Friday, December 30, 2016

Midseason Review with Mike Souza, UNH Associate Head Coach

UNH Associate Head Coach
Mike Souza

Last summer, I had an opportunity to sit down with Mike Souza, associate head coach of the UNH men's hockey team, to review last season and talk about the team's prospects for this season. Now that the team is exactly halfway through the 34-game, 2016-17 schedule, it's time for a followup interview with coach Souza.

After 17 games last season, UNH's overall record was 7-6-4. The current team has a similar overall record of 8-7-2. However, the 2016-17 Wildcats have compiled a better record in Hockey East competition. While last year's team had only 2 Hockey East wins (2-1-4), this team is 5-1-1 and tied for 3rd place with Notre Dame and Vermont in the Hockey East standings. Boston College (8-1-1) is in first and UMass-Lowell (6-3-1) is in second.

In Hockey East competition, UNH has the #1 offense (4.43 goals per game) and #1 power play (37.2 power play %). Individual standouts include Tyler Kelleher who leads Hockey East in scoring (2.57 points per game), assists (1.71 per game), power play points (1.57 PPG) and goals (0.57 GPG). Among Hockey East defensemen, Matias Cleland is the leading scorer (1.57 points per game) and #1 in assists (1.43 per game). Patrick Grasso is the leading scorer (1.57 points per game), goal scorer (0.71 per game), and power play scorer (1.14 points per game) among all Hockey East freshmen.

Here's the interview I conducted yesterday with UNH associate head coach Mike Souza:

Qualifying for the NCAA Tournament

Mike Lowry ("C-H-C"): When I interviewed you last July, I asked how close the 2016-17 team was to qualifying for the 2017 NCAA Tournament. You said "I really believe that we can make the NCAA tournament this year. I hope I'm telling you that in January too." This year, UNH hosts the Northeast Regionals in Manchester so if the team earns a spot in the NCAA tournament, you will have a "home team advantage". In order to qualify, UNH either has to win the Hockey East Tournament or be ranked among the top 12-15 teams in Division I when the HE Tournament ends. Now that we're half-way through the season, how do you feel about UNH's chances of making the NCAA tournament?

Coach Mike Souza: I feel great about it. I think that ... obviously as we talked about this summer, there's always uncertainty with the new team, I mean that's the same for everyone in the country. When you have a turnover, when you lose seniors and have new players arriving. We've already surpassed our win total from last year within our conference but that was the toughest conference to win in college hockey. Last year I believe from our conference there were six, and you can correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe there were six teams from our conference that made the tournament.

What that tells me is that if you're able to finish near the top of the conference, which is where we are right now, you're going to not only rise in the national rankings but also give yourself the best possible chance to get into the NCAA tournament. Now I know we've had some hiccups with the non-league games, which hopefully at the end of the year don't cost us in getting in - hopefully that's not why we don't get in. But I feel great about our team. I know you mentioned not having beat any of the top teams yet, the so-called "top teams", but the reality is you gotta win the games you play. Last year, we weren't able to do that consistently and so far this year we have and I think that bodes well for our overall team attitude as we go into the second half of the season.

So I feel confident that we have just as good a chance as anyone of getting in there. I know our kids do and I know there's a great energy with our group since they've come back from break. We're real excited about our game tomorrow and moving on to obviously, back into league play next Friday.

Mike Lowry: In terms of who you've played so far this year, BC is the only one that's been ranked in the top 15 and that turned out to be a pretty close game as I recall. You fell behind pretty early but then scored three goals to tie it up and then lost late in the game. It's only one game and it's only Boston College, but did you get a sense from that game of how your team will stack up with the top teams, or the so-called top teams in hockey?

Coach Souza: I know that game was early in the year, but I think that was a good measuring stick for our group. We showed some great character in coming back in that game and basically being there right at the end of the game and having the chance to, at the very least, come out of there with a point. We failed to do that but I think for those who may not know our team that well, that game right there was an indication of where we are as a group. I think that when we get to those top teams, we'll be right there.

What's the point of doing this if you're not going to compete against the best teams in the conference? Last year we didn't have a great season, but we were able to knock off Lowell and Providence. We've got guys that have played in some big games and won those games. I like where we are and I like our leadership. Matias (Cleland) and the senior class do a tremendous job and they're hungry to win too, Mike. They're very hungry to win which is great.

