At face value, a 7-2 loss at the hands of the Northeastern Huskies seems disappointing. Add the fact that the 7-2 loss meant the team was swept out of the playoffs and most fans would be left shaking their heads. This is exactly what happened to the University of Massachusetts Minutemen hockey team last weekend. They lost 3-2 in Game 1 of their series before being ousted from the Hockey East playoffs in Game 2 by a 7-2 margin.
Yet, when you checked Twitter, none of the UMass faithful seemed too disappointed. This is because for UMass it’s not the end. It’s the beginning of a new chapter of the program. They’re calling it #NewMass and the man leading the charge is head coach Greg Carvel.
In order to understand why UMass fans weren’t mad this past Saturday, you have to understand where the program has come from. While 17-20-2 doesn’t jump off the charts to most hockey fans, it’s leaps and bounds ahead of anything that fans have seen over the last decade or so.
2006-07: The Peak
While UMass doesn’t have the championship pedigree of their brethren to the north, there is one season that brought the Minutemen into the national spotlight. The 2006-07 season was the pinnacle of college hockey in Western Massachusetts.
Looking down the roster, a few names should jump out to most NHL fans, most notably Jonathan Quick. Yes, that Jonathan Quick.
The Milford, CT native played three seasons at Avon Old Farms School in Connecticut before beginning his collegiate career with the Minutemen. A third-round pick for the Kings in 2005, Quick dazzled in his second season in Amherst. In 37 games, he went 19-12-5, with a 2.16 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage. He led UMass to the fourth-best record in Hockey East and the most wins in a season in program history (21).
Defending the net alongside Quick were two other notable professionals. The first is Justin Braun, who was in his freshman year in Amherst. Braun put up 14 points in 38 games that season, the third-highest total among defensemen on the team. Braun, who was a seventh-round pick by the San Jose Sharks, ended up playing all four seasons with UMass and is in his eighth season with the Sharks
Alongside Braun was junior Mike Kostka. Though he’s turned out to be more of an NHL journeyman, he played 85 NHL games between 2012 and 2017. He was a junior in 2006-07 and racked up 18 points in 39 games on the back end for the Minutemen.
Behind these three players, along with NHL draft picks Martin Nolet, John Wessbecker, Alex Berry, P.J. Fenton and Kevin Jarman, UMass rolled through the regular season, before sweeping Maine in the first round of the Hockey East playoffs. The two games were played in front of a combined 15,181 fans at the Mullins Center. For a while, that was the last taste of playoff hockey that the UMass faithful had.
We’ll get to that.
UMass’ dreams for a Hockey East title came to an end in the semifinals, when New Hampshire’s Bobby Butler scored 1:30 into the second overtime to send the Wildcats to the title game. For their efforts, however, the Minutemen were awarded an at-large bid into the 2007 NCAA Tournament, the first in program history.
The East Regional semifinal game, which pitted UMass against the Clarkson Golden Knights, went to overtime without either team scoring a goal. The Minutemen would come out on the right side of the score this time, as Kevin Jarman would put one home 7:40 into the extra period.
UMass was in the East Regional Final, and they’d be facing the Maine Black Bears for the fifth time that month. This time, however, UMass was not so lucky. Future NHL goalie Ben Bishop made 35 saves and allowed just a single goal, and with that, UMass’ championship hopes were gone.
2007-12: The Valley
As it turned out, the 2006-07 season was a peak for the program and the Minutemen would not finish higher than sixth in Hockey East after that year and would not finish a season with a winning record (the closest they came was 18-18-0 in 2009-10).
After the 2011-12 season, head coach Don Cahoon stepped down after leading the program for 12 years. He ended his run with a 165-231-40 cumulative record and a reputation for recruiting some of the best local players.
