Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Why you should be optimistic about UMass hockey this season

(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Daily Collegian)

There are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about the Massachusetts hockey team entering this season.

Top goal scorer Frank Vatrano is gone, signed away to a two-way deal with the Boston Bruins. He made a good impression during preseason play and will start the year in Providence. Brandon Montour also left the program just months after his arrival. The Anaheim Ducks’ second round pick spent a fleeting half-season with the Minutemen and tore up the Hockey East with 20 points in 21 games before bolting to the Anaheim organization. Longtime defenseman Oleg Yevenko graduated and signed a two-way deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets as well.

On top of all the player departures, UMass has struggled in goal and on defense for a couple seasons now.

These issues have hung over the Minutemen all offseason, and at first glance it’s hard to move past them. Other Hockey East coaches clearly can’t, as UMass was picked to finish last in the preseason coaches’ poll.

But none of them have gotten a close-up look at the recruiting class that fourth-year coach John Micheletto has brought to Amherst for the 2015-2016 campaign.

There are four defensemen entering their rookie seasons with the Minutemen, and their size immediately stands out. The smallest of the bunch is Burnaby, British Colombia native Carmine Buono, standing a mere 6-foot-2 and weighing in at 195 pounds. The biggest is 6-foot-3, 200-pound William Lagesson, a fourth round draft pick of the Edmonton Oilers. In between are 6-foot-3 Callum Fryer and another NHL draft pick in Ivan Chukarov (also 6-foot-3), a seventh round selection of the Buffalo Sabres.

Micheletto likes their size but also praised their mobility. In fact, the first thing he noticed about all of them was their ability to move without the puck, something he places a lot of value in with the size of UMass’ arena and the speed of Hockey East opponents.

Although the Minutemen also have three returning defensemen, all four freshmen are expected to be a vital part of the defensive rotation. Depth across the blue line has Micheletto excited about the upcoming season, and if the foursome live up to their hype, UMass will have one of its strongest defensive groups in several years – a welcome sight for sure.

Micheletto and his staff have also addressed another area of need – goaltending. Nic Renyard enters his freshman year as reigning Alberta Junior Hockey League most valuable player and was also honored as the Canadian Junior Hockey League National Player of the Year (past winners include NHL players Kyle Turris, Dany Heatley and Paul Kariya). Renyard won 30 games in 43 appearances with the Okotoks Oilers, posting a save percentage of .924 along the way.

He replaces graduating senior Steve Mastalerz, who split time with current sophomore Henry Dill in goal last year. Micheletto likes to rotate his goaltenders, at least to start the season. The opening night starter is still unannounced, but Renyard started the team’s exhibition game against Dalhousie Saturday night and didn’t allow a goal in one period of play. Even if he doesn’t end up starting opening night, he will have opportunities to play early and often.

Then there’s freshman forward Austin Plevy, who scored 92 points in 56 games with the Brooks Bandits of the AJHL last season. Originally committed to Merrimack, the 5-foot-10 winger brings top-line skill to the Minutemen and is expected to start the year on the first line with leading scorer Dennis Kravchenko.

Joseph Widmar, Kurt Keats and Ryan Badger are also freshmen forwards that should provide immediate contributions across the lineup for UMass.

It’s a solid recruiting class assembled by Micheletto and staff, and one they hope will bring the kind of depth the Minutemen need to be successful with their aggressive, up-tempo style of play.

In fact, that’s something Micheletto is counting on. There hasn’t been a group better equipped to play his style since he arrived in Amherst three years ago, and he’s spent the large part of his tenure turning over a roster left to him by former coach Don Cahoon. Now, as much as ever, the team is full of young, talented and offensive-minded players. That alone should have UMass fans excited.

Nobody is saying the Minutemen will finish near the top of the conference. The Hockey East is filled with too many good teams – including three top-10 nationally-ranked squads – and a young UMass squad will certainly take some lumps along the way.

But it’s not unreasonable to think the Minutemen will finish better than their last place prognosis entering 2015.

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

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