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View From Section U: Winning While Inexperienced

Coming into this season it was understood that there might be some growing pains due to the fact that the Massachusetts hockey team was going to have to rely on their underclassmen so much and so soon.  The team lost a good chunk of its goal scoring with the graduation of last year’s seniors and it was known that the incoming freshmen would need to contribute right away while the sophomore class would have to build on their impressive freshman campaigns last year.  Not to mention, Frank Vatrano, technically a sophomore but really a freshman, would need to be the star that it was rumored he would be.

The good news is most, if not all of that came to fruition.  Our six sophomores, led by Vatrano, Ray Piggozi, and Steven Iacobellis have accounted for 21 of UMass’ 86 goals.  The freshman class meanwhile have scored 17 goals so far with Dennis Kravchenko’s six making up the biggest chunk.  All in all the team’s 16 underclassmen have scored 38 goals total, or exactly 2.00 per game.  That’s a pretty good rate.  Especially considering last year the team as a whole only scored 2.24 goals per game for the entire season.

That got me wondering, how does the 2.00 goals per game from underclassmen stack up against the rest of the country.  And how are those other teams that have had to rely on their more inexperienced players faring?  Are they also suffering through tough seasons with wins coming sparsely?  Well, I crunched the numbers and the results will likely surprise you.  Because they surprised me.  The 2.00 goals per game puts UMass tied for 6th nationally in terms of goal production from their sophomores and freshmen.  Here are the top ten teams in the country in terms of underclassmen scoring, with the number of freshman and sophomores on their roster, their records so far, and their Pairwise ranking.

 

2014-15 Top 10 Teams – Underclassmen Goals Per Game
Record PWR Rank Ttl Fr & Soph # of Fr # of So Goals/GP
Omaha 12-5-3 6 18 11 7 2.50
UMass Lowell 14-3-3 9 19 14 5 2.35
Bowling Green 12-3-3 5 16 11 5 2.33
Michigan 10-7-0 21 17 8 9 2.18
Boston College 11-7-1 19 13 3 10 2.00
Massachusetts 5-14-0 47 16 10 6 2.00
Vermont 14-5-1 13 18 8 10 1.90
Harvard 10-1-2 1 17 8 9 1.85
Minnesota 10-5-1 10 14 6 8 1.81
Union 10-7-2 24 16 8 8 1.79

As you can see, UMass is in some pretty good company.  And I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing.  First off, you can see that there are a lot of other teams who equal or surpass UMass’ 16 underclassmen on the roster.  In fact, Nebraska-Omaha, Lowell, and Vermont all have 18 or more.  Even the 10 freshman on the UMass roster is surpassed by UNO, Bowling Green, and Lowell, which has an astounding 14 freshman on the roster.  Boston College has three less underclassmen on their roster, but is still getting the same goal production from their freshman and sophomores as UMass at 2 goals per game.  All in all you can see these teams with the most underclassmen are getting anywhere from 1.79 to 2.50 goals per game from their young players, with UMass right in the middle.

Obviously what separates UMass from these other teams is the fact that the others all have at least 10 wins on the season while the Minutemen have half that.  If the season ended today, five of these teams would be in the NCAA tournament, including Harvard who would be the #1 overall seed.  BC would be a bubble team on the outside looking in.  Michigan is still within striking distance of an at-large bid while Union is having a rough time in the season following their championship, but is still 3 games over .500.  Unlike UMass, all of these teams have figured out a way to deal with a good chunk of their roster being young, getting a significant share of their scoring from those young players, and still be successful.  These teams have figured out how to win while being inexperienced.

While thinking on UMass’ situation with a roster heavily skewed towards the freshmen and sophomores in addition to wanting to look at other programs nationally, I also thought of past Minuteman teams that faced the same challenge.  Of course the whole reason why UMass has so many underclassmen in the first place is because they just graduated a sizable senior class last year.  So what happened when that class first came onto campus?

In the fall of 2010 a freshman class of 13 players set foot on campus, highlighted by forwards Mike Pereira, Conor Sheary, Branden Gracel, Troy Power, and defensemen Conor Allen, Joel Hanley, and Adam Phillips.  Combined with a five member sophomore class that included Kevin Czepiel, Eddie Olczyk, and Rocco Carzo that Minuteman team had a grand total of 18 underclassmen.  They were lucky to have some very good upperclassmen too, such as junior T.J. Syner, senior defenseman Doug Kublin, and most importantly senior goaltender Paul Dainton.

