By Joshua Boyd / NCDCHockey.com
The atmosphere is still vibrant, the rings are shining and there may just be more smiles around the P.A.L. Jr. Islanders locker room than in past years. It’s just the best life of a defending league champion.
It’s also balanced by an all-business approach to getting ready for a new season in which they haven’t won anything yet. The defending Dineen Cup Champs are not resting on their laurels earned on April 2. Helping along the defending champions atmosphere is a sizeable returning contingent that Head Coach Mike Marcou hopes will lead the Jr. Islanders right back to their lofty heights experienced this past spring when the team came back from a 1-0 deficit (and a deficit in Game 2) to win the final series 2-1 over the South Shore Kings.
Game 1 for this season will take place Friday, Sept. 22, at their home Northwell Health Ice Center against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights, the first of a two-game set. Games 3-5 take place at the Junior Bruins Shootout in Marlboro, Mass., followed by Games 6-8 at the Jersey Hitmen Classic in Wayne, N.J. This includes Dineen Cup FInal rematches with South Shore on Sept. 29 and Oct. 7.
“I am very excited about the team for this upcoming year. With all of the returners and new additions, I hope to have another successful season in repeating another championship and player advancements,” said Marcou, who saw players such as Zach Hahn (University of New Hampshire) and Luca Leighton (Long Island University) parlay their success into NCAA Division I commitments after the Cup was awarded.
“I think, this year, our team is more experienced. Last year we had a great group of guys who played a big role leading to winning the championship. A lot of the similarities and strengths that we have is in our leadership crew,” said Marcou.
Leading the way as 2023-24 Captain is Ty Broad, a veteran of 86 regular season and nine playoff games over two seasons in the NCDC. He has a combined 55 points over that time. This will be his third NCDC season.
“Ty will be returning to the team. He is a player who had a big impact on preaching the culture that we have here at P.A.L. both on and off the ice,” added Marcou.
Already impressive with just one name, the returning cast of characters starts sending the head spinning when realizing just how much better the already defending champion Jr. Islanders could be this new season.
Starting with the forwards, you’re looking at the P.A.L. returning three of their top five scorers last year in Broad, Heikki Virtanen (42 points in 46 regular season games; nine points in seven playoff games) and Carter Hanrahan (41 points in 46 regular season games; eight points in seven playoff games). This will be Hanrahan’s fourth NCDC season, and counting his prior time with the Springfield Pics midget program, his seventh USPHL season overall.
Donovan Powell returns after a strong 33 points in 39 regular season games before injuries unfortunately cut his regular season short and kept him off the ice during the Jr. Isles’ playoff run. Owen Villhauer (19 points) was an exciting ‘03 rookie last year and scored the always important first goal of Game 3 towards the Dineen Cup win.
Dustin Patterson, entering his second NCDC and fourth USPHL season, is likely to take big steps forward this year – as shown by putting up three points in seven playoff games – as will Nick Larkin, another NCDC rookie last year who had previous USPHL midget experience.
Back on the blue line, you have Jack Hewitt returning to the fold, but not until he gets past an injury and is cleared likely in October. Hewitt was the team’s leading defenseman scorer with 43 points in 50 games and then tied with Virtanen for the lead in playoff scoring with nine points in seven games. The P.A.L. staff certainly see him as an NCAA Division I prospect.
Dino Mannetta is also back on defense. His goal in Game 2 helped avoid a two-game sweep by South Shore and set up the overtime victory with the life-saving goal scored by D.J. Walsh. Mannetta finished with 17 points last year, slightly behind another top returning scorer among defensemen, Carter’s brother Coleson Hanrahan (21 points). Long Island native Michael English came over from the NAHL and played the final 16 games of the regular season and had a big impact on the blue line defensively in the playoffs, while returning veteran Marshall Beaker scored 10 points in 29 regular season games but missed the playoffs due to an injury.
The Jr. Islanders have benefited in the past from NCDC veteran goalies joining the organization and putting together fantastic seasons, including current Holy Cross goalie Thomas Gale in 2020-21, so there’s reason for optimism in bringing in goaltender Nick Bevilacqua from the former Boston Advantage for this season.
The ‘03 out of Abington, Mass., is entering his third NCDC season and is the heir apparent to two-year Jr. Isles goalie Cameron Smith, now off to St. Lawrence University. Bevilacqua went 21-8-3-1 last year with a .919 save percentage, and he also had one of the best goaltender performances in the 2023 NCDC All-Star Game, giving up just one goal out of 11 shots in his period in net.
“Nick is a proven veteran goalie coming in to fill big shoes,” added Marcou. “He had a lot of success in our league last season and I am excited to add him to our organization. There are a couple prospects coming up through our organization and some younger players coming in as well. We hope to continue our history with advancing players to both college and the USHL.”
Also a newcomer to the NCDC is Ryan Franks, though he was part of last year’s NCDC Young Guns All-Star Game. The ‘05 forward from Roslyn, N.Y., has played in the Jr. Isles’ Midget ranks from USPHL 15U to 18U and helped the USPHL 16U Jr. Islanders win the USPHL 16U American Division Championship in 2022. He scored 18 points in 19 Tier-1 Hockey Federation (THF) games last year, and an astounding 72 points in 17 high school games for Roslyn-North Shore-East Williston last year. Also joining from within the P.A.L. system is defenseman Michael Calabrese, a teammate of Franks’ on both the Jr. Isles THF 18U team and the prior year’s 16U championship squad.
“I am excited to help get these players to the next level,” added Marcou.
The P.A.L. finished just one point out of the race for the Founders Cup, won by their rivals over the East and Hudson rivers, the Jersey Hitmen, for the fifth straight time. However, it was the Jr. Islanders who had the last laugh and will proudly display the Dineen Cup this season. Marcou has every intention of holding it prisoner at Northwell Health Ice Center for the foreseeable future.
“We are hoping to repeat a championship. I am excited about the talent coming into the organization this year and am excited to help make these players better people and hockey players,” he added. “The goal is to move these players to the highest level. We want to allow them time to develop and a chance to play.”