University of Maine goalie Jeremy Swagman returns for the Black Bears between the pipes this season. Photo by Kevin Bennett

ORONO — Heading to the University of Maine to watch the Black Bear hockey team this winter? Part with the extra few bucks for a game program. You’re going to need it.

There are 11 new faces in the dressing room at Alfond Arena this season, including nine freshmen and two transfers from other NCAA Division I programs. A number of those new players will be thrust into key roles almost immediately for a team looking to replace no fewer than four defensemen from last season.

“In some ways I think it’s really refreshing,” said senior winger Mitch Fossier, who led the Black Bears with 36 points in 36 games a year ago. “It’s tough to see your buddies leave, but we’ve got 10 or 11 guys coming in who are super-eager, super-excited to be here. It’s been a lot of fun to get to know them.

“I think our coaching staff has done a really good job of not getting just good hockey players, but they’re good guys away from the ice, too. That makes such a big difference, I can’t even tell you.”

Maine opens the season on Oct. 5 at Providence College. The team then returns to Alfond Arena the next day for an exhibition game against New Brunswick before hosting Alaska-Anchorage on Oct. 11-12.

After finishing sixth in Hockey East last winter, the Black Bears return a veteran group at forward, led by Fossier, Eduards Tralmaks (8-9-17 totals last season), Tim Doherty (9-8-17) and Patrick Shea (4-11-15). Jeremy Swayman, a junior goaltender and property of the Boston Bruins, returns for a third season in Maine’s nets.

Where there are plenty of questions, and certainly inexperience, is on the blue line. Not only did Brady Keeper turn pro following his sophomore season and sign with the NHL’s Florida Panthers, but Alexis Binner forwent his senior season in Orono to turn pro in his native Sweden. Coupled with the graduations of Rob Michel, Samuel Becker and Keith Muehulbauer, it left Maine very thin in veteran defensemen.

Jakub Sirota came to Maine midway through last season and played in half of the games on the schedule, and Veli-Matti Tiuraniemi returns from a lost season to injury. The 6-foot-5 J.D. Greenway — whose older brother, Jordan, is a member of the Minnesota Wild — transfers in for his junior season by way of the University of Wisconsin.

All are expected to play key roles at some point, but there are other unproven freshmen who will almost certainly have to do the same right out of the gate.

“I think we’re pretty talented (on the blue line), Maine coach Red Gendron said. “They’re hard-working, they get after it every day. They’re skilled. But there’s an adjustment to college hockey. There’s a big difference in the speed and how much time you have to make a play and a difference in the strength of the players. It takes every player typically some time to adjust to all of those things.”

Swayman, who went 14-17-4 last season with a 2.78 goals against average and .919 save percentage, said it feels strange being considered a veteran now. But he’s embracing the role and looking forward to playing behind the new names in the lineup, including freshman forward Brady Gaudette.

Gaudette is the younger brother of Adam Gaudette, who won the Hobey Baker Award at Northeastern in 2018.

“I’ll never point fingers at anyone. Plays happen in hockey,” said Swayman, whose sophomore statistics mirrored his freshman year almost exactly. “This is an opportunity for us to learn from each other. Me being an older guy now as a junior, it’s pretty exciting to have the chance to mentor them a little bit.”

After winning just 10 total league games from 2014-15 and 2015-16, Maine has won twice that number over the last two seasons.

Gendron things this current new-look Maine squad will have a familiar feel as it tries to reach the top half of the Hockey East standings and advance to the league semifnals in March for the first time under Gendron’s guidance.

“I think our identity will remain constant,” Gendron said. “We endeavor to recruit players who can skate and play a physical, hard-nosed brand of hockey. I don’t think that changes at all. Certain players bring certain strengths to the table, and we’ll try and utilize those and go from there.”

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