Lowry: I think another thing we talked about last summer was that in the grand scheme of things, what does it take to win a national championship? You had mentioned two key factors - you've got to have hot goal-tending at the end of the year and the team needs to be peaking at the right time as you go into the tournament season. If you think about peaking at the right time, can you think of areas where the team has the potential to get better over the second half and be firing on all cylinders so to speak?

Souza: I guess the general, the "Belichick-ian" answer would be we can get better in all areas. That's coach-speak, but I actually believe that. There's always room to improve in all areas of our game, especially with young players and young kids. I do think that we can always get better defensively as a group. Teams that play tenacious, tough checking defense, generally do well in the tournament. You know the old saying in college hockey - "it's the race to three".

When I say defense, I mean team defense and just overall group defense and that's an area that I think we made a lot of strides in. I know that our entire team is committed to getting better in that area. I think that's so important and I'm sure every coach in the country would probably echo similar sentiments about wanting to tighten it up defensively all the time and not to have any situations where you're beating yourself.

Lowry: I've seen every game this year and it seems to me that there have been two improvements in terms of team defense. One is getting back to prevent the odd man rushes, not only just the two defensive guys getting back, but also the, usually the center, getting back to cover the guys as the opposition enters your zone. I think there's been improvement also in covering guys out in front of the net since the beginning of the season. Do you see those improvements as well and are those a couple of key areas that you'll hopefully be doing, playing at your very best come tournament time?

Souza: I think that the makeup of our group has allowed us to be more consistent defensively. I think Anthony Wyse's size and quickness for a big guy has really helped our play in our own end. I think that our top guys have made a commitment to play in our own end and I think we've gotten contributions defensively from the freshman line, it's been solid. Guys like Hill and Eiserman have done what I've always asked them which has really, really helped us make an overall commitment to team defense.

I think we've talked about this before or we've mentioned this before Mike. We always have this reputation of being a better offensive team than defensive team, but I always took pride in the fact that we've had some pretty darn good defensive teams up here at UNH over the years. I'm talking about back when I was here and long after I left. It's always been a staple of the way Dick (Umile) coaches. Put it this way, we talk about our play without the puck more than we talk about our play with the puck. Our guys have done a good job with it this year and I think we continue to get better with it. And Danny Tirone has played well for us too.

The Power Play

Lowry: One of the things the team is doing very well this year is scoring on the power play. Last year, the UNH power play scored on 23.9% of the opportunities which ranked #1 in Hockey East and #6 in the nation. A couple of things that made the power play click last year was Andrew Poturalski and Dan Correale. This year though, you haven't fallen off hardly at all so far. You're scoring on 22.1% of your opportunities and the power play is ranked #1 in Hockey East and #12 in the nation.

I think fans will have noticed that you made a couple of major changes in the first power play unit this year as compared to last year. Last year, the first power play unit had Matias and Cam Marks playing at the points and then you had your first line of Correale, Poturalski, and Tyler Kelleher up front. This year, right from the very beginning, you moved Tyler back onto the blue line with Matias and you have your first line out there, or two-thirds of the first line, with Jason Salvaggio and Michael McNicholas and then you added freshman Patrick Grasso to play right wing on the forward line. So a very different style of power play. What was the rationale for that? I think it's worked out quite well, but how do you think it's worked out?

Souza: Well, first of all, I think that last year, four of the five guys were consistently on it, but that fifth guy, you know, at times, you remember it was Max Gaudreault, at times it was Ara Nazarian, at times it was Cam Marks. This year we've stayed pretty consistent with the group and I think that only helps. Naturally, we have some talented players on there. Tyler is as talented as player as there is in the country and the power play sort of runs through him. Michael McNicholas actually is another guy that was on and off (the power play unit) last year. He's been on it all year, so without a doubt, tremendous chemistry with that group on the power play this year. Above all, they're five very talented kids that work well together. We talk concepts, more so than set plays, but we have some things that we go over and work on. It ultimately comes down to execution and those guys, from the start of the year, have gelled together nicely.

Now, like you said, we have a whole second half to go and hopefully we can continue that consistency on the power play. As you know, there's an uptick in penalties in college hockey so that puts a premium on performing on the power play. Our guys are aware of that and we practice it a lot, but there's been a complete buy-in from the group as to what we want and they go out and ultimately execute it. It has very little to do with the coaching staff in terms of what happens once those guys are out there and they make plays.

