Boston College 7. Massachusetts 0.
These blowouts were supposed to be a thing of the past. Over the summer Massachusetts hockey coach John Micheletto re-tooled his defense, bringing in four players who are either already drafted, attended an NHL prospect camp this summer, or are projected to be drafted next June. Or some combination of all three. In net, Micheletto finally landed the high profile goaltender he’s been coveting, with the top Junior A player in all of Canada landing in Amherst during the offseason. Yet, here we are a month into the season and UMass finds itself 56th in the country in goals against after giving up 23 goals in the last 4 games. They are also 56th in penalty kill with opponents scoring a third of the time on the power play. Players leave. New players come in. But the program continues to be dogged by major defensive deficiencies.
At some point you have to come to the conclusion it’s not the players. William Lagesson is a 4th round draft pick and plays on the Swedish Junior National Team. Yet he was on the ice for some of the worst defensive breakdowns last night and has had other glaring mistakes in earlier games. Did he suddenly forget how to play defense or is it the system he’s being asked to play? Since his struggles are systematic of the same problems we’ve seen the last four years I think it’s fair to say it’s not him. It’s early on but Lagesson appears to be one of the most talented defensemen UMass has seen in a while. But he’s constantly being caught out of position. It’s not because he’s bad, it’s because the instruction he’s being given puts him out of position. The problem with UMass’ porous defense of course is not the players. It’s the proven failure of a system that Micheletto still insists on trying to run. And unless he makes immediate adjustments, preferably abandoning it altogether, it will cost him his job.
Let’s look at exactly how BC put up a touchdown on UMass last night. The folks over at BC Interruption do a great job providing coverage of their teams and have GIF’d each of last night’s goals in this post. There are four that stick out to me as most egregious in terms of defensive play either not being properly taught to be in position or the system making proper positioning impossible. Remember, this system calls for quick, aggressive outlet passes from the defensive zone and the defensemen to constantly be pinching in and/or roating with the forwards on offense. Goal 1 starts with a very bad neutral zone turnover and ends with poor handling of an odd man rush by a senior defenseman. How has he not been taught how to play that rush in his years here? Goal 2 you have THREE players moving to engage the puck handler coming from behind the net, leaving Eagle Travis Jeke all by himself two feet from the far post.
Goal 4 is one of the worst plays I’ve seen in my 22 years of watching UMass hockey. You may have seen it already since it was all over social media, on the front page of ESPN.com, and who knows where else. It’s a 3 on 0 that BC of course easily converts to a goal. You can see the far defenseman, like he’s been told to do, is pinching in on offense and is already at the top of the faceoff circle. When the other defenseman turns over the puck and is caught flat-footed it’s nothing but open ice for the three Eagles. Maybe in this case the system doesn’t call for the the other defenseman to be that deep at that point. But considering that I’ve been watching this system for four years now and it’s never made much sense to me, I’m sure the players are equally confused when it’s ok and not ok to actually play like a defenseman. One of the defensemen on the ice for that play is Lagesson. I don’t call him out to criticize him personally. I point it out because he is, in my opinion, a world-class defensive defenseman and yet that horrible, horrible breakdown happens under his watch. It’s not the players! Goal 5 is a result of trying to get the quick, aggressive outlet passes ahead when the better idea would’ve been to not push the puck at that point. Bad pass equals bad turnover equals another BC goal just 11 seconds after UMass gave up the “Flying V” score.
Those who have read FTT long enough know that this kind of Xs and Os breakdown is not my strong point. I have played exactly 0 hockey games in my life and therefore tend to keep my on-ice insight broad and save my heavy duty analysis for statistics. But watching in person and then replays the folly of this system seems very apparent to a fan like me. Add in the long documented struggles that multiple classes of Minuteman players have had implementing it and I don’t think you can deny it’s not working and likely never will. Even if such a system could be rolled out and is successful against bad and average teams, I can’t see how it would work against the BC’s of the world. They’re too skilled and have the ability to make an overly aggressive team pay for even the slightest miscalculation. This system is doomed to fail. And if Micheletto blames the players and screamed and yelled at the team afterward in the locker room, then shame on him. Because it’s his fault. Just as it has been in the previous three years.
I’m not sure what else to say about the game. Nic Renyard in his first Hockey East start got rocked for five goals and then got yanked. At least four of the goals were in no way his fault. In fact, he made some great saves early on in the game when the Minutemen were getting manhandled in shots to keep the game scoreless and then close later on. I have just as much faith in Renyard and his ability going into this weekend as I did before yesterday’s game. Alex Wakaluk probably never thought he’d be facing the #3 team in the country yesterday, but he did and I thought he did fairly well. He gave up two goals but both came on the power play. Considering the state of the game when he came in things could’ve gotten much, much worse. But he made the saves he needed and kept things from getting epically ugly.
Offensively I’m a little surprised UMass couldn’t get on the board at least once. But BC is super talented, as advertised they do everything they can to disrupt their opponent’s offensive flow, and Thatcher Demko is probably the best goaltender in college hockey right now. After finding the net just once in their last two games I think we’re finding that UMass may not be quite as good on offense as the early games suggested and that they’ll struggle against the really good defensive oriented teams (hey good defense beats good offense, remember that folks). I’m officially worried about freshman Austin Plevy. After kicking off the year with a hat trick and four goal weekend it looked like he would be a major part of this team’s offense. But he hasn’t scored since, hasn’t had a point in his last three games, and managed just one shot on net last night. If UMass is going to continue to give up a ton of goals as a result of this system and need to win 5-4 every night, he needs to chip into that 5 goal output.
Or, Micheletto could wave the white flag, abandon this failure of a strategy, and maybe do something with this team that is still 4-2-1. In the last week or so I think we’ve been shown the obvious vulnerabilities of this team, but they’re still in a good spot and still have a lot of talent. It was going to be tough to gain the win last night no matter what. The problem isn’t that they lost, it’s entirely about how they lost. But there is still time to adjust. There are plenty of games left. But if the team continues to give up 4.5 goals a game, as they have so far, it’s difficult to see them winning more than they lose. The madness has to stop. Play some defense.
Fear The Triangle Player of the Game – Joe Widmar
Honestly, I thought about Renyard for POTG, since he really kept UMass in the game early, had some high quality saves, and wasn’t at fault for any of the goals. I thought about Wakaluk for putting in a better than expected performance. I thought about Maddison Smiley who had three shots and wasn’t on the ice for any of the even strength goals. But I’m giving it to Widmar. He was only on the ice for one of the goals and I thought played tough, but smart. He only had one shot on net, but it was one that Demko had to make a skill save to keep out. Also, he did pretty well in the faceoff dot.
Shortly after BC’s 5th goal UMass took some liberties in front of Demko and as a result of the various actions Ben Gallacher got a game disqualification for spearing, meaning he’s automatically out for Friday’s game against UConn. Stephen Iacobellis got a game misconduct during the same fracas and this afternoon the league suspended him for Friday’s game as well. In addition to those two, Patrick Lee missed last night’s game due to illness. It sounds doubtful that he’ll dress Friday either.
The Collegian had this recap of the game.
USCHO had a recap of the drubbing as well.
Unfortunately the ugliness of last night and the aftermath today overshadowed some really positive news. Dennis Kravchenko was named Hockey East Player of the Month after his 7 goal, 5 assist October. Pretty good for a guy who got snubbed for the All-Rookie team not too long ago. Kravchenko was also an Honorable Mention for the national player of the month.
Frank Vatrano, who was at the game last night along with some other alumni players, was named AHL Rookie of the Month after his 10 goals in 9 games last month.