“Business As Usual” for the Jersey Hitmen also means “Business Is Good!”
The Hitmen have racked up 85 NCDC victories in two 50-game seasons the last two years. Their 42 wins in 2019-20, to capture their second straight Founders Cup regular season championship, were more than three NCDC opponents were able to rack up in two seasons.
However, Business is not 100 percent “great,” as they are still missing the ultimate crowning glory of a Dineen Cup playoff championship. Due to COVID-19, no NCDC playoff champion was crowned for 2019-20, meaning it will be until next March before the Hitmen can try to break a five-year wait for a Dineen Cup, last winning it as part of the USPHL Premier in 2015-16. That was their second straight title.
With several returners from last year’s team, including veterans already committed to NCAA Division I colleges, the Hitmen look to have reloaded once again. The Hitmen poured on the offense in their first pair of exhibition games, playing as they had for the last two weeks with their final NCDC roster, well ahead of league-mandated roster cutdowns. Herb Brooks would be proud of the Hitmen’s quick selection process.
“I think our greatest strength right now is our speed. Our guys are moving with extreme speed and purpose up and down the ice. We like to play fast and stifling hockey, we like to back-pressure the puck, and so we need guys who can skate well and want to get after it,” said Harris. “Players with speed, a high compete level and high hockey IQ are the three things we look for, and especially up front, we have a lot of guys who fit those characteristics.”
Let their opponents begin worrying now - the captaincy trio includes three heavy-Hitters in Patrick Keegan, wearing the “C” this year, with Alex Mozian and Army commit Andrew Gilbert both as Alternates.
Keegan - all punishing 6-4, 229 pounds of him - is not only defensively adept on the blue line, but he also added 36 points last year. He led all Jersey D with 72 hits last year. His fellow defenseman Gilbert was an early season commit to the U.S. Military Academy in 2019. So, right away, discipline and IQ are there, but add great playmaking ability - he had 15 assists last season. Stay-at-home blueliner Tristan Frese also returns for 2020-21.
At forward, Mozian was nearly everywhere at once, posting 15 goals and 21 assists last season.
Also up front, watch for returnees Daniel Ebrahim and Quinnipiac commit Liam McLinskey to work their magic.
“All of the veterans have put their fingerprint on the team right from the start,” added Harris. “Not only have they been vocal, but they have also walked the walk.”
Jin Lee, a Middlebury College commit, joins with two years of NCDC hockey under his belt already, and he also had two goals in the 2020 NCDC All-Star Game.
“He came into camp in tip-top shape and was on top in a lot of the off-ice fitness testing,” said Harris.
Luke Aquaro was his former Tier-2 team’s second-leading scorer, and is drawing a lot of D-1 interest. That will only increase when he plays between Ebrahim and McLinskey in league games, as he’s done in the preseason.
Forward Dylan Lugris, a 6-foot-1-inch, right shot forward broke the 200-point mark at the Nichols School, where he finished as Captain.
“That hasn’t been done in over 30 years there,” Harris said.
Landry Schmuck, who scored 47 goals in the Tier 1 Elite Hockey League last season, has been very good early on as well.
Jerrett Overland, an Air Force commit, gives the Hitmen two U.S. Service Academy recruits on the blue line from Game 1 of the season. Bentley commit Brandon Cimino joins after a Tier 2 season and a prior year as captain of one of the nation’s top 18U AAA programs last season in North Jersey.
The goal mouth is the only position entirely consisting of newcomers for the Hitmen. They bring in two former OJHL players in ‘02 Luke Pavicich (6-3, 172 pounds) and Damon Beaver, a quick and athletic goaltender. The Hitmen also graduate USPHL 18U All-Star goalie John Werber from that division’s championship team of 2019-20.
It is a lot of firepower, but Harris said every little bit counts in an NCDC getting more highly skilled and with more competitive games every season.
“I think the league has gotten much deeper this year, especially with the addition of the Boston Advantage and Philadelphia Hockey Club, plus Jason Kersner taking the coaching job with the Rockets,” Harris added. “I think South Shore and the Islanders Hockey Club, both under second-year coaches, will only get better. There is a lot of depth and great players this year.”