The days of UMass being one of the perennial favorites to finish in the Hockey East cellar are now a tiny speck in the rear view mirror. The program, resurrected in 1993 after a 14 year absence, has progressed well past its infancy. It now approaches its teenage years a long way from maturity but developing impressive muscle tone and a to-be-respected reputation around the neighborhood.
Two years ago, the Minutemen experienced their breakout season, finishing sixth in the league before advancing to the FleetCenter in the playoffs where they put a semifinal scare into a New Hampshire team destined for the national championship game.
Following a third place finish last year, they once again went toe-to-toe with a foe that would eventually play in the NCAA title tilt. This time it came in a triple-overtime masterpiece with Maine in the Hockey East championship game, one which could have put UMass into the NCAAs for the first time.
“That experience should be nothing but a positive for us,” coach Don “Toot” Cahoon says. “We’ve been in some big games. We know what the mindset going into the game is. We know what the discipline of being able to survive in those types of game settings is all about.
“That should play to our favor, but it’s got to come back to what we do on a day-to-day basis. How we work, how we train, how we view each other, how we are able to take whatever talent level we have and make it function as a team. That’s going to determine whether we are in the mix or not.”
The steady progression up the league ladder gets a lot tougher this year. Consider it the hockey equivalent of a teenager’s voice changing, complexion erupting, and hormones exploding. The departure of several of the key components of UMass’s success in recent years has left major holes to fill. Thomas Pöck and Nick Kuiper will no longer be patrolling the blue line, Pöck won’t be quarterbacking the breakout and power play, and top-scoring forward Greg Mauldin left early for the pros.
Cahoon says, “We’re going to need all the guys that I refer to as ‘my well-seasoned veterans’ that maybe weren’t the stars in the league but they played a lot of minutes and they’ve been in big games, We are going to need them all to step up their play and play with a level of consistency and confidence that allows them to succeed. It’s going to be an interesting year for us. It’s a wait-and-see, day-by-day growth and development process.”
The biggest question mark comes on the blueline where the departures of Pöck and Kuiper leave mega-holes. Pöck, an All-American, would have been this writer’s selection last year as the league’s Most Valuable Player. His unique offensive skills — he led the team with 16 goals and 41 points — will be impossible to replace.
Marvin Degon and Jeff Lang rank as the top returnees and will be supplemented by newcomers Paul Lynch (a transfer from Maine) and freshman Michael Kostka.
“In my estimation, Thomas was the number one offensive defenseman and Kuiper was as good a defensive defenseman as there was in the league,” Cahoon says. “It’s a huge void. We’ve got a couple young kids coming in that we think are good players, but we can’t possibly fill the voids of those two departing seniors.
“We’re going to need some of our experienced players that were just getting minimal minutes in the past to be able to step it up and take some of those minutes on and fill some of that void. So it’s going to be an exercise in committee work. We’re not going to be able to get it done with any one player.”
Which runs counter to what will happen in the UMass goal where one player, Gabe Winer, took firm hold of the position as a freshman and has never let go. Winer surprised many when he played in 31 of 37 games in his rookie season and continued with 34 more last year.
“I think Gabe was a surprise to everyone else,” Cahoon says. “We recruited him with the idea that he could play at this level and be successful. I don’t know that we knew that he was going to play 31 games as a freshman — I can concur with [outsiders] there — but he certainly has the ability to play.
“We think that he’s as good of a goaltender as the best goalies in the league. He doesn’t get the notoriety of a Jimmy Howard. [BC’s] Cory Schneider is coming in with a lot of press and deservedly so. There are a few other goaltenders that have done a real good job around the league. But Gabe is one of the upper echelon guys.”
The netminding depth chart appeared to be only one deep last year, but when a back injury felled Winer prior to the Hockey East playoffs, Tim Warner stepped in and played very well until Winer returned for the title game.
“Timmy elevated his play when he needed to and he put himself in a position where he should be able to complement Gabe in a big way,” Cahoon says. “We also have a couple of other guys that look like they have the ability to play at this level so our depth in this position is better than it’s been in previous years. But Gabe and Timmy will be the go-to people. That will play itself out as the season gets going and we get into more games.”
Mauldin’s early departure was a broadside to this year’s plans, but Matt Anderson returns after being sidelined all of last year. Anderson totaled 31 points as a freshman. He’ll be one of the offensive leaders along with Stephen Werner, who fell from 38 points as a rookie to 24 last year.
“It’s going to be a different look,” Cahoon says. “Mauldin was a pure goal scorer. He scored 20 some odd goals in a season and was really a big-time producer on the power play. You’re not going to fill that void again with one player. Hopefully a host of kids will improve their production and make up for that void.
“Steve Werner came here with a good deal of experience [with the US National Team] and he’s a big game performer. Obviously we’ll need him to be at his best.
“Getting Matty Anderson back is a huge strength in that he helps people be productive because he’s such a great distributor of the puck. He quarterbacks the power play. He’s our best faceoff guy and he’s a terrific penalty killer. That’s a big plus for us.”
It’s doubtful that UMass can duplicate last year’s third-place finish, but the Minutemen have proven their doubters wrong many times in recent years. Don’t count them out yet.