John Micheletto’s fourth season as head coach was extremely disappointing and frustrating, at least from a fan’s perspective, and it ultimately cost him his job. It was thought the team’s fortunes could only go up after last season’s 11-23-2 record and last place finish in Hockey East. Yes, the Minutemen lost some key players in the offseason, but we were led to believe that Micheletto was bringing in the best recruiting class in years, including revamping the defense with multiple NHL-worthy blueliners. Instead the upgrade in skill couldn’t overcome what still a bad scheme put forth by the coach and for the second straight year the Minutemen had one of the worst goals against in the country. When the offense faltered halfway through the season the wheels came off and the end result was a second straight year in the Hockey East cellar, a 8-24-4 record, and an end to the Micheletto era at UMass.
UMass would open their 15-16 campaign with a visit to Colorado College who was coming off a historically bad season for the once powerhouse program. The season got off to a promising start with a 6-3 win thanks to a debut hat trick from Austin Plevy. They’d complete the opening weekend sweep the next night with a dramatic come from behind where the team won 4-3 with four third period goals. The team would beat Sacred Heart and tie New Hampshire before heading to New Jersey for the Capital City Classic. In the first game of the tournament UMass beat Maine 5-4 in overtime and brought their record to 4-0-1, making it the first time in the program’s DI history that they started the season undefeated through five games. However in the tournament championship the first signs of concern were apparent as Yale trounced the Minutemen 6-1.
The team followed up their first defeat with maybe their worst performance of the season, a 7-0 loss that put the Minutemen on Sportscenter for all the wrong reasons. The team seemed to get things back on track the following weekend with a home and home sweep of UConn, but it would end up being the first and last four point weekend for Micheletto at UMass. As of 11/7 UMass had a record was 6-2-1 and were just outside the USCHO weekly rankings. The team boasted the 7th best offense and 7th best power play in the country. More importantly they had the 13th best win percentage. Little did anyone know then that they would win just two more games for the balance of the season and that the wins over UConn would be the only league wins they’d see all year.
The team lost a 4-2 decision to a hot Merrimack team the weekend after UConn and then followed it up with three consecutive ties against Vermont, Merrimack, and New Hampshire. The team still had a decent record at 6-3-4. But UMass would close out the first half of the season with five consecutive losses and limped into the holiday break at 6-8-4. At the time Micheletto blamed a schedule that saw UMass play 12 of their first 18 games away from the Mullins Center. But as the season went on it became apparent that the team was actually more competitive away from the big ice of their home arena.
Star freshman defenseman William Lagesson would head off to the World Juniors for the beginning of the second half while injuries issues began to become a problem for the team. They would kick off the second half with an overtime win at Army and then would play Yale tough in a rematch game, ultimately losing in overtime. From that game on 1/5 onward though the team struggled to keep games close. From 11/9 through the end of the regular season the team would allow 5.14 goals per game while scoring just 1.79. An overtime win over AIC at the MassMutual Center would be their lone win in that 14 game stretch. Finishing the regular season in last place meant an opening round series against 5th seed Boston University. While the Minutemen played probably their best hockey since early November, they still would lose in consecutive nights, brining the season to a merciful finish.
The schedule was not an overly difficult one with just two plane trips and a strength of schedule ranked 29th per the KRACH rating. Micheletto’s excuse of heavy road toll didn’t hold water as the team ultimately went 2-12-1 in the friendly confines versus 6-12-3 away from the Mullins Center. The two Hockey East wins would be the lowest in program history.
UMass’ problem in 2014-15 was that they couldn’t keep the puck out of the net. The 4.15 goals per game given up in the regular season was tied with Niagara for the worst in all of DI hockey. That was coupled with a 75.8% penalty kill which was 5th worst. The hope was that Oiler draft pick Lagesson, Sabre draft pick Ivan Chukarov, potential NHL draftees Callum Fryer and Carmine Buono, and goaltender Nic Renyard, the top Junior A player in all of Canada, would shore up the Minutemen’s defense. They didn’t, though the problem lies more in the Micheletto system than any individual shortcomings. UMass would give up 4.09 goals per game during the 2015-16 season, ahead of only AIC nationally. They would put up the identical 75.8% penalty kill, again 5th worst, which is surprising because there was a period during November when their kill was among the best in the country. UMass gave up 35.2 shots on goal per game, sixth most in the country and an increase from the 33.5 last season.
Despite having one of the most productive offenses through the first month of the season UMass would end up scoring just 2.32 goals per game, 48th in the country, a decline from the 2.79 which was 27th best in 2014-15. Part of the reason why the team struggled so much on offense is because they spent too much time in their own zone. Their possession stats show as much with the team’s even strength corsi of 43.8 the 6th worst in the country. The team’s power play was one of the few statistics that improved from the prior year, climbing to 17.6% from 14..7% in 14-15.
