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.