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Season Recap Part II; Syner Signs

Yesterday I recapped how UMass fared through the schedule, outlined some of the key stats to the season, and gave some thoughts on each player’s performance.  Today I wanted to touch on my thoughts on the job by the coaching staff and some overall opinion on the season and the program.

Xs and Os

I think specific to this season coach Toot Cahoon and his staff had some wins and losses.  Early in the season he took some heat, including from myself, for not going forward with a combination of Mike Pereira, T.J. Syner, and Danny Hobbs, aka the HoPS line.  Fans argued that these were arguably the team’s best players and they seemed to have great chemistry together.  Cahoon made the point that he’d rather have them on different lines so the team had two equally balanced scoring lines.  In the end, with these players split between the top two lines for much of the season, UMass had their best offensive output since the 2002-03 season.  Can’t really argue with that.  Overall, though there were tweaks here and there, I thought the lines the staff put together were really gelling at the end of the year, including the impactful the third line of Carzo, Power, and Kiley.

I think the staff also deserves credit for the progression the power play made during the season.  For the first few months of the year it was absolutely dreadful and a huge liability for the team.  But the coaches changed things up, focused on it in practice, and by the end of the season was converting regularly at over 20%.  The team finished in the middle of the pack among Hockey East teams with the power play.  The penalty kill improved somewhat as the season went on but still ended up being a huge weakness on the team, as it has been for years.  This has to be something addressed next year as it really limits the team’s ability to win.  Lastly I have to say that the schedule itself was a win for the staff.  From a fan’s perspective it was disappointing not to see any WCHA or CCHA teams on the list, but as I mentioned yesterday it’s currently the 10th toughest schedule in the country according to the RPI.  UMass got some good wins against the harder teams on the schedule, if they had just won against the middle and lower levels teams more consistently this schedule would’ve put them in prime position for an at-large NCAA bid.

But, they didn’t take care of business against those teams.  This team won the season series against league champion Boston College, played even with BU, yet couldn’t win a single game against Providence or take the season series against anyone else but last place Vermont.  Even if UMass had won one against the Friars, held onto the 3-0 lead at BU, turned one of the losses to UNH and Merrimack into a tie, and taken even a single game from Lowell things would’ve turned out much differently.  In fact if all that happened UMass would’ve tied with Merrimack for fifth place.  But it didn’t.  Too often UMass came out looking completely unprepared to play.  Too often they played down to their competition, just as they played up to the competition when playing ranked teams.  Certainly the players deserve some of the blame for this.  We’re talking about young men who have playing hockey their whole lives.  They should be able to prepare themselves.  But anything that becomes a habit or trend like this ultimately falls on the coaching staff as well who has to find a way to get through to their players, even if it’s constantly changing methods.  That never happened until it was too late.  Starting with the second game in Maine UMass was ready to play every game.  Before then, not so much.

Another miss for the coaching staff this season was the goaltending situation.  Now in their defense none of the three goaltenders made their lives easy by stepping up and being the clear #1 choice.  But that said, the goaltender rotation probably did not help things when the team struggled in January and February.  Only Jeff Teglia’s injury whittled it down to just a two man rotation but even that seemed to cause problems at times.  No one was able to get in a rhythm.  Neither were able to try to build on a recent success.  I’m not sure what next fall holds but I hope any potential three man rotation doesn’t last more than a few weeks and I hope if someone puts a couple solid games together they’re given ample chance to establish themselves as the regular starter.

Season Thoughts

Yesterday I outlined some of the statistical improvements and in the one stat that matters most, wins, the team improved too; from six last year to 13 this year.  But, like last year, it took until the very last weekend of the season to qualify for the Hockey East playoffs.  And they only did that by the very thinnest of margins, taking the third level of tiebreakers from Northeastern.  Once the team got to the playoffs it was another two game sweep at the hands of Boston College who have dispatched the Minutemen for three straight years.  If this team had been mediocre all year, beating lesser teams and other mediocre teams while losing to the best teams in the league and finished with 13 wins I think it would’ve been understandable.  The fact that the fans were treated to some amazing highs; the wins over #1 BC and #1 BU, the shutout over BC to take the season series, the victory at Maine, and defeat of Cornell, just makes the overall outcome that much more disappointing.  For at least 7 of the team’s 27 games, those being wins against ranked teams, they showed they could play with the best and beat the best.  Where was that team the rest of the time?  How could they beat the top ranked team twice and go winless against Providence and not even look competitive against Lowell?  How could the team be so dominant at home, undefeated for much of the season, yet had to wait until mid-February to get their first road win?

You could argue that perhaps fans were expecting too much if they wanted this team with freshmen goaltenders and a ton of sophomores to be competing for home ice in Hockey East.  But if expectations were raised it’s because the team’s own performance raised them.  Those signature wins, some of the biggest in the program’s history is what made us think the team was capable of doing something really special.  Instead they finished in a fashion we’ve become way too accustomed to.  In the end this team gave us equal portions of excitement and frustration.

