Massachusetts enjoyed a breakthrough season last year, earning its first NCAA tournament bid and then making the most of it with a first-round win over Clarkson, 1-0. Along the way, the Minutemen secured playoff home ice, swept Maine in the Hockey East quarterfinals and fell to New Hampshire only after taking the game to double-overtime.
The challenge, however, will be to maintain that level of success following the departure of several key players, most notably goaltender Jon Quick, a second-team All-Hockey East selection, and leading scorer Chris Capraro.
“The biggest thing with this program is to sustain a level of play that people look at and say is pretty high,” UMass coach Don “Toot” Cahoon says. “Three or four years ago, we had a nice little run with Tommy Pck and Nick Kuiper, but we knew that there wasn’t the foundation in place. We had some really good high-end players, we got good goaltending from Gabe Winer and over a short period of time we could make some things happen, but over the long period of time we knew there were still holes.
“We’re hoping now that we’ve filled some of those holes and that we’ve elevated the whole level of play within the program. It’s a tough thing to do in this league because every other coach is trying to do the same thing, and they’re all working like the dickens to make sure they have good players and have a good culture. So it’s a real challenge but hopefully a fun challenge.”
Cahoon isn’t about to project whether his team, holes filled and all, can duplicate last season’s success.
“It’s not practical to think about where we’re going to shake out,” he says. “That’s a big mistake. I like the foundation of the team, the makeup of the team, but it’s what we do day-to-day [that matters].
“If we try to take last season and say we want to be able to [repeat] what we did, that’s swallowing a whole season into one statement. We’re much better off just dealing with the day-to-day process. At the end of the year, we might be able to say, ‘Hey, this is what we’ve become,’ and it might measure up pretty well with last year and it might not. We certainly are working to make sure that [it does measure up].”
The biggest question mark, of course, is how well the Minutemen can replace their biggest difference-maker, Jon Quick, in goal. Sophomore Dan Meyers only factored in three decisions last year. He’ll battle with freshmen Paul Dainton and Matt Gedman for the job.
“Danny Myers has got the leg up initially just because he has the benefit of being around, seeing it, feeling it and understanding it,” Cahoon says. “Quite frankly, in limited time he did a very good job under very difficult circumstances. Based on that minimal experience, he’s going to be given every opportunity to show what he can do.
“The two young kids will work to try to augment his playing time and make this a position by committee initially with the ultimate goal of one guy really stepping up and doing it.
“So the question marks are unanswered, but I don’t think we have a negative feeling about it.”
There aren’t any such question marks on the blue line where all seven defensemen return. Captain Mike Kostka and assistant David Leaderer are the leaders, but Justin Braun also made quite an impression last year, earning a berth on the league All-Rookie team. Although Quick got most of the notoriety, this group had a lot to do with the team’s number four defensive ranking in league games.
“We’re in a much better place defensively as a team than we were going into last year,” Cahoon says. “I’ve got six defensemen with a lot of game experience coming back. I’m hoping that is going to help us be a little bit more stingy and allow us to break the puck out of the zone a little bit more effectively than we initially did last year.
“I like our depth, I like our experience and I like the personality makeup of that group.”
Up front, there are holes to fill left behind by Capraro, Mark Matheson, Kevin Jarman and Matt Anderson, four of the top seven scorers. Returning are: Cory Quirk (31 points), P.J. Fenton (25), Will Ortiz (21), Chris Davis (19) and Alex Berry (13).
“What we do have is pretty good team speed,” Cahoon says. “We just have to learn to be positionally sound because when you have speed you can start running around and it can become helter-skelter.
“If we’re a solid team positionally and if we move our feet pretty well, that can help us be a better defensive team as well as a team that gets on the puck. We’re hoping that we can build a style of play that allows us to have that tight defensive make-up but yet can transition into a team that can create some offense as well.
“We’ve got a good influx of freshmen and also a foundation of players who have been there that should allow us to at least be competitive up front and be challenging.”