Getting Past the Present
Current struggles clouding a strong future for UVM
by Michael King/CHN Reporter
BOSTON Now three seasons removed from a Frozen Four appearance, the success level associated with reaching the national semifinals is a mere memory for Vermont. Coach Kevin Sneddon established a standard of achievement that hadn't been reached since the mid-1990s. The team followed that performance with another trip to the NCAA tournament the following season.
But a largely turned-over over roster from the Frozen Four team, through graduation of key seniors and defection of others to the National Hockey League, led to one of the most challenging seasons in Sneddon's 14-year career last season. The Catamounts finished with eight wins and a seventh-place finish in Hockey East. It was the worst season at UVM in 10 years — two before Sneddon took over the program.
This year is no better. And right now, it's worse.
Vermont occupies the lowest depth of the Hockey East standings. And its last-place position is so deep that even a full four-point weekend would not be enough to catch ninth-place Massachusetts and Maine.
Last year the explanations for losses piling up surrounded its nature as a young team, inexperience, lack of veteran leadership and the other reasons everyone uses when their team suffers a downyear. Though these factors are still causing problems, they're less of an excuse. Vermont returned much of its scoring from last season and its highly-experienced senior goaltender Rob Madore.
Simply stated, Vermont is a better hockey team than its abysmal 1-7-1 record.
However, it was another weekend of hockey, and another pair of losses. This time the Catamounts dropped league games to Boston University and Northeastern.
"We're getting to the point in the season where moral victories aren't adding up to much," Sneddon said after Saturday's 4-1 loss to Northeastern.
Against the Terriers, Vermont played good even-strength hockey. But it was undone by poor special teams — especially the penalty kill — in a 4-3 loss. The following night against the Huskies, UVM was a completely different team, outplayed in every facet of the game.
"We battled last night [against BU], and we didn't battle tonight," Sneddon said after his team's loss to Northeastern. "I thought that was the difference. I can swallow it when we played as hard as we did last night. But this game was certainly disappointing."
It might be too late to salvage a winning record, or achieve one of the many goals Sneddon inevitably set for his team at the beginning of the season. But Vermont can still make meaningful progress in building toward the future.
Observing the Catamounts Friday night against BU, it seemed the Catamounts were near to turning the corner — or at least very close to earning their first Hockey East win. The coach also recognized the positive aspects of his team's play.
"They battled back and had some great opportunities to tie it up in the waning moments," Sneddon said. "Certainly they're frustrated, but hopefully they'll be able to see all of the good things we've done [against BU]."
The follow-up performance against Northeastern erased much of that progress.
"As much as we had recently some good growth games without results, tonight was a step back," the coach said.
Moving forward, they will have ample opportunity to attain on-ice results given the Catamounts enter one of the most forgiving parts of their schedule. Seven of the next eight games come at Gutterson Fieldhouse, a home venue that has been kind to Vermont even in the least successful of seasons.
Though this portion of the schedule features several exceptional teams, including Ferris State and Lake Superior State in the Catamount Cup tournament, compared to the road thus far, it's rather manageable. The Catamounts faced some of the nation's best teams in four of their first seven games. That schedule afforded Vermont one of Hockey East's best non-conference wins — a 5-4 victory over present No. 1 Minnesota on Oct. 23.
Vermont, therefore, has proven it can beat a good team. The problem is that non-conference achievement represents 100 percent of the season's win total.
Ultimately, the results on the ice stand in stark contrast to the quality of talent Sneddon's added recently. Recruiting continues to be one of his strengths as a coach. College Hockey News ranked Sneddon's group of freshmen as one of the best incoming classes in the country. In addition, several players were taken in recent NHL drafts.
And Sneddon continues to yield highly favorable results through the recruiting process. This past week he secured the commitment of another highly regarded defenseman from same team of the Alberta Junior Hockey League where current freshman Kyle Reynolds played.
These public acknowledgements of Vermont's talent — both from the media and NHL teams — indicate that Sneddon could gradually be developing another Frozen Four quality team.
Though the Catamounts have their eyes set on the future, the team will need to replace a pair of key senior contributors next season in goaltender Rob Madore and defenseman Drew MacKenzie.
Rob Madore, one of the most experienced goalies in Hockey East, led Vermont to the Frozen Four in 2008-09 as a freshman.
Meanwhile, MacKenzie is Vermont's best defender and one of the most talented two-way players in the conference. He maintains a significant role on the power play and leads a young group of defensemen.
Against BU, that young group consisted of three freshmen and one sophomore. Vermont has a reputation for defensive consistency, but that notion is being challenged this year due to the general lack of experience.
"Our freshmen defensemen are getting thrown into the fire pretty good this year, playing every night," Sneddon said. "They're playing in every key situation and are gaining a lot of valuable experience. We're still making some mistakes, but I think the young guys are really starting to learn."
If the team cannot harness its talent and overcome the lack of experience, then reaching last year's win total might not be a realistic ambition. In the mean time, the Catamounts will need to continue their industry to reverse the momentum of their season and discover how to win games.
"I worry about everyone's confidence, including the coach," Sneddon said. "We're judged by wins and losses. It's tough on all of us. But we feel at some point the results are going to start going our way."