Hockey East Preview: #7 Massachusetts Minutemen
2011-12 Storyline: The Minutemen look like world beaters at times but in the end it’s a similar story as they’re swept in the Hockey East Quarterfinals
2012-13 Storyline: Will a coaching change be just what UMass needs to return to competing for home ice in Hockey East?
Player To Watch: Mike Pereira F (17-17-34)
Player Missed Most: T.J. Syner F (13-24-37)
Newcomer To Keep An Eye On: K.J. Tiefenwerth
Random Fact: This will be the 20th season of UMass hockey since the rebirth of the program in 1993-94
Beer The Triangle Favorite Local Brew: Besides hockey, the other thing I most look forward to in the valley every winter is Berkshire Brewing’s Cabin Fever.
Last season was a microcosm of the frustration UMass fans have felt for the last five years all wrapped up into six months of games. At times UMass looked like they could beat anyone in the country and at times they did just that. Twice UMass took on the top team in the country and beat them, topping Boston College at home in November and then picking up their first ever road win against a #1 ranked team versus Boston University in February. UMass would go on to take the season series from BC, the eventual national champions. Yet, despite those wins and other victories over ranked teams like #13 Cornell and #17 Yale, UMass had what has now become a typical finish. They barely made it into the Hockey East playoffs, needing to win a tiebreak against Northeastern to do so. Then for the third straight year Boston College ended their season with a quarterfinal sweep.
Last season was the same type of pattern UMass fans have seen for far too long and is exactly why there’s hope that with a new coaching staff and new direction, that pattern can be broken, hopefully starting this year. Of course the hiring of John Micheletto, and the rocky circumstances that surrounded the process, is also a reason why the Minutemen are being picked lower than they probably should be in the standings. The coaches have picked them to finish out of the playoffs. The Hockey East media has the same. Even I believe they’ll finish in 7th, just one spot better than last year. I’d pick them to finish higher but a coaching change creates a lot of upheaval and unknowns. Especially when that coach doesn’t have a head coaching record to refer back to. We know that Micheletto and assistant coach Joey Gasparini were a big part of the Vermont team that went to the Frozen Four in 2009, but we also know that the Catamounts have done very poorly in the past few years. So overall coach Mick’s history as an assistant doesn’t immediately give UMass fans an idea of what to expect.
How much Coach Mick is able to get to know the players and vice versa will mean a lot in terms of how successful this team can be. It’s never easy to have a new coach come in requiring the players to learn new systems and terminology. Some teams, like Lowell and Providence last year, are able to see success right away. But those coaches got a head start compared to Mick who was only hired in late July. He does have the advantage of having Len Quesnelle on staff who can help bridge the previous regime to now and give the players some stability. At the same time Mick isn’t saying he’s going to change anything too drastically, which should help.
After this Friday’s opener against UConn the team won’t have a lot of time to get settled with the new coaching staff and system as they’ll be tested very early on. The following five games after the Huskies will include two against Boston College, two against Boston University, and one against UNH. Needless to say, the team will have to find a way to win some of those or they’ll find themselves climbing out of a significant hole in the conference standings for the rest of the year. The bright side to this year’s schedule is that other than that initial gauntlet, it’s setup well for a team just starting out with a new coach. The team does not leave New England once during the season. And the non-conference schedule of UConn, Quinnipiac, Colgate, Bemidji State, and either Dartmouth or New Hampshire features opponents that UMass should be competitive against.
What will help in the transition to a new coach is the fact that UMass is blessed with many of their key players returning. True, they will miss the contributions of some of last year’s seniors, but the team is set up to do well in their absence. The team losses 27% of their goal scoring, due mostly to the graduation of T.J. Syner and Danny Hobbs. But UMass does return its top goalscorer in the form of Mike Pereira, who totaled 17 goals on the season, 10th best in Hockey East. Pereira will be the go to guy this year and will have to adjust his game accordingly. Defenses will be keying in on him so he’ll have to try to overcome the extra attention. Conor Sheary is the top returner in terms of points, finishing two behind Syner. Sheary’s point production exploded from his freshman year when he only tallied 14 total. He’ll get a chance to build off the 35 points and 12 goals this season as he will be considered UMass’ top offensive player behind Pereira. The third junior who will be counted upon on offense is Branden Gracel who had seven goals and 14 assists last year. Gracel, like Sheary, brings good skill in terms of both passing and scoring and will be needed to do both.