When Cahoon left, a solid foundation still remained. Rising junior Conor Sheary was coming off of a breakout season, putting up 35 points in 34 games. The rest of the rising junior class had potential as well, as defensemen Joel Hanley and Connor Allen have both suited up in NHL games over the past few seasons. Goaltenders Kevin Boyle and Steve Mastalerz were both ready to battle for the starting job after posting similar numbers during their freshman years.
Eight players on UMass’ 2011-12 squad racked up 20 points or more and six of them were returning to Amherst for the fall. It seemed as though the team, given the right leadership, was ready to take the next step and return to Hockey East prominence. Then, UMass announced that they had hired John Micheletto as their next head coach.
UMass fans, you may want to change the channel for this next part.
2012-16: UMass Hits Rock Bottom
After interviewing a number of candidates, including USHL coach Mark Carlson and (now former) assistant coach Len Quesnelle, athletic director John McCutcheon announced that Micheletto was replacing Don Cahoon.
On hiring Micheletto: “I think he’s the only coach I’ve ever seen to include the word ‘pedagogy’ in his materials. Once I looked it up and found out what it meant, I was pretty impressed,” McCutcheon said in an interview with MassLive.
In year one of Micheletto’s reign as head coach, the team essentially matched its performance from the season before with a 12-19-3 record; a lateral move from the 13-18-5 record that UMass put up with Cahoon at the helm.
Then came 2013-14, and Micheletto’s first recruiting class. While a few players, namely Steven Iacobellis and Ray Pigozzi, turned out to be strong players, the program didn’t progress whatsoever. To be frank, UMass hockey fell off a cliff.
The team went 8-22-4, which, at the time, was tied for the second-lowest win total of the century. The defense plummeted, leaving Mastalerz to fend for himself on a number of nights. There were a few individual bright spots during this tumultuous time. Second-round draft pick Brandon Montour shined in his half-season in Amherst. He put up 20 points in 21 games which (at the time) set the program record for the most points by a freshman defenseman.
Transfer Frank Vatrano was also strong during his full season in Amherst. He recorded 28 points in 36 games after sitting out all but one contest the season before due to NCAA transfer regulations. Aside from those two, however, the program continued to falter. Poor records and league play were compounded by dwindling attendance. What’s more, Micheletto’s recruits were having trouble off the ice.
Things in Amherst were getting uglier by the day.
After four dismal seasons, Coach Micheletto was fired. He ended his run with a 39-88-13 overall record and two consecutive last-place finishes in Hockey East. The program was in disarray and fan support was a shell of its former self.
For context, in Cahoon’s last season as head coach, 5326 fans packed the Mullins Center for their game against Boston University which traditionally brings in big crowds. While this isn’t a sellout by any means, it’s over half of the capacity of “The Bill”. In Micheletto’s last season, 2524 fans watched the same two teams play.
UMass needed a change of personnel and a change of direction, badly. Enter: Greg Carvel.
2016-17 – Present: NewMass
The new UMass athletic director wasted little time in finding the next leader of the UMass hockey program. In late March, the report surfaced that Bamford had hired Carvel to replace Micheletto. Carvel chose to leave St. Lawrence, his alma mater, in order to take the job with the Minutemen.
“I am very excited about the opportunity that exists for the University of Massachusetts hockey program and the potential for success here,” Carvel told USCHO in an article.
Year one of Carvel’s reign was expectedly tough. The team went 5-29-2, the lowest amount of wins since the team became Division 1 in 1993. They had just five players reach double digits in points and no one scored above eight goals. It was time to clean house.
In April of 2017, Jeff Cox penned a story about the “up to 10” underclassmen that wouldn’t return to Amherst next season including William Lagesson, one of the few bright spots, who decided that he would sign with the Edmonton Oilers organization after his sophomore year instead of staying in school. The other nine, however, were undergraduates that were either cut or chose to leave the program. Some left for junior programs, while others left for Division III hockey programs.
Yes, some of the players on UMass now play Division III.
