Catamounts open up 2-0 lead and get career-high 44 saves from Stefanos Lekkas in 2-2 draw with Friars.
AUSTIN DANFORTH/FREE PRESS, BRIAN JENKINS/For the FREE PRESS
In mathematical terms, here is the simple explanation for the University of Vermont men’s hockey team’s disappointing season: 43 FGS = 10 FV.
Translation: 43 fewer goals scored equals 10 fewer victories.
One year after scoring 122 goals in a 20-win season, the Catamounts lit the lamp a mere 79 times this winter. More than any other reason, that’s why Vermont finished the year at 10-20-7 overall and 6-12-6 in Hockey East while suffering a first-round playoff elimination by Massachusetts.
The chronic dearth of goals was the Catamounts’ most significant failing. It was not the only one.
Early on, the young defensive corps struggled defensively and offensively; the defense improved significantly but offensive contributions, beyond Matt O’Donnell, were rare.
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Team defense was porous first semester. Overall youth and inexperience were costly. Injuries discombobulated line combinations. Except for a brief late season 5-0-2 run, the Catamounts rarely played complete games. Without the deep blue-chip talent of Boston College, Boston University, etc., Vermont needed complete team games to win.
Only goaltending, in the person of Stefanos Lekkas, never reached crisis state. Still, as good as he was at stopping goals, he could do little to help the Catamounts score them.
Where were the goals?
It was never really a question of being competitive — the record shows the Catamounts could play with most teams. They just couldn’t beat them.
Vermont played 16 one-goal games with a 7-9 record. Four of the wins came in the 5-0-2 stretch. By then the Catamounts were desperately trying to claw their way out of the Hockey East cellar, not compete for a first-round bye.
In two other games, potential one-goal defeats were inflated by empty-net goals. They played 14 overtime games, going 3-4-7.
What could, say, 100 goals scored rather than 79 have meant to the bottom line? Five more wins? 10?
So for 2018-19, the No. 1 goal (pardon the pun) is more goals, particularly in 5-on-5 situations. UVM’s power play was successful at an adequate 18-20 percent this year, although not always at the most beneficial times. Full strength offense was another matter and a costly one.
“We go from increasing our goal production from 33 (from 2015-16 to 2016-17) to a big (43-goal) drop-off. We’re looking at a number of things, 5-on-5, zone structure, the relative lack of production for our defensive corps,” said head coach Kevin Sneddon, who last summer agreed to a contract through the 2019-20 season.
Only sophomore Ross Colton (16 goals, up from 12) and freshman Alex Esposito (10) hit double figures. Even more will be needed from them as well as from such players as Matt Alvaro, Liam Coughlin, Craig Puffer, Derek Lodermeier, Max Kaufman and Bryce Misley. Matt O’Donnell, who had eight goals, will again be counted upon to spark the defense’s offensive contributions.
Painful learning experiences
UVM often employed an all-sophomore/freshmen group of defensemen, sometimes using as many as four freshmen. In the first semester, that group made too many big mistakes that rivals turned into easy goals. UVM forwards also struggled in the defensive zone and couldn’t produce enough offense to compensate.
That meant the coaching staff had to retrench and focus on defense far more than expected at the cost of trying to continue the progress the offense had shown the previous year.
“We were pretty bad in our own zone so a lot of time was spent on trying to put band-aids on those situations,” Sneddon said.
“I don’t think we were that dynamic offensively by any means with our returning forwards,” he said. “Stef was standing on his head and we were still losing.
“As we got better, we spent less and less time about overall team defense and far more about skill development and trying to manufacture goals.”
Given a year’s maturity for the defensemen and the presence of Lekkas, next year’s team should be stronger and more cohesive defensively at season’s start.
However, the offensive burden will fall primarily on the returning players. The incoming class is small — three forwards, two defensemen — and do not have histories as prolific goal scorers.
Seven players from the start of the 2017-18 season will be done by September: 6 seniors and 1 mid-season departure. Most were solid character players but managed only 13 goals and 29 assists between them.
The question is: Will any others leave? Say, Tampa Bay draft pick Colton? Veterans/NHL selections Liam Coughlin and/or Jake Massie? Free agent Lekkas? Anyone else for any reason?
Recently Sneddon said he had received no indication that any players eligible to return would not. He cautioned that anything was possible when NHL teams are involved.
New boys in town
While UVM’s recruiting of the past couple years has moved toward pursuit of younger players who will attend 3 or 4 years down the road, next fall’s group is older and more experienced.
“This class brings maturity. The guys have played years of junior hockey. The forwards certainly scored in juniors but you never know how that translates to college,” Sneddon said. “They’re highly competitive, good speed kind of players.”
The class is expected to include three forwards: Nic Hamre (Age 21 at season’s start; Brooks Bandits, 59 games, 17-41-58, 5-foot-9, 180 pounds); Dallas Comeau (21; Grande Prairie Storm, 60 22-47-69, 5-11, 170); John DeRoches (20; Connecticut Jr. Rangers, 50 21-41-62, 5-10, 174).
Two defensemen are also expected: Carter Long (20; Lincoln Stars, 44 3-17-20, 6-4 209); Andrew Petrillo (20; Youngstown Phantoms/Central Illinois Flying Aces, 50 2-10-12, 5-11 174).
As for next season, Sneddon said he expects “major improvement.”
“I can’t sit here and say we’ll get back to 20 wins … but I do believe in that group, the group we have and the group coming in.”
He said the team’s mindset, desire to improve and overall attitude is strong, pointing to the team’s togetherness in a “brutal year to go through.”
Assuming there are no unexpected departures, the UVM defense should be stronger from season’s start. The goaltending is there to carry the Catamounts when necessary.
The question is the ‘X’ factor in the aforementioned equation: Can they score enough goals to turn enough close defeats into victories?
Correspondent Ted Ryan covers UVM hockey for The Burlington Free Press. Contact him at TedRyanVT@aol.com and follow him on Twitter at @TedRyanVT.