View From Section U: FTT UMail

OK, I’ve gone through the questions submitted on Facebook, Twitter, here on the blog, and email and will now do my best to answer them while sounding semi-intelligent.

“Angry Mel” and Jim asked basically the same question:  “How do you explain schools such as Lowell and Merrimack seemingly passing by the Minutemen?”

First, it’s tough to say that Lowell has “passed” UMass.  I went back over the last ten years and Lowell’s average finish in the Hockey East standings is 6.4.  UMass has finished on average at 6.8 during that time.  So obviously the programs are on par with each other.  Both teams have made the Hockey East finals once.  The only difference in that time is UMass’ one NCAA appearance while Lowell hasn’t had any, but that will likely change this season.  Merrimack on the other hand has definitely surpassed UMass.  Two things changed with Merrimack hockey, they hired Mark Dennehy and finally got a school president who wants to make the program the jewel of Warrior athletics.  Dennehy, unlike his predecessors, decided to build a very different team through recruiting.  Instead of staying local and trying to compete against the BCs, BUs, UNHs, and even UMasses, he went west and plucked a lot of quality kids playing in Western Canada.  He also found hidden jewels in other places where Hockey East teams were not looking, like France where he picked up Stephane DaCosta.  In addition he built a team very well fit for playing in his arena, successfully combining size, strength, and a touch of scoring.  As a result they’ve been almost unbeatable at Lawler, even before the renovations that brought it towards Hockey East standards.  UMass during this time has recruited a little differently.  While the team has gotten a few quality players from Western Canada like Matt Irwin and Paul Dainton, generally they’re recruiting locally or in the USHL where they face some very tough competition for players.  In short, Dennehy has out recruited Toot Cahoon in recent years.  In terms of quality and in terms of assembling an overall team suited for success specifically at Merrimack.  At least in my opinion.

Carson asks “Being honest, do you see this team making the Hockey East playoffs this year?”

Yes.  My guess is they’ll finish in 7th or 8th place.  But if they lose on Friday, and therefore lose the tiebreaker to Northeastern, I’ll begin to get nervous.  They can’t have another lost, pointless weekend like this past one though.

Patrick asks “What do you think the future brings for Toot?”

I fully expect Toot to coach through the end of next season when his contract runs out.  To the best I can tell he still has the full confidence of the administration and the boosters.  They like Toot because he’s brought the team to unprecedented success, conducts himself with class, brings in standup student-athletes that do well in the classroom and don’t get in trouble outside of it, and graduates his players.  That’s not to say they’re blind to the results on the ice, but I don’t think it’s reached a point where they’d want to make a change.  Add in the fact that the school just had to drop a bunch of money to buyout Kevin Morris, a coaching move much more critical to the overall health of athletics, and he’s their guy for at least another year.  The only way Toot, currently 62, doesn’t coach next season is if he retires before then.  But I don’t see that as a likely possibility either.  He believes in what he’s doing here.

Josh asks “Are UMass fans expectations too high? Is it reasonable to expect, given our resources and conference, to compete for home ice each year?  If it is, why aren’t we competing for home ice recently?”

I don’t think so.  The University of Massachusetts is a world class university that is able to attract a diverse population of students.  The Mullins Center and its adjoining practice rink, while missing some of the mystique of places like Matthews and Alfond, are more than adequate facilities.  Add in the established fan support which has built over recent years and I think those things should lead to an average finish of 4th to 6th each year in the league, with outliers in either direction from time to time.  Now why is that not happening?  Recruiting.  But not in the way you think.  I think the coaching staff has recruited the talent to finish in the middle of Hockey East.  However I think they’ve missed on getting kids that gel together as a team or have the mental toughness to really compete in Hockey East.  In recent years there have been too many rumors of cliques on the team, competing agendas, guys who back down when challenged, and guys who are already looking ahead to the next step in their hockey career while still suiting up for UMass.  That’s the reason for the second half swoons in recent years.

Will asks “How do you see the goaltending situation playing out? 3 man rotation based on who is hot in games/practice?”

I have no idea.  I think it’s obvious that something is up with Kevin Boyle since he hasn’t played since the team was in Florida.  What that something is though, I have no idea.  It’s not ideal and completely unconventional but the current situation seems to being working though.  How many games have you walked out thinking the team would’ve won with better goaltending?  The loss at Providence?  Probably the game at UNH?  Overall not too many.  The team has much bigger problems than who is in net, specifically inconsistent defensive play, taking too many penalties, and poor special teams.  Unless someone gets really hot and starts stealing games rather than just winning them, I guess the goaltending situation will stay as is.

Josh asks “Does UMass have any shot to play in the Garden, given their road record? Why are they so bad on the road?”

Unfortunately I don’t think they’ll see the Garden.  Their league record right now has left them with what will likely be a very tough matchup on the road in the first round of the playoffs.  That’s why last weekend and getting 3 or 4 points from Lowell was so important, because it would’ve kept the chance at home ice alive.  That’s gone now.  I honestly have no idea why they’re so bad on the road.  I’ve never seen anything like this this season with the disparity of success home and away.  I think Toot should petition to the league to let them wear whites on the road.

