With nine seniors, 16 upperclassmen and its three leading scorers from last season on the roster, one would think the Massachusetts hockey team is primed for success in 2013-14.
However, there’s a reason why UMass failed to make the Hockey East Tournament last season and why it’s yet again picked to finish second-to-last in the conference. Beyond the top forward line of Branden Gracel, Michael Pereira and Conor Sheary, there aren’t a whole lot of reliable scoring options for the Minutemen.
There are players who are capable of contributing. But if last season – a season in which the Minutemen went winless in eight of their final 10 games – is any indication, the pressure will once again fall upon the first line to replicate its 2012-13 showing.
The trio produced 35 percent of the points for UMass last season and quickly became one of the most exciting and dynamic scoring lines in Hockey East, if not in all of college hockey, once they were regularly placed in the lineup together in the middle of the season.
The problem was the wins weren’t coming with it. Steven Guzzo (5 goals, 9 assists, 14 points) underachieved, Troy Power was out with a season-ending injury and there simply wasn’t enough talent to roll out four quality lines.
“Depth in scoring is a key,” UMass coach John Micheletto said. “You can’t be a one-line team, a one-trick pony in this league. Credit to Mike and Conor and Branden last year because they did carry the bulk of it while being targeted by other teams.”
This trend can’t continue if the Minutemen want better results this year. The burden now falls upon the likes of Guzzo, Power and Shane Walsh among a group of others, and a crop of freshmen to take the pressure off “The Big Three” of Gracel, Pereira and Sheary.
“I think in the past we’ve been so heavily one or two line based,” Power said, “and you look at the good teams around the league, they have great goaltending, they have good defense and they have four lines that can put good numbers on the board and that’s what we’re looking to do here.”
A team that exemplifies Power’s point is UMass Lowell, which also happens to be the defending Hockey East champions and UMass’ second opponent of the season. The River Hawks certainly didn’t have the best player in the conference on its roster. In fact, it’s likely none of their forwards are in any person’s top five in Hockey East. However, UMass Lowell relied on three 30-point scorers and five 20-point scorers to reach the Frozen Four for the first time in program history.
The difference there, of course, is that the Minutemen don’t have the same kind of talent that the River Hawks have, but there’s also no excuse for having nine role players to go with three goal-scorers up front.
Someone else has to emerge. Gracel (14-20-34) was that player last year and he led the team in scoring. It was essential. But it wasn’t enough from a team standpoint.
“For some of the year last year (Micheletto) even said that we didn’t have some of the secondary scoring that we needed,” Gracel said. “If we can get a couple other lines scoring it’s gonna be huge and help us compete with the best.”
Not only will it figuratively take some pressure off “The Big Three,” but it will also force opposing teams to spread out the defensive pairings and potentially force a mismatch on the ice. Gracel, Pereira and Sheary saw the best defensemen in Hockey East on a nightly basis, but that could change with a few more threats out there.
At this point, however, the Minutemen’s greatest hope for more offense comes from their freshmen. Steven Iacobellis has already shown flashes of offensive prowess and he’s yet to play in a game, while the rest of Micheletto’s first recruiting class, which includes names such as Ray Pigozzi, Brandon Wahlin and Brennan Baxandall, are bound to be fast, aggressive players built for the second-year coach’s system
UMass may have had its answer in Frank Vatrano, but the redshirt freshman and former Boston College commit is ineligible to play until the Hockey East Tournament due to academic issues dating back to his brief stay in Chestnut Hill last season. He’s never played in a game for the Minutemen, but he will certainly be missed.
“He’s made us better since he’s been here in January,” Micheletto said. “The guy hasn’t played a game, but the way he competes, his approach to the game, skill aside, how good a teammate he is, all those things impacted us so positively.”
Until Vatrano actually gets a chance to be the impact player he’s expected to be, UMass will have to find other answers. Watching Gracel, Pereira and Sheary skate together is as great of quality of hockey as it gets. But that won’t win the Minutemen games.
That responsibility falls upon everyone else. There needs to be a fourth and fifth 20-point scorer.
If not, the 2012-13 season could be on repeat this year.
That includes the wins and losses.
Nick Canelas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas.