When John Micheletto was hired to lead the Massachusetts hockey program in 2012 he told prospective players to “find Amherst on a map and put a circle around it”. In the years since Micheletto and his staff have done a decent job of getting skilled players to do just that, from Frank Vatrano to Brandon Montour to this year’s talented freshman class, they’ve all found their way to Western Mass. What that map has not led Micheletto and his players to, however, are wins. Micheletto enters his fourth season with an overall record of 31-64-9. Even worse is his record in Hockey East where he’s won barely over 30% of his games at 18-45-6. The Minutemen have finished in last or second to last in the league in each season under Micheletto. It is hard to imagine that he survives with similar results this season. Micheletto desperately needs to turnaround this program starting Friday against Colorado College. Is this team constructed for such a rebound in what’s a make or break season for Micheletto? It’s tough to tell.
The 2014-15 season ended up being a disappointment as the program finished in last place of Hockey East for the first time since the 2001-2002 season. The team landed in the basement despite Frank Vatrano and Brandon Montour being among the top players in the league and Dennis Kravchenko amassing the second most points among league freshmen. Offense did not prove to be a problem for the Minutemen as they were around the league average in terms of scoring. Their problem was letting in too many goals. Way too many. Second most in the country to be exact. UMass let in a full one goal more per game than the next closest team in the league. That obviously is not a recipe for success and despite the gains made on offense, the goals against made it extremely tough for UMass to stay competitive in games.
The result was an 11-23-2 overall record and a 5-16-1 Hockey East record. It’s tough to say exactly what caused the huge deficiencies in terms of goals against. The combination of freshman Henry Dill and senior Steve Mastalerz in net struggled with consistency, though at times they looked OK and just weren’t given the chance to make saves due to breakdowns in front of them. The defense did have some newcomers, but also had some solid stay-at-home seniors in Oleg Yevenko and Mike Busillo that should’ve solidified things on the blueline, but didn’t.
So knowing that defense had the biggest impact on the season last year, let’s start our look at this season by seeing how the coaching staff is moving to improve there. You cannot say that Micheletto and the staff hasn’t worked hard to immediately address their biggest weakness from last year. He has brought in four very highly regarded blueliners in an attempt to completely makeover that part of the lineup. Highlighting the group are NHL draft picks William Lagesson and Ivan Chukarov. Lagesson , a 4th round pick by Edmonton, is seen as a traditional stay-at-home defenseman with tremendous upside. In addition to junior hockey experience both in the USHL and overseas he represented his native Sweden in the World Junior Championships last year and will likely do so again this winter. Chukarov, picked by the Sabres in the 7th round, may have a little more offensive game, but is still a very solid defender. He was one of the top defensemen in the NAHL last year and help lead his Minnesota Wilderness to the league championship.
Carmine Buono who played in the BCHL last season may hear his named called at next year’s draft as he was recently listed as a “player to watch” by NHL Central Scouting. Callum Fryer’s play in the OJHL and representing Canada East in the World Junior A Championships last year was enough to catch the attention of the Toronto Maple Leafs who had him participate in their prospect camp this past summer. All of these new defenseman have good size, 6’2” or 6’3” and bonafide defensive credentials.
Obviously four freshmen make for a very inexperienced group. That could be exacerbated by the fact that one of the other likely starters on defense will be Jake Horton who is only entering his second year. Horton proved to be a skilled two-way defenseman last season and will be looked upon to bring his offensive game up a notch while hopefully minimizing ill-timed penalties. Anchoring the defense will be senior Ben Gallacher whose play was noticeably improved during his second year in Amherst following a transfer from Ohio State. Gallacher, while still making regularly contributions on offense, will have to continue to improve while taking on a leader role among a talented, but green squad on defense. Marc Hetnik and Brennan Baxandall will rotate into the lineup as needed and can also be used at forwards as they were last year as well.
I think the overhaul in terms of personnel and the quality of player coming in at defense should give UMass fans some hope that blueline play should improve. However, there are also two major questions to ask around expectations on defense this year How long could it take the freshmen, plus a sophomore still developing, to adjust to the college game and make a difference? That’s a complete unknown. The group had both bright spots and areas of concerns in the exhibition game. The second question is what if there’s truly a flaw in Micheletto’s strategy in how he approaches playing defense? I think this season will go a long way to answering that second question. The blueline is entirely Micheletto’s recruits and should be able to play the way he wants.
It was incredibly tough to truly gauge the quality of play of the goaltenders last year just because the defense in front of them struggled so much. Breakaways, odd-man rushes, opposing players allowed to camp out in the crease and whack away at the puck. Those things happened way too often last season and as a result starters Steve Mastalerz and Henry Dill had the worst goaltending statistics in the league. At times they both looked decent and had memorable games. But the consistency wasn’t there and those two weren’t able to overcome the larger struggles that plagued the overall team.
