Recent UMass alums work their way towards NHL

By Richard Murray

Justin Braun - San Jose Sharks

Photo: San Jose Sharks defenseman and University of Massachusetts alum Justin Braun is the first of a recent group of that school's alums to make it to the NHL (courtesy of Don Smith/NHLI via Getty Images)

 

Casey Wellman has been with three organizations since turning pro during the 2009-10 season, but this season could mark his best chance to become an NHL regular.

The Wild signed Wellman as a free agent out of the University of Massachusetts. Minnesota traded Wellman to the New York Rangers last season, and this summer he was traded once again to the Florida Panthers.

“The first time I was traded it was a little discouraging, but (this time) I am really excited, Wellman said.

“I have spoke with the GM in Florida (Dale Tallon), and it should be a good opportunity for me. I am pretty motivated and excited about it this time.”

Wellman will be competing for a roster spot in training camp with the Panthers. After a few seasons in the AHL, he may finally get a chance to be a full time regular in the NHL.

“What I expect from myself is to be in the NHL all year and to put up good numbers,” Wellman said. “I have been grinding it out in the AHL for the past few years, so I think I am ready for the NHL.”

Wellman has seen limited time in the NHL so far in his professional career, but he has scored four goals and nine assists in 41 career games.

A few of those points have come against one of his former UMass teammates, defensman Justin Braun of the San Jose Sharks.

“Casey has been winning the battles quite a few times, and he has like four points in games against me,” Braun said. 

“It is really frustrating, but you just have to keep battling out there. Casey wont let you forget when he wins a battle. I have been rooming with Casey this summer, and he likes to bring up all the points he has against me quite often.”

The Panthers made the playoffs for the first time in 11 seasons this past year, and with a growing young nucleus, Wellman hopes to be a part of that.

“I am very excited; the Panthers are obviously looking to the future and to be a contender,” Wellman said. “I just want to be able to contribute to that and be a part of their future.”

Wellman spent only two seasons at UMass, but was one of the biggest scoring threats in Hockey East during that time. Wellman registered 34 goals and 44 assists in 75 collegiate games.

MARCOU LOOKING TO BOUNCE BACK

James Marcou didn’t play a single game of hockey last season because of a concussion he suffered two years ago, but he is symptom free and looking to prove he can still play at a competitive level.

“I just want to get back out there and show everyone I can still play,” Marcou said. “I feel healthy now, and I am the same player before I got injured. I have been training everyday the same way I have since I was 16.”

Marcou signed a two-year deal with the San Jose Sharks after the 2009-10 NCAA season, but he was not qualified this off-season. Although not qualified, Marcou indicated he would be playing professional hockey this season.

Marcou is not the tallest guy on the ice as he is only 5'7”, but he has not let that stop him. He tries to mold his game around other NHL players that are considered short.

“Marty St. Louis is someone I try to model my game after because he is short, and he has had a lot of success,” Marcou said. “I try to pick up on things that St. Louis does, you can see the things he does because he is smaller and uses it to his advantage.

“Everyone knows I’m not the biggest guy, but being told I’m too small just gets old. You just have to overcome it, and that has helped me become the player I am today.” 

In only 45 AHL games Marcou has put up 22 points, all with the Worcester Sharks.

Marcou like Wellman was a top offensive threat in Hockey East during his time at UMass. He totaled 34 goals, 130 points in 111 career NCAA games. In his third and final year at UMass Marcou had 51 points, which made him a Hobey Baker Award finalist.

IRWIN LOOKS TO BREAK OUT WITH BIG CLUB

Matt Irwin had a breakout season with the Worcester Sharks last year, and with a strong training camp he could be a fixture on the San Jose blue line for years to come.

“My ultimate goal is to play up in San Jose, and that is the way I have to look at it to be successful,” Irwin said. “I have to set my goals high and want to shoot for them, so I am hopeful that I get some exhibition games to prove that I can play at the NHL level.”

Considering Irwin’s strong season, setting a career high in both goals and assists at the AHL level, that goal could very well become reality. Irwin had 11 goals and 31 assists last season, and established his game in all sorts of situations.

