John Micheletto arrived to coach Massachusetts hockey twenty seven months ago and in his two seasons behind the bench has led the team to a couple disappointing second to last finishes in Hockey East. But like Mark McGuire I’m not here to talk about the past. And as Bill Belichick would say, “We’re onto Boston University.” This season represents a bit of a reset for Mick and the coaching staff. Being hired so late in the Summer initially, they had no chance to affect the first recruiting class that came to Amherst under their watch. Last year they were able to land guys like Ray Pigozzi and and Steven Iacobellis who clearly were well suited for the style of play the staff is implementing and contributed from the very start. This season we’ll truly get an idea for what Mick is trying to do in Amherst as he’ll have 10 freshmen that he has recruited coming in. While the returning veterans will still have a major role on the team, it is the freshmen and the other recruits from the current staff that will determine just how well the team performs this year.
The Minutemen lose a lot of their scoring from last year, when they were 10th in the league in scoring with 2.24 goals per game. The team returns just 43% of their goals and an even less percentage of their total points. Multiple players are going to have to make up for the goals lost for Branden Gracel, Conor Sheary, and Mike Pereira graduating. Iacobellis (11 G, 10 A) and Pigozzi (5 G, 13 A) will have to avoid the sophomore slump and build on their strong freshman campaigns. It’ll be interesting to see what senior captain Troy Power does after his breakout season last year, scoring 10 goals after netting no more than two in any of his prior seasons. It seems odd to include Frank Vatrano as one of the returners but he did play that ONE game I guess. But he has the reputation as a scorer after his time with the US National Development team and by practicing with the team for the last one and a half seasons he should be well versed in the system. After those four, it’ll likely fall on the freshmen to generate scoring at the forward position.
The exhibition game gave fans a little taste of what the freshmen are capable of. Dennis Kravchenko grabbed the headlines with his two goal performance. He’s shown he’s capable of putting up numbers over an entire season, scoring 63 points in 56 games in the USHL a couple years ago. Despite not getting on the stat sheet Mick praised the play of Patrick Lee after Saturday’s exhibition and for good reason. He consistently moved the puck well and seemed to know where he needed to be in the play. It’ll be interesting to what he’ll do with a full season in front of him after being injured for most of last year. In his last full season of juniors he had 23 goals and 32 assists in 58 games. Dominic Trento put up a ton of points last season in the USPHL. 67 to be exact. Being the youngest of the freshmen, it may take Anthony Petrella a little longer to adjust to the college game, but he has the reputation to be a potentially prolific goalscorer. The word on him is that his size, not his skill, is what kept higher profile programs from bringing him in. UMass has had much success in the past with undersized forwards as James Marcou and T.J. Syner can attest.
With Mick’s style of play it’s not just the forwards who can be counted upon to bear the scoring load. Jake Horton showed as much in Saturday’s exhibition with his goal and 12 shots. Though fans did not get to see him on Saturday, Maddison Smiley has also shown to be a force offensively, scoring 36 goals over the last two seasons in juniors. It will be interesting to see how Ben Gallacher does in his second season at UMass. His 10 assists were valuable last year but it seems as though we still haven’t seen his ceiling yet. And in December UMass fans should get their first look at Brandon Montour, the reigning USHL Player of the Year whose skills are good enough that the Anaheim Ducks took him in the second round of this past June’s draft. Last season with Waterloo Montour had 14 goals and 48 assists in 60 games.
There are probably three equally weighted question marks about this team; their youth, the amount of scoring they must replace, and lastly their defense. Last year the team was second to last in Hockey East in scoring defense, giving up 3.12 goals per game. Lost from last year’s squad is Colin Shea, Joel Hanley, and Anthony Raiola. That puts a lot of pressure on the returners and the freshmen alike. Seniors Oleg Yevenko and Mike Busillo will be relied upon to lead the young defensive squad that will start at least three underclassmen. Yevenko kept himself very busy over the summer, first playing for his native Belarus in the IIHF World Championships, then gaining an invite to the Boston Bruins development camp. He’ll be key to UMass’ defense this year, needing to break up plays with his size and long reach all while staying out of the penalty box. Busillo has found himself in the stands off and on during his career at UMass despite having one of the better plus/minus stats on the team. There’s a good chance that changes this year if he can consistently bring the dependable though not overly flashy play that has marked his better games in the past.
