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View From Section U: Can UMass Win With Mick?

For my first View From Section U column of the season I might as well answer the question I’ve been asked pretty regularly going back to the end of last season.  Whether it be through social media, or on message boards, or at UMass football tailgates, or on the Mullins concourse following last Friday’s 8-1 loss, I’ve been asked the same question over and over.  “Can UMass win with Mick?”  I think it’s a natural question for Massachusetts hockey fans to ask.  Coach Micheletto has struggled so far, guiding the Minutemen to just 20 wins and a .341 winning percentage in his first two years in Amherst.  Attendance has dipped.  There has been some head scratching roster turnover.  There have been high profile recruits lost.  At the same time, out of Mick’s control and unfair to him, was the embarrassing debacle of a coaching transition led by Athletic Director John McCutcheon which didn’t make it easy for the fans of the program to rally around whomever was eventually selected to lead the team.  It’s been understandably tough to be a UMass hockey fan over the last two years and when you compile that with the five non-winning seasons that preceded under Toot Cahoon it’s no wonder that fans are impatient and desperate for any sign of a turnaround.

That of course leads to the question as we enter Micheletto’s third year at the helm of “Can UMass win with Mick?”  To which, I will give a confident answer of “I don’t know”.  And I’ll follow that up with an equally unhelpful “Ask me in 6 to 12 months.”  I’m not trying to avoid the question.  There is just too much unknown, too many question marks, and frankly too many newcomers to be able to fairly answer the question.

Mick has spent the last two years trying to implement a very specific system that requires a very specific skill set with the wrong type of players.  I’m not going to rehash it again, but the fact is that the square peg/round hole era of the last two seasons is over.  We got a little taste of what the right type of players can do in this system last season and I would think most fans were pleasantly surprised with what they saw from Mick’s first real class of recruits, specifically the play of Ray Pigozzi and Steven Iacobellis.  That type of play will hopefully only be the beginning.  This fall it’s like a dump truck backed up to the Mullins and unloaded an entire shipment of Mick recruits.  There are nine freshman on the roster for this season to go with last year’s five freshmen and transfer Ben Gallacher.  Add in 2nd round NHL draft pick Brandon Montour who is due to join the team in December plus the much talked about Frankie Vatrano, who essentially redshirted last year, and this roster suddenly looks entirely different from the team that won 20 games in the last two years.  Will they win?  I have no idea.  We’ll find out!

I usually think of Year 3 of a coach’s tenure to be make or break.  After two years of a coach putting their imprint on the program Year 3 is typically when fans’ expectations should migrate from hoping for wins to expecting them.  Not necessarily expecting a team to turn into world beaters mind you, but showing evidence of a recognizable trend towards success.  There are two factors, outside of his control, that makes those type of typical Year 3 expectations challenging to put upon Mick this year.  First is the a aforementioned Toot resignation/coaching search debacle by AD John McCutcheon.  Coaches are fired and hired in March or April.  Not July.  An incoming coach usually has a chance to meet with players before they leave for the summer and get them acquainted with strategy and training techniques.  Some coaches can even make some late additions to the incoming recruiting class.  Hired as late as he was, Mick was lucky enough to have his office unpacked before the players hit campus much less prepare them for an entire new way of doing things.  The other hindrance for him was the unbalanced class size.  He brought in a good number of players last year (and tried for more but was caught up in the red tape that enveloped Vatrano’s situation) but the team was still dominated by upperclassmen, brought in by Coach Toot Cahoon and his staff, suited to play a different style of hockey.  Mick and his staff basically had to wait for this current class of freshman to really make this their team.

And, in my opinion of someone who follows recruiting but still only has a fan’s knowledge of the sport, it’s a good and talented freshman class.  It’s not going to get the headlines.  It’s not going to make a list on a website.  But as I wrote in my season preview this class knows how to score and they’ve already proven in their careers that they can win.  I think these players are good enough that Mick can win with this class (plus Vatrano).  I don’t know if that winning would be sooner or later though.  I also don’t know what the ceiling is with these specific players.  But I think they’re better than the second to last place in Hockey East rut that UMass has seemingly made its home.  And the additional good news is that the future classes seem pretty talented too, with a number of players good enough that they’re getting the attention of USA Hockey and similar organizations.

