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Season Recap Part II: The Coaching Situation

Throughout the season people have regularly asked me my opinion on John Micheletto, the job he’s done at UMass, and if I thought he should keep his job.  My answer to them was I didn’t want to get too much into “the coaching situation” while there was still hockey being played because I wanted to see how the season played out and I also didn’t want to get caught up in a trap of constantly talking about it.  My worry was if I opened the Pandora’s Box of my views on the coaching and state of the program that it would dominate my postings from then on and take away from the regular game previews, recaps, and writing about the players. Well the season is over.  I’ve written just about all I have to say about the 2014-15 season, so let’s talk coaching.

Let’s start by revisiting expectations for this past season.  Externally the team was picked to finish 11th by both the Hockey East coaches as well as the Hockey East media.  I personally picked them to finish 10th, ahead of Merrimack and UConn.  In November in a Q&A with readers I was asked “what defines a successful season?”  I responded that I wanted to see the team playing their best hockey of the season at the end of it, wanted them to finish anywhere but last place, and wanted them to finish ahead of UConn who were in their first year in the league.  Sadly the team failed to meet any of the expectations I just listed.  They finished in last place.  That means of course they didn’t finish ahead of UConn, a team that Micheletto has now lost three straight games against.  And, though they played better in the second half of the season than the first, I would argue they were not playing their best hockey at the very end of the season.  In the regular season finale in Hartford the team blew a chance to tie Merrimack for 11th place by getting beat 4-0 by a Husky team that had been outscored 5 to 34 in their previous six games.  The five overtime playoff win against Notre Dame was magical, but with two chances to win the series and move onto the quarterfinals they collapsed in the third period in Game 2 and then got embarrassed 7-0 in the deciding Game 3.  I think if UMass wins that series after Shane Walsh’s early morning gamewinner I, and other fans, probably have a much rosier opinion of the job done by the coaching staff.  Instead we spend the entire offseason with the bad taste from those final four periods of hockey in our mouth.

So what is my opinion of the job Micheletto has done this season and the two before that?  Frankly, I think he’s been terrible.  I honestly am saddened by the depths that this program has sunk to.  In three years he has compiled a 31-64-9 record.  In Hockey East the team has finished 9th (out of 10 teams), 10th (out of 11 teams), and 12th (out of 12 teams).  The program had not finished in the bottom two spots in the league since the 2001-02 season before Micheletto arrived.  Micheletto’s teams have finished there all three seasons.  Now it’s to be expected that there’s going to be some hiccups when a new staff takes over a program, but the teams in Mick’s first two seasons should’ve won more games.  No matter how much the athletic department liksd to pretend that the cupboard was bare when Micheletto got here, it wasn’t.  The team was coming off a 13 win season (a total not seen since) and featured three players who would go on to become the 6th (Pereira), 8th (Sheary), and 21st (Gracel) leading scorers.

The losses haven’t just been on the ice under his watch either.  Attendance has plummeted at the Mullins Center.  The year before Micheletto took over, a 13-18-5 season, average home attendance was 4,612.  Under Micheletto’s watch it has gone from 4,209 in his first year, 3,891 in his second, and 2,581 this year.  2,581!  That’s the lowest since 2001-2002.  Even the 2010-2011 team that only won 6 games drew over 1,000 more fans per game than this past year.  As attendance falls so does much needed ticket revenue.  So does donations and Pond Club memberships.  I have no idea what the membership numbers are of the program’s booster organization right now but as someone who was at nearly every game I an say there were rarely more than two dozen people in the Massachusetts Room during intermissions.  Don’t get me wrong, I love the fact that I no longer have to wait in line at the bar up there to get a beer, but that place should be, no, needs to be packed with donors.  It’s not.

So what are Micheletto’s failures that is making the hockey program gasping for wins and fans?  Frankly, he’s yet to show that he’s anything but what he was before he got to Amherst.  A career assistant coach.  I’ve always thought he’s a good guy, someone who is very smart, and he seems to have a high hockey IQ (something I do not).  But when it comes to developing a team strategy he seems to come up short.  From the very first day he got here he has set out to implement this aggressive offense first system that has defensemen carrying the puck to the net and forwards trying to haphazardly rush into and through the neutral zone.  In the first couple years it didn’t really seem to be a winning strategy and led to a lot of turnovers and goals against.  But at the time the thinking was it would be much more effective once he got “his players” on campus.  Well with the large freshman class coming in the roster was over 2/3rds players Micheletto had recruited and, while scoring went up slightly, goals against skyrocketed from 3.12 last year to 4.22 this year, second worst in all of college hockey.  Yet we saw what continues to be described to me as his “insane” system getting pushed all year long as the goals against continued to pile up.

