ORONO — Before Nolan Vesey, there was Blaine Byron. Freshman forwards on the Maine hockey team arriving with the high expectations that come with being an NHL draft pick.

Byron had 16 points in 32 games in his Black Bears debut in 2013-14. Vesey waited 16 games to score his first goal a year ago, but wound up with 10, two of them winners.

They return this year as the top goal-scorers from last winter, after Devin Shore turned pro and Connor Leen graduated.

Practices began this week at Alfond Arena. Byron and Vesey both said they know they have to carry an even bigger load when the season begins Oct. 9 in Portland against Michigan State.

“He’s a very good player. In the second half (of last season), he took off and really got it, so you see what he can do,” Byron said of Vesey.

“As a freshman coming in, it’s always hard. The first half you’re trying to figure it out, see how the game is, and then the second half you’re trying to get more comfortable, kind of find where you fit in.

“It took (Vesey) some time to make the adjustment. He has a knack for the net, he knows where to be, he sees the ice well and he’s able to create plays and just find those soft areas to get open.”

Vesey, a sixth-round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2014, added 13 assists to finish with 23 points last year. He was a vital part of Maine’s power play, scoring three goals in that situation. He had a hat trick in a Feb. 21 victory over Northeastern.

The bad news for opponents is that he spent the offseason getting stronger and faster.

“I thought I had a pretty good freshman year. I thought I really started to figure out more and more as it went on,” Vesey said. “Now I just want to be counted on more as an offensive force. I need to step up.”

Byron had 12 goals and 14 assists last year, hitting his stride in a five-game stretch in December and January in which he had five goals. He was used in every situation, something Penguins officials noted with approval about their 2013 sixth-round draft pick. Byron led the team with three short-handed goals.

He spent the summer in his native Ontario working out six days a week with a trainer. He is 15 pounds heavier now, up to 187. Byron was surprised to discover that he somehow managed to grow an inch, up to 6-foot-1.

Byron said he’s also felt his confidence grow, which was the key to his success a year ago.

“Knowing where to be and playing both ends of the ice, turning defense into offense, confidence goes a long way,” he said. “Confidence from the coaching staff, putting me in big situations and being able to respond to that. Being able to create more plays, holding on to the puck a bit more, making more high-risk plays and knowing when not to make high-risk plays.”

Maine lost its three captains – Shore, Jake Rutt and Stu Higgins – from last year’s 14-22-3 team. Now a junior, Byron knows he’s seen as a leader and is comfortable with that.

“You have to make sure you’re focused in every day because if you’re making those mistakes, they’re (the freshmen) looking at you,” he said.

Vesey had said before his freshman year that he’d like to score 10-15 goals. He got there, thanks to the late-season hat trick.

How many does he envision for his sophomore year?

“I’m just looking to get the first one,” Vesey said.