Yevenko and Busillo are the only two UMass blueliners who have spent multiple years at UMass. Already mentioned was Gallacher’s contributions on offense, but he absolutely will have to improve on defense in his second year since transferring from Ohio State. His –22 rating was dead last in all of Hockey East. Whether that’s due to being a little too aggressive on offense or still adjusting to the speed of Hockey East after spending a year in juniors, I don’t know. The depth at defense last year meant that current sophomores Brennan Baxandall and Marc Hetnik only dressed for about 2/3rds of the games. Hetnik in fact played a number of games at forward, though Micheletto said on this week’s radio show that he expects him to slide back to defense this season. I found Baxandall to be a very reliable blueliner in the games in which he played. Beyond that on the blue line it will come down to the defensive abilities of Smiley, Horton, and Montour, all very offensive minded defenseman. They’ll have to be careful not to pinch in too much and risk breakaways going the other direction. Grinders like Shane Walsh and Zack LaRue will be relied on to shift back to defense in those cases in addition to getting gritty in the corners.
With all the youth on the team it’ll be a huge benefit to have a senior goaltender coming back. The word around the team is that Steve Mastalerz is not only in the best health in his time in Amherst, shaking off the nagging injuries that has limited his play in his career, but is also in the best physical shape as well in terms of conditioning. It didn’t hurt that he spent part of his summer at Pittsburgh Penguins training camp stopping shots of future NHLers and getting top notch instruction. Mastalerz has shown he can play big in big games, such as his shutout against Boston College as a freshman and topping BC again as a sophomore when they were ranked #2 in the country and playing at home. I think we’ll see those type of performances more consistently this year and hopefully he’ll be able to minimize the impact of all the inexperience in front of him.
Backing up Mastalerz will be returner Alex Wakaluk and freshman Henry Dill. There was hope Wakaluk was coming to Amherst as a goaltending diamond in the rough after being the top player in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. But his struggles in adjusting to Hockey East play were immediate and overwhelming and he ended up falling to third on the depth chart behind Mac Haight, who has since left the program. But Wakaluk kept battling in practice and when he got another chance later in the season, coming into a disaster of a game at Lowell, he put in a pretty good performance. In the end he was named Most Improved Player at the team banquet for fighting through adversity. Dill is a bit of a question mark. He rotated in net last year while playing in the NAHL with both of the goaltending pair putting up solid numbers all year. He had the highlight save in the exhibition with a lightning fast glove on a breakaway. But it remains to be seen whether he ultimately has the skills to be a starter in Hockey East.
Coach Micheletto came to Amherst wanting to put in place a very aggressive, offensive style of play that extended all the way back to the defensemen. That was very different from how previous coach Toot Cahoon approached the game and often the style of play seemed a total mismatch for the skill set of the players that Cahoon had assembled on the team. Still, Micheletto stuck with his system, seeming to sacrifice potential wins in his first couple years to teach the players his style and build for the future over short term success. Well, the future starts this year. 2/3rds of the roster were recruited by Mick and his staff. And even some of the holdovers from the previous staff have flourished under his style of play, such as Troy Power. What you’ll see is the roster is full of small, quick, offensively minded, puck handlers. Interesting to note that out of the nine freshman only one is six foot or taller; goaltender Henry Dill. Mick’s style of play started to pay dividends last year, as seen by the Minutemen’s power play results, second best in Hockey East behind Boston College. With more of his type of weapons at his disposal UMass will have to migrate that extra man success to five on five situations, where the Minutemen struggled mightily last season. It’ll also be key for the squad to make sure to support Mastalerz and the other goaltenders enough so they can gain the 3-2 wins instead of dropping the 4-3 losses.
The Minutemen have a relatively favorable schedule. It’ll have a lot of familiarity to it since they play five non-conference games against Hockey East foes due to the ridiculousness that has become the league schedule. The team only takes one trip outside of New England and that will be next weekend to take on a Michigan State team that continues to struggle under coach Tom Anastos. UMass will play AIC at the Mullins, hopefully to avenge last year’s embarrassing loss. They’ll also expand their annual game against Quinnipiac to a home and home series occurring over Thanksgiving weekend. After Christmas they’ll head up to Burlington to take part in the Catamount Cup, playing Providence and Air Force. UConn is on this year’s slate again, but this time as a league opponent. Originally the schedule had the teams playing a home and home in the final weekend of the regular season but the opportunity for a televised basketball game at the Mullins necessitated UMass to move the home game to early January. One game to keep an eye on will be a Tuesday night game against Northeastern in December. On paper that doesn’t sound all that exciting but media reports continue to say Montour will be eligible on December 16th, the day UMass takes on the Huskies. Will he suit up the very first day he’s eligible? I guess we’ll have to see.