The other major problem I see with Micheletto as a coach is his inability to have his team mentally prepared to play.  And that goes for an entire game or just period to period.  Too often, this season in particular, we’d see the team come out in the third period with a lead or at least tied only to see lax play lead to a quick succession of goals that would instantly take UMass out of the game.  How does that happen?  What is being said, or not being said, between periods to have such a thing become a regular occurrence?  And then the same thing would happen from the very start of games where the team seemed to play as if they wanted to be anywhere else but playing that hockey game.  Sure, the players themselves can take their share of responsibility for those games.  But what is Micheletto and the staff doing in the days and hours leading up to a game that leaves them so unfocused and unmotivated?  I’m going to spend the entire offseason wondering how the hell the team could play so listlessly in the two games this past season that had the most on the line; the season finale against UConn when they had a chance at 11th place and the deciding game in the playoff series against Notre Dame.  The team lost those two games by a combined score of 11-0.  How does that happen?

Now it hasn’t been all bad.  I think most will agree that the recruiting under Micheletto has been very good.  Vatrano, Montour, Kravchenko, Iacobellis, Pigozzi, Lee have all proven to be top notch players who certainly excel at this level.  Looking ahead we can anticipate major contributions from the likes of Plevy, Pelton-Byce, Keats, and Leonard.  Even a couple players who were committed but fell through the cracks (as is bound to happen) like Jake Wahlin and Alex DeBrincat are further proof that Micheletto and his staff are above average recruiters.  Micheletto is able to convince quality players to come play for him in Amherst, but his deficiencies as a motivator and strategist seem to preventing him from turning that collection of talent into wins and maximizing his recruiting victories.

So, despite doing a great job on the recruiting trail, does the lack of wins, finishes at the bottom of Hockey East, declining attendance, revenue, and donations mean it’s time for UMass to cut ties with Micheletto?  It doesn’t matter.  Whether firing him or not is the correct choice doesn’t matter because he’s not going anywhere.  Micheletto will be behind the bench when the Minutemen kick off the 2015-16 season next October.  There are two main reasons why.  First, the school cannot afford to buy out his remaining two years at $240,000 apiece.  With recent buyouts for Toot Cahoon, Kevin Morris, and Charley Molnar plus all the expenditures going towards the football upgrade coughing up a half a million dollars to buy out a contract is not in the cards.  Secondly, who is going to fire Micheletto right now?  If John McCutcheon were still at UMass he definitely would not admit that his fiasco of a coaching search in summer of 2012 went wrong after only three years.  But even though he’s thankfully no longer here, there is still no one to make a decision.  Interim Athletic Director Bob Goodhue, who has already taken a more active and public role with the hockey program than McCutcheon ever did, will not replace a coach in his role.  And frankly I wouldn’t expect him to.  Sure it’s the easy choice to just let the new AD take care of the situation.  But at the same time that’s also likely the right thing to do.  You don’t want to saddle a new AD with a long term contract on a coach that he or she did not hire.  That usually can create friction that causes long term problems for the program.  No, Micheletto is not going anywhere.  He’ll continue to prepare for next season, one we now know will be without Frank Vatrano and potentially other key pieces from this year’s squad.  Meanwhile a new AD will be hired in the coming months and can evaluate Micheletto’s performance as next season transpires.

The the question then becomes what are the benchmarks Micheletto should have to hit in order to keep his job at the end of next year and potentially gain an extension before the final year of his contract.  I will tell you this, I don’t think just having any improvement over this year will cut it.  Going from 11 wins to 12 wins or from last place to 10th place shouldn’t be enough to keep him on beyond next season.  It’s year four for him.  He has his players.  He’s already said publicly his has everything he needs to win in Amherst.  Now he needs to do it.  The team needs to improve considerably from this past season in order for him to prove that he should continue to be the coach of the Massachusetts hockey program.  Here is what I personally would have to see to have faith that he is the right person for the job.  The team should finish in the top 6 in Hockey East and the top 25 in the Pairwise rankings.  So I’m not necessarily stating that the team should go to the Frozen Four or something crazy, but at least should be in the mix for a tournament berth as the league playoffs commence.  Is that asking too much?  I don’t think so.  Again, it’s year four for him and he should have everything he needs to win.  Will that happen?  I don’t know.  Certainly Vatrano’s departure today makes it much harder to accomplish.  But at the same time players of Vatrano’s stature leave for the pros all the time in college hockey and the competent coaches are able to adjust for their absences and win.

Win.  That’s what it all comes down to, right?  Micheletto got a honeymoon period where fans knew that the coaching transition could limit the success of the program.  But eventually a coach has to show that they have things moving in the right direction.  Has that happened?  I don’t know.  The wins over Lowell, Merrimack, and Providence a couple months ago were nice.  But was that real proof of progress?  Tough to tell considering the team went right back into their bad, losing habits as the year came to a close.  At this point it doesn’t matter.  It all comes down to next year.  Win.  Win early.  Win often.  Just win, baby.  If the team wins next year then Micheletto continues to be the coach.  If not then the university needs to find someone who can win.  The fans, those of us left, deserve nothing less.