So I think that Mick and his staff are assembling the players who can help turn around the program, even despite the loss of high profile recruits like Jake Wahlin and Alex DeBrincat.  With better suited players now on campus it’s even more important to educate and coach those players to be effective and successful in the offensive oriented system that has been implemented under his watch.  We’ve seem some glimpses of what that system can deliver, the most obvious being the 22% power play conversion last year, 2nd best among Hockey East teams.  But, don’t let that fleeting glimpse fool you, there is still a lot of work to be done.  We saw this first hand in the third period against BU where it didn’t take much to expose the risks inherent in such a system, not to mention risks inherent with inexperience, on the defensive end.  While the recruiting has been good so far, in my opinion, there’s probably one more key piece needed.  An elite goaltender.  That’s not a knock on Steve Mastalerz, who I think has always been unheralded and reliable.  Same goes for the other goaltenders on the roster.  But this system really needs a special goaltender who can make those unexpected saves on the odd man rushes that this system will eventually produce even on its good days.  Mick and the staff have been involved in the recruitment of a few of these special type of goaltenders, notably Alex Naglevoort who put up impressive numbers for Michigan last year.  But finally landing a top notch goaltender next year could be the key to sustained success and could help answer the question about just what is the ceiling for success in the coming years.

So that’s my answer to the question to whether UMass can win with Mick.  I don’t know.  I think the tools to win are coming into place.  Whether they’re used effectively or are even the right mix of players, remains to be seen.  But I believe UMass can win with these players.  When?  Well that’s a different story.  Just the sheer amount of first year players on this team means there’s going to be some serious growing pains this season.  Last Friday’s third period is submitted as Exhibit A to that fact.  The question is whether we’ll be able to accurately gauge if these players, and thus this staff, are what this program needs by the end of this season.  Given the youth and inexperience, is it too much to ask for the team to be winning by year’s end?  Again, I don’t know.  I would think at the very latest next year at this time it’s entirely fair for UMass fans to expect, not hope for, wins from this program.  Not near wins.  Not moral wins.  Wins.  The real ones.  The ones that they show in the standings and everything.  In the meantime I’m just going to do my best to be patient, get to know the newcomers who are donning the maroon and white for the first time, and watch some hockey.

The Collegian has this story on senior Zack LaRue embracing a leadership role on the heels of being named an assistant captain last week.

Captain Troy Power’s latest blog entry centers around LaRue and Oleg Yevenko’s leadership and the role of the freshmen on the team.

SBNation’s Jeff Cox is reporting that former BU forward and 2nd round NHL draft pick Sam Kurker is nearing a decision on where to continue his college career and that UMass is the front runner.  Kurker struggled at BU, amassing just four goals and two assists in one and a half seasons, but obviously he is skilled or the St Louis Blues wouldn’t have used a top draft pick on him.  Later tonight Mike McMahon reported that Kruker is still choosing between a number of schools, including Northeastern and Ohio State, so we’ll see how this ends up.

Former Minuteman Matt Irwin did well last night, scoring the fastest two goals by a player to open a game in Sharks history.

Both teams have their previews up for this weekend.  Here’s UMass’  And here’s State’s.

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Recruit Update

Brandon Montour – D – Waterloo Blackhawks (USHL) – Dec 2014
5 GP / 0 G / 6 A / 6 Pts / 2 PIM / +3
Montour is already the top scoring defenseman in the league with his 6 points, tied for 8th among all skaters.

Brandon Egli – D – Vernon Vipers (BCHL) – 2015
4 GP / 0 G / 0 A / 0 Pts / 0 PIM
Egli made his debut for the Vipers over the weekend after being traded from Victoria

Jake McCarthy – D – South Shore Kings (USPHL) – 2015 or 2016
0 GP / 0 G / 0 A / 0 Pts / 0 PIM
McCarthy is still nursing an injury that is delaying his debut for the Kings.

Kurt Keats – C – Powell River Kings (BCHL) – 2015
8 GP / 6 G /5 A / 11 Pts / 10 PIM
Keats had a strong week with two goals and an assist over the weekend.  He’s currently tied for 6th in the BCHL for goals and tied for 15th for points.

Austin Plevy – C – Brooks Bandits (AJHL) – 2015
13 GP / 7 G /13 A / 20 Pts / 20 PIM
Plevy is third in the league in points and tied for 12th in goals.

Troy Conzo – RW – Des Moines Buccaneers (USHL) – 2016 or 2017
1 GP / 0 G /0 A /0 Pts / 0 PIM
Conzo still has only played one game for the Bucs.