Gone is Mastalerz to graduation and in is Nic Renyard, perhaps the most highly regarded goaltender recruit for UMass in quite some time. A year ago Renyard had just been picked up by Okotoks in the AJHL, looking for one last shot at capturing a desired NCAA scholarship. Not only did he play well enough to get his scholarship, but he ended up being named the top player among all the Junior A leagues in Canada. Renyard went 30-8-3 in the AJHL last season with a .924 save percentage and a 2.19 goals against average. He nearly single-handedly turned around the fortunes of the Okotoks Oilers and is bringing a lot of hardware with him to Amherst. If there’s some concern about him it’s that he’s a late bloomer and his reputation is built really on just one season. But what an amazing season it was?
Henry Dill returns for his second season with UMass after starting half the season last year on the way to a 7-10-1 record and .869 save percentage. Dill reportedly has worked very hard on his game over the summer and it seems unlikely he’ll just allow a freshman to come in and grab the starting role without a fight. Dill played better in the first half of last season than the second half, perhaps with the rigors of Hockey East and college in general getting to him over time. I think just the familiarity with the college game alone will allow him to improve his results this coming season. Whether that’s enough to be the full time starter or perhaps dictate a goaltender rotation, we’ll see. Junior Alex Wakaluk will likely remain the third string in case of emergency.
The Minutemen made some major strides on offense last year. Their 2.75 goals scored per game was a huge improvement over the 2.24 in the previous year and the most since 2011-2012. Unfortunately almost 1/5th of those goals were scored by Frank Vatrano, who signed a pro contract with the Bruins in the offseason. While the team didn’t lose too much offense from the players who graduated, the loss of Vatrano and Brandon Montour, a Hockey East All-Rookie selection, will be tough to replace. The key returners offensively will be Dennis Kravchenko and Shane Walsh. Kravchenko led all Minutemen in points last year with 33 (10G 23A). He had the most points of any Hockey East freshman not named Eichel and is poised to have a big season as a sophomore. As I showed a couple months ago, his production was not really contingent on Vatrano, so that specific loss may not affect his potential production.
Walsh’s production exploded during the second half of the season when he scored 12 of his 14 goals. As a senior he’ll have to show those first three months of this year were not a fluke and that he’s capable of producing like that regularly. What was particularly valuable about Walsh’s scoring during that time was how timely the goals were. Every good squad needs someone to turn to in clutch time. It would be vital for him to play that role for this team. Captain Steven Iacobellis returns for his junior year and while a lot of time his play goes under the radar, it was very noticeable in the few games where he did not play due to injury last year. Iacobellis has been a consistent 20 point player in his first two seasons, but there seems an opportunity for him to build on that considerably this year.
Junior Ray Pigozzi is another player who will be looked upon to up his production as he becomes one of the leaders of the team. Pigozzi has had 18 points in each of his first two season but his skill around the net seems to suggest that he’s capable of more than his 9 career goals to date. Patrick Lee, Dominic Trento, and Riley McDougall all put in sold freshman seasons (all, coincidentally, scored 5 goals) and seem able to increase their contributions this season. Lee continues to be one of the better set up men on the squad and is poised to end the year with many more than the 15 assists he had last season. Trento had a very strong second half of the year after fighting off some injuries early on and could be a solid all-around player who will get into the corners to dig for the puck while making regular contributions on offense. McDougall had a quiet first half but in the second half had flashes that showed why he built such a goalscoring reputation in the AJHL. UMass would benefit greatly if he could attack the net regularly this season.
Maddison Smiley is a bit of an X factor for the Minutemen. Recruited as a defensemen, he had a tough time finding his role early on, complicated by a bout of pneumonia. But his skill, especially offensively, led Micheletto to put him at forward at times as the season wore on and he enters this year as a designated winger. He has great vision and puck movement and it’ll be interesting to see how he develops in his new role. Keith Burchett will give the team a toughness along the boards it needs, while still an offensive threat. Anthony Petrella was the only 18 year old freshman on the squad last year and perhaps that’s what led to a bit of an understated season. Still, he came in pretty highly regarded despite being undersized and it will be interesting to see how he does with a year under his belt. As mentioned before, don’t be surprised to see Micheletto make the most of Baxandall’s and Hetnik’s versatility by using them at forward as needed.
The returners alone will not allow UMass to match the production they had on offense last year. Luckily, they have a few very talented players coming in as freshmen to help make up for those lost goals and assists. Austin Plevy is the top forward recruit after putting up big numbers in the AJHL. Actually, as the league’s leading scorer, he likely would’ve been named AJHL MVP if not for a dominant goaltending performance from Nic Renyard. The other top offensive recruit is Kurt Keats, an undersized but energetic forward who was among the points leaders in the BCHL. Joe Widmar proved to be a dependable goalscorer out of the USHL and will likely knock in a few goals this season. Ryan Badger is an experienced forward from the USPHL and already showed some of his capabilities with a goal in this past weekend’s exhibition.
