Massachusetts finished only two points out of third place in Hockey East last year, but as the seventh-place team it drew eventual national champion Boston College in the quarterfinals. It was two-and-out for the Minutemen and their season was over.
The offseason was worse as their biggest guns — James Marcou, Casey Wellman and Matt Irwin –turned pro early. The naysayers most certainly talked about the program regressing to square one.
“I don’t think we’re anything close to square one,” UMass coach Don “Toot” Cahoon says. “Square one was a pretty limited edition. Our top-end kids were pretty good, but we didn’t have enough of them to compete.
“What we have now is just a lot of inexperienced players and a lot of guys that are very young, arguably the youngest team in college hockey with 13 freshmen.
“There’s a void. But I love the character of the kids, and that’s just not a coach spewing those words for the sake of spewing them. We’ve got great kids in the locker room and I’ve got to believe that’s going to help them grow.”
Paul Dainton will act as the team’s anchor, both as goaltender and team captain.
“I [wasn’t] thinking I wanted my goaltender to be my captain,” Cahoon says. “But we went through some leadership programs and it was unquestionable to everyone that the guy they wanted to hear from in the locker room and the guy that has the best presence on the team is Paul. We’re going to be counting on him in a big way.”
Michael Marcou and Doug Kublin will lead a group of blueliners that could often include four freshmen, most notably Joel Hanley and Conor Allen.
“I don’t have anybody that’s going to play 33-35 minutes like Jason Braun did,” Cahoon says. “But I’ve got Michael Marcou, who’s been a real competitor for us and I think is going to assume a major role.
“I have Dougie Kublin, a senior who’s been more of a role player but will assume a larger role, especially on the penalty kill because of his experience.
“And then I’ve got this group of young players who haven’t seen much action. They’re going to be thrown into the heat of the battle. We have four freshmen defensemen that we think will contribute, but they’re still freshmen defensemen. I love their talent, I love their character, but it’s an unknown.”
There’s plenty of scoring up front to replace as well. It doesn’t help that Michael Lecomte underwent surgery and won’t be available until January.
“We’ve got T.J. Syner, who’s been an elite player for us, and Danny Hobbs, who is on the verge of becoming an elite player,” Cahoon says. “They will be two of the go-to guys.
“There’s some unknowns, guys that have been on the periphery, third- and fourth-line guys that are going to need to make steps, guys like Mark Concannon, Brian Keane and Shawn Saunders.
“We’re really relying on the young kids, especially in the center position. That’s the unknown.”