Kyler Nachtigall – LW – Brooks Bandits (AJHL) – 2016
13 GP / 2 G / 2 A / 4 Pts / 33 PIM
Nachtigall had a goal this past week.

Shane Bear – D – Brooks Bandits (AJHL) – 2016
13 GP / 0 G / 8 A / 8 Pts / 14 PIM
Bear had three assists in his three game this past week.  He’s tied for second on Brooks in that category.

Ty Pelton-Byce – C – Team Wisconsin U18 (Elite)/Madison Memorial (WI HS) – 2016
15 GP / 9 G / 10 A / 18 Pts / 8 PIM  Team Wisconsin U18
0 GP / 0 G / 0 A / 0 Pts  Madison Memorial
Pelton-Byce is tied for 8th in goals and 10th in points in the Elite League, despite playing few games than most of the other players.

John Leonard – F – Springfield Cathedral (MA HS) – 2017
0 GP / 0 G / 0 A / 0 Pts
Waiting on HS hockey to start up.

I forgot to mention this in my recap over the weekend, but for those who missed it Zack LaRue and Oleg Yevenko were named assistant captains before Friday’s game.  Both solid choices and players who will need to do well for UMass to be successful this year.

Some interesting numbers coming out of the game against BU.  For example, their 8 goals represents 18% of their total conference game output last year.  Ugh.

Last month College Hockey News had this good introduction to some of the new stats now being used regularly in the game.  Since I enjoy numbers, you can bet on seeing some of them on FTT.

Polls & Awards

Not unexpectedly UMass is no longer receiving any votes in this week’s USCHO poll.  Providence dropped from third place to #5 with their opening weekend split at Ohio State.  Boston College dropped three spots to #7 after losing to Lowell, who was the big winner in the polls this week, jumping from #17 to #9.  With their decisive win over the Minutemen Boston University improved 6 spots to #14.  All in all 10 difference Hockey East teams are receiving votes in the polls, only UMass and UConn are not.

And here’s the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine Poll.

No mentions for UMass in this week’s Hockey East awards.

I missed this last week, but College Hockey News had their Hockey East Preview.

BU Recap

Through the first two periods Friday’s game against BU was going pretty much like I expected.  UMass got out to a pretty good start, dominating play for the first five minutes of the game.  But the Terriers were the better team for the final 15 minutes of the period and went into the first intermission with a 1-0 lead thanks to a goal by Robbie Baillargeon.

The second period was more balanced in terms of play and scoring.  BU gained a two goal lead when Nikolas Olsson scored his first collegiate goal.  Late in the second UMass was having a tough time getting the puck past freshman goaltender Connor LaCouvee who was a surprise starter when junior Matt O’Connor got hurt in practice earlier in the week.  It seemed as though the momentum shifted towards the Minutemen when Jake Horton scored his first collegiate goal with just :47 seconds to play in the second period.  During the same sequence BU’s John MacLeod took his third penalty of the night, putting the Minutemen on the power play.  They didn’t score in the final seconds of the period, but with the penalty carrying over into the third the Minutemen had a great chance at tying the game and battling for the win in the third.

Instead fans were treated to one of the worst periods of UMass hockey in recent memory.  The Minutemen failed to get a shot on net in the 1:13 of power play time to start the period.  Forty seconds later phenom Jack Eichel got his first goal of his (likely short) college career.  I’d like to think that the swing in momentum shook the inexperienced team and panic set in.  I hope that’s what it was.  Because that’s better than the alternative that they just gave up.  Things got ugly quick and six minutes into the period UMass found themselves down 5-1.  By the end of the game the final score was an embarrassing 8-1.  Steve Mastalerz gave up six of the goals, but honestly there was probably only one, maybe two, that I would pin on him.  He got no help in front of him.  Most of the goals consisted of BU rushing in between the circles and shooting at will.  Dill came in to relieve Mastalerz and got a similar level of support, giving up two goals on four shots.

Obviously my game preview couldn’t have been more wrong.  I thought the teams were facing similar challenges and would be evenly matched.  Instead what we got was the widest margin of defeat in a season opener in the modern era of UMass hockey, the previous being a 6-0 loss to Boston College in 2002.  I honestly have no idea what happened to the team in the third period .  When facing adversity they folded like a cheap card table.  Could it have been the youth?  Perhaps.  But as I mentioned in my season preview, this class was supposed to be full of proven winners.  Not to mention the fact that the BU was also just as inexperienced. They even started a freshman in net.  Inexperience doesn’t explain why some of the veterans played so poorly either.  Oleg Yevenko who was supposed to anchor the defense this year was on the ice for five of the Terrier goals.

