Hockey East Preview: #6 Massachusetts Minutemen
2010-11 Storyline: Freshman heavy roster is unable to win the close games.
2011-12 Storyline: UMass has talent up front, but who’s in net?
Player To Watch: Danny Hobbs
Player Missed Most: Paul Dainton
Newcomer To Keep An Eye On: Zack LaRue
Random Fact: Adam Phillips and Oleg Yevenko are taller than 7 players currently on the UMass basketball roster.
Usual Beer The Triangle Pre-game Spot: The Hangar
Time to lay down some thoughts on the coming season. However, you can’t know where you’re going without first knowing where you’ve been. So let’s take a look back at least season first. Obviously, it was a grueling and frustrating season for UMass fans. The six total wins were the lowest for the program since we were midway through the triangle decorated time known as the Mallen Era. Even in Toot Cahoon’s first two years the team won 8 games each year. But going into the year no one expected much from the team in the first place, given everything they lost to graduation and the pros. Almost all the media members picked the team, featuring over a dozen freshmen, to finish out of the playoffs. They, of course, did not. But it was still tough times for the Minutemen faithful. The wins and losses is one thing, but what was really frustrating was the fans were constantly waiting for the team to turn a corner that never came. This team didn’t go 6-23-6 by getting their doors blown off every night. They were always THIS close to winning. Amazing, UMass either tied, lost by one goal, or lost by a goal and an empty netter 24 times last year. 78% of their losses were by one goal or a goal plus an empty net goal. That number is unbelievable But what that stat does is give us hope for this coming season. One more bounce, one more check, one more shot, one more save and those games could’ve turned out very differently.
Unlike last year that saw UMass play in tough locales like Madison and Minneapolis, this year’s schedule is much more manageable. From a fan’s standpoint, one might even say it’s a little boring considering for the first time in a while it doesn’t feature a single WCHA or CCHA team. UMass will have a steady diet of Atlantic Hockey and ECAC teams surrounding their early season conference matchups. That’s not to say they have nothing but cupcakes however. On the schedule is ECAC favorite Yale, currently #9 in the country, #20 Cornell, and Quinnipiac. Those should be legitimate tests for the Minutemen in addition to the remainder of the non-conference schedule consisting of Bentley, Harvard, Clarkson or Maine, and Holy Cross, which is supposed to be one of the stronger teams in the AHA. One thing UMass will have to do in regards to the schedule is play well from the start. They simply have to beat the beatable teams or they could find themselves in a hole in Hockey East they’ll never climb out of. That means winning at Northeastern and Providence (and of course against Bentley) in the first few weeks. If they’re not prepared and drop those games it’s going to be very hard to get conference points when they have to play Boston College twice, Boston University twice, and at New Hampshire in the next five games. I am writing this preview on October 5th. A month from now after UMass plays BC on November 5th it’ll be interesting to see where the team stands. They could the surprise of the conference with a few upsets under their belt, they could be hanging on for dear life, or they could find themselves having to climb uphill for the balance of the season to salvage some kind of success.
Of course when trying to determine just how far this team can go this season the immediate question will be, who’s in net? I’d love to say I know who has the edge in the net, who will get the nod Friday, and who will lead the team to success in the season. I honestly have no idea. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Cahoon doesn’t at this point either. The fact is UMass has three talented goaltenders with little to no experience at this level. Kevin Boyle and Steve Mastalerz come to UMass with good pedigrees in juniors. Boyle was named to the All-Rookie team in the competitive BCHL league. Mastalerz was a top goaltender in the New England prep league. Jeff Teglia had a distinguished resume in juniors himself, considered one of the best in the USHL, before he came to Amherst. His stats last year are forgettable; 0-5-1 record, 4.81 goals against average, and a .855 save percentage. But to his defense, due to factors out of anyone’s control, he didn’t exactly get those cushy starts against easy teams that freshmen backups usually see. He had four starts, they came at Wisconsin, at BU, at UNH, and against BU at home. He also played the majority of the second game at Wisconsin (when Paul Dainton was thrown out) and at Minnesota (when Dainton got hurt). If people are writing off Teglia due to his performance in those high pressure games in challenging venues that he probably shouldn’t have been in in the first place, then I think they’re selling him way short. Motivating all three of these guys will be Kevin Moore who will be counted on to be a leader in the locker room again, but at the same time will be fighting to dress and be on that bench as well.
