Oleg Yevenko’s improvement aided by experiences with Belarus, Boston Bruins

By Ross Gienieczko

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Photo by Cade Belisle

(Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian)

Oleg Yevenko draws a lot of attention as a senior defenseman on the Massachusetts men’s hockey team.

It comes from fans, who frequently compare Yevenko to Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara because of his size. It comes from UMass coach John Micheletto, who looks to the senior to play important minutes against tough matchups. And it comes from his teammates, who literally and figuratively look up to the 6-foot-7 defenseman. It’s tough to have that kind of focus and spotlight on you from so many people.

But Yevenko is fit for the challenge.

Shutdown Defender

The word “shutdown” is not thrown around lightly when it comes to defensemen. It takes a special kind of player to line up every night against the other team’s top scoring lines and keep them in check. However, it is exactly the role Micheletto envisions Yevenko playing in this season.

“Oleg will continue to see the bulk of the action in shutdown roles,” Micheletto said. “Defense will be first in his vocabulary.”

For his part, Yevenko embraces the challenge that comes with playing against the best the other team has to offer.

“Being matched up against really good players is what you want,” Yevenko said. “You want competition, that’s why hockey is fun.

“I just want to make sure I’m ready (for those matchups) physically and mentally and make sure my teammates and coaches can rely on me.”

One of the main reasons Yevenko plays well in such defensive situations is his size. Yevenko towers over most of the smaller, quicker forwards in Hockey East and capitalizes on his opportunity.

“He’s a huge presence physically,” Micheletto said. “When he plays the game right, he can use his size to his advantage and keep players on the perimeter.”

“He’s a big man,” fellow senior defenseman Mike Busillo added. “He plays mean out there.”

A Busy Offseason

For Yevenko, hockey didn’t stop when the Minutemen’s season ended after the Hockey East tournament last March. In May, he skated for his home country Belarus in the IIHF World Championship. Averaging over 17 minutes of ice time per game in the tournament – and dressing in all eight games -Yevenko recorded two assists and helped lead Belarus to a quarterfinal appearance.

Along the way, Yevenko played against some of the best players in the world, including former NHL Most Valuable Player Evgeni Malkin and fellow NHL players Seth Jones, Justin Abdelkader and Olli Jokinen. Yevenko also played with NHL talent on his own team – Nashville Predators forward Sergei Kostitsyn and his brother, former Montreal Canadien Andrei Kostitsyn, skated for Belarus, as well as New York Islanders forward Mikhail Grabovski.

Yevenko was happy to get the chance to play with and against world class players.

“It’s always good to measure yourself up against the elite players in the world,” Yevenko said. “You don’t get that opportunity very often.”

Besides his performance on the ice, the World Championship held special importance to the 23-year-old. The tournament was the first time Yevenko’s parents had seen him play since he was 16.

“It was really, really great,” Yevenko said. “My parents hadn’t seen me play live in the longest time.

“With them being there, the atmosphere of the sold out crowd and wearing your national jersey, it was something special.”

His offseason wasn’t done, however. In July, Yevenko was invited to and participated in the Boston Bruins player development camp along with over 20 other Bruins prospects and invitees. It was a chance to showcase his abilities and also to hone his skills against top prospects in the Bruins organization.

“(They were) long days,” Yevenko said of the five-day camp. “We did a lot of skating, testing, off-ice stuff. A lot of learning, too. That was the whole premise of the camp, to teach and really develop players who came in there.”

Like his experience at the IIHF tournament, Yevenko said the camp represented an opportunity to see how he stacked up against the talented group he was a part of.

“To play against and with players who are considered to be top prospects is a very good experience,” Yevenko said. “It helps you evaluate yourself.”

Working to Improve

Throughout his tenure in Amherst, Yevenko has always worked hard to make himself a better player, and it’s something that has stood out to coaches and teammates.

“He’s evolved every year into a better, stronger, more complete player,” UMass captain Troy Power said. “He works tirelessly on his game and has the NHL attitude of getting better every day and working hard.”

Busillo also praised Yevenko’s work ethic.

“He works hard day in and day out. After offseasons, he always comes back better, stronger and faster. He’s got a lot of respect from his teammates. He comes to the rink every day ready to go.”

Power thinks that Yevenko’s experiences this offseason have helped him as well, noting the defenseman looks more confident coming into his senior year.

“His confidence with the puck seems a lot better this year than it has in the past,” he said. “His passes are crisp, and his footwork has gotten night and day better (over the years).”

Power continued: “He’s done a great job of continuing to work on his feet and movement as a big guy, and that’s been a great benefit for him.”

Skating – along with communication and puck skills – was something Yevenko said he’s focused on improving throughout his years with the Minutemen. Micheletto also noted that improved conditioning has helped Yevenko over the past few seasons.

A Senior Leader

With nine incoming freshman and 15 underclassmen in total for UMass, Yevenko is being counted on to be a leader on and off the ice, something the senior is adjusting to.

“It takes a while to get used to,” Yevenko said. “It seems like you came in here a freshman yesterday, and now you’re a senior. It puts more responsibility on your shoulders.”

Micheletto said Yevenko’s role as a leader was important with all the underclassmen still getting used to the system this year.

“(His) leadership is going to be counted on,” Micheletto said. “You can’t just have Troy Power being the one guy trying to lead the team.”

As one of just three upperclassmen on defense, Yevenko knows that other players are looking up to him.

“I try to lead by example for our young group of freshmen and do the right things,” Yevenko said. “You have that thought in the back of our head of always trying to be the leader you want to be led by.”

Part of being a leader is being vocal, and by all accounts Yevenko is a strong communicator on the ice. Micheletto praised him repeatedly for facilitating communication with his teammates.

“He’s really vocal, and the guys thrive off that,” Micheletto said. “He never allows guys to not be in communication on the ice.”

Looking Ahead

Yevenko is optimistic about the upcoming season, and saw a lot of good things out of his teammates in the preseason.

“I really like how our team has improved communication with each other,” Yevenko said. “We have a good work ethic – a really good work ethic – and a great attitude.”

He also spoke of the dedication and focus of the team on one thing – hockey.

“Everyone realizes that they’re here for a reason and hockey is a priority,” he said. “Once you have that in place, everything else is going to take care of itself.”

Friday night against Boston University, the puck finally drops on the 2014-15 season. It’s a moment that’s been building for awhile for Yevenko. The Terriers boast an impressive lineup of scoring forwards and future NHL players and are sure to put a lot of pressure on the UMass defense.

In other words, it’s a perfect matchup for Yevenko.

Ross Gienieczko can be reached at [email protected] and followed @RossGien.