Were there any positives?  A few.  The final score will mask the fact that the team played well enough to be in the game for two periods.  Jake Horton played well again, scoring his first goal.  UMass dominated in the faceoff circle, winning 40 of 63.  Steven Iacobellis alone won 13 of 17.  And the last positive is that UMass is in the early lead for the Charlie Holt Sportsmanship Award after taking zero penalties in the game.

I thought there could be games like the one we witnessed last night during this season, just because of the large amount of roster turnover.  I didn’t really expect it on opening night at home.  It was how they lost that worries me.  Once BU got that third goal there was very little effort or execution from the team, at least on defense.  The players must dedicate themselves to playing good defense going forward.  The rushes that led to the goals were inexcusable.  Things don’t get easy for the Minutemen as they now embark on a three week road trip that spans from Michigan to Maine.  Hopefully the trips will give the team a chance to bond and figure out how to avoid performances like last night.  At the very least, it can’t get much worse.

FTT Player of the Game
Not a lot of options for this one.  Either Iacobellis for his faceoff work or Horton for scoring the goal.  I’ll go with Horton for providing the lone highlight on the night.  It was a hell of a shot.

Gazette Recap
Collegian Game Story
More Collegian coverage on the talent difference between the teams’ top lines.
USCHO Recap

Former Minuteman Kevin Boyle got the 5-2 win over Boston College in his debut for Lowell.

Boston University Preview

#20 Boston University Terriers 0-0-0 (0-0-0) T-1st Hockey East

vs

Massachusetts Minutemen 0-0-0 (0-0-0) T-1st Hockey East

Eichel.  EichelEichelEichel.  EichelEichel.  Hey, you know how since Johnny Gaudreau has moved on to the NHL you were all excited that people might actually talk about other players and teams in Hockey East again?  WELL HAVE YOU HEARD ABOUT JACK EICHEL?!?!?  As of this writing Coach Micheletto is still planning on playing Boston University on Friday and is not entertaining the idea of forfeiting the game.  That’s a bit of a surprise since the word is Eichel plans to walk across the Connecticut River while carrying his team bus on his back, score 9 goals against the Minutemen, and then head uptown to make pizzas at Antonio’s all while the Club Sidewalk crowd chants “Eichel! Eichel! Eichel!”

Listen, Eichel is a tremendous talent.  I’m not disputing that.  Maybe he does come into the Mullins Center for his college hockey debut and score a bunch of goals and get his team the win.  It’s more than possible.  It just seems that the hype machine has cranked up a little early this year.  The BU team coming to Amherst is facing a lot of the same challenges that UMass is facing heading into the season.  The Terriers finished just two points ahead of UMass in the standings last year.  They were 9th in the league in scoring (UMass was 10th).  They were dead last in scoring defense (UMass was again 10th).  Like UMass they will have to figure out a way to quickly integrate and get contributions from 10 freshmen on their roster.  Now it helps that those freshmen make up arguably the best recruiting class in the country.  But that doesn’t change the fact that there are still significant questions marks surrounding this BU team that have to be solved before they become the old BU team that everyone used to fear.

The biggest question mark for the Terriers is probably in goal.  Matt O’Connor has spent his first two years at BU sharing the net with Sean Maguire, compiling a 15-17-6 record during the time.  Maguire has left school to recover from injury, leaving the job solely to O’Connor who will have to play significantly better if BU is going to find success.  That job could be difficult given that he’ll likely have three or even four freshman defenseman in front of him most of the season.  Getting junior defenseman Matt Grzelyck back from injury will help bring some experience and leadership to the young defensive corps.  Brandon Hickey and John MacLeod, both NHL draft picks, are a couple of the first year blueliners to keep an eye on.

Like UMass, the Terriers return just two 10 goal scorers from a year ago in sophomore Danny O’Regan and freshman Robbie Baillargeon.  O’Regan didn’t play in last week’s exhibition game due to injury but is expected to play tomorrow.  Baillargeon led the team in points last year with 27 (10 G, 17 A).  Senior Cason Hohmann will likely be counted on to score 10 goals this season, but beyond that the scoring duties will fall upon the underclassmen.  Eichel is the gem of the freshman class but watch for JJ Piccinich as well.  Piccinich scored 27 goals last season for Youngstown in the USHL last season.  Sophomores Nick Roberto and Kevin Duane will look to build off freshman seasons that saw them score 7 and 6 goals respectively.

