Let me start by saying that I think John Micheletto is a sharp, innovative hockey mind in the college game as well as a talented recruiter. I have no doubt that he has spent the last three and a half years working hard to make UMass hockey successful in the competitive Hockey East. I think he’s a well-intentioned individual who is trying his best. I also believe that despite all those qualities he is not the right person to be head coach and after this current season, Athletic Director Ryan Bamford should look to someone new to lead the Massachusetts hockey program.
Micheletto came to Amherst after a 16 year career as an assistant coach in college hockey at Notre Dame, Union, and Vermont. He was hired following a disastrous coaching search led by UMass’ previous AD, John McCutcheon, where McCutcheon was publicly rebuffed not once, not twice, but thrice by coaches whom he offered the job to. Micheletto ended up being the “safe” pick for McCutcheon at that point since the career assistant would be unlikely to turn the offer down.
Three and a half years later it has become very apparent that Micheletto is not the right fit for this role at this school. Not only has he been unable to turn UMass hockey into a winner, the case can be made that the program is in considerably worse shape than when he took over with no turnaround in sight. Here are Micheletto’s coaching results to date in his fourth year at the helm:
What is most apparent is that the best performance under Micheletto, in terms of wins, win percentage, and Hockey East performance, came in his very first year. That year his roster was made up entirely with players recruited by former coach Toot Cahoon. Micheletto’s .350 career win percentage is 6th worst among active DI coaches. Three of the coaches with worse records are in their first or second years with their programs. Only C.J. Marottolo, in his 7th year at Sacred Heart, has a worse win percentage while being at his school longer than Micheletto has been at UMass.
Micheletto took over a team that had gone 13-18-5 the season before. The 13 wins are a total that he himself has yet to match and it seems unlikely that he will do so this year. The team he inherited had some considerable talent on it, most of it coming in the form of juniors or underclassmen. Forward Conor Sheary is currently playing in the NHL and would end his UMass career 8th in total points and 15th in goals scored. Conor Allen made his NHL debut in 2014 for the New York Rangers and is currently playing in the Ottawa Senators organization. Michael Pereira, currently in the AHL, would finish his UMass career 4th in goals scored and tied for 6th in points. Branden Gracel is 15th in goals for the program and 21st in points. Defenseman Joel Hanley signed an NHL contract with the Montreal Canadiens this past season and is playing in the AHL. Oleg Yevenko signed an NHL contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets this offseason and is playing for their AHL affiliate. Except for Allen who left after his junior year, Micheletto had all of those players, some of the top producing players in UMass hockey history, to build around for his first two seasons and averaged just 10 wins with them. He added his own NHL-level talent along the way, like Frank Vatrano, Brandon Montour, William Lagesson, and Ivan Chukarov, and has been unable to produce a winning record with them either.
The problems haven’t just been on the scoreboard however. Attendance at the Mullins Center has plummeted under Micheletto. The year before he took over the team averaged 4,612 fans per game and had drew greater than 5,000 as recently as 2009-10. The team drew 4,209 in Micheletto’s first year, 3,891 in his second, and just 2,581 last season. That was the lowest average attendance since 2001-2002. That number has improved slightly this year to 2,930 but there are still a lot of games left and the team’s recent play is doing to be a tough draw.
The program has also suffered in the areas of fundraising and sponsorships. Activity in the Pond Club, the booster organization for UMass hockey, is nearly non-existent. The annual Reverse Raffle event was cancelled this past offseason and there are usually only a dozen members in the Massachusetts Room during intermissions at games. That’s good news if you don’t like to wait in line for a beer, but bad news if you’re trying to run a Hockey East program competing against the likes of Boston College and Boston University. A lot of the problems with fan and booster engagement fall squarely on Micheletto’s shoulders. Since day one he’s been reluctant to socialize with fans or get to know the Amherst business community. As a result a number of loyal partners for the program have swore off any kind of support and when Micheletto started to struggle fans were easy to dump on him. Meanwhile, Toot Cahoon got a long leash from the fans despite some teams that underachieved. Why? Because most of the community had talked to him personally and gave him the benefit of the doubt. Micheletto’s first mistake as head coach was avoiding engagement with the UMass community. To this day he’s held exact two meet and greets for the casual (non-donating) fans and none since December of 2012.
