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Buzz starting to build for UMass hockey

(Caroline O’Connor/ Daily