We've been fortunate over the last couple of years, at least since I've been back here, to have guys that have enough skill to kind of get out of trouble, keep plays alive, making little area plays or little skilled plays that keeps the power play in the zone, doesn't force a turnover. Those are the sort of things, that's what makes Tyler a special player, he has the ability to do that. Michael McNicholas has the ability to do that, Grasso's covering around the net, they all compliment each other well. Matias is good up top and Jason Sal's got the best, probably the best shot on the team. They all compliment each other well and I think that's, if you look at any power play unit anywhere, those are some of the things that need to happen. The guys need to compliment each other well and fortunately to this point in the year we've been able to have some success, but like you said, we've got a long way to go.

Tyler Kelleher

Lowry: You mentioned Tyler Kelleher. Obviously he's a special player. He's pretty much matching or exceeding his scoring from last year. Right now he's the fourth leading scorer in NCAA hockey, he's got 12 goals, 19 assists and he's tied for second in assists. Would you agree that he deserves serious consideration for the Hobey Baker Award as the second half of the season moves on?

Souza: Yeah, I think that he clearly will be in that conversation and it also puts more of a premium on how we do as a group. As you know from being around a long time, the guys who are in it for that award generally are on teams that are near the top towards the end of the year. So our hopes I'm sure, and his hope I know, is that we're there, we're one of the teams in the discussion for the tournament come the end of the year. As we tell the guys all the time, when the logo on the front of the jersey is taken care of, usually there's accolades for the Kellehers and the like. Without a doubt Mike, he's as talented a player as there is in the country, he's fun to watch, he's got a great stick, he's got great creativity, he sees the ice incredibly well and he has an elusiveness to him that's uncanny when he's on the ice and in the offensive zone. Obviously he's having a great senior season and hopefully will continue that. I don't see any reason why he won't.

Lowry: Long time UNH fans will remember that you played on a line with Jason Krog and Darren Haydar. Krog won the Hobey Baker Award in the 1998-99 season and then Haydar made the Hobey Hat Trick in the 2001-02 season. Could you compare Tyler's skill set to Krog's and to Haydar's since you played with both of them? Is Tyler different in important ways from those two players?

Souza: That's a very tough comparison to make. Jason was a centerman who was really good at face offs and he played down low a lot. Jason was just a special player - he obviously helped catapult our team that year to the national finals. He played in a couple hundred NHL games and played in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Darren is similar in stature but a little bigger than Tyler. He had uncanny knack to score goals in and around the net and he continued that in pro hockey. I marvel at his pro hockey statistics (AHL All-Time leader in playoff goals, assists, and points). They're absolutely unbelievable in the American Hockey League.

I think that Tyler has some similar traits, but you are talking about two incredibly unique players that have come through Durham. And two guys that I am obviously bias towards for obvious reasons. I speak very highly of them whenever I have the opportunity. But I'll tell you what, Tyler is a special player, and in today's game, its hard to score goals in college hockey and its hard to get points. He's found a way to do that throughout his career at UNH and hopefully he continues it and becomes an All American. We'll see how the rest of his history is written at UNH over the next couple of months. When people think of this generation of players, he'll be one of the first players that comes to mind, without a doubt.

The Freshman Class

Lowry: Another thing we talked about last July was your sense of the Freshman class. You said you liked our Freshman coming in and you thought that the Freshman "have a nice balance of speed, skill and size and grit and all those things that can help make us a formidable team this year in our league". So halfway through the season, what's your assessment of the freshmen and how they've performed so far

Souza: We've been nothing but happy with the entire freshman group to be honest with you. You have seen all of our games, I think there's no question that they've been regular contributors in all areas, whether it's on the power play, the penalty kill, and our defense. We couldn't be happier with them to be honest with you. And I made that comment to you over the summer - when you bring players in there is always the uncertainty. But I think these guys to date have lived up to what we thought they would do. They've even exceeded what we expected. We have been more than pleased with the freshman.

Lowry: Would you be comfortable singling any of them out in terms of those who have exceeded your expectations, or have done particularly well?

Souza: There's no doubt that we expected Patrick Grasso to be a contributor for us. I don't know if we expected him to have as hot a first half as he's had. He has set the bar pretty high for himself here! But honestly Mike, all joking aside, we couldn't be happier with that group. We really couldn't. I think they've all contributed in their own way and they have done everything we have asked of them. So, I think the future bodes well for our group here at UNH and especially for that class.


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