Chris asks “Each of the last 2 seasons it seems someone who played significant minutes one season has been embedded in Toot’s doghouse the next. Last year it was Shaun Saunders, this year it appears to be Darren Rowe. Is there a reason for this and do you think we will be lucky enough for it to be Patrick Kiley and his stupid penalties next year?”

I think there are multiple reasons for this.  One is the roster has grown in recent years.  I don’t remember seeing so many healthy scratches on a regular basis as I have in the past three years, so a bunch of players are always sitting.  Also, Toot is recruiting for the best players.  Just because a player plays one year if there is someone new and better on the roster the next year, they’ll play.  Specifically to Rowe I think his problem was that his play as a defenseman just wasn’t good enough for this level.  When that became apparent I think the hope was his vision and puck handling would translate well to the forward position, but unfortunately that hasn’t happened in the limited chances he has gotten there.  In regards to Kiley, if he plays like he has the last three games, penalty free while making solid contributions, I have no problems with him dressing.

Anonymous asks “When will UMass land elite US National Development Program recruits and/or how can we break through BU/BC for these types of recruits?”

It’s tough to get those recruits.  Here are the schools the current USNDTP players have committed to; Minnesota, Michigan, UNH, Yale, Miami, Notre Dame, Michigan State, Denver, North Dakota, and Boston College.  Those are the best of the best programs in hockey right now not named Duluth.  Now remember, players on the US team are good, but they’re not a magic solution.  UMass’ lone recruit from that program, Stephen Werner, was very good but was he the best player on those Minuteman teams?  Probably not.  So while it would be great to get a player or two from there, it’s not absolutely necessary.  How can UMass get elite recruits over BC and BU?  No idea.  Sweeten Jack Parker and Jerry York’s retirement packages?  If there was an easy answer to that one I bet Providence, Northeastern, Lowell, and Merrimack would know because they’ve been trying to figure it out longer than us.

Jim asks “Are there any other teams in Hockey East that get the support that we get from the fans? How does our average attendance stack up with other HE teams keeping in mind that most do not shut down for a month or so after Christmas.”

So far this season UMass is averaging 4,613 fans.  That’s good enough for 5th in Hockey East and is in the Top 20 nationally.  Honestly, I think that’s very good for a team that’s been unranked and with a losing record for most of the season.  It’s also up from the 3,600 that the team averaged last year.  But even then the team was just outside of the Top 20 nationally, finishing at 21st.  As someone who used to regularly watch the team in the 90s with about a thousand other people, I’m very happy with the attendance situation.  And the good news is there’s plenty of capacity for when the team is able to add fans.

Andrei asks “Will the recent success of the hoops team have any effect–positive, negative or otherwise–on hockey attendance and/or publicity? In particular, might hockey’s seeming monopoly on student fan support be in jeopardy with the strong play of hoops/so-so play of hockey?”

I don’t really think it would affect the student support hockey currently enjoys.  If anything I think the success of different programs just helps lift overall school spirit.  Plus the hockey games seem pretty established as part of the students’ ritual for weekend nights.  However if hoops continues to do well and hockey struggles, you may see local fans choose the winning team given limited resources and time to go out and bring the family to a UMass event.  And honestly, can you blame them?  But I’m not worried about that.  Derek Kellogg and his team definitely deserves any and all attention they’re getting right now.  If the hockey team wants to keep drawing crowds they’ll have to keep winning.  Plain and simple.  But I think if both teams were successful there’s enough people that both sports could maintain respectable crowds.

Anonymous asks “ What’s your opinion on how last year UMass was too small and pushed around and this year we are bigger but now seem to take more penalties by an “appearance of a boarding call”. how can UMass find the middle ground?”

Honestly, while some of the boarding and hitting from behind calls have been costly for the Minutemen, I think it’s the stick fouls that have been the killers.  Tripping, hooking, slashing calls seem to happen way too often.  Hell, Eric Filiou was called for two out of three of those at the same time last week.  A roughing or boarding at least can intimidate the other team and usually stem from battling for the puck.  Stick fouls usually come from laziness and not skating on defense.  Those are the ones that have to end for UMass to have more success.

Well thanks to all who sent in questions.  There were some good ones that really got me thinking.  Hopefully my answers were somewhat informative  I must’ve pissed off the Fight Mass guys because unlike last time when they tried to hijack my mailbag column this time they didn’t send in a single question.  And I’m a little disappointed that not one beer/bar question was asked.  I’m going to have to really strengthen my Beer The Triangles from here on out.

Danny Hobbs is the feature of Hockey East’s Five Minute Major this week.

UMass drops a spot in CHN’s Hockey East Power Rankings.

No UMass representation on Hockey East’s Monthly Awards.