Season Preview: UMass-Amherst Minutemen

Hockey East’s only new coach, Don Cahoon, arrives from Princeton, where he took a difficult recruiting situation and brought that program to heights never before achieved. (Among other notable accomplishments, Princeton won its first-ever ECAC title and made its inaugural NCAA tournament appearance in 1997-98.) UMass-Amherst fans are hoping that Cahoon can work that same magic at their school.

Cahoon has already made his mark by changing many of the little things associated with the program, ranging from uniforms to locker rooms to even swapping the team benches at home so that the Minutemen will be in front of the student section.

“College coaches in general try to focus on these things because that’s their identity with their program,” says Cahoon. “We’re trying to create a culture around our team and the culture sometimes is most affected by some of the littlest things.

"We’re trying to create a culture around our team and the culture sometimes is most affected by some of the littlest things."

— UMass-Amherst head coach Don Cahoon

“So the type of uniform we put on these kids will represent my personality and what I think I want the program to represent. It’s going to be a classic, very conservative type of look. We’re doing things with the locker room to create a new look.

“We’re changing our benches, flip-flopping the sides of the ice that we’re going to sit on. There are a lot of reasons why we’re doing that. One would be just to do it differently. Another one would be to create a fan base with the student body, to make a connection with our program and the student body so that they’re working for us and not necessarily just against the other team.

“And hopefully it will create more of an environment that’s conducive to bringing kids and families and all the people in the Pioneer Valley throughout the Springfield area and the Amherst area to UMass hockey games.”

Cahoon inherits a team that achieved some success in past years by playing a predominantly trapping style. At Princeton, Cahoon’s teams were known for playing a more wide-open, skating game.

“We’re trying to develop skill,” says Cahoon. “In order for me to promote skill, we’ve got to maybe open it up a little bit. At the same time, [UMass’s] ability to be able to play some very good teams last year close and, in a couple of instances, have some success against those teams was due in part to their strong commitment to the trap and some of the things related to the trap.

“We’re going to try to use a little bit of both schemes. We’re going to open it up from time to time. We’re going to be a skating team, maybe a bumping team and try to be able to be an effective special teams type of team. We’ll look to have a positive net result in special teams.

“So there could be two periods of high tempo or there could be two periods of slowing it down and then we can go at someone on more of a high-tempo basis. I think that’s going to play in our favor because we’re going to be a little bit more unpredictable.”

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The forwards who’ll be making these stylistic changes are led by Jeff and Tim Turner, but as a group contain many question marks. The Turners are the only returning players who topped the 20-point plateau last year.

“We walked into the situation here knowing that the Turners were pivotal, especially Jeff with his experience,” says Cahoon. “Timmy just had a great freshman year and I think he responded to playing with Jeff. I see no reason why he wouldn’t continue to develop and be a good player.

“There are a couple of other players in our program [who could make an impact this year]. Darcy King is another young guy who’s clever in the middle. I know that [assistant coach] Bill Gilligan speaks highly of having worked with him. The unfortunate part is that Darcy is out with a foot injury and might miss the first couple of weeks.

“There’s a young guy that didn’t play very much last year, J.R. Zavisza, that has really caught my attention and has been maybe one of our best players in the preseason. I’m hoping that with a fresh look and a new opportunity, people like J.R. will respond and play up to their full potential.

“There’s a young guy, Brad Nizwantowski, who didn’t play a lot last year either. He has good game sense and seems like he’s ready to step in and fill a role and be depended on on a day in and day out basis.

“We’ve got other players like Jay Shaw, who’s a senior, and Kris Wallis, who’s another senior. Those kids seem to be real passionate about the game and seem to put the effort and the energy into working at their game. That’s all I can ask of these kids right now.

“I still have a lot to learn about a lot of these kids, [but] they’re going to find a place in the lineup. They’re going to be called upon to fill crucial roles.”

Although there were few departures from last year’s squad and therefore little scholarship money to offer recruits, the Minutemen will have three freshmen forwards who Cahoon feels can contribute.

“Scottie Horvath, out of Avon Old Farms School, was a top player on the prep school championship team,” says Cahoon. “He’s the type of guy who might be able to play some on a power play [even though] he’ll be going through the rigors of making the transition from secondary schoolboy hockey to Division-I Hockey East hockey.

“Another boy, Michael Warner, was a teammate of his. It was a real surprise that he was going to be available to us at the end. Mike is doing a great job for us. He’s kind of a role player, a real good skater who we can look to on the penalty kill unit. He plays very aggressive, so he’s certainly going to get his playing time.

“Then we have a third boy, Thomas Poeck, who just came in from Austria. He’s going to be taking a regular shift for us. The speed of the game will be problematic initially, but he has great hockey sense. Within a short time he should be a real good player in our league.”

All of last year’s defensemen are back, led by junior Tony Soderholm and sophomore Sammy Jalkanen. Cahoon sees promise elsewhere among the blueliners, too.

“[Soderholm and Jalkanen] have exceptional skills,” says Cahoon. “They have great competitiveness. They demonstrate a level of confidence that you need to play that position.

“We have a couple of other guys who have experience. Maybe they haven’t had the same level of success as Sammy and Tony, but they have the experience and hopefully we can get them to play within themselves and be able to fill roles and do a very respectable job. We don’t want people to play out of their ability.

“I have a young guy, Justin Shaw, who’s going to be a junior this year. He hasn’t played much at all, but he’s been terrific in preseason. We’ve tried to get the idea that less is more with him. He has a great presence. He skates real well. He reads situations. He’s not going to do a lot with the puck, so don’t have him do a lot with the puck. I’m really delighted with his progress and a few others along the same line.”

Between the pipes may well be the strongest overall position on the team. Markus Helanen has had considerable success in the past and his backup, Mike Johnson, has also shined on occasion.

“Markus is a pivotal player in our program,” says Cahoon.

Nonetheless, Cahoon doesn’t want to be starting from scratch in goal next year after Helanen graduates. As a result, Johnson, a junior, will see action, too.

“It’s very important that we have a balance and that the team is sure that they can succeed with either Markus or Johnson in the net,” says Cahoon. “I think it’s only fitting that we go ahead and try to develop both of them.

“Markus will clearly be given every opportunity to be the go-to guy, but Michael has to be brought along. Going into Wisconsin [to start the season], it’s clear to me that they’re both going to play. Then we’ll just take it each day as it comes.”

Cahoon doesn’t have any specific expectations he’s set for this team.

“It’s very difficult for me to assess where we’ll be at the end of the year,” he says. “I haven’t been around these kids and been in the heat of battle with them to know how they’re going to respond to adversity and handle the awkward moments.

“My charge is to make sure that we’re a much better team at the end of the year than we were at the beginning of the year. We want to make sure that this program is moving forward on a day-to-day basis in a positive manner.”