Steven Guzzo was one of the nicer surprises last season. Coming off a knee injury that caused him to miss his entire freshman year, Guzzo was a key player and one of five Minutemen to get into double digits for goals scored. The team will need him to build off the 10 goals from last year and fill the gap from the players lost. After Guzzo it’s less clear who can be counted upon for offense. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I think freshman K.J. Tiefenwerth has the tools to come in and contribute to UMass’ offense right away. Rocco Carzo is someone who we know is capable of scoring, notching six goals his freshman year before transitioning to more of a grinder role the last two years. It’ll be interesting to see if Troy Power plays a bigger role on offense after putting up nine points last season. Perhaps as a sign of things to come we already saw him playing with Sheary and Pereira in this past Saturday’s scrimmage.
The trio of centers (and sometimes wingers) Kevin Czepiel, Peter DeAngelo, and Eric Filiou will all be called upon to up their offensive output. All possessing good vision and hands, they’ll likely be setting up their wings a lot of the time. But at the same time they can score as well with DeAngelo and Czepiel scoring three goals apiece last year while Filiou had a couple. DeAngelo was playing very well until he went down with a season ending injury in February.
It’ll be interesting to see what role last year’s freshman have on the team this year. Zack LaRue came to Amherst after scoring 33 goals in his last year of juniors, yet failed to score any in his 14 games last year, taking only 8 shots total. Andrew Tegeler only played five games last season but did notch a goal against Boston College in one of those. Tegeler is very intriguing, showing at times some great skill to go along with his asset at size but didn’t get a lot of ice time under then coach Toot Cahoon. Perhaps that changes with a year of practice under his belt and a new coach filling out the lineup. Emerson Auvenshine gave UMass quality minutes in the 15 games he played, though he registered just one assist. Perhaps one of these three are poised to have a breakout year.
One of the things I’m interested to see this season is how Patrick Kiley performs. He played sparingly to start last year and when he did play he was usually hurting the team with mistakes and ill-timed penalties. But sometime in January, something clicked and from then on he was consistently one of UMass’ best players for the balance of the season. As mentioned before it’s possible that Carzo or Power get put on a scoring line this season, but you almost want to see what would happen if the Carzo/Kiley/Power line returned intact to see what they could accomplish together. Joining those guys as giving the Minutemen some solid two way play will be freshmen Shane Walsh and Evan Stack. Stack reminded me a lot of Auvenshine when I watched him Saturday, except he may be able to provide a bit more on offense. Lastly, I expect Eddie Olczyk to play more this season, giving the Minutemen some key minutes as one of its best defensive forwards.
Some season previews I read had UMass’ defense as a question mark or even a weakness. I don’t understand this. I’m not saying they were the best in the league, but I thought they played solid last season, especially considering they usually had a freshman goaltender behind them most games. UMass gave up 3.49 goals in 2010-11 with a very experienced goaltender as captain. Last year this number improved to 3.28. Still too high to be truly competitive, but if we can see that same kind of improvement this year it’d be a key step towards improving their place in the standings.
In my view the defense for UMass starts with Joel Hanley and Conor Allen. I’d go as far as to say that Hanley was one of the most underrated players in the conference in the league and I thought deserved recognition on the All-Hockey East Team. He provides smart, athletic defense and his +12 rating was tops among UMass defensemen. Helping that number is what he provides on offense as he netted seven goals and his 25 points was 4th best on the team. Hanley seems poised to become much more of a household name around the league this year.
Allen showed flashes of good play his freshman year but overall was inconsistent and sometimes took bad penalties. Last year Allen was probably the team’s most consistent player on the defensive side of the ice and I thought did a much better job of being able to play physical without getting in trouble for it. I see Allen’s leadership of being the team’s most solid defender extending to being a leader of the team in general. He showed last year that he’s not just some stay at home defenseman as he scored seven goals and added 14 assists. Two of his goals were gamewinners. Allen has a huge role to play for this team this year.
