For most athletes, change can take a while to get used to. But for the players on the Massachusetts hockey team, they are excelling under first-year John Micheletto.
After longtime coach Don “Toot” Cahoon stepped down over the summer, Micheletto was hired to replace him, bringing a new style of play to Amherst.
“The one thing that I say is that ‘singers sing and dancers dance,’” Micheletto said. “You need to appreciate the strengths that people bring to the game. You’re trying to minimize your weaknesses or never get into situations where you have to rely on your weakness. That’s part of the hockey sense, the smarts part, that we’re trying to teach, but we’re also trying to maximize what you bring to the game.”
The new style of play that Micheletto brought to UMass is one that features high-intensity pressure, both defensively and offensively, something that is different from the Cahoon regime. But rather than faltering, the players have embraced the change and are reaching new heights in their game.
Junior forward Branden Gracel has thrived under Micheletto’s system, already setting career highs in goals (13) and points (26), with nine games still remaining in the regular season.
“He’s really good because he’s a lot about offense,” Gracel said of Micheletto. “He doesn’t like to dump and chase at all. He likes to possess the puck and make plays. He likes to try and make plays versus getting rid of the puck and chasing. He’d rather possess the puck.”
Along with Micheletto’s style of play, Gracel is also achieving new highs thanks to his line mates Michael Pereira and Conor Sheary. In a season when line combinations have not been a constant, Micheletto has been able to find consistency in his top line, with all three players leading the Minutemen in scoring.
“Going along with what (Pereira) said, the three of us are three of the fastest skaters out there and I feel like it’s tough for defending teams to keep up with us,” Gracel said.
Perhaps the biggest surprise to this year’s team has been the emergence of senior defenseman Darren Rowe. Rowe saw his playing time gradually decrease in each of his first three years under Cahoon, but this year has been a different story. He currently has a career-high 11 points, which is good for second amongst UMass defensemen.
“I just think, instilling confidence, especially for me,” Rowe said. “Just the confidence to go out and play my game and that’s the biggest part for me, also just the freedom that he’s given us to just create plays offensively and that’s been a big part.”
Even in goal, Micheletto’s different approach has paid dividends. All season long, Micheletto has based his starting goalie off how they perform in practice. This has resulted in two goalies, Kevin Boyle and Steve Mastalerz, who have been effective and able to win big games for the Minutemen this season.
“You earn your spot in the lineup Friday by the way that you practiced Monday through Thursday,” Micheletto said. “It’s a particular note with the goaltenders, I think, this year and I do think that it’s kept a really competitive atmosphere amongst the three of them and ultimately, when everyone is healthy, it’s really driving guys to be as good as they can be.”
While the team has come to grips with the new style of play, perhaps the most important part of Micheletto’s coaching style is his hands-off approach.
“I feel like he gives us a lot of offensive freedom,” Gracel said. “You know, make plays when you have them to make and it’s not too structured in the offensive zone. I mean, you have to have a third guy high, but other than that, he’s really good about giving you the freedom to make plays.”
Patrick Strohecker can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter at @MDC_Strohecker.