Youth movement will make or break UMass’ season

By Nick O'Malley

The Massachusetts hockey team is young-crazy young. With 13 rookies on the roster and only a handful of the team’s top contributors returning this season (most are currently playing on the Worcester Sharks), the Minutemen’s season will hinge mostly on how their youth movement evolves over the next few months.         

It was one thing for the UMass football team to field a young unit. With two junior captains, a depleted defensive line and question marks at receiver and offensive line, 2010 was expected to be a rebuilding season. Obviously, with the additions of wide receiver Anthony Nelson, running back John Griffin and tackle Greg Niland, the Minutemen have one of the top teams in the Football Championship subdivision.         

UMass coach Don Cahoon and his players, though, don’t have such key transfers. Justin Braun and Martin Nolet graduated and James Marcou was expected to go pro. However, the Minutemen also lost one of the country’s best goal scorers to the NHL in Casey Wellman as well as the laser show that was Matt Irwin’s slapshot.         

Brett Watson is not walking through that door. The Minutemen are young and it’s going to show, but everyone in the locker room knows that. The question is: Where do they go from here?         

It’s not as though all hope is lost. In the wake of losing the their “stars,” the Minutemen are heading into the 2010-11 season with a team-first mentality, no specific player acting as the focal point of the offense. It has already shown so far this season, with one of the team’s top returning scoring threat, T.J. Syner and two of the team’s skilled defensemen, Michael Marcou and Darren Rowe, all notching three points apiece. Meanwhile, freshmen Michael Pereira, Conor Sheary and Colin Shea have each picked up two points in their first three career games.         

Fans hoping to stay optimistic should think of the 2001 Patriots Super Bowl team for a comparison.         

The team’s goalkeeper situation is even similar. UMass has a long-time goalie that is among the best in the league but has yet to showcase complete consistency for an entire season (Paul Dainton to Drew Bledsoe). Meanwhile, they have a solid backup in the wings that can take over in case of injury (Jeff Teglia to Tom Brady).         

Now, it should be made clear that the Minutemen are at their best with Dainton as their starting goalie and team captain. The point is, there’s solid, young depth at the position. Dainton getting injured is a bad, bad thing.         

The Hockey East, though, is a difficult place to grow up, as the Minutemen and their 13 freshmen will have to face off against the likes of reigning national champion Boston College, which only graduated four players, on a regular basis.         

That isn’t to say that UMass will be a doormat this season. The Minutemen have a talented young squad with two solid options in net and a depth of scorers that could be in position for a breakout season. The troubles, however, will come early on as the young players adapt to the college game and Cahoon’s system.         

The results so far have been promising. UMass did not go quietly against Minnesota, one of the country’s premiere teams and forced a tie after falling into a 2-0 hole against ranked Boston University. And they haven’t even played a home game yet.         

What remains to be seen however, is what the Minutemen do in the second half this season. In recent years, UMass has gotten out to a fast start, but struggled during the second half. Last season was no different as the Minutemen went 0-for-February, losing all six games that month.         

This year’s team, though, could be UMass’ best chance in a while to buck the trend. With such a large freshman class, players are talking about a warmer, tight-knit locker room that will be a welcomed change as the season progresses. The 2010-11 season could also likely feature significant growth from a freshman class that Cahoon says has already showed great effort so far this year.         

There are no guarantees with the Mass Attack this season. Where there were once locks for all-conference nods, there are new faces trying to adapt to the college game. Time will tell, though, whether or not the team’s enormous freshman class will be remembered for its inexperience or potential.        

Nick O’Malley is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]