UNH hockey preview: Defense is the emphasis for Coach Dick Umile in his final year

  • UNH men’s hockey Coach Dick Umile meets with reporters during preseason media day on Thursday in Durham. JOEY WALKER / UNH Athletics

Monitor staff
Sunday, October 01, 2017

DURHAM – If you ask the players, expectations are high for the University of New Hampshire men’s hockey team this season. If you ask the coaches across Hockey East, expectations are lukewarm at best.

The Wildcats were picked to finish eighth out of 11 teams in the Hockey East preseason coaches’ poll last week. They were picked 10th before the 2016-17 season, a destiny that proved accurate at the end of the Hockey East tournament. UNH finished the season 15-20-5, 7-11-4 in conference games.

UNH was a top-four team offensively in Hockey East last season (3.14 goals per game), thanks in large part to the scoring power of Hobey Baker nominee Tyler Kelleher, who led the league in scoring with 24 goals and 23 assists in his senior year.

But the number that dragged the Wildcats to the bottom of the standings last season is the bigger focus heading into the new season. By allowing 3.50 goals per game, the Wildcats were 10th in the conference defensively. Danny Tirone finished the season with more saves (1,137) than any other netminder in the country, but that statistic is more of a condemnation of poor team defense than anything else.

When UNH Coach Dick Umile was asked on Thursday where the team is focused on improving this year, he didn’t miss a beat in saying the emphasis is on team defense.

“Obviously we didn’t do a great job with it last year, and hopefully we’re going to improve in that area,” said Umile, who enters his 28th and final season at the helm of the UNH men’s hockey program. “You need to be strong defensively to compete in the league that we play in.”

When Umile talks about defense, it’s not just the blueliners and the goaltending he’s referring to. The transition game has always been an emphasis for past UNH clubs, but the team will need to take extra care on defense this year.

That goes for the forwards, as well.

“A lot of it is coming back to the house, being responsible in your own zone,” said sophomore forward Patrick Grasso, third on the team with 20 goals last season behind Kelleher and returning senior Jason Salvaggio. “For the wingers, it’s being able to collapse and help out your offside ‘D.’ For the centers, it’s being that third defenseman basically. Everybody has their roles just like the defensemen do in the defensive zone. I think if we can get back and support each other – like you attack in numbers, if you can defend in numbers, that’s what you want.

“We don’t want to get away from our game,” Grasso added. “I think we’re a transitional team, we have some skill up front. We want to be able to take advantage of that and use our speed, but at the same time be responsible defensively.”

Matias Cleland, last year’s captain, anchored the blue line and was one of the team’s top shot blockers along with leader Cam Marks, who is back for his senior year. Dylan Maller, despite missing a handful of games with injury last year, will be another missing piece on the blue line since he graduated.

The emphasis on defense can be seen in the freshmen class that associate head coaches Mike Souza and Glenn Stewart recruited this year. At the top of that class is Max Gildon, a 6-foot-3, 191-pound defenseman picked in the third round by the Florida Panthers in last summer’s draft. He’s joined by Benton Maass, another freshman blueliner taken in this year’s draft in the sixth round by the Washington Capitals. Maass is 6-foot-2, 195 pounds out of Elk River, Minn. James Miller, a 6-foot-2, 190-pound defenseman out of Alberta, is the third defenseman of the freshmen class.

The increase in size along the blue line is notable.

“They’re all good size defensemen,” Umile said. “I expect them to play a lot. I think they’re skilled but they’ll find out what it’s like to play in Hockey East quickly.”

Gildon, Maass and Miller join UNH’s senior defensemen Marks, team captain Dylan Chanter and Richie Boyd, junior Matt Dawson, and sophomores Anthony Wyse and Nick Nonis.

Tirone has proven his capability to be the starting goaltender every weekend, Umile said. Improving the defense in front of him and limiting shots on net will be the key to staying competitive through all three periods of any game.

“I think he proved that he can play,” Umile said of Tirone, an alternate captain. “He’s one of the better goaltenders in the league. This is his senior year (and) he’s done a lot for the program. We’ve got to play better in front of him and do our part. He’s a great leader, he competes hard – everything he does he does it at a high level.”

There is competition for starts between the pipes as the Wildcats welcome back senior Adam Clark, sophomore Joe Lazzaro and add freshman Mike Robinson. Robinson, a third-round pick out of high school by the San Jose Sharks in 2015, is from Bedford and is the second tallest Wildcat on the roster at 6-foot-4, 195 pounds.

“He, along with Adam Clark, is big,” Umile said of Robinson. “They take up a lot of the net. He’s played in juniors the last couple of years. He’s a local kid out of Bedford, New Hampshire. He was a draft (pick) two years ago, so obviously people think he is a pretty good goaltender. He’ll get some time there early in the season, I would expect.”

Robinson, who turned 20 in March, was scheduled to join the Wildcats last season, but a wrist injury set the plan back one year. With his enrollment on hold, Robinson played 25 games for the Springfield Junior Blues in the NAHL last year, averaging 2.99 goals against and a .916 save percentage.

Here’s what Jeff Cox of SB Nation had to say about Robinson in his scouting report heading into the 2015 NHL Draft: “The Bedford, N.H., native is a big goaltender who impresses scouts with his size and fundamentals. He’s not overly athletic, quick or agile, but he is technically sound. He does a nice job squaring up to and challenging shooters and he covers a lot of the net with his big frame.”

Robinson will be a player to watch as he grows into the college game. Umile said there is no doubt who the top goaltender is right now.

“There will be some competition there pushing (Tirone), but there’s no question he is coming back as our No. 1 goalie at the start of the season,” he said.

The Wildcats will get their feet wet Sunday in a scrimmage against St. Francis Xavier. Puck drop is 4 p.m. at the Whittemore Center in Durham.

Next weekend, UNH will open its season with a home-and-home series against defending Hockey East champs UMass-Lowell. The River Hawks host the Wildcats on Friday at 7:15 p.m. at the Tsongas Center in Lowell, Mass. UNH will have its home opener on Saturday against Lowell at 7 p.m.

UNH caught some fire in the first round of the Hockey East tournament last year, winning a three-game series on the road against Merrimack. The Wildcats lost the next series in the three games to Lowell. Their season ended with a deflating 8-2 loss to the River Hawks.

Opening against the defending champs is a good thing, Chanter said. The River Hawks won the popular vote in the league’s preseason coaches’ poll with five first-place votes. Overall, Lowell was picked to finish second in the league behind Boston University. Providence (third), Boston College (fourth) and Northeastern (fifth) were the other teams that received at least one first-place vote.

“This series opening up against Lowell is really going to bring us up to speed and introduce the guys to what this season is going to be like, especially the younger guys,” Chanter said. “Lowell is a team that has been at the top of the country since I’ve been here, so it will be a lot of fun. It’s great, it’s going to gauge us and show us where we have to be for the rest of the year.”


(Nick Stoico can be reached at 369-3339, nstoico@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @NickStoico.)