Last year, Massachusetts experienced the typical regular season ups and downs before almost catching fire in the Hockey East quarterfinals. The Minutemen nearly pulled off a fourth trip to the Garden in seven years, losing to Northeastern in overtime of the third game.
They bring back 21 lettermen and would seemingly be poised to make a move in the standings if not for the competition.
Arguably, the strength of the team is on the blue line despite the losses of Topher Bevis and John Wessbecker. Second-team All-Hockey East selection Justin Braun provides prowess in both the defensive and offensive ends, as does Matt Irwin, who contributed 18 points as a freshman last year. Martin Nolet and Michael Marcou round out an impressive returning top four.
Darren Rowe’s skill with the puck make him the leading candidate of four freshmen to crack the lineup and perhaps even graduate to time on the power play.
“The fact that Braun and Nolet are back with us and didn’t opt to go [to the pros] is critical,” UMass coach Don “Toot” Cahoon says. “Matt Irwin had an early-season injury but was really a terrific freshman defensemen the second half of the year. Michael Marcou really grew in the course of the year.
“Those top four guys give us really a lot of dimension both offensively and defensively. They give us the skating that you need in that position.
“Keeping those first four guys healthy and keeping them involved in what we do day in and day out will be critical, but we do have depth.”
The Minutemen return both goaltenders. Paul Dainton (12-14-1, 2.45 GAA, .913 Sv%) shouldered about two-thirds of the load with Dan Meyers (4-6-2, 2.65, .911) handling the rest.
“That’s a position that’s capable of playing at a very high level for us,” Cahoon says. “Both those guys have done a good job from time to time but we’re also looking for that position to be more consistent on a game-in and game-out basis.
“In the end, we think that’s going to be a big part of our team playing at a higher level more often and allowing us maybe to be a great team instead of being a good team.
“Being a good team doesn’t get it done in this league. Being a good team just makes you a good college hockey team. It’s not going to get you to the postseason. It’s not going to get you to a championship. It’s not going to get you to the NCAAs.
“How do you become a great team? That starts in the goal.”
Up front, UMass lost Alex Berry and Cory Quirk, but return All-Hockey East selection James Marcou (15-32–47) and All-Rookie choice Casey Wellman (11-22–33). Bigger contributions will be needed from mid-teens point producers Chase Langeraap, T.J. Syner, Michael Lecomte, and Will Ortiz.
Cahoon has also constructed an all-rookie line consisting of Rocco Carso, medical redshirt speed demon David Bohem, and Eddie Olczyk, son of the NHL great.
“We skate pretty well; we get around the rink,” Cahoon says. “I like our team speed. I think Marcou and Wellman are as creative and quick and clever as any of the best forwards in college hockey.
“We’ve got a lot of people coming back up front. Like any coach, you want to see them improve their game. What have they done over the course of the spring and the summer to guarantee that their level of play is going to be better? That’s the question and that only can be answered on the ice under the bright lights.
“Because we’ve got so many returning players, the roles of the new players is going to be more diminished. Putting new players into a position to be impact players might not happen as soon as in other years.”
Cahoon isn’t making any predictions on how far this team can go.
“It’s all going to play itself out,” he says. “Everyone deserves where they’ve been picked to be. I like our team, but I’m not going to be surprised by the successes of any other team, either.
“We can talk about high expectations, about having good leadership and having returning veterans and goaltenders, but it doesn’t matter until we step on the ice.”