That team struggled with having so many players on its roster inexperienced.  There were definitely some growing pains.  And to top it all off, they had an incredibly hard schedule that included trips to play at both Minnesota and Wisconsin.  The team struggled, especially out of the gate.  In early November they dropped a game to Army 5-2.  They didn’t get their first win until Turkey Tuesday against Vermont.  By the time the season ended the team had just six wins total.  At first glance it looks a lot like this year’s UMass squad.  But at closer inspection, it’s not.  That team, while finishing the season with a very disappointing 6-23-6, actually were a lot more competitive.

First off, five of those six wins came in Hockey East.  The team, despite its dismal record, did NOT finish in last place in the league.  Secondly, that team must’ve been the most competitive six win team in the history of hockey.  As mentioned, they finished 6-23-6, so in addition to the six wins they also had six ties.  Add to that the fact that the team had nine one goal losses, including two in overtime.  In addition to that they had three games where they lost by two, but one of those margin goals was an empty net goal.  So add up the six ties, nine one goal losses, and three one goal plus empty net goal losses and that means there were 18 games where the team had a chance to win or at least tie in the final seconds.  A bounce here, a bounce there and they could’ve had a lot more than the six wins.  There was only one blowout loss that season, an 11-2 embarrassment to Merrimack in Lawler Arena.  That was the only time the team let up more than five goals.  In fact the team’s goals against average for the season was 3.49, almost a full goal better than this year’s team.

Unlike that Minuteman team, this year’s squad, with slightly less underclassmen, has had a tough time avoiding getting blown out and will really have to work to finish the year with five Hockey East wins.  They also have not seen the type of success other teams around the country that have relied upon their inexperienced players for scoring has seen.  What does all that mean?  It means that this team still has serious issues that need to be addressed.  Why are they unable to find a way to win?  I don’t entirely know.  Obviously defense is a huge issue, possibly due to strategy, as are penalties, and at times special teams.  But I don’t think it’s fair to just chalk up the struggles to youth and inexperience and a roster full of freshmen and sophomores.  Because others have the same amount of inexperience and youth and are battling for spots in the NCAA tournament.  UMass in the meantime continues to look for its second conference win.

Frank Vatrano is one of the nominees for this year’s Hobey Baker Award.  Make sure to vote early, vote often!

Vatrano wasn’t the only person associated with the program to grab monthly honors for December.  2015 recruit Ivan Chukarov was named the NAHL Defenseman of the Month.  He led his entire team in scoring for the month with 3 goals and 6 assists.  Chukarov talks about his recent commitment to the Minuteman hockey program in the linked article.

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1 Comment

  1. Looking further into the National D-I Hockey stats what appears to me to be the reason there’s no translation to WINS in regards to where the Minutemen are in goal production is the following:

    Team Team Defense Ranking Avg. G A
    Omaha………………………..26th……………………………………….2.50
    UM-Lowell……………………..24th………………………………………2.40
    Bowling Green……………….13th……………………………………….2.11
    Michigan……………………….37th……………………………………….2.82
    Boston Coll……………………25th……………………………………….2.42
    “UMASS”……………………….59th……………………………………….4.42..Dead Last
    Vermont………………………….3rd……………………………………….1.70
    Harvard………………………….5th………………………………………..1.85
    Minnesota………………………19th……………………………………….2.19
    Union……………………………..28th………………………………………2.53

    In (6) of their losses the Minutemen gave up (5) or more goals. Now I have heard H.E. coaches say that on most nights (3) goals is usually enough to win the game. What is sadder is that of those six games that they lost the Minutemen actually scored (5) goals themselves in two of those games, but still lost. They also lost four other games where they had scored (4) goals.
    In (7) other losses the Minutemen scored (1) or less goals. And So this present Minuteman team is a defensive disaster. Lots of inconsistency, to many lost individual battles for the puck, moments of no discipline, periods of what looks like just giving up or not being in the game, and when you consider they are 38th in the nation on the power play, and 54th on the penalty kill the result is 12th place in Hockey East.

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