Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Dynamic freshmen duo joins UMass defense with high expectations

By Jason Kates

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When Brandon Montour arrived in Amherst last year and took the Hockey East by storm, there was excitement that he would be a part of a group of defensemen that could grow into a top unit for the Massachusetts hockey team.

PointProduction

(Collegian Graphics)

But when the season concluded, Montour decided to leave the program after only one year to sign a contract with the Anaheim Ducks, who drafted him in the second round of the 2014 National Hockey League Entry Draft.

His departure, as well as the graduation of Oleg Yevenko, left two gaping holes in the UMass defense and plenty of questions about who would be their replacements.

Enter freshmen William Lagesson and Ivan Chukarov.

The pair of first-year defensemen, who were both drafted by NHL teams, will be depended on to form a formidable duo on the blue line to give the Minutemen some much-needed assistance on the defensive end, an area where UMass has struggled in recent memory

For both guys, coming to UMass was the choice they felt would be best for them.

“I personally thought it would be a good chance for me to play a lot coming in as a freshman,” Chukarov said.  “When I got their depth chart, I thought I fit in pretty nicely, especially with Will coming in. Coach (John Micheletto) just said it’d be a good fit and I took it. I’m really glad I did.”

“I visited here and I liked it, there’s a bunch of good guys here,” Lagesson added.

Besides their notable size (both players measure at 6-foot-3), each player brings a wealth of experience to the table.

 

NHL AND BEYOND

In 2014, Lagesson was back home in Gothenburg, Sweden, watching the NHL Entry Draft when the fourth round began.

After three rounds and 90 picks, he didn’t have to sweat out the waiting any longer, as the Edmonton Oilers selected him with the 91st pick of the draft.

“It was amazing,” Lagesson said. “It was a dream come true. I wasn’t there, but I was watching back home and it was amazing to see my name get on the screen for Edmonton, so it was nice.”

Lagesson also brings with him the experience of competing at some of the highest levels of international play. He played in the 2015 World Junior Championships where he was a part of Team Sweden, making it all the way to the bronze medal game before falling to Slovakia 4-2.

He reflected on his time representing his country, calling it a “cool experience.”

“There were a lot of fans watching the games and there’s a bunch of good guys on the Swedish team,” Lagesson said. “I got close with them and still talk to a lot of them today, so it was amazing and one of the biggest and most fun experiences I’ve ever been a part of in my life.”

While Lagesson was drafted in 2014, the experience for Chukarov was a bit more recent, getting selected 182nd overall by the Buffalo Sabres in this June’s Entry Draft. With this opportunity, he got to play alongside Jack Eichel, the former Boston University standout and second overall pick in the same draft by the Sabres.

“It was really special,” Chukarov said. “I was pretty excited, especially in that kind of organization that’s going in the right direction and going up with it. They treated me really well when I was there and I really like their player development staff.”

This past summer, Chukarov was able to head up to Buffalo, where he participated in the Sabres’ player development camp. There, he learned a lot about what it would take to compete at this level, including the necessity to be quicker and smarter.

“It was definitely a faster pace, so you have to make quicker decisions and not over handle the puck a lot,” he said.

Micheletto acknowledged his satisfaction with both players being selected by NHL teams, but is focused on what they can do for his team, starting in 2015.

“Obviously I’m most worried about how much they can contribute for us,” he said. “We want to develop players who can continue to play hockey for a long time as long as they’re capable and willing.

“I’m glad that they were honored with that, and their play was certainly deserving of that honor,” he later added. “What we’re trying to do is obviously contribute to a championship team while they’re here and then I’ll be happy to deliver them to whatever NHL team they want to go to at that point.”

 

IMPOSING FIGURES

It’s easy to take a look at Lagesson and Chukarov and make assumptions based on their size, but Micheletto believes there is much more to their games than their physique.

“It’s funny, you look at all our new guys and I think they’re all over (6-foot-2),” he said. “But the thing that attracted us to all of them, Ivan and William particularly is that they’re mobile.”

He added that to play in a conference like the Hockey East and fit into the Minutemen’s system, “mobility is a real premium in terms of the skill set that we need for our guys to have coming in.”

Alec Zabrecky/Daily Collegian

Making the transition to the college level of play always takes some time, but Micheletto believes both freshmen have been handling it well.

“I think William with the international competition the transition might come more quickly for him,” he said. “He’s played a lot of hockey in the last couple of years both between Sweden as well as over here in the USHL and the international game.”

“Ivan has done a nice job coming from the North American Hockey League,” Micheletto added. “He took a big step this summer with a lot of the training he did and the development camp at Buffalo helped him be ready for the start of the season.”

 

FORMING A TRIO

Ben Gallacher, UMass senior defenseman, noticed the raw talent that both players possessed right away. He recognized the high amount of offensive instinct Chukarov has, while calling Lagesson “one of the smarter hockey guys I’ve played with.”

“They’re both drafted guys with high-end skill in the (defensive) zone, and I think they’re really mature for their age,” Gallacher said. “I think they’ve really bought into what the coaches have been talking about and I think they’ll continue to grow. They’re a really good fit here.”

Gallacher, who was drafted in the fourth round of the 2010 draft by the Florida Panthers, said he’s already gotten a chance to share his experiences with them.

“I think we talked a lot about development camp,” he said. “It’s interesting to hear what different teams are doing at different camps. I think (Chukarov’s) camp in Buffalo was pretty intense with the scrimmage, and I think that’s a good learning experience for everyone, seeing a high-end pace in the summer which gets you prepared for October.”

In a group of defensemen that includes four freshmen, Gallacher will be looked at to act as a mentor for the underclassmen, which is a role Micheletto feels he has no problem taking up.

“I don’t think it necessarily needs to be the term ‘step up’ for Ben because he’s got that sort of personality and got those sorts of traits in him already,” Micheletto said. “He’s very outgoing, very inclusive and has done a great job not only with the defensemen but all of the young guys.”

Because he is approaching 100 career games played, Gallacher knows the anxiety the freshman duo is going through as they wait to play in the first game of the season.

“Obviously these guys are waiting to get their first one under their belt next weekend,” he said. “I think one thing is that as young as we are, the maturity level of the guys is really high emotionally and socially. I’ve just been trying to encourage these guys to play hockey, have some fun and play their game, and I think they’ve been doing that so far.”

With the season set to begin Friday in Colorado, Chukarov believes he and Lagesson could develop into a solid pairing for the next four years.

“I think we balance each other out pretty well,” he said. “He’s kind of a stay-at-home defenseman and takes care of me if I’m in the rush. I can trust him and he’s pretty smart with the puck as well, so I feel like we’re going to feed off each other a lot this year.”

Jason Kates can be reached at [email protected] and followed @Jason_Kates.

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