play and was an essential part of the penalty-killing unit.

Defenseman David Breazeale, who was brought into the program by the new coaching staff and was chosen to the league’s All-Rookie team, will also return.

Sirota and Breazeale (2 goals, 14 assists) were one of the better defense tandems in the league and should be even more prominent next season.

Both are one-man breakouts with outstanding skating ability.

Sam Duerr (10 games, 0 & 4) was solid after being brought in at midseason and junior Dawson Bruneski (22 games, 1 & 3) showed some promise after becoming a regular for the first time in his career.

There are five incoming defensemen who should significantly upgrade UMaine’s mobility and supply some needed offense. All but Luke Antonacci will be at least 20 years old when the season-opener is played. Antonacci doesn’t turn 20 until Nov. 26.

Robert Kincaid has racked up 12 goals and 31 assists in 53 games for Camrose in the Alberta Junior Hockey League, while Brandon Holt has registered 13 goals and 19 assists for New Mexico in the North American Hockey League. Grayson Arnott has tallied 6 & 29 in 45 games for Penticton in the British Columbia Junior Hockey League, Antonacci has 5 & 12 in 49 games for Sioux City in the United States Hockey League and Brandon Chabrier has 4 & 11 in 45 games for Madison in the USHL.

Six forwards will return and four were among UMaine’s top six point producers. The other two leading scorers were Breazeale and Sirota.

The No. 1 line of top scorer Lynden Breen (9 & 16) between Donavan Houle (10 & 9) and Ben Poisson (9 & 6) emerged as one of the league’s better lines. Breen was the catalyst with his speed and tenacity and he will bring a five-game points streak into next season (2 & 5). 

The team’s top goal scorer was the gritty Houle and he had a point in six of his last eight games (2 & 6). Poisson (9 & 6) was a high-energy player who ended the season with points in his last three games (2 & 1).

Breen and Houle are sophomores and Poisson is a junior. 

Robert Morris transfer Grant Hebert (7 & 9) and Quinnipiac transfer Matthew Fawcett (5 & 2) were good additions to the program and should be even more productive next season, and sophomore Nolan Renwick (4 & 7) received a lot of valuable ice time and finished strong with two goals and an assist in his last four games.

The incoming forwards will all be at least 20 years old when the puck drops for the opener.

Felix Trudeau has amassed 27 & 34 for West Kelowna in the British Columbia Junior Hockey League and Thomas Freel has 30 & 24 in 40 games for the Ottawa Junior Senators in the Central Canada Hockey League. The other three all play in the USHL: Reid Pabich (15 & 21 in 53 games for Madison), Killian Kiecker-Olson (17 & 14 in 44 games for Lincoln and Des Moines) and Thomas Weis (3 & 11 in 51 games for Fargo).

“All of our new players will add something,” said the 40-year-old Barr.

There will be a battle for the goaltending job since the Black Bears didn’t get the consistency they needed from sophomore Victor Ostman (3.31 goals-against average, .900 save percentage), junior Thiessen (3.11, .888) or sophomore Connor Androlewicz (3.41, .880 in three games).

Ostman did play the most and could emerge as the No. 1 and Barr intends to bring in a goalie to challenge for the job, maybe even an experienced transfer.

Barr said in addition to bringing in a goalie, he is also looking to add at least three or four more forwards and maybe another defenseman. 

“We need depth in our program. We need competition from top to bottom. We need guys pushing each other. We didn’t have that this year,” Barr said.

“I’m excited about the group coming back and I appreciate all the work they did, as did all the players who were with us at the end of the season,” he added.

Barr said the program has a “long way” to get where it needs to be. 

“You can’t just flip a switch.”