If the pairings from Saturday’s scrimmage continue during the season then we’ll be seeing the twin towers of Oleg Yevenko and Adam Phillips together quite a bit. They’re coming into this season from slightly different perspectives however. Yevenko is looking to build off a decent freshman year. The worries that he either couldn’t skate well enough to play in Hockey East or that he’d hurt the team by taking too many penalties never materialized. Instead he played pretty well all season long and even made the most of his lone goal on the season, a gamewinner over BC. Yevenko amazingly added 25 pounds of weight over the offseason but judging by how well he was moving this past Saturday, it doesn’t seem to be affecting his skating. Phillips is looking to move on and forget about last year when he played just 26 games and scored only one goal after netting 10 as a freshman. He played well in the scrimmage on both ends of the ice and had the nicest looking of the game’s five goals.
Colin Shea continues to quietly play consistently well at defense and will likely continue to do the same. It’s still unknown who will be the sixth defenseman on game nights. Redshirt junior Anthony Raiola brings three years of experience, but only played four games last season after playing 13 as a freshman. Mike Busillo played well in the six games he played last season, including dressing for both of the wins over the top ranked teams at the time. Darren Rowe’s tenure at UMass seemed pretty much a thing of the past until he made the most of a chance to play during the second half of the season. He ended up playing some of the best hockey of his career during February before stumbling a bit in March. Added to the mix for 6th defensemen will be freshman Connor Doherty who brings decent size and the experience of playing in a program, the Junior Bruins, that has provided UMass solid defensemen in the past.
On the eve of the season we’re asking ourselves the same question we were asking last year at this time. Who’s in net? Like last year, you can make the case for any of the three goaltenders to get a shot. Add in the fact that there’s a new coach making the decision and pretty much everyone is auditioning for the job despite the results from last year. Those results would likely favor Kevin Boyle however. Boyle did have a winning record of 8-7-4 during his time in net and had the best goals against average at 3.00 and save percentage with .895. He also played the most consistently of the goaltenders as well, putting together a stretch of games from early November through December where he went 4-0-1. He had another stretch later in the year where he won three of four games. Boyle has a lot to feel confident about when looking at his performance last season.
Steve Mastalerz had a good debut season too. His goals against average of 3.37 and save percentage of .889 isn’t that far behind Boyle. He also had the lone shutout for UMass last season, a 4-0 blanking of then #4 Boston College. When Mastalerz is on his game he has certainly shown he’s capable of being a #1 goaltender in Hockey East. The trick will be for him to display that kind of play every time he’s on the ice. That’s something he had a tough time doing as a freshman.
Lastly, I think Minuteman fans who dismiss Jeff Teglia’s chances in this race could be surprised. Teglia had a better goals against average than Mastalerz with 3.32 and a comparable save percentage at .886. It probably doesn’t hurt that he had his best games last season against Coach Micheletto’s Catamounts. Don’t count Teglia out yet. But who will ultimately end up as the solution in net? I have no idea. I just hope it gets narrowed down early in the season. The dragging on of the goalie battle well into the winter I think hurt the psyche of the team last year. I’d hate to see that repeated.
From Coach Micheletto and his staff I’m just looking for minor changes that will help UMass win immediately. UMass is not in a situation where a new coach is taking over a program in shambles and needs to tear everything down just to build it back up. The team is in relatively good shape. Coming back is a large junior class that is really starting to come into their own. Last year this team with much of the same core as now were able to not only skate with, but beat, the best teams in the country. For that, the coaching staff should be looking to just make tweaks to what they aleady have to make those great performances more consistent.
The forwards, led by Pereira and Sheary, are due for a breakout year. Progress was made last season in terms of offensive output and with the power play. A new coaching staff will need to identify what went right in those areas and instead of making wholesale changes, just do what’s needed to bring them to the next level. This year I expect improvement defensively with an experienced group of defensemen coming back and Boyle and Mastalerz coming in having that year of experience under their belts. Again, other than figuring out the goaltending situation, there isn’t anything dramatic that needs to change in these areas. The team as a whole just needs a little more guidance and hopefully some more consistency in terms of the strategies employed to give them a chance to win every night. In the end, that’s what this staff should be concentrating on. Nothing’s broken with this team, they just need help identifying what they did right that led to those big victories last season and employing those tactics on an everday basis.
