After fielding only Essex County teams last year, the NJIHL absorbed several teams from adjacent Union County for the 2015-16 season and will split into two divisions as a result, so proposals for a full Essex/Union merger fell through.
Nutley (18-6) has to be considered the favorite. The Raiders return senior Zach Vaughan (13-26-39) and a host of other offensive weapons in front of senior goalie Joe Hoarle.
Montclair (16-6-2) has been building toward a big year, and with Remy Parker (27-15-42) in his senior campaign and junior Ondrej Smalec starting for the third year in goal, this could be it.
Montclair Kimberley (9-10-4), under new head coach Casey Mignone, has won four of the last five McInnis Cup titles and returns some serious experience in seniors Devin Pepe and Conor Nolan and junior James Buckley.
Livingston (11-12-1) should be terrific defensively, with seniors Ryan Dallow and Phil Edelman, junior Mink Yu Yang, and sophomore Greg Rocheville all back, while Matt Delsini takes over in net. Sophomore Chase Friedfertig (11-7-18) and senior Jake Crockett (back from injury after scoring 13 goals in 2013-14) lead the offense.
Verona/Glen Ridge (11-12-2) should also be competitive, led by seniors Stephen Wenzl (18-14-32) and Owen Gleeson (11-11-22) up front and Liam Blaney in goal, with Kevin White leading the defense.
Millburn (7-11-6) could face an uphill battle in the new division.
The Liberty Division welcomes Union County teams Scotch Plains-Fanwood (11-12-1), Dayton/Brearley (10-9-1), and Oratory Prep (5-18), joining West Essex/Caldwell (4-15-2) (a co-op program for the first time), West Orange (1-24-1), and East Side (2-9-2), playing in a league for the first time since 2005-06. Oratory Prep returns senior Nick Yoder up front and sophomore Aiden Wright on defense while welcoming three impact freshmen in forwards John Meehan and John Spitznagle and goalie Jack Purpura.
Down to just five teams, Union County nevertheless carries on a strong tradition. Summit (16-11) will be favored, with the strong goaltending tandem of seniors Kyle McLaughlin and Alex Vitton both returning. Junior Corey McManus (5-12-17) and sophomore Johnny Puskar anchor the defense, while sophomore Will Vitton (8-16-24), juniors Matt Galgano (8-9-17) and Owen McLaughlin (10-4-14), and senior Dan Hicks, back from injury, will lead the way offensively.
Cranford (14-8-2) and Westfield (15-6-2) have certainly scheduled like contenders, adding tough non-league games to prepare. Senior forwards Richie Hurley (21-29-50) and Spencer Reibert (13-29-42) and sophomore Ryan Malko lead the Cougars in front of four-year starter Thomas Harris in goal. Westfield will be looking for a new starter in net but welcomes back the senior trio of Luke Hiltwein (10-17-27, Dante Anastario (12-9-21), and Matt Macik (9-7-16) up front.
Johnson (6-14-1) sports a very young team led by Nicola DeMarzo in goal, Kyle Meyers up front, and Ty Schafer on defense, while as many as five freshmen, including twins Mike and Matt Alongi, could see big minutes.
Governor Livingston (9-12-2) will be seeking a return to the state tournament for the first time since 2010, led by junior Danny Kramer (12-15-27) and sophomore Billy Alexander (14-8-22).
Proud program Bayonne (12-8-2) returned to the state tournament last year (the first time since 2011) and welcomes significant renovations to the on-campus Korpi Arena. Coach Dave McKenna’s team will be led by forwards Josh Rosales and Matt Lojewski up front, Michael Andres and Ben Dellabella on defense, and goalie Michael Lojewski.
The state’s newest varsity program comes from an unlikely source: yeshiva school Frisch, located in Paramus. After laying the groundwork for the team last year and joining the NJSIAA over the summer, head coach Ralph Abecassis will open with an 11-game schedule, limited in part by a school day that runs until 5:15 p.m. On the ice, the Cougars will rely on sophomores Benjy Feintuch and Joe Tropp up front, juniors Aaron Abecassis and Evan Fromeon on the blue line, and sophomore Charlie Freilich in goal.
In the private school ranks, Hun (20-3-5) won both the Mercer County and state Prep B titles last year and is now participating as a provisional member in the Mid-Atlantic Hockey League alongside in-state brethren Lawrenceville (8-17-2) and Princeton Day (3-17-4). Hun’s roster is highlighted by RPI commit Jon Bendorf, still just a junior, and goalie Travis ‘Diesel’ Pelke. Freshman Kyle Mandleur is expected to contribute right away. Meanwhile, Pennington (4-11-1) remains in the Independence Hockey League.