This morning as I was starting to compose the above post in my head I thought it would dovetail great with this piece by the Collegian’s Jason Kates.  Kates takes a very optimistic view of next year and predicts the top 6 finish I think is needed for Micheletto to continue coaching.  Unfortunately just a few hours after the column was posted the news of Vatrano’s departure broke and threw a monkey wrench into next season’s expectations.  Still, it’s a good glass half full take on the state of the program, says a glass half empty guy like myself.

So that pretty much wraps up what I wanted to say about the 2014-15 season and the state of the hockey program.  In the short term I still plan on posting.  I’d like to continue the weekly recruit updates as long as the future Minutemen are playing in their respective leagues and league playoffs (teaser, one future Minuteman’s season was unexpectedly ended last night).  I’ll also be here to cover any other pro signings, either by seniors or underclassmen.

In the long term, I think I’ll be here.  I kind of restarted the blog after a year hiatus on a whim last September and for the most part I’ve been pretty satisfied with that decision.  But it’s still a time consuming hobby.  Further complicating that is trying to motivate myself to dedicate time to writing about a struggling program and being faced with declining readership as the fans themselves start to turn away from the team.  But right now, for reasons I don’t totally know or understand, I would say I’m 80% sure that Fear The Triangle will be up and running for the 2015-2016 season.  As always a big thanks to you, the FTT readers, for logging on and coming here to keep up to date with the UMass hockey program.  I appreciate it beyond belief.  One of these years I’m actually going to be able to write about a winning season and IT WILL BE GLORIOUS!

Fear The Triangle

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12 Comments

  1. Tyler R

     /  March 12, 2015

    Appreciate you coming back this year!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mel

     /  March 13, 2015

    My favorite UMass hockey blogger!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love FTT and the candid honest descriptions and remarks from you and the other commenters. If this sport is in your blood, then it’s in your blood, and it’s just always going to be a part of you. I’ve always loved hockey and started following the Minutemen about 15-16 years ago. Though I do like a number of sports like my Red Sox, Bruins, and Patriots, College hokey has been my FAVORITE sport. For the last 15 years if the Minutemen were away (far away, or off) my self and two or three others were at any D-I college Hockey game with in 2-21/2 hours of the Springfield area. R.P.I. (New Renovations), Dartmouth, Providence (New Renovations), Quinnipiac, Merrimack (New Renovations), UM-Lowell, Yale are some nice venues to take in a game, also to a lesser extent Brown and A.I.C., But dress for arctic temperatures if you go to the Olympia Ice Center in West Springfield to see A.I.C. it’s like attending an out door game, hence the very poor attendance there. Had the occasion earlier this season to go to the new arena at R.I.T., and it is very nice and comfortable, great place to watch a game. Looking forward to FTT next season, and am always interested in any new schedule up dates for the coming season. Thanks for all the time and effort put in to this project.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Rex

     /  March 13, 2015

    The early departure of Vatrano, and the probable departure of montour will officially be the nail in the coffin for mick. I just dont see how they compete in this league without those two, the loss of a few defensemen and a young goalie coming in.

    Like

  5. ganderson9754

     /  March 16, 2015

    A disaster of a season. I probably went to a record low # of games this year, perhaps 2/3 (I’ve been a season ticket holder since day 1) I did not join the pond club this year- and what’s worse, no one asked me why. I see no chance of this team getting better next year, particularly with the loss of Montour and Vatrano!

    Rocks, I’ll BUY you the Bell’s Brewery if John Leonard ever gets here- why would he? I feel terrible for the kids who have to play in this system. This team was largely unwatchable, even games they won were uninteresting. To quote Col. Kurtz…. “the horror…the horror…

    Like

    • Supposedly it’s the school that drove Leonard more than the staff. Maybe he sticks with his commitment no matter what happens.

      Like

  6. RDW

     /  March 21, 2015

    New AD should fire Coach Mick E. Mouse- immediate credibility, when he does.

    Like

  7. This year I wasn’t able to follow the team from afar the way I had in previous seasons. Usually it was either catching a highlight package on YouTube and reading your great work with FTT. These are very dark days for not only the hockey program but the athletic department as a whole. It is everybody’s hope that the new AD can put leadership back into the Athletic Department and that hockey will again take its rightful place as the cornerstone program it was back when UMass hockey was averaging 5,000+ at Mullins Center. Again my friend thanks for all you do keeping this blog running and your passion for the program. I owe you a beer or two hopefully this Fall if I can convince my new bride to join me for a Section-U alumni weekend.

    Like

  1. Jake Massie, “97, D, commits to UMASS… | Hockeyrecruits4u Blog
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