The goaltending situation will be interesting to watch. Cahoon doesn’t have an answer coming into the start of the season but he certainly has options. If he sticks someone in there and they’re not performing I doubt he’ll wait many games before someone else gets a chance. Maybe the first few games will be trial and error until someone steps up in practice or against opponents and wrestles the job from the others. But the flexibility will be there to make adjustments until the right person is in net. Of course if no one steps up and the starting job ends up being a revolving door, we could be in for another long season of almost wins but not quite there.
Up front things are much simpler. UMass loses their 5th leading scorer from last year in Chase Langeraap and that’s it. All the other regular contributors on offense are back. Now that’s a nice thing to have, but at the same time lets remember this team was 7th in offense in Hockey East and second to last on the power play. Just bringing the guys back isn’t enough if they want to compete for home ice. They also need to improve. Now if we’re talking about improvement, we should talk about co-captain Danny Hobbs. Improve was all he did last year, jumping from 9 points his sophomore year to a team leading 28 last year. And he finished strong getting points in 8 of his last 11 games. It’s safe to say that another +200% jump in production is not going to happen, but if he can build off what he did last year he’ll be a legitimate star in the conference. Fellow captain T.J. Syner has steadily increased his points each season as well and 2011-12 could be a breakout year for him. One thing that has hindered Syner has been his size. Not that his stature prevents him from getting to the net, the fact that he’s one of the fastest players in the league allows him to do that. No, unfortunately opponents have taken liberties with Syner and the other smaller UMass forwards in the past without fear of retribution. The reintroduction of size and grit on other parts of the roster should actually open things up for Syner this year. The last key player on offense for the Minutemen is Mike Pereira who, for the last time I’ll make the argument, legitimately could’ve been the rookie of the year in Hockey East last year. The trick for Pereira will be consistency through the whole season. He scored 7 of his 12 goals on the season in the first 9 games. As the long grueling season went along his production waned. With better conditioning and knowing what’s ahead of him, hopefully he’ll be close to a 20 goal scorer this time around.
Those three are really the pivotal players on offense, but depth is an asset for the UMass program and there are still a lot of other players who can contribute regularly. Branden Gracel showed some great playmaking abilities last year and it’ll be his responsibility to get the puck to Syner, Hobbs, Pereira, and whoever else is on the ice. And if those guys are covered, he’s shown the ability to score on his own as well. Conor Sheary put up 6 goals and 8 assists on his freshman year and his abilities to pass and shoot are equally dangerous, as he displayed with a nice wrister in Saturday’s scrimmage. Sheary has star potential for his career. Next to the goaltending situation, I think seeing how Rocco Carzo fares this year will be one of the more interesting storylines. After a strong freshman year that saw him regularly on the same line with James Marcou and Casey Wellman, Carzo had a sophomore slump last season, scoring just one goal. While he played well defensively (finished even on the year) for him to contribute on offense would be a huge plus for the Minutemen. Kevin “’yoke” Czepiel was very reliable at center last year and I think he’ll continue to see regular time again this year. He has great vision and to me it seemed like his play improved when on the ice with some of the top players.
UMass has an interesting group of two way forwards this year. Troy Power showed flashes of promise last year but had a tough time establishing himself as a consistent contributor, some of which was due to fighting nagging injuries. With a year under his belt and a level of comfort it will be interesting to see how his play progresses this season. Eric Filiou played in about 2/3rds of the games and seemed to make his presence known as the season went along. I thought he was one of the better players in last week’s scrimmage and think that he could end up a dangerous player on the third or second lines. A couple of freshmen to keep an eye on are Zack LaRue and Andrew Tegeler. Both are similar players with good size and strong skating abilities. LaRue seems like he may be a bit more of an offensive threat while Tegeler is more of a two-way forward. However both should be able to address an immediate weakness from last year; poor play along the boards. Looks like these two have both the bulk and the stick work to maintain possession of the puck on the glass. Same goes for fellow freshman Emerson Auvenshine who impressed at last week’s scrimmage. Steve Guzzo gets a second chance to start his UMass career after suffering an injury on the eve of last season. I was impressed with his speed when I saw him on Saturday. He might end up playing a big role on this team. Eddie Olczyk surprisingly only played in about half the games. Obviously he’s someone who needs to work to become an offensive threat, but it’s also nice to have that shutdown forward out there for defensive purposes. I expect him to dress more often this year. Both Pat Kiley and Peter DeAngelo were able to contribute some assisting in sparing play last year. I think a year of experience plus the addition of size elsewhere on the roster may allow them to break into bigger roles on the team.