Carvel and the coaching staff were clearing the way for one of the best freshman classes in the nation, including defenseman Cale Makar, who was selected fourth overall by the Colorado Avalanche in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft.
Also coming to Amherst was defenseman Mario Ferraro who was taken by the San Jose Sharks in the second round of that same draft. In total 13 freshmen joined the Minutemen for the 2017-18 season, the largest in the country.With a squad that young, fans expected a slight improvement from 2016-17 and a good deal of growing pains along the way. What happened instead was arguably the biggest story in college hockey.
The doormat program was gone, and “NewMass” had begun.
Behind a rejuvenated goaltending tandem of Ryan Wischow and Matt Murray (not of the Penguins), the Minutemen started a new chapter in the program. When it was all said and done, 11 of the top 12 scorers on UMass were either freshmen or sophomores, with the lone exception being senior transfer Niko Rufo, another newcomer in 2017-18. Makar and Ferraro broke Montour’s points record, even after Makar missed multiple weeks for the World Junior Championship.
The Minutemen ended the season with a 17-20-2 record, a 12-win improvement from last season and the biggest single-season turnaround in the nation. The success brought about another important milestone for the program, one that hadn’t been seen since that magical 2006-07 season.
Playoff hockey returned to the Mullins Center, as UMass hosted Vermont in the first round of the Hockey East playoffs. The teams traded overtime victories in Games 1 and 2 before UMass took home Game 3 by a convincing 5-1 margin. The series featured a few highlight-reel plays, including goals from Makar and John Leonard that landed on SportsCenter’s Top 10.
That wasn’t the biggest highlight, though. It was the response from the fans. Here’s what the Mullins Center looked like for Game 2:
— Ryan Boudway (@rboudway) March 3, 2018
The Mullins Center was packed with 5,778 fans for Game 2, the biggest attendance total since 2014. Almost 12,000 fans came out to show their support during the three-game stretch. From March 1st to the 4th, UMass hockey was back. The question remains: is it here to stay?
There have been plenty of one-hit wonders over the years, some of which have even resulted in championships. From the looks of it, however, this doesn’t seem to be a one-and-done for the Minutemen. Reports say that Cale Makar will return for a second season and Ferraro will likely return as well. They’re losing just two seniors from this year’s squad and are bringing in another strong freshman class.
They have homegrown talent, like Leonard who was born in Amherst. They have guys from around the world, like Eetu Torpström, a defenseman from Finland. They also have upperclassmen that have seen what it’s like to be at the bottom. Take Austin Plevy, a rising senior, who’s been with the program since his freshman year. Plevy came in and made the lineup right away, playing on the first line and the first power-play unit.
A gifted offensive player, Plevy wasn’t asked to play a great deal of defense by Micheletto. In Carvel’s second season, however, that was going to have to change. Plevy spent much of the first half of the season watching from the stands, a lesson not a punishment.
As the season went on Plevy’s minutes slowly began to increase and his all-around game did as well. He became a fixture in the bottom-six for the Minutemen, logging important minutes in his own zone and succeeding in his new role. He showed a new sense of commitment and Carvel rewarded him for it.
That’s the bottom line for Carvel’s NewMass movement: You can’t get by on talent alone. Every player is held accountable for their actions. Every player plays defense and every player can be part of the offense. There’s no leaving the zone early and getting caught shorthanded. No one is entitled to a spot. All 18 spots in the lineup are up for grabs every night.
So, at face value, that 7-2 loss to Northeastern may seem discouraging but it’s not all that bad. It’s a speed bump on the road to a national title. For NewMass, this is the beginning of the road.
Dan Bahl is a writer for The Hockey Writers, covering the Boston Bruins. Dan is a recent graduate of Quinnipiac University, and currently serves as the Lead Analyst of Quinnipiac Women’s Hockey on ESPN+. Dan has worked as the Head of Media Relations for the Valley Blue Sox, as well as a Media Relations Associate for the Hartford Yard Goats.