So, in laying it all out, UMass brings back a good deal of their scoring, nearly all their improving defensemen, and legitimate options at goaltender. So why do I have them finishing 7th? Well, if the same coaching staff was coming back from last year I would likely have them higher. That’s not to say I was against a coaching change. I’m very interested to see what Coach Mick can accomplish here and as of right now have confidence that he’ll get UMass out of the 7th/8th place rut. I just don’t know if it’ll be this year. Every coaching change comes with some growing pains. When that coaching change is made so close to the beginning of the season, those growing pains are more pronounced. All said and done everyone has had to scramble for the last couple months to be ready to go this Friday. And that scrambling rather than composed planning is the reason I’m picking them to finish near the bottom of the standings. Not because I don’t believe in the talent on this team.
What worries me most is that in that initial period when the players are getting used to the coach and vice versa, the team has to face some very formidable foes. Following Friday’s opener against UConn it’ll be a game against BC, a home and home with BU, UNH at home, a Sunday at BC, an improved Providence team, a trip to Orono to face Maine, and a game against a top ten Lowell squad. If this team is not ready to be competitive from the very start they could find themselves with six or seven conference losses by Turkey Tuesday against UVM. One thing that does favor the Minutemen is that 11 of the first 15 games will be in front of a friendly crowd. The flip side of that is that only seven of the final 19 games are in Amherst including just one of the of the final four.
This is a very good team. This is a talented team. From all accounts this is a close team, brought closer by the turmoil that surrounded the program over the summer. This team has the potential to do very well. Perhaps well enough to compete for home ice. At least good enough to find themselves in the middle of the Hockey East standings. But to do so they and the coach will need to be on the same page from day one. Freshmen and guys who only scored a few goals last year will need to play a big role in scoring starting this Friday. Adam Phillips will need to return to the form we saw two years ago and someone will have to step up and grab that 6th defensive spot. The goaltending situation will have to resolve itself earlier rather than later and the team will need consistent play from whoever the victor of the competition is. UMass will have to extend the strides made last year on the power play and improve upon a dismal penalty kill. Can all these things happen? Yes. Is this team capable of achieving all of these things during the season? Yes. Can all of the above fall into place from the get go so UMass can beat the likes of BC, BU, Lowell, and UNH from the get go? That remains to be seen. But we’ll know soon enough. Maybe not after Friday, but certainly in a few weeks we’ll know exactly what will be in store for UMass hockey.
Fear The Triangle Fearless Hockey East Predictions
1. Boston College Eagles
2. Lowell River Hawks
3. Boston University Terriers
4. New Hampshire Wildcats
5. Providence Friars
6. Maine Black Bears
7. Massachusetts Minutemen
8. Merrimack Warriors
9. Northeastern Huskies
10. Vermont Catamounts
Here’s a Hockey East preview from Hockey’s Future focused more on NHL prospects of course than the league itself.
And here’s a MAC Hockey preview. No seriously, MAC Hockey.
Just a reminder that I want my plate. Over 2,000 people indicated to the UMAA that they were interested in getting one. But, only 1,050 have put their money where their mouth is. Enough people will read this post alone to get the plate project to their goal so make sure to click below.
Lastly, I’m getting increasingly fed up with the people posting comments ripping players, coaches, and anyone else all while hiding behind the ability to post anonymously. This is something that has bothered me for a while but I’ve been hesitant to do anything about it because I don’t want to hinder the open discussion about the hockey program. But my patience is wearing thin. Feel like slamming a student-athlete? Fine. Sign your name to your comment instead of being a coward. And always keep in mind that while you may think you’re cleverly hiding anonymously, you’re really not. At least not to me. If the anonymous comments continue to be annoying, you’ll soon find a Facebook or Twitter login is required to share your thoughts about UMass hockey on the blog. Or maybe you’ll find your comment edited to include your hometown. I’d rather it doesn’t come to that, but I have too much else to do in my life than play nanny to a bunch of hockey fans.