As usual I don’t like to hand out grades for the players, but do want to say a few things about each one. We’ll start with the forwards.
Ryan Badger: Badger was a late addition to the incoming recruiting class. While he put up a lot of points in a lower tier junior league, I think it was expected for him to mainly put in a lot of minutes as a fourth line player. And that’s what he did. He had just a single goal and assist on the season, but logged in a lot of minutes in 29 games.
Keith Burchett: Burchett played in fewer games as a sophomore than his freshman year, 24 versus 32, but his production was roughly the same. He had two goals and three assists versus the two goals and five assists in more games last year. His play seemed very sporadic this season. There were games where he was physical in the corners and making some really nice passes and there were times his defensive play really suffered. I think we may seem improved and consistent play from him under a different coach.
Steven Iacobellis: The junior captain had another solid season for the maroon and white, hitting the 20 point mark for the third year in a row. While the point production has been good, his goal scoring has declined steadily from the 11 as a freshman to just 4 this year. He missed a few open nets during the season and probably could’ve doubled his goal total if he’d found the back of the net those times. Iacobellis will play a huge role next season both for his point production and steady leadership.
Michael Iovanna: Iovanna played just three games for the team this season and none after 11/6. I guess the good news is he got to see two wins in those three games. It’s tough to see him suddenly playing a big role next year.
Kurt Keats: I personally had high hopes for Keats after he had 75 points in his last season of juniors and thought he would be productive from the very beginning of his freshman year. Though he brought a lot of effort and energy early on he had trouble getting on the scoresheet. He did end the season with 5 points in his final 9 games and looked much more comfortable during those games. He finished the season with 4 goals and 8 assists, playing in all but one game. I think we could see a breakthrough sophomore season from him.
Dennis Kravchenko: Kravchenko had a good season building off a freshman year that saw him put up 10 goals and 23 assists in 36 games. Though playing less games due to a mid-season injury Kravchenko increased his goal total to 12 and was third on the team with 28 points. He was the top shooter on the team, scoring on 15.4% of his shots. He also ended up being the top faceoff performer for the team, winning 53.3% of his chances. I expect a good chunk of UMass’ offense next season to go through Kravchenko.
Patrick Lee: Lee’s production dropped a bit as a sophomore, accumulating 3 goals and 9 assists in 30 games versus 5 and 15 in 35 games as a freshman. All three of his scores came on the power play. Lee has a pretty good shot and should probably be a little higher than 8th on the team in shots on goal. But I still think his strength is as a playmaker given his above average vision on the ice. It’ll be interesting to see if he has a big bounceback season as a junior.
Riley McDougall: After scoring five goals in 29 games as a freshman McDougall only played in 15 games this season and didn’t register a point. It’s obvious that Micheletto sat McDougall in favor of some of the freshmen players brought in and we’ll have to see if McDougall can regain the everyday player status next season.
Anthony Petrella: Petrella came to UMass with the reputation as a scorer after accumulating 66 goals in two seasons at one of the top prep schools in the country. But that offense hasn’t materialized at UMass as he scored just two goals this past season and only had one as a freshman. Petrella continued to be a regular player under Micheletto this past season but he may have to show more to keep getting starts next year.
Ray Pigozzi: Pigozzi had a terrific season, leading the team with 22 assists and tying Shane Walsh for the team lead in point with 30. It was his goal that gave UMass the overtime win over Maine in Trenton. Even when the team wasn’t playing well Pigozzi consistently put up points, displayed with a four game point streak in November and a five game point streak in January/February. Pigozzi was already considered one of the top players on the team, but this season showed he can be considered a top player in the league next year as a senior.
Austin Plevy: Plevy had high expectations after coming to Amherst as the top scorer in the AJHL last season. He got off to a great start with four goals in his first weekend of college hockey, scoring the game winners each night. He would accumulate 8 points in his first 4 games as a Minuteman. But there were stretches of the season where he struggled. Sometimes he struggled to generate any shots. Other times he seemed a bit snake-bitten to get his shots in the back of the net. In the end though he did hit the double digit mark with goals and was fourth on the team in scoring. As the 8th highest scorer among Hockey East freshmen, he’ll be expected to contribute more regularly as a sophomore.
Maddison Smiley: Smiley saw time at both forward and defense when the team struggled with injuries on the blueline. He matched the one goal, two assist line he put up as a freshman in his second season. Smiley is a versatile player who can do it all. He’ll continue to play a role on the team in the future no matter where he’s inserted into the lineup.
