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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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8 Comments

  1. Love your take- as usual it’s balanced, fair, nuanced and patient. Too bad more can’t take this approach.

    I’d actually argue that 6-12 months may not be enough time for Mick, given the hurdles he’s had to overcome. the late start + the conscious/unconscious sabotage job done by some of Toots last recruits have this looking more like year two than year three.

    From what I know of John Micheletto he’s a modern coach- he knows his Xs and Os (can’t really say that about some previous coaches) and knows how to relate to modern players (see previous comment). He’s gotten some pretty good players to commit to a not great looking situation (I love UMass, but zero administrative support, outdated facilities, and no tradition or recent history of success is not exactly a fertile recruiting formula). I like his approach and attitude and hope he gets a legitimate opportunity to prove himself.

    Ironically, McCutcheon’s lack of interest in the program may buy Mick the extra year or so he needs to succeed. Wouldn’t that be awesome.

    Also- agree on goalie.

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    • I think in 12 months we should at least know if the program is heading in the right direction, even if they’re not winning consistently at that point.

      And yes, I’m guessing that no matters what happens Mick will coach all five years of his contract, if only because McCutcheon is an absentee landlord.

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  2. Mel

     /  October 16, 2014

    Good take as usual. 7 straight losing seasons makes it difficult for some of us (me) to have much hope, but if most of the new guys are as good as they could be, maybe we will begin to see a ray of sunshine toward the end of the season. The apparent lack of administrative support for the program and outdated facilities definitely donot help, and Friday’s 8-1 loss is definitely not a step in the right direction. Go, U!

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  3. Anonymous

     /  October 16, 2014

    what sabotage was done?

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  4. Rocks22- Thanks for doing this. The UMASS hockey program definitely benefits from your covering them (even if you are critical). As a hockey fan and not an expert, I appreciate the background info and your insights.

    Your efforts are much appreciated. GO UMASS Klyde Siegfriedt

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  5. Re: the sabatoge quote, that was mine, not the writer of this blog.

    Sabotage may be too strong of a word (as I suggested, it was possibly unconscious), but there were players on the team who were not Mick’s guys who didn’t buy in to what he was selling. I heard this from people connected with the program and I think we all saw some players who were willing to ride it out. It’s very possible that Mick could’ve/should’ve done things differently with some of the players, but when players aren’t fully committed (especially older ones), it can shut a whole teams down.

    As a coach, I am particularly sensitive to issues that go on in a locker room that people can’t see or understand…maybe I should be more careful, but what I heard jives with what I saw. I’m not going to accuse anyone in particular because I wasn’t in the room and frankly wouldn’t want to anyways (certainly not in this venue). We can just call it opinion and move forward the way the coach and team are.

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  6. Greg

     /  October 17, 2014

    I used to follow the team a lot, but ever since moving away I have more followed them from a distance. I cannot speak for the administration’s lack of commitment towards hockey, but I think sometimes we need to step back and realize that it is not like the athletic department is overflowing in money. In all reality, all the UMass teams really need to see the football and basketball teams thrive. If they are doing well, then the folks in eastern MA will notice the school exists and alumni will become more engaged, thus leading to more funding. As much as the main audience of this website loves hockey (and I am crazy about it, played since I was 3, coach now), you need to keep in mind that hockey is not at the same level of basketball and football with the general public. UMass could win several national championships in a row and there will still be UMass alums who didn’t know we even had a team.

    I personally liked Toot and I got to know him pretty well during my time at UMass. He certainly made hockey more exciting at UMass. I remember being in the student section with only a few people there to watch game prior to his days. He recruited some great players (Pock is still my favorite college hockey player), but despite a few good seasons, they could never get to the next level. I did not care for the timing as well and I had never heard of Mick until he was hired. Once I read about him some though, I thought he seemed like an exciting hire. I saw Vermont at the Frozen Four in DC a few years back and thought they were fun to watch and I read he played a major part in recruiting that roster. Since then, I have particularly been impressed in Coach Mick the person. He just seems like a genuinely great guy with a great attitude. If you follow his Twitter feed, he is always very positive and engaged with everything at UMass. He seems to really care about the school and want to be there. Again, I follow from the distance, but my impressions of him have been nothing but positive. Then I look at some of the guys he has recruited so far and I have been impressed with the talent. I feel like there is more talent from top to bottom of his recruiting classes, where Toot would generally get a few standout guys, but then there seemed to be a drop off (in my opinion). Being a coach as well (nowhere near the same level), I can appreciate how hard it is to get a full team of guys to buy in and understand everything you are trying to do. Some guys have lots of talent/skill and at lower levels they could get away with bad positioning because they were so much better than others in their leagues. Now that their competition is on equal footing with them, they have to improve on all areas of their game to be successful. It sometimes takes some really hard work to get these guys to understand your systems and get them to the point where they react instinctively and stop thinking first. You see the same thing very often with new college hoops players.

    So my thought process is to be patient this year and look for positive signs of growth. Next season should really be the benchmark season for Mick and I agree with Rocks that wins should be expected more often. I will argue though that what we should really be looking for is seeing a team that is competitive night in and night out and is capable of winning. To expect to win every game against BC, BU, Notre Dame, etc. starting next year is a little too optimistic in my opinion. To expect that we will always beat those teams is unrealistic. I just hope we are competing hard, playing in close games against those teams, and winning our fair share of those games. To get to that level, might take Mick another year or two though because he has to catch up to the talent level they have on their rosters and that just can’t happen overnight. I think the best expectation is for us to beat all the teams we should next year and then be very competitive with everyone else.

    Just my 2 cents.

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