Program Thoughts

Five years ago this week UMass had just beat Maine for the fourth straight game and were preparing to take on UNH in the Hockey East semifinals at the Garden.  The team would drop that game in overtime but a four goal 3rd period by Clarkson in the ECAC championship would align the numbers and give UMass its first ever NCAA berth.  A Kevin Jarman goal a couple weeks later would give UMass its first NCAA win.  While everyone knew Jon Quick was the difference maker on that squad, fans of the program hoped that season would usher in an era where UMass would regularly compete for home ice in Hockey East and even battle for a league title.  That hasn’t happened.  In the five years since UMass has had a losing record in four of them and finished at .500 in 2009-10.  The six wins last year tied for the least since UMass moved to Division I.  The team has finished in 8th place in the league three times during those five years, 7th once, and tied for 6th once, and just one year was legitimately a contender for home ice.  These are not the results UMass fans hoped for when they gathered in Blue Cross Arena in Rochester in 2007.

There are a lot of reasons for the lack of success in these past five years; youth, defections to the pros, recruits reneging on their commitments, and flat out selfish players.  But, rightfully, UMass fans are going to look to the head coach to be accountable for these last five years.  And the fact is head coach Toot Cahoon has lost the confidence of a sizable portion of the UMass faithful.  How much?  It’s tough to quantify.  However judging from what I read here at FTT and on UMasshoops.com and what I hear from the everyday fans I interact with at games, it’s close to a majority.  Even more concerning is, for the first time, people close to the program I’ve spoken with are vocalizing their doubts as well.

Before the 2010-11 season I happily broke the news that Cahoon received a contract extension that would keep him as coach through the end of next season.  All the arguments I made in Cahoon’s favor then are still applicable.  The players not only graduate but regularly receive accolades for their academics.  Attendance continues to be OK, despite the lack of success.  And he runs a clean program where the players rarely run into any trouble.  I think what’s happening over at BU this year can make UMass fans thankful for that last one.  But, with all that, it’s been a tough last five years.  I know my own frustration at the lack of success is mounting with every disappointing season.  Minuteman fans aren’t expecting UMass to supplant Boston College as league power but I think we can all agree that there’s enough potential in this program that annual 8th place finishes and quarterfinal sweeps isn’t cutting it.

It doesn’t help that in the five years since UMass has been out of the NCAAs and Hockey East semifinals that we’ve seen Merrimack emerge as on of the better Hockey East schools with a former Minuteman assistant at its helm.  The seven win improvement for UMass from last year to this year looks nice until you realize that the two teams that UMass finished ahead of in the Hockey East standings last year did much, much better than that.  Providence only improved their total wins by 6 this year, but they did finish ahead of UMass in the standings and will be playing in the Garden this weekend.  Lowell went from just 5 wins last year to an astounding 23 this year and have locked up an NCAA berth.  I probably don’t have to tell you that both of those teams changed coaches over the offseason.

For those UMass fans hoping for a similar move in the offseason, it’s not happening.  The only way Toot Cahoon is not at the helm next season is if he chooses not to be on his own accord.  And maybe that’s the way it should be.  He has built this program.  There’s something to be said for giving him this last season on his contract to bring the program back to where he and the rest of us fans want it to be or he and he school move on.  Obviously this isn’t the most ideal situation.  There are already questions whether his status is affecting the staff’s ability to secure recruits long term.  One has to wonder how much harm another finish at the bottom standings will do to the program and how much harder it will make it to recover from.  But, that’s out of our hands.  All we can do is continue to support the program and the school.  Some of us will continue to support Coach Cahoon.  There are many who have already chosen not to.  But in the end the best all of us can do is spend the offseason building up hope for next season with the wish that it is finally rewarded.

Note: Just a few hours after I wrote the above, Dick Baker posted that Toot Cahoon will in fact be retained for next year as I suggested.

Congratulations to co-captain T.J. Syner who signed a contract with the Washington Capitals, the team who invited him to development camp last summer. Syner is off to Hershey to play for their AHL club.  The linked article also mentions that Syner was named the top winter sports academic student athlete at UMass.

Mike Marcou will likely sign soon as well as I heard over the weekend that he had a number of AHL clubs interested in his services.  Marcou has spent the last two summers at Islanders development camp which may help him land a spot with their AHL club in Bridgeport. Unfortunately Danny Hobbs is unlikely to join the Rangers’ Connecticut Whale due to the injury sustained on Friday.

The Collegian takes an early look at next year’s squad.

Reading this excellent piece on the origins of the infamous Buffaslug makes me want to track down whoever came up with UMass’ triangle.

Please make sure to check back tomorrow night as I unveil the yearly FTT awards as well as my picks for the league awards.

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