Dominic Trento: Trento had a very solid season for the Minutemen. After putting up 5 goals and 5 assists in 23 games as a freshman Trento played all but one game this season and had 8 goals to go with 9 assists. The team was better when he got on the scoresheet. UMass was 3-3-1 when he scored a goal and 7-4-2 when he registered a point. AIC was the only UMass win that didn’t see him get a point and that’s because he didn’t dress. Trento was fun to watch this season because he plays hard and does have some scoring touch. He could have a big breakout junior season. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see him with a letter on his sweater next year or after.
Shane Walsh: Let’s face it, there haven’t been a lot of reasons to watch UMass hockey the past couple years. Walsh has been probably the main reason. After his crazy second half, “Mr Friday Night” last season some fans (ok, me) were worried that he wouldn’t be able to continue it into this year. No worries. All Walsh did to follow up to his 14 goal, 8 assist breakout junior campaign was to score 18 goals to go with 12 assists and be named a Hobey Baker candidate. Walsh would end the regular season tied for 3rd in goals among Hockey East players. Walsh’s one and a half year dominance in UMass hockey and Hockey East is one of the more exciting aspects I’ve seen in my decades of watching the program.
Joe Widmar: There were times when Widmar looked like one of the best UMass players on the ice the season. I’m thinking specifically to one of the BC games where he had no problem mixing it up with the big Eagle players and was able to move the puck well and put some rare scares into goaltender Thatcher Demko. But he didn’t do that consistently. Widmar could ultimately develop into a key fourth line presence with a bit of a scoring touch.
Brennan Baxandall: Like Smiley Baxandall played at both forward and defense as needed this season. He only played 14 games and had a goal and an assist on the season. No matter where he played, he gave the team solid minutes and I expect we’ll see the same next year.
Carmine Buono: Buono’s freshman year started out really strong as he looked solid on defense. But as the schedule got a harder he seemed to struggle more. The second half of the season was a loss as he only played six games due to injury. Next year with a year under his belt, 100% healthy, and hopefully a better defensive strategy could really do him well. He showed a lot of promise early on this year and has the skills to do well at this level.
Ivan Chukarov: Chukarov played a lot of minutes for UMass this season, perhaps the second most next to only Ben Gallacher. Overall he did very well. At times he looked very much like a freshman defenseman in the highly skilled Hockey East. At other times he looked like he didn’t know where to be in Micheletto’s system. But it was obvious he is a very good defensemen and I expect to see a noticeable improvement as a sophomore. He really came on offensively in the second half of the season and ended up with three goals and five assists for the year, behind only Gallacher in points by the blueliners.
Callum Fryer: Fryer got better and better as the season went along. I would be surprised if his play as a freshman does not translate into hearing his name called in this year’s NHL draft. He was that good. He’s smart and he can be physical. Fryer was perhaps the biggest surprise for me in this freshman class. By November he was among the team’s most dependable defensemen. By the end of the season I would argue he was among the best defensive defensemen in the league.
Ben Gallacher: The senior matched his 10 point production of last year, but as the only upperclassmen for most nights on defense his focus was on being a steady leader back there and he seemed to do that. The Panthers draft pick will be heading off to his pro career but he will have the satisfaction of having his last collegiate goal be an overtime game winner in what would be the team’s last win of the season.
Marc Hetnik: I thought Hetnik’s play was up and down during his first two years with him making a fair share on mistakes in his own zone. But this season I thought he took a significant step forward and was for the most part one of the team’s more reliable defensemen. His defensive play probably isn’t as noticeable as Fryer or Lagesson, but his absence was definitely felt when he broke his hand and missed games mid-season. He should be a solid upperclassman presence on defense next season.
Jake Horton: Horton played every game as a freshman and had 8 points in total. But I think his tendency to take bad penalties and make other key mistakes led to him being in Micheletto’s doghouse to start the season. As injuries came into play he was inserted into the lineup and did alright. His mistakes seemed to be less than last year (though with this system it’s near impossible to gauge) and whereas he had 12 penalties in 36 games last year he only had 3 in 19 games this year. Despite playing in nearly half as many games as last year, he nearly matched his blocked shot total from a year ago.
William Lagesson: I feel kind of bad for Lagesson because he is an excellent defenseman that won’t get his due because he had to play on a team that was terrible on defense because of the deficiencies of the coach. Lagesson, as a freshman, is flat out one of the best defensive defensemen that has ever played for UMass. Defensively he may be as good as NHLer Justin Braun and is better than FTT favorite Doug Kublin. I really hope he comes back next year, because I’d love to see what he can do with a different coach. But the fact is he’s already playing pro-level defense so there is a risk he signs with the Oilers in the offseason. Please stay!