On defense UMass loses a little more than in terms of forwards, but are still pretty sound. Gone is the ever dependable Doug Kublin, but they return seven blueliners who saw at least 13 games last season. Leading the defensive corps is assistant captain Mike Marcou who will look to rebound from a tough year last season. Offensively he did well racking up 11 points while playing only 26 games due to a concussion mid-year. Defensively, he struggled mightily. He’s a smart player and I think his play suffered because as one of the few leaders on defense he put too much on his shoulders and tried to do too much. Hopefully this year with the young defensemen now sophomores he’ll have to worry about them less and can focus on his own play. I’d be very surprised if he performs as badly as last year, especially since he looked very good this past Saturday. Joining Marcou in regular shifts on defense will be Adam Phillips, Colin Shea, Joel Hanley, and Conor Allen. Phillips was one of the pleasant surprises of the season, scoring 10 goals and establishing his slapshot as one of the most dangerous in Hockey East. He still has some work to do on defense, a position he’s only been playing for a few years, but his long reach allows him to recover where other players usually could not. Colin Shea was very dependable in his first year and I don’t see that changing. He does have an offensive side to his game that I saw in juniors that could develop this year. Joel Hanley suffered through an extremely tough season off the ice, his season bookended with family tragedy and getting mono. But he persevered through it all and ended up 4th on the team in points and one of the top freshmen in the league. Breakout player for this season? He’s my pick. Conor Allen looked like a freshman defenseman in over his head in elite league in the first half of the season but finished playing very well. Though for the season he ended up a –11, he was +2 over his last 10 games.
Anthony Raiola had the chance to play in front of his hometown crowd against the Gophers in the opening weekend but then sat for a good chunk of the season until Marcou went down with injury. He made the most of his time and ended up even on the season in 13 games. He made a strong case to be the 6th defenseman to start the season. Darren Rowe started off well with 5 points in his first four games but played sporadically through the year after that. I still say he’d be a great forward but obviously others think otherwise. Two newcomers on defense are Oleg Yevenko and Mike Busillo. The towering Yevenko comes in with quite a reputation, finishing second in the USHL in penalty minutes and being suspended multiple times. His skating was better than I expected during the scrimmage and from what I’ve heard will probably not be a liability on defense. The trick for him is to not be a liability in the penalty box. Certainly that kind of edge and toughness is something that was severely lacking on last year’s squad. And if he can make opposing player sorry that they crossed the blueline, that would be fantastic. But Hockey East has too many talented forwards and productive power plays to constantly be giving them the man up, so it’s up to him to play tough but not dumb. Either way he’s probably going to be one of the more exciting players to play on the squad. Busillo was one of the top defensemen in the AtlJHL and also adds some grit and size that this team has needed. All in all this is a very deep defensive group and you have four guys legitimately battling to be that last defenseman dressed. Like Rowe though, I’m hearing you may see Busillo up at forward from time to time as well.
There you have it. Your 2011-12 Minutemen. I think it’s safe to say that this is one of the deepest teams we’ve seen at UMass. Even the biggest question mark on the team, goaltender, has three legitimately qualified guys fighting for the one starting spot. What I like about this team is that the recruiting specifically addressed the biggest needs; goaltending, size, toughness. UMass has had some teams with tremendous talent on it that have fallen short because it was lacking. Lacking an aspect in terms of makeup. Lacking the right mentality. Lacking a camaraderie. We won’t know until the season starts but it at least appears from afar that this team has those things. Last year’s team had most of those things too and they came really close to success, but fell short every time. With the core group of guys now sophomores, not freshmen, and with some dependable senior leadership, this team should take a major step forward. If one of the three goaltenders ends up putting up strong numbers, this team could do some considerable damage. But check back with me on 11/5. I think we’ll learn a lot about this squad in the next 31 days.
Fear The Triangle Fearless Hockey East Predictions
1. Boston University
2. Boston College
3. Merrimack Warriors
4. New Hampshire Wildcats
5. Maine Black Bears
6. Massachusetts Minutemen
7. Vermont Catamounts
8. Providence Friars
9. Northeastern Huskies
10. Lowell River Hawks
Dick Baker has a profile on freshman Emerson Auvenshine.
It’s official. Notre Dame to to Hockey East in 2013. Like I said, I have some reservations about Hockey East expanding beyond the northeast, but the program itself is a great addition. I just have one request. At the three Notre Dame games I’ve attended the ND fans wearing football jerseys usually outnumber those wearing hockey jerseys 3 to 1. Please stop that.
Baker recounts UMass’ history with Irish hockey.
The Republican has a story on Paul Dainton and former RPI goaltender Allen York fighting for the starting job in Springfield.
Jon Quick is Barry Melrose’s pick to win the Vezina this season.
The ECHL profiles former UMass captain and current ECHL coach Dean Stork.