“A lot of the credit (of my play) has to go to the opportunity that I was given,” Irwin said. “I was the quarterback bringing the puck up on power plays, and I was getting my shots through and doing all the little things. “

“My numbers speak to my offensive ability, and I have the ability to play solid defense. I have been relied upon to kill penalties and that shows I have the ability to play the defensive side of the game.”

Irwin’s development at the AHL level has been impressive, but he still has to tighten up some areas of his game to be successful in the NHL.

“I have a pretty good foundation now,” Irwin said.  “I need to tighten up in the defensive zone, and I also need to play with more consistency too.”

When Irwin joined the Worcester Sharks he was joined by fellow Minutemen Justin Braun and James Marcou. Braun was a seventh round pick of the San Jose Sharks at the 2007 NHL Draft. Irwin, like Marcou signed an entry-level contract, and started in Worcester at the conclusion of the 2009-10 NCAA season.

There are a lot of differences between the NCAA and the professional game, but it can be difficult for a college player to adjust to a new environment.

“It was awesome to have James and Justin with me, having just spent two years at UMass with them,” Irwin said.

“Having your friends join you in a new environment always makes it easier, especially going from school to playing professional hockey. It is nice to have friends going through the same thing together.”

In two seasons with UMass, Irwin had 14 goals and 28 assists.

DAINTON BOUNCING AROUND THE MINORS

Former University of Massachusetts’ goalie and captain Paul Dainton bounced around between the ECHL and AHL last season, which has helped motivate him for this upcoming season.

Last season Dainton started the season in Columbus at the Blue Jackets camp, but he was sent down to AHL camp after being cut. With Steve Mason and Sergei Bobrovsky under contract in Columbus, Dainton will probably have a hard time cracking the roster in the NHL, but with a strong season in the AHL he might be able to become an NHL goalie sooner rather than later.

“I (want to make the NHL), but one of the things you don’t want to do is  (set a time frame for) being in the NHL.” Dainton said. “There are things that I have to learn and improve on before I get to the NHL, and when I start getting better in those areas I can set a more realistic goal.”

Last season Dainton spent 21 games in the ECHL and another 28 games with Springfield in the AHL. In 28 games in Springfield Dainton posted a 13-12-1 record with a goals against average of 3.11 and a save percentage of .893.

“It was a motivation factor (being sent to the ECHL),” Dainton said.

“It is one of those things where everyone looks at it as if you are sent down because you are not doing your job. Bottom line, it is a numbers game. If you take it as a learning experience, and use it as a motivation then it is one hundred percent positive. I learned a lot down there (ECHL), and I think it has helped me prepare for the AHL level.”

Dainton has had the opportunity to play against several former UMass teammates, but only two have managed to score against him. Casey Wellman was able to score on a rebound goal against Dainton when Wellman was with the Connecticut Whale.

“I wanted to score on him just to have that, but he played really well the few times we played against him,” said Wellman about scoring on Dainton. “I had a breakaway against him too and I hit the post.”

The other UMass alum to find the back of the net was someone who was just helping Dainton keep pucks out of the net, his former defenseman, Matt Irwin.  Irwin slid one past Dainton on the power play.

“Scoring on someone you are used to just shooting practice shots on is different but a lot of fun,” Irwin said.

Dainton played four seasons for UMass and had a record of 45-61-12. Dainton also recorded a 2.78 goals against average, a .908 save percentage, and two shutouts.

Goalies are not usually captains over skaters on many hockey teams, but Dainton is the eighth goalie in UMass history  to don the “C”. Brian Regan was the last goalie to captain the Minutemen.

Dainton has also played a great role in helping other Minutemen develop when not much was expected from them.  If it were not for Dainton’s guidance, former back-up goalie and alumni Kevin Moore would have been cut from the hockey team during his time at UMass.

“Paul was instrumental in my growth as a Division 1 goaltender, and without him I would have never solidified my spot at UMass,” Moore said.