So when I picked Massachusetts to finish 11th in my Hockey East preview last week I said I reserved the right to change my prediction after I saw the team play last weekend. Maybe I’m putting too much credence in an exhibition game. Maybe I’m desperate to have something, anything to be optimistic about. Maybe it’s the Heady Topper I’m currently drinking. But I’m going to say that UMass finishes 10th ahead of Merrimack and UConn. Granted, 10th still doesn’t sound super exciting but given all the question marks around this team (specifically youth, roster turnover, and defensive depth) I think it’s fair. However I think the team is very capable of overachieving, or underachieving, against those expectations. I’ve said since early Summer that I think this team can win anywhere between 5 and 15 games and I’m sticking by that projection. That means roughly that they could finish anywhere from 7th to 12th in Hockey East.
On paper this team reminds me A LOT of the 2010-2011 team. That team featured a large and talented freshman class, highlighted by the likes of Mike Pereira, Joel Hanley, and Conor Sheary. In goal was a sturdy and dependable netminder in Paul Dainton. And the defense was very thin in terms of upperclassmen. In fact Doug Kublin was the only upperclassmen blueliner on the roster that year. Now that team played a lot of exciting games and the freshmen made huge contributions in terms of scoring and defense. That team battled nearly every night and performed well even against power opponents. But they did not win may games. Just six to be exact. 6-23-6, finishing second to last in Hockey East. But they battled. In addition to the six ties they had there were 14 games where they either lost by a single goal or by a two goal margin aided by an empty net goal. So in 20 of their games they had a legitimate chance to win. I think this year’s squad could be a lot like that one.
They key to how successful the team can be this year clearly comes down to the freshman. You’re not going to see this class get listed among the top in the country, but it is a talented class. When you add in the offensive prowess of the defensemen, this class has scored a lot of goals in their young careers. And remember, Frankie Vatrano might as well be included in any talk of newcomers to the team. What I think is equally important is this class has won. Won championships. Smiley and Lee’s Bandits had an regular season record of 53-4-3 in 2012-13. That’s not a typo. 53-4-3. After Smiley led them to the AJHL championship as playoff MVP they then went on to play the best of the other Canadian junior leagues and beat them too. Trento led his Hitmen to a EJHL championship as playoff MVP as well. Petrella was the leading goal scorer for a prep school powerhouse that won a USA Hockey national championship. Keith Burchett won an Illinois state championship. Dennis Kravchenko not only captured a New England prep title with Steve Mastalerz in net, he captained Team USA to a gold medal at the World Junior Championships last fall. The coaching staff has assembled a class of hockey players who know how and expect to win. They’ll now work to turn the Minutemen program into a winning program. Hopefully that starts this year.
Evan Stack was not mentioned in the above preview. It was announced over the weekend that Stack has retired from hockey due to continued issues with concussions. It must be unbelievably tough to hang up the skates while still in the prime of your career, but I have tremendous respect for Stack to come to that difficult decision. Concussions are nothing to mess around with and better he assure that he make sacrifices now to assure he can live a fulfilling life down the road. I admired his grit in his time playing for UMass and he’ll be missed.
This is also a good opportunity to inform readers of The Knockout Project, the work of a UMass fan and friend of mine to raise awareness of the dangers of concussions in sport. Again, nothing to mess around with. I welcome athletes, parents, and anyone else to click on the link and become better informed on a subject that is on the forefront of sports today.
Yesterday I wrote about Austin Plevy’s commitment to UMass for next fall. Good news today as Over The Board, a great website covering junior players and commitments, reported that Plevy will be eligible to play immediately for UMass due to his NLI never being processed by Merrimack. He’ll have a full four years of eligibility.
In other recruit news Brandon Egli was traded from Victoria to Vernon in the BCHL.
Mike McMahon ranked the Hockey East recruiting classes with UMass’ coming in at 8th. I was thinking/hoping around 6th personally but he’s put a lot more research into it so I won’t argue. He has Montour as one of his Fab Five.