UMass already showed us what will be the key to wins this season during last weekend’s exhibition.  Puck possession.  They won because they outscored Dalhousie 5-2.  They outscored Dalhousie because they outshot them 55-21.  They outshot them by a wide margin because of puck possession.  Dalhousie just never had the puck long enough to put any kind of pressure on the goaltenders and spent long stretches in their own zone.  An inexperienced defense combined with a set of offensively-minded, aggressive defense like UMass has can be devastating for a team that is turning over the puck and will lead to odd man rush after odd man rush on Minuteman goaltender Steve Mastalerz.  But by passing well, by protecting the puck on their stick, and energetically chasing loose pucks, UMass can minimize turnovers and breakdowns.  And they did that exceptionally well in the exhibition.  Can they do it against DI hockey talent?  We’ll see.  But last weekend was encouraging in regard to controlling the puck and thus controlling play.

As I mentioned in my season preview, these freshmen are experienced winners.  Which is good because there is going to be tremendous pressure on them from the time the puck drops tomorrow night until March, and hopefully April.  “Well he’s only a freshman” won’t be an acceptable excuse this year, simply because it can’t be.  The team can’t afford it.  The good news tomorrow is when the nine UMass freshman sit in the east bench at game time and look across the Mullins ice they’ll be seeing just as many players suiting up for their first collegiate game as well.

I think this matchup is a lot tighter than people are expecting.  The teams finished within a win of each other in conference play last year.  They both had problems putting the puck in the net and keeping it out of their own.  Both return just a couple double digit goalscorers from a year ago.  Both teams are inexperienced and a little thin on defense.  They both have large freshman classes making their college debuts.  Sure the Terrier freshmen are likely more talented.  But UMass has the advantage of starting a veteran goaltender who has played in and won big games in the past.  Plus the Minutemen will have what will hopefully be a large and raucous crowd behind them.  Starting tomorrow preseason polls mean nothing.  Ditto recruit rankings.  The best thing about season openers is that all teams are undefeated and tied for 1st place.  On Saturday we’ll start to know who’s truly better than whom.

Drop the puck!

Beer The Triangle

I have to send everyone back to the Hangar again this week just because the beer is amazing and Stoney is a quality guy in every way.  As of last Saturday they had Lagunitas Hop Stoopid, Port Mongo, and Jack’s Abbey Copper Legend on draft.  Hell, they even had Wormtown Pumpkin which I enjoyed even though I generally hate pumpkin beers.  There’s even rumors that Founders Breakfast Stout may be lurking in the backroom somewhere just waiting to be tapped.

UMass not only has a lot of new faces on the ice, but in the press box as well.  Here’s six stories from the new crop of Collegian writers previewing the upcoming season.

Matt Vautour of the Gazette has a feature on sophomores Ray Pigozzi (who is expected to suit up tomorrow) and Steven Iacobellis.  He also previews the tilt against BU.

USCHO previews Hockey East as well as a more detailed look at UMass specifically.

The Northeastern hockey program was placed on three years of probation for violations that occurred under former coach Greg Cronin.

Massachusetts Hockey 14-15 Season Preview

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.

Offense

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.

Defense

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.

Goaltending

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.

Coaching

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.

Schedule

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.

Outlook

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.

Plevy Commits To UMass; Recruit Update

The Massachusetts hockey program picked up a commitment for next fall from Austin Plevy.  Plevy currently plays for the….wait for it….Brooks Bandits.  The Bandits are of course also the team where future Minutemen Shane Bear and Kylie Nachtigall are playing and where current freshmen Patrick Lee and Maddison Smiley had much success.  Plevy has five goals and 10 assists in 10 games for a team leading 15 points for Brooks.  He was just named AJHL Player of the Week.  Plevy has been playing junior hockey north of the border since 2009 with his best statistical season a 30 goal, 43 assist effort while appearing in 54 games with the Chilliwack Chiefs of the BCHL in 2012-13.

