When discussing recruiting with assistant coaches Glenn Stewart and Jeff Giuliano, University of New Hampshire men’s hockey coach Mike Souza always stresses the importance of trusting your eyes.
Souza does not view the recruiting process as an effort to stockpile as much talent as possible. Recruiting is about building a roster of the right people and players, he said.
“You have to have good ears, meaning you have to know what’s going on in the business and who’s trending and which way they’re trending or where they’re going to end up,” Souza said. “But at the end of the day, you’ve got to trust your eyes. And I think that Glenn and Jeff have proven to do a really good job (with) that. I think there’s comfort with what I expect and the type of kids that I think we need to bring here in order for us to be successful as a program and I think they’ve done a good job with it.”
When deciding who to bring into their program, Souza said he, Stewart and Giuliano are looking for players with certain attributes.
“If you look at the trend in the National Hockey League right now, one of the things that we always look to is people that can skate,” Souza said. “You’ve got to be able to skate, you’ve got to have hockey sense and then you’ve got to have a level of competitiveness and skill. And if you can check all those boxes, you’ve probably got yourself a pretty good hockey player. If there’s an area that’s really deficient then there’s got to be an area that you’ve got to do really well.”
Souza, who was involved in recruiting during his time as an assistant coach at UNH, Connecticut and Brown, noted the magnifying lens works both ways, however.
Players deciding where they want to play collegiately are evaluating the coaches and what their programs have to offer. In recent years, what kind of sports science lab or analytics a program offers their players has become an important consideration for potential recruits.
“I think today’s kid, I think the more information, the more resources you can provide them with, the more appealing your program is to that particular individual because at the end of the day, most of the kids, if not all of the kids want to play in the National Hockey League,” Souza said. “But at the end of the day I tell kids that UNH for me is about the people that work here, it’s about the people that have worked here and it’s the people and the culture of our university and our program.”
Like other programs around the country, UNH is no longer simply combing North America to find the best recruits. While the Wildcats always have to do well in New England and traditionally have had success bringing in players from British Columbia, they have broadened their horizons to Europe, Souza said.
UNH will have three players from outside North America on its roster next season: incoming freshman defenseman Kalle Eriksson (Leksand, Sweden), sophomore forward Filip Engaras (Stockholm, Sweden) and junior forward Kohei Sato (Nishitokyo, Japan).
Souza and Giuliano, who is from Nashua, both spent part of their playing careers in Europe.
Recruiting in Europe has its own unique set of challenges, however. College programs are competing with each other and European professional teams for recruits. Recruiting trips to Europe are obviously more expensive than ones around North America but Souza and his staff often can get video on a potential European recruit. Usually European recruits need to have someone they trust expressing what college hockey is all about or know of someone who played collegiately for them to consider that path, Souza said.
“Oftentimes there’s more hoops to jump through with a European,” Souza said. “That’s why it’s so important to do your due diligence before you make the investment to go over there and meet him or watch him.”
Despite competition from other schools and professional teams, Souza said Europe is not as saturated of an area as say, New England.
“You go to a showcase or prep school game or midget game in New England and you may be in the rink with the other 10 schools from Hockey East and the ECAC and then you’ve got the Atlantic league,” Souza said. “It’s a very saturated area in New England and you run into those same obstacles when you get into other parts of North America. Europe provides an opportunity where, yes, there are a lot of schools that recruit over there but 60 don’t recruit over there.”
Whether a recruit is from Sweden or New Hampshire, Souza said there is a lot to sell them about UNH when he, Giuliano or Stewart sit down with them.
“For us, oftentimes it’s just a matter of getting the kids to campus,” Souza said. “When people get here and we’re able to tell our story about our university and about our program and the traditions and histories of our program, there’s a lot to love as a prospect and I think more often than not, kids, once they get here, really fall in love with the place and it’s just a matter of kids want to go to a winner, too.”
The work does not stop for Souza and his staff once a recruit signs his National Letter of Intent to play at UNH. Recruits do not always join the Wildcats as a true freshman. Sometimes they will play one or two years for a junior hockey team or preparatory school before beginning their college careers.
“Typically, what we’ll say is there’s a two-year window on when you come in,” Souza said. “It’s a matter of where he’s at in terms of his development. For example, like (sophomore forward) Jackson Pierson. Jackson, he had the ability to come in as a true freshman. When he and I had spoken in the fall during his senior year (of high school), he was still unsure if it would be better to play in the USHL (junior hockey league). I said, ‘Well, we’ll make that determination after Christmas.’ And that’s when we really started getting the ball rolling because after us watching him, we realized that he could come in and help us next year. It’s a dialogue back and forth.”
Pierson finished sixth on the team in scoring last year as a freshman with 19 points (eight goals, 11 assists).
With that two-year window comes the challenge of getting those recruits on the same team at the same time to make a run at the Hockey East and NCAA title. While Souza admitted that doing so can be tricky to accomplish, the best way to achieve that feat is to have consistently strong recruiting classes.
“I do think that if you continually do a good job recruiting, if you’ve got contributors in every class, I think you just build the depth and strength of your roster, which I think bodes well to winning more hockey games,” Souza said. “You don’t want to have a really strong recruiting class and then go two years without a strong class ... That’s always the challenge and that’s always what I’m pushing our guys — to make sure we’re maximizing our recruiting. You want to never be satisfied.”
Nowadays, though, teams with consistently talented recruiting classes lose some of those players to the NHL before they have completed four years of college.
Forward Andrew Poturalski left UNH in 2016 after his sophomore year to join the Carolina Hurricanes and has spent the past three seasons playing primarily for their AHL affiliate, the Charlotte Checkers. Poturalski led the Checkers to the Calder Cup and after the clincher on June 8 was named the MVP of the AHL playoffs.
After defenseman Cale Makar completed his sophomore campaign with the University of Massachusetts this past season, in which he helped the program reach its first national title game and won the Hobey Baker Memorial Award, he joined the Colorado Avalanche. Makar, 20, then went on to log six points (one goal, five assists) in 10 Stanley Cup playoff games with Colorado.
While Souza would not want to have three or four players in every class that might leave early, he said it is good to add one with that caliber of talent every year or every other year. That means you are recruiting the right players, he said.
“That’s a great challenge and I tell our guys all the time that’s a challenge you want to have,” Souza said. “And hopefully guys have an opportunity to leave early because they’ve been successful and they’ve been on a successful team. I think that’s just something that’s out of our control but if we do a good job, if we bring the right players here, that’s a problem that I see us having moving forward.”
Recruiting is always evolving, Souza said, and he and his staff have to stay ahead of the game. The key for them to do so, Souza said, is to have faith in what they see.
“There’s definitely no substitution for being in the rinks and having good ears but always trusting your eyes,” Souza said. “I think that’s the biggest thing and I think we have a lot to offer here at UNH and I think kids realize that the university, the hockey program collectively have a lot to offer them in terms of their development as a person and as a hockey player.
“It’s the lifeline of what we do, to be quite honest with you.”