September 17, 2013 Updated: September 17, 2013 at 8:30 pm
As usual, Air Force will contend in an Atlantic Hockey Association race with no clear favorite.
But experience tells coach Frank Serratore, whose Falcons tied for second with Mercyhurst in the annual coaches preseason poll, that predictions mean little.
Defending regular-season champion Niagara was picked to repeat by the league's 12 coaches but there was little breathing room for the Purple Eagles, which were ranked as high as No. 14 last season.
"I went around and talked to some of the other coaches in the past couple weeks and we just laughed and chuckled at the preseason poll," Serratore said. "They picked us (tied for second) based on past performances. Right now, I would take third in a heartbeat. I would take fourth."
The depth of the league was evident to Serratore.
"I would keep going over the list and remember something about one team and move them up," he said during the league's media conference call Tuesday. "I had a certain team in ninth and I was like 'Are you kiddin' me?'"
Niagara was only a few points, 102 to 98, ahead of Mercyhurst and its four first-place votes. The Falcons garnered two. Defending playoff champion Canisius (92 points) picked up three top votes but ended up fourth.
"It's an honor we will try to live up to," Niagara coach Dave Burkholder said. "We are not ordering plaques and trophies at this point."
Niagara returns three of its top five scorers in forward Ryan Murphy (36 points, 15 goals), defenseman Kevin Ryan (24, 23 assists) and wing Patrick Divjak (22, 14 assists).
Mercyhurst brings back a strong junior class which includes forwards Matthew Zay (39, 26 assists) and Ryan Misiak (38, 18 goals) and defenseman Daniel O'Donoghue (36, 24 assists).
Air Force looks strong in its own zone with the return of senior goalie Jason Torf (17-13-7, .918) and experienced defensemen in AHA Defensive Player of the Year Adam McKenzie, Alex Halloran, Mike McDonald, Trevor Waldoch and Dan Weissenhofer, who participated in the Chicago Blackhawks development camp this summer.
Canisius returns 22, including seniors Kyle Gibbons (43, 21 goals) and goalie Tony Capobianco (18-19-4, .929).
The AHA had a memorable 2012-13 season with a league-record two NCAA Tournament berths (Niagara, Canisius).
"Not only did that put Atlantic Hockey in a good spot, it helped raise the profile of college hockey in general," Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin said. "Our league gets a little tighter very year and it will be again this year. It's really anybody's league."