Massachusetts Daily Collegian

UMass looks to be more competitive in Hockey East behind youth

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Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Daily Collegian

(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Daily Collegian)

A full season of competition in the Hockey East is one of the toughest challenges in college sports.

The 22-game conference schedule is grinding. Early in the season, it’s hard to see an end in sight. Weekend series are spread across New England (plus, somehow, Indiana) and stretched over a four-month period.

Parity is close. If the gap between first place and last is tight, than the margin between fourth place and eighth is almost non-existent. The competition is cutthroat, bred by elite talent produced in the northeastern United States or imported from Ontario and Quebec in hockey-crazed Canada.

National powerhouses like Boston College and Boston University attract the cream of the crop of players looking to play the college game, but there’s more than enough to feed everyone. BC and BU boast an impressive 10 national championships between them (five each), but schools like Maine and Providence have also been crowned. Last year’s national title game was an all-Hockey East affair featuring the Terriers and Friars, with Providence earning its first championship.

There are plenty of other strong programs in the conference. UMass Lowell has developed into a team consistently found in the national rankings. New Hampshire is a frequent entrant into the NCAA tournament. And it’s never wise to sleep on schools like Northeastern, relative newcomer Notre Dame and Vermont, who all boast numerous NHL alumni and also regularly earn national rankings and tournament consideration.

Even tiny Merrimack College, with the smallest enrollment of any Division I college hockey school in the country, finds a way to produce competitive teams.

And then there’s Massachusetts. The Minutemen have been tossed around from time to time by the giants of the conference. And they haven’t gained the national success of other teams; UMass’ lone NCAA tournament appearance was in 2007.

There have been some struggles in the program’s history and down years that are ugly to look back on. Some schools might be driven to find another conference, or even consider dropping into Division II. After all, hockey is not a cheap sport to finance, and there are only 60 schools in the country that field Division I teams.

But backing down doesn’t fit the mold of any Hockey East school. If any program doubted itself or wavered in their commitment to playing top-level hockey, they would have been gone long ago.

Every year is a clean slate. National recognition and program history don’t matter once the puck is dropped. Every team, from defending national champion Providence to second-year Hockey East member Connecticut, needs to prove itself during every game.

The Minutemen will need to prove themselves more than others though. Picked to finish last in the Hockey East preseason coach’s poll, UMass will be a frequent underdog to start the year.

Led by fourth-year coach John Micheletto, UMass enters its 22nd season in the Hockey East after an offseason full of changes in and around the program. Top offensive weapons Frank Vatrano and Brandon Montour are gone, signed by the Boston Bruins and Anaheim Ducks respectively to two-way contracts. Both will start the season in the AHL, and together they represented roughly 18 percent of last year’s scoring.

Depth Chart

A class of seven seniors also graduated, including captain Troy Power and alternate captains Zack LaRue and Oleg Yevenko. On a larger scale, the University hired a new athletic director in Ryan Bamford, and the first year under new management can often be a nervous one.

Through it all, Micheletto and his staff have assembled a recruiting class they hope will breathe energy into the program that finished 11-23-2 (5-16-1 Hockey East) last year. The standouts of the group are a pair of 6-foot-3 defensemen in William Lagesson and Ivan Chukarov. Both have already been drafted into the NHL with Lagesson taken by the Edmonton Oilers in the 2014 fourth round and Chukarov by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2015 seventh round.

“I think our freshmen defensemen all bring a really exciting element – guys that are big, but the thing that first attracted us to them is, they’re mobile,” Micheletto said. “With the size of the arena we play on and the speed of our league opponents, that mobility is a real key.”

Freshman goaltender Nic Renyard also joins the team as reigning Alberta Junior Hockey League MVP and Canadian Junior Hockey League Player of the Year, and forward Austin Plevy brings offensive skill that will see him start the year on the first line.

While high-end offensive players like Vatrano and Montour are gone, other contributors remain. Sophomore forward Dennis Kravchenko led the team with 33 points last season (10 goals, 23 assists) and senior Shane Walsh led all returning players with 14 goals.

Last year’s second line of Steven Iacobellis, Ray Pigozzi and Patrick Lee is also back intact. The trio combined for 62 points last year and 17 goals. Iacobellis, a junior, was named captain prior to the season.

Sophomore goaltender Henry Dill returns as well after splitting time with Steve Mastalerz last year, and he should find playing time early in the year as he and Renyard battle for starts.

“I would anticipate that those guys would have real healthy competition and both see significant playing time in the early going,” Micheletto said.

Coaching a young team with 19 underclassmen, Micheletto will have his work cut out. But after two consecutive big years of recruiting, the Minutemen are deeper and more suited to play his system than any team he’s had during his tenure. Micheletto wants to be aggressive and play up-tempo, and he thinks he’s found the group to do it with.

“Certainly, the guys we’ve been trying to recruit are more apt to the vision of how we can be successful in this league. So we’re getting closer to that picture,” Micheletto said. “I think up and down the lineup you’ll see guys who can contribute and chip in more regularly.”

UMass won its exhibition game against Dalhousie 4-0 last Saturday, but its real season starts Friday night at Colorado College. The Minutemen travel to Colorado Springs for a pair of games to begin the year, while their home opener at Mullins Center is a week from Friday night against Sacred Heart.

Hockey East play begins Oct. 23 against New Hampshire, and UMass’ first home-and-home of the season is against UConn Nov. 6-7. Highlights of the second half of the calendar include a trip to BU Jan. 7, a home contest against BC Jan. 22 and a season-ending home-and-home against Providence Feb. 26-27.

There won’t be much room for error – there never is in Hockey East. If the Minutemen struggle in net and defensively like past seasons, it could be another long year in Amherst.

But heading into 2015-16, UMass is optimistic it’s put together a team that’s capable of more than a last place finish, a team that can find itself right in the middle of a very crowded and competitive conference.

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

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