Up To The Minute ▲ Dennehy, Pearl, Shafer Interview At UMass

The Daily Hampshire Gazette’s Matt Vautour reported last night that UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford has interviewed Merrimack head coach Mark Dennehy, Harvard assistant Paul Pearl, and Cornell’s Mike Shafer for the UMass position.  Dennehy and Pearl were already expected to be in the mix for the coaching job, but Shafer’s involvement is a surprise.  All signs point toward a coach being named in the near future, perhaps as early as this week, so there’s a good chance the next person to lead the program could be one of these three or former UMass captain Dean Stork who previously interviewed.

Out of these four I would think Dennehy has to be the top target.  He has ties to the UMass program from his time as an assistant in the mid-2000’s and had a vital role in recruiting some of the top players from that era, including goaltender Jon Quick.  He took over a Merrimack program that seemed on the verge of either dropping down to a lower conference or being shut down altogether and brought them all the way to the NCAA tournament.  The spectacular job he has done at Merrimack is chronicled in this well written piece from the Mack Report.

Merrimack has fallen off in the last few years but it’s tough to gauge what is driving that.  Though the school has done wonderfully in finally investing in their hockey program it’s still tough to have sustained success at a tiny religious school in the suburbs when you’re going up against college hockey powerhouses and big state schools.  While the most recent season was disappointing, most around the Merrimack program think the team will be improved next year and much more competitive.

This is Pearl’s second time around for UMass as he was offered the position four years ago and turned it down due to reservations about the search process and support of the program under former AD John McCutcheon.  Back then Pearl was at the helm of Holy Cross, his alma mater.  Pearl coached in Worcester for 19 years and has a career record of 297-293-69.  He got the Crusaders to the NCAA tournament twice, with the last in 2006 being the historic upset over might Minnesota.  Pearl ended up leaving Holy Cross two years after turning down the UMass job amid talk that he was unhappy with the athletic department’s lack of support for hockey.  He joined Ted Donato’s staff at Harvard and has been a part of the resurgence of the Crimson hockey program which just made their second NCAA tournament in a row.

Pearl has a wealth of head coaching experience at the Division I level.  But there are legitimate questions of whether he can make UMass a perennial successful program in the toughest conference in the country.  He had success at Holy Cross, but two appearances in 19 seasons is what it is.  He’s well regarded in coaching circles and would probably be able to undo the damage done by former coach John Micheletto.  He seems capable of getting the program back to where Toot Cahoon had it before Micheletto took over.  But can he take it to the next step where the team is regularly competing at the top of the league?  That’s the big question.

Shafer’s involvement in this search came out of left field.  Like Pearl he has coached at his alma mater for years and has been one of the most successful coaches in the ECAC during that time.  Shafter just finished up his 21st year in Ithaca and boasts a 391-233-84 (.612 win percentage) in that time.  His teams have made the NCAA tournament 9 times in those 21 years including a Frozen Four appearance in 2003.  However the Big Red haven’t made it to the NCAA tournament in the last four years despite having some pretty talented squads.

On paper Shafer looks like he’d be a strong hire for the Minutemen.  But why would he want to leave Cornell?  I’m not sure.  Something interesting to note is that his most recent contract with Cornell reportedly just ran out and he’s yet to sign or perhaps be offered an extension from the school.  His flirtation with the UMass job may be just a way to accelerate that process with Cornell and he truly has no intention of coming to Amherst.

I’ve already written about Stork before.  I think he’s shown in his time in the ECHL that he’s qualified as a bench coach.  The toughest part would be convincing Bamford he’d do well at the recruiting and everything else that goes with running a college program.  At this point the lack of any NCAA experience may be a detriment to his candidacy.

Unless a mystery candidate comes out of nowhere it’s looking like those four candidates are the most likely to become UMass’ next head coach.  It does appear that Bamford has focused almost exclusively on those with head coaching experience.  Personally, I would like to see some of the top assistants in college hockey, such as Western Michigan’s Ben Barr or Quinnipiac’s Bill Riga, be considered as well.  The program is already at a low point.  I think that affords you a chance to take a risk and focus in on a Barr or someone similar who has the potential to be the next great assistant turned head coach.  But so far that doesn’t appear to be the approach taken.

Either way I think the next week or two could be exciting and important for UMass hockey fans as they meet (or potentially get reacquainted) the person to lead the Minutemen out of the Hockey East basement and hopefully back to the NCAA tournament.

It’s tournament time and our AD is a fan:

I was going to do a post with my NCAA picks, but I didn’t get around to it.  Here they are for those interested.  Yep, I didn’t pick many Hockey East teams to go that far.  And after yesterday, that looks to be a smart approach.

It doesn’t sound like Quinnipiac will replace Notre Dame as Hockey East’s 12th team;

With UMass playing in the Friendship Four tournament in Belfast, Ireland next season this New York Times article about the trip being the turnaround point in Northeastern’s season is a good read.

The Montreal Gazette has an article on former Minuteman Joel Hanley and his road to the NHL.

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