This team probably isn’t going to be among the top offensive teams in the league. Any dream of that went out the window when Vatrano and Montour let for the pros. Still, there’s enough potential from the incoming freshman, the development of last year’s first years, and perhaps a full year repeat of Shane Walsh heroics to match what we saw offensively last year. The team will have to do their best to make up for the lost scoring. If they truly are able to improve in terms of defense and goaltending, any slip in offense will make it harder to translate that improvement into wins.
This year’s schedule is similar to last year’s, in that it’s not overly tough. We know that the Hockey East schedule is always going to be tough and that will be the case again. The non-conference schedule is balanced between winnable games and should-win games. The team plays two lower-tier Atlantic Hockey teams in Army, in West Point, and AIC, the latter being played at a the neutral site of the MassMutal Center. The tougher AHA team, Sacred Heart, will be played at home. The team will have to open the season at a great distance on the road, but it will be against a young Colorado College team picked to finish last in the NCHC. The team will play in a tournament at Halloween against Maine and either Princeton and Yale. They’ll travel to Yale and will have another home and home with Qunnipiac. They’ll also play Union at home in December.
The only trips for the team outside of New England are the opening trip to Colorado Springs, the tournament in New Jersey, West Point, and the league trip to Notre Dame. From a non-conference standpoint Yale, Quinnpiac, and Union will be challenges but there’s a lot of games they can win in there too. If there’s a difficult stretch of the season it’ll be starting at the end of this month when the team has to play five games over an eight game stretch, including the tournament in New Jersey and a matchup at #1 Boston College. But things will turn in their favor later in the season when they get to play 7 of 9 games at home starting in mid-January with one of those “away” games being in Springfield.
To be frank, Micheletto needs to prove this season if he’s cut out to be a Division I head coach. When he was hired by former Athletic Director John McCutcheon in 2012 the only head coaching experience on Micheletto’s long resume was at a Pennsylvania prep school. Publicly and privately people around the program have pushed reasons why the team has struggled to find success in Micheletto’s first three years, such as the cupboard was left bare under the previous staff (a glance around NHL training camps would dispute that) or that the teams have been too young to expected to win. The excuses end this year. With the exception of Shane Walsh there are no longer any holdovers from the Toot Cahoon era. The team is young, with a disproportionate amount of underclassmen. But that is entirely on Micheletto who facilitated roster turnover to bring in his players or was unable to convince his most prized recruits to stay on to build the program under his vision. There frankly is no one else left to point fingers to. Micheletto entirely owns the results of this team, no one else.
Looking elsewhere around Hockey East successful new coaches, namely Norm Bazin and Nate Leaman, did not complain about the hand they’d been dealt when they took over Lowell and Providence respectively. They made the most of what they inherited, coached up the holdover players, and have brought those programs to unprecedented success in their short time at the helm. Micheletto, despite saying in his introductory press conference that he wouldn’t, chose to break down the team and try to build it back up from scratch by installing a system that was ill-suited for the players he inherited. Three years and hundreds of goals against later it’s unknown if that system is even well-suited for the players he has chosen to build the program around.
Young players or not, this program needs to start winning. Now. It cannot wait for the current sophomores to be juniors or the freshmen to be sophomores. UMass fans have not seen a winning season since 2007 and they are abandoning the team in droves. Last season’s average attendance of 2,581 was the lowest in 13 years. The level of interest and support of the program is reaching, or possibly has already reached, a low-point. It has not helped that Micheletto has done little to cultivate relationships with the fans or community. It’s too late to try to win over what remains of UMass fandom with talk of promise and vision and future achievement. All Micheletto can do now to reverse the fortunes of the program, as well his those of his own career, is to win.
It’s do or die for Micheletto at UMass. I don’t know if there’s a specific level of success that new AD Ryan Bamford is looking from the program this year to feel confident in keeping the current coach on for next year, the final year of his contract. He gave an understandably standard answer when I asked him that question earlier this summer. If it were up to me anything short of a top 6 finish in Hockey East would result in a coaching change at the end of the season. That will be a tall order given the make-up of this Massachusetts hockey roster. There may end up being just too many unanswered questions, too much inexperience, for the team to find success this year.
There were a couple interesting UMass hockey updates from Twitter today. First was from Collegian writer Ross Gienieczko who reports that Dennis Kravchenko, earlier reported to be injured, has practice with the team the past two days.
There was also this tweet that, as someone who has been calling for a hockey band for years with no success, warmed my heart. You go Brennan.
These players deserve a band. Glad to see Bamford is trying to finally get it done.
Joe Haggerty predicts Matt Irwin will tally 5 goals and 15 assists for the Bruins this year. Irwin has finished the last two years with 19 and 20 points respectively.