View From Section U: On The Subject Of Recruiting

A couple weeks ago Ryan S. Clark, reporter for the Fargo-Moorhead Forum, was nice enough to share his thoughts on UMass recruits Oleg Yevenko and Shane Walsh as well as Western amateur hockey in general with Fear The Triangle.  With Walsh and Yevenko’s teams starting a USHL second round series tonight Clark had a feature on Yevenko and his return from suspension in today’s paper.  He also put some of his unused material for the Yevenko story on his blog.

Personally I’m kind of disappointed in his story.  Not for the content mind you, it’s great that Clark has been able to provide us UMass fans with insight into this future Minuteman.  Believe me, it’s really tough to find much first hand material on hockey recruits.  No, my disappointment surrounds the picture.  In the time since Yevenko committed to UMass he has been suspended twice, finished second in his league for penalty minutes, and I even may have seen some disparaging remarks about him on Twitter by other USHL fans.  Yet this is the picture we get?  I expected to see something more like this with the caption, “If he dies, he dies.”

It sounds to me that Yevenko suffers from the same ailment that Brian Boyle did when he played in Hockey East.  Everyone else in the league happens to come up to his elbows and therefore he gets called for a lot of penalties.  That’s not to say he’s not tough or aggressive.  Obviously he is if he’s fighting teammates in practice or delivering big hits in scrimmages, he is.  But at the same time guys that much bigger than everyone else will always be on the wrong end of some calls.  Hopefully that won’t happen too much when he joins UMass next year or the penalty kill will improve.  As for the series between Yevenko’s Fargo Force and the Dubuque Saints which is starting as I type this, I just hope he goes easy on future teammate Shane Walsh.

Being able to learn more about UMass’ towering new player got me to evaluating the current crop of recruits out there for the Minutemen.  Coach Cahoon’s recruiting has taken some criticism recently, some of which I think is deserved.  Last year’s class, while without more than one or two very well known prospects, was very deep and as it turns out perhaps underrated.  Overall prospects for next year are looking good if this year’s inconsistent freshman can become improved sophomores.  But there were some deficiencies in the class.  Namely, I thought the team lacked an aspect of toughness.  Not that the players weren’t tough in terms of how they carried themselves, but that they had a difficult time making things tough for their opponents.  Namely, opposing teams were never afraid to enter the offensive zone or skate across the slot.  This team didn’t have an Alex Berry or even a Martin Nolet who would make them pay for such an action.  Obviously with Yevenko’s addition to next fall’s freshman crop Cahoon has taken action to correct that deficiency in the team’s makeup.  I think he did the same with adding another quality goaltender, Steve Mastalerz, to complement Jeff Teglia and fellow incoming freshman Kevin Boyle.  The limit of UMass’ potential next year could very well come down to the play they get out of their goaltenders, so adding another talented player to that mix seems like a smart idea in my view.  I’ve always been a big proponent for competition between goaltenders and keeping them hungry.

On the larger issue of recruiting, I think Cahoon has gotten a bad rap lately.  Now as certain winter inhabitants of Boca Raton may tell you, I fear the truth. Yet, I’m still going to take a moment to defend Cahoon from some recent criticism I’ve read and heard.  I guess the thought out there is that UMass fans can thank former assistant coach Mark Dennehy, and Mark Dennehy alone, for all of the team’s best recruits and success for the past decade.  Now I’m  a big fan of Mark Dennehy.  In fact I don’t know of many others who were more pissed off when he was shunned for Hockey East Coach of the Year in recent months.  And we can all agree his contributions to UMass hockey are great.  But I think to say he’s solely responsible for the construction of the most successful UMass teams is a stretch.  As some would lead you to believe Dennehy was the only reason why guys like Jon Quick came to Amherst.  I don’t think this is true.

As FTT readers know, I do my best to read everything I can about UMass hockey and pass it along to you.  But even before there was a FTT I was still reading everything I could find.  And when teenage junior hockey players like James Marcou or Justin Braun spoke about their decision to come to Amherst they cited, among a number of other strong arguments, Toot Cahoon as one of their reasons.  I didn’t see Dennehy specifically mentioned.  Ever.  Not to say he doesn’t deserve credit for the recruiting he did while here, and his recruiting abilities continue to yield results at Merrimack, but he still was part of a staff assembled by Cahoon.  It is ultimately the head coach’s responsibility to delegate recruiting responsibilities and extend scholarships.  Ultimately the buck stops with him.  Assistants may do a lot of the initial leg work, but it’s usually the head coach who is the end-all decider.

The whole Dennehy recruiting myth also conveniently leaves out some blue chip recruits that committed to UMass long after he left, like John Carlson and Zack Phillips.  Carlson was considered a candidate for the Calder Trophy in the NHL this year while Zack Phillips will likely be a first round pick in June’s NHL draft.  Unfortunately the cash lure of major juniors proved too much and they weren’t able to become Minutemen, but I don’t think their decision to renege on their commitments should detract that Cahoon and his current staff of Red Gendron and Len Quesnelle still got these elite  players to choose UMass.  Even on the current roster, shouldn’t the current coaching staff get credit for getting Mike Pereira, who I  still think trumped a current NHL first round draft pick for Hockey East Rookie of the Year, to become a Minuteman?

All in all, I cannot argue against those who are disappointed with the team’s recent success when it comes to wins and losses and Cahoon’s responsibility in that outcome.  I’m right there with you.  Probably not last year, but since 2007 this team has not lived up to potential.  But it’s a misrepresentation to say that Cahoon’s recruiting successes have come at the hands of others.  It ignores the recent successes of Cahoon and the current staff in that field. Also,  it doesn’t take into account that Cahoon ultimately makes all recruiting decisions.  And it surely doesn’t look ahead at what he has lined up for next year.  And if you disagree, you just may be on the wrong end of a Oleg Yevenko elbow come next season.