Plevy started the year at Merrimack where he was their top offensive recruit.  However, for unreported reasons Plevy left North Andover just days into the semester and returned to Canada.  Because Plevy signed a NLI with Merrimack and was enrolled in the school, it could complicate exactly when he’d be eligible to play for the Minutemen.  Mike McMahon has reported that Warrior coach Mark Dennehy plans on holding Plevy to his NLI and will not grant him a waiver.  Though these rules are never simple, McMahon contends that Plevy would have to sit a year at his new school and would only have three years of eligibility starting in fall of 2016.  That is my understanding of the rules as well.  However, there are always appeals to be heard, forms to be filled out, and red tape to unwind.  The UMass staff will certainly do what they can do to have Plevy in uniform next year so it should not be ruled out.

Let’s add Plevy to the recruit list and see how next year shapes up with his addition.

Brandon Montour – D – Waterloo Blackhawks (USHL) – Dec 2014
3 GP / 0 G / 4 A / 4 Pts / 2 PIM / +1
Montour had a couple two assist games last week.

Brandon Egli – D – Victoria Grizzlies (BCHL) – 2015
2 GP / 0 G / 0 A / 0 Pts / 0 PIM
Egli did not play this past week so he may be battling an injury.

Jake McCarthy – D – South Shore Kings (USPHL) – 2015 or 2016
0 GP / 0 G / 0 A / 0 Pts / 0 PIM
McCarthy was reported to have joined the Kings for the season but it doesn’t appear that he’s played any games yet.

Kurt Keats – C – Powell River Kings (BCHL) – 2015
6 GP / 4 G /4 A / 8 Pts / 2 PIM
Keats had a two assist game this past week.

Austin Plevy – C – Powell River Kings (BCHL) – 2015
10 GP / 5 G /10 A / 15 Pts / 18 PIM
Aside from the offensive production mentioned earlier, 18 PIM in 10 games is certainly eye catching.

Troy Conzo – RW – Des Moines Buccaneers (USHL) – 2016 or 2017
1 GP / 0 G /0 A /0 Pts / 0 PIM
Conzo did not play last week

Kyler Nachtigall – LW – Brooks Bandits (AJHL) – 2016
10 GP / 1 G / 2 A / 3 Pts / 23 PIM
Nachtigall had a game misconduct in the one game he played in this past week.

Shane Bear – D – Brooks Bandits (AJHL) – 2016
10 GP / 0 G / 5 A / 5 Pts / 10 PIM
Bear had an assist the past week.

Ty Pelton-Byce – C – Team Wisconsin U18 (Elite)/Madison Memorial (WI HS) – 2016
12 GP / 9 G / 9 A / 18 Pts / 8 PIM  Team Wisconsin U18
0 GP / 0 G / 0 A / 0 Pts  Madison Memorial
A couple readers were nice enough to pass along that Pelton-Byce plays for Team Wisconsin U18 before the HS hockey season.  Last year he helped Team Wisconsin U16 to a national championship.  He’s currently the leading scorer for the U18 team.

John Leonard – F – Springfield Cathedral (MA HS) – 2017
0 GP / 0 G / 0 A / 0 Pts
Leonard might be playing junior hockey until HS hockey starts as well like Pelton-Byce.  But if that’s the case I haven’t been able to track down where.

Captain Troy Power’s latest installment of his blog covers last week’s exhibition game and the typical game day routine.

Speaking of commitments, decommitments, and NLIs, Mike McMahon wrote a must read piece on the “gentleman’s agreement” in college hockey.  The gentleman’s agreement is was the promise that coaches would stop recruiting a player once he had verbally committed to another school.  I say was because some schools have chosen to abandon the agreement and will pursue other players right up until they sign their NLI.  Now if those schools were UAH and Robert Morris it would be a huge issue.   But the coaches who have publicly said they’re no longer honoring the agreement are Jerry York of Boston College, Don Lucia of Minnesota, and Mike Eaves of Wisconsin.  Obviously if those elite schools are recruiting kids beyond their commitment to another school there’s a good chance they’ll be successful.

Coach Micheletto is quoted in the article, saying the agreement “has become difficult”.  I agree.  I think the agreement is a positive for all schools in the small community that is college hockey.  However it needs 100% adherence to be effective.  And to have the top teams in DI not abiding by it, the rest of the schools who are are artificially handcuffing themselves in the process.  Teams like BC and Minnesota have enough ingrained advantages in college hockey as it is.  They don’t need to poach the recruits of schools who have agreed not to reciprocate.  So in my opinion if York and Lucia are going to play by a different set of rules, I say hell with the agreement.

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