Going into his season it seemed logical that it would be a make or break year for Micheletto. The reasons listed above showed that UMass could not suffer another season of losses and poor gate receipts beyond this one. It appeared that perhaps he had figured things out when the team started the season 4-0-1 and almost broke into the USCHO rankings for the first time in his tenure. But the taste of early victories soured as the team has gone just 3-12-3 since. As hard as I have tried to be patient and give him a chance, this past weekend was the final straw for me. It’s bad enough that UMass got swept by Lowell to give the River Hawks their 5th straight Alumni Cup. It’s the fact that they were so utterly dominated with UMass barely even able to muster up a fight. The salt in the wound is the fact that backstopping both victories, with the latter coming via a shutout, was former Minuteman Kevin Boyle. A player cut by Micheletto in his most public, but only one of many, miscalculations as UMass head coach.
There have always been reasons offered up as to why Micheletto has been unable to win games. This past weekend it was that the team was shorthanded on defense with three key players injured. This is not untrue. But the problem is there are always reasons why Micheletto doesn’t win. Before the injuries it was the tough road schedule. Or it’s the team’s youth and inexperience. They have too many freshmen. He just needs “his” players for “his” system. The incoming recruiting classes lacked depth. The cupboard was left bare by the previous coach (I already proved that one false). And through it all the team is treated unfairly by officials. There’s always been an excuse why the wins haven’t come. As I said before the season, the time for excuses is over. And it is. And that’s why Micheletto should be replaced at the end of the season. New players. Old players. Drafted players. Undrafted players. His players. Toot’s players. The one constant seems to be that he cannot win with any of them and most of the time the team struggles to even be competitive with the better teams in the league.
Now is the time for Bamford to lay the groundwork needed to change the culture around the program and get them on the winning track. Assemble a list of potential candidates. Begin to think of who around the UMass community would make for beneficial search committee members. Develop a plan to buy out Micheletto’s remaining year on his contract. These are all important steps to take now. We only have to look at the last debacle of a coaching search by McCutcheon to see what happens when you part ways with a coach while being totally unprepared.
Have I totally closed the book on Micheletto? Of course not. If he goes on a big run, gets to .500 in the league and has a good showing in thee league playoffs then I’ll have to reconsider my current conclusion that he’s not cut out to be the UMass coach. But does anyone who watched either game against Lowell really think that’s going to happen? This team has lost all measure of focus and effort and when listening to Micheletto’s exasperated and downtrodden postgame interviews it seems like even he is accepting of his fate. If the team, nearly all “his” players, want to save his job, they know how to do it. By winning and playing hard in the remaining games. Maybe the balance of the season will be a referendum of just how much the players want him to continue on as coach.
This post was a long time coming. I’ve had reservations about Micheletto for a long time and had serious issues with how he approached trying to win at UMass since his first season. I didn’t like how he ignored the talent he was handed because they didn’t fit “his system”. I didn’t like the cuts of talented and dedicated players at the end of his first year just to free up scholarships. I didn’t like his total disconnect from the fans and the community. I didn’t like other things going on around the program that I will not get into on this post. The next couple months will be interesting. I promise to do my best not to turn Fear The Triangle into firemick dot com. This blog is about the hockey program, not the hockey coach. I don’t think it would be fair to the players or my readers if every preview, recap, or other post turns into an extension of this one harping on the same points of why Micheletto should be removed. But I probably will be exploring some of the reasons why I think a change is necessary in more depth from time to time.
So will there be a coaching change at the end of the season? I have no idea. Since Bamford doesn’t have any history it’s tough to predict what he may or may not do. If he’s leaning towards making a change, it doesn’t seem like he’s made that known to people around the program. There are pros and cons to making a coaching change. Most of the pros have to do with improving the image of the program, reversing the attendance trend, and just finding someone who will get UMass to reach its full potential as a hockey school. The cons have to do with having to fund a buyout and taking the leap to start over all again. It’s a complex move, but one I desperately think needs to happen. I don’t want to be sitting by myself in Section U watching another disappointing team next year and writing recaps to relay that disappointment to the dozen FTT readers left. UMass hockey fans have suffered greatly for over two decades with just a short four year period of bright success. That’s unacceptable and we need to demand better. And that starts with demanding a better leader of our hockey program. Go UMass!
If you came here just looking for the usual Monday Weekend Wrap-around post, boy are you surprised. Everything is pushed back a day this week so I could get my thoughts on the coaching situation written. Weekend Wrap-around will post tomorrow with the weekly Recruit Update on Wednesday.