For the second or maybe third year and a row I have to say that it’s impossible to properly judge how the goalies did because Micheletto’s system puts them up against way too much sustained pressure. As a result their stats are totally out of whack and they’re likely shell-shocked by year’s end. That said, here are my thoughts on the goaltenders:
Henry Dill: Dill had some solid moments during his freshman year last year but still ultimately struggled. At the outset of the season he was given equal opportunity with freshman Nic Renyard to be the go to person in net but ultimately lost out. Off ice disciplinary issues landed him in the doghouse and he ended up playing in just three games from November onward. He played just 7 games this season compared to 25 as a freshman, though his save percentage did improve from .869 to .879.
Nic Renyard: Renyard came to UMass highly touted after winning the Junior A Top Player of the Year in Canada, AJHL MVP, and AJHL Top Goaltender. And I think he had a solid freshman year. He nearly became the first UMass goaltender to finish a season with a .900 save percentage but finished just short at .898. Renyard had 5 of the team’s 8 wins on the season. He already has four 40 save games under his belt. Renyard probably should’ve gotten a few more starts during the season but Micheletto, to his own detriment, continued to make head-scratching roster decisions. I do think that Renyard is a goaltender this program can build around.
Alex Wakaluk: Obviously there were not a lot of good stories associated with this UMass season, but Alex Wakaluk was one of them. Wakaluk’s first two seasons at UMass went about as badly as can be imagined, giving up 12 goals in 97 minutes as a freshman and three goals in 26 minutes as a sophomore. But he did alright this year. He was put in a tough spot by coming in in relief in the BC blowout in November and did OK. With Renyard injured and Dill in the doghouse he got the start at Army and got his first win. The next game he had 35 saves in a narrow loss to Yale. He would have another 38 save effort in a start against Lowell later in the season. All in all, one of the more positive storylines in a season that had too few.
Let’s not belabor the point. By this time I’ve written multiple times why Micheletto was not cut out to be coach of this program and obviously we now know that Athletic Director Ryan Bamford felt the same way. Right up to the end Micheletto was just too stubborn to do what was best for the program. He kept with his insane aggressive scheme that seemed to only create turnovers and leave the defensemen out of position. He tried to force the square peg of his skilled players into the round hole of his failed system, even when bringing in a high quality freshman class.
The excuses caught up to Micheletto Four years ago we heard about what a bad a team he was handed, even as we saw players like Conor Allen, Conor Sheary, and Joel Hanley go onto pro success. Then we heard that he just needed “his players” for “his system”. He had his players this season and only managed 8 wins and just two in Hockey East. His most productive player this year was, ironically, a carryover from the previous coach who he liked to blame for his poor performance. During this season we heard a lot about road schedule, officiating, and injuries. But the fact is that he consistently lost at home and on the road. He lost whether his team had the advantage in number of power plays or not. And he lost whether he dressed all his freshman defenseman or not. At the end of the day his record is his record and it cost him his job.
What does next season bring? I have no idea. There is so much up in the air right now it’s impossible to know. We have absolutely no idea who will be leading the program come fall. The team only loses two seniors, Gallacher and Walsh, but from my guess there could be anywhere from one to four underclassmen leaving for the pros. Lagesson can play high level pro hockey right now. No doubt about it. A couple other defensemen are close. We may lose a forward or two. Or maybe Bamford makes a huge splash at coach and all the players decide to come back Next season is an open book. Which means it’s open to the prospect of success. Something that really hasn’t been an option the last few years. And that alone should make it a more enjoyable offseason.
Catching up on the coaching news.
Matt Vautour of the Gazette details Bamford’s plans for the coaching search. Most of it was covered in similar stores I shared previously. Although one quote did jump out:
“My first charge of the next head coach is to sit with each assistant coach and support personnel to give them the opportunity to at least interview,” Bamford said. “We’ll allow our next head coach to determine how he or she wants to build the staff moving forward. Some of the coaches may be retained. Some others may not.”
It makes sense that the new coach would determine his own assistants and Director of Hockey Ops (currently held by Graham Johnson). But it’s interesting that Bamford mentions support personnel in this quote. Hockey doesn’t have a ton of support staff, unlike basketball which seems to have endless suits on their bench. By all accounts people like trainer Jeff Smith, equipment manager Josh Penn, and SID Jillian Jakuba are well respected both at UMass and around the league. It seems strange that their fates would be determined by the new coach despite already proving themselves through their work to date. Hopefully this is a mere formality.
After some pretty comprehensive coverage yesterday, Dan Malone had some leftover quotes from Bamford’s media call that he shared in this article.
The Collegian also had an article about Bamford and his thoughts about the coaching search.