“Paul was always giving me advice on both the technical aspects of the position as well as the mental aspects. Without Paul I would have been cut after my sophomore year. He took an interest in me from my first day on campus and not because he had a letter on his jersey. He did it because he is a good teammate and leader.”

Dainton was also tasked with captaining a very young UMass team with a freshman back up and 12 other freshmen players during a rebuilding season for the UMass program.

“Paul is the type of leader who genuinely cares for the guys that he plays with, his biggest strength was that he took the time to get to know the guys on and off the ice,” Moore said.

“Paul knew what it took to communicate effectively with so many different personalities, and especially on a team like he had his senior year. He was the go to guy for many of the younger players. Paul commanded respect not only because he was a good communicator but also because on the ice he set a good example by working hard and showing everyone how to carry yourself in a professional manner.”

FENWAY PARK HERO, MICHAEL MARCOU, TURNS PRO

After scoring the overtime-game winning goal this season for UMass against Vermont in the outdoor game at Fenway Park, defenseman Michael Marcou got his first look at professional hockey in the spring.

“The Fenway goal was really special, it was funny because the ref told me I was going to (score) when I went onto the ice,” Michael Marcou said. “A minute later I scored and we were celebrating. “

James Marcou called the game winning goal his younger brother's “biggest moment” of his hockey career.

Michael Marcou had his best offensive output this season at UMass with six goals and 15 assists. Two of Marcou’s six came in the Fenway game.

Michael Marcou, an assistant captain for two years with the Minutemen, signed an amateur try-out agreement with the Oklahoma City Barons. Marcou was only with the Barons for two games, and he was released from his try-out contract.

Although currently an unrestricted free agent, Marcou confirmed that he has had some interest in his services from AHL teams. In two games with Oklahoma City, Michael did not register any points.

Michael Marcou got to play with his older brother James for two seasons before James turned pro. James actually set Michael up with his first NCAA goal.

“I knew James was going to pass it because he saw me coming up on the rush, and I was looking for my first goal still,” Michael Marcou said. “When I took the first whack at the puck I missed it, but I was able to get a second whack and put it in.”

Depending on where Michael and James end up this season, they could actually be playing against each other for the first time in their careers.

BRAUN SUCCEEDING IN THE NHL

Justin Braun played 66 games last season in San Jose during the regular season, and he is becoming a fixture in the Sharks line-up.

Although Braun did play the majority of the season in San Jose, he did also have a six game stint in Worcester.

“I would like to be an everyday kind of player, and be a lot more consistent than I have been in my early career,” Braun said. “I want to be able to contribute night in and night out. “

Although Dan Boyle wouldn’t know it, Braun watches the veteran defenseman quite often to learn what he can from Boyle.

“I watch Danny Boyle because he has been doing it for years, and he makes the game easier,” Braun said.

“I would say (he has been like a mentor), I don’t think Danny knows it too much. He is a true professional, you just kind of watch him to see what you can take from him. We’re not hanging out too much outside of the rink, but inside the rink I try to take what I can from him.”

Justin Braun gets to play against UMass alum Jonathan Quick often because they both play in the same division, but Braun has still not been able to score against his former teammate.

“I have had a couple of good opportunities (to score on Quick), and I even shot the puck over the net once,” Braun said. “I have a soft spot for UMass players out there, but I would like to bury one on Quick this year.

Braun had the honor of playing for Team USA this summer in the World Championships. It was Braun’s first experience playing international hockey for Team USA.

Braun did not register any points in eight games during the tournament, but there was still plenty to take from it.

“I didn’t get the minutes that I had hoped for, but it was a good experience,” Braun said. “You don’t get to play at that level very often, (and when you do you) realize you are still a ways away from being one of those top players in the world.”

At UMass, Braun played in 147 games totaling 23 goals and 65 assists for the Minutemen. In 94 games at the NHL level, Braun has 4 goals and 18 assists. Although Braun is technically not a prospect anymore, he caps off a very impressive group of recent UMass alum playing at the professional level.

Follow Richard Murray on Twitter: https://twitter.com/Richie_Murray

 

Related Articles