While not exactly halfway through the slate of games, the start of winter break in December is generally seen as the mid-season point of college hockey. It’s a time to take stock of where the team is, identify what has worked and what hasn’t, and, importantly for this UMass squad, get some rest and get healthy. So before I get into my opinion on the state of the team and the state of the season, let’s start with some facts.
The Massachusetts hockey team comes into the break with a record of 5-9-2. In Hockey East play they’re 4-6-1, currently tied for 5th in the league. According to the RPI the team has played the 7th toughest schedule in the country so far. The team has one win against a ranked opponent, beating #9 New Hampshire. Last year heading into break the team was 5-7-4, but just 2-6-3 in Hockey East where they were tied for 9th. They had wins over top ranked Boston College and #17 Yale while tying #13 Boston University.
The Minutemen were doing quite well in the first part of the season statistically. Their power play started off strong and, despite one extended drought, is still sitting at 20% and 2nd best among Hockey East teams. Their overall offensive output however has fallen during that time. Once sitting comfortably over three goals a game and in the top half of the league, UMass is now down to scoring just 2.69 goals per game. That’s down considerably from the 3.17 scored last year. Defense is where UMass’ biggest problems lie. While the 3.12 goals per game allowed is slightly better than the 3.28 allowed last season, it’s dead last in the league. A lot has to do with their penalty kill which started out solid, but is now under 80% and also dead last in the league. Amazingly just a few weeks ago goaltender Kevin Boyle was, statistically, the 4th best goaltender in the country. Now his goals against average and save percentage are near the bottom among the Hockey East starters. The last month was brutal for this UMass hockey team.
It’s obviously waaaaay too early to try to evaluate John Micheletto as coach. Personally, I don’t try to gauge a coaching hire until at least the end of year three. But when a new coach is chosen to take over a program, there are usually two things that can happen. First, the coach comes in and whether it’s due to improved strategy, better training methods, or just an overall attitude adjustment the players buy-in and the team is able to see success immediately. We’ve seen such a thing recently in Hockey East when Nate Leaman got Providence to the Garden last year or Norm Bazin leading a miraculous turnaround at Lowell, bringing them all the way to the NCAA regional finals. In these cases a lot of the pieces for success are in place and it just needs a new coach to make some tweaks, reenergize the troops and off they go. Sure there is generally some bumps and period of adjustment in there, but sometimes just the change itself is enough to bring wins.
This immediate success is what I, naturally, hoped for when the coaching change fiasco occurred over the summer. It seemed like a lot of things made this a viable option. UMass is not an inexperienced team anymore, with 17 seniors or juniors on the roster. There was a good chance the team would see improved goaltending as Kevin Boyle and Steve Mastalerz were no longer going to be wide-eyed freshman. The team was bringing back talented offensive forwards in the form of Mike Pereira and Conor Sheary while also having leadership and skill on the blueline in guys like Conor Allen and Joel Hanley. K.J. Tiefenwerth, originally committed to go to Boston College, was the star of a solid freshman class. It seemed like no matter who was the coach, the team was poised to launch itself upward in Hockey East. But heading into the break going 0-4-1 in their last and looking horrible while doing so makes it challenging to think the team is poised to improve on last year’s 8th place finish.
Which leads me to the other path a coaching change usually leads to. No matter how much talent is already on the roster. No matter how much it seems like a replacement at the top and a little tweaking is all that’s needed for a team to have a breakout season, it just doesn’t happen. The players don’t respond to the new coach, one who didn’t bring them into the program. And if that occurs, the rebuild/retool process becomes drawn out and it takes multiple seasons, usually until the coach has “his guys”, until success comes to the program.
At the traditional midway point of the season, UMass seems to have these two paths before them. Or maybe the last five games have shown that they already have a head start down the second, more drawn out, path to success. It’s tough to tell. On one hand the team is currently sitting in 5th place, just two points behind Providence (a team they beat convincingly), for home ice. On the other hand this team is playing terrible hockey right now and hasn’t shown signs that they’ll have the mental toughness needed to take on the grueling Hockey East schedule that awaits them.
What’s frustrating is that the season’s beginning, when you’d think there’d be bad losses as adjustments are made, the team wasn’t that bad. Sure, they dropped their first three conference games but BC, BU, BU isn’t exactly an easy hand to be dealt for a program in transition. And two of those games they lost narrowly. Up next the team handed UNH their first loss of the season, another narrow loss to the Eagles, and a beatdown of Providence. Through seven games the team was 3-4-0, had played five games against ranked opponents (including the #1 team in the country), and only had one game that they weren’t really competitive in. Then on 11/16 they went to Maine where they tied the struggling Black Bears, who have managed just two wins all season, and the team hasn’t been the same since. Next up was a game against a Lowell team that had gotten off to a very slow start and the River Hawks came into the Mullins and flat out embarrassed the Minutemen.
What we’ve seen since that weekend is a team making tons of mistakes on defense. We’ve seen ill-timed penalties and a penalty kill unit that is unable to prevent power play goals. We’ve seen the team’s goaltending, a strength early on in the season, let up some soft goals and not play well enough to overcome the poor play in front of them. The power play which was stellar is now inconsistent. And the two guys who were supposed to lead your offense and scored 29 goals combined last season have scored 5 total so far. I hope that in the end adjustments are made before New Year, weary bodies get healthy, and the realization is made that the prospect of success this season could quickly slip away. I hope the team wakes up and plays much better in the coming months and is poised for a run to the Garden and beyond come March. But such a thing looks bleak given the last couple weeks of play. At this point it seems like the program will have to be stripped down and rebuilt from scratch. And that’s a somber thought for a UMass fandom that hasn’t seen a winning season in over five years.
Co-captain Rocco Carzo is featured on Hockey East’s Five Minute Major:
The local New Haven Register also has a recap.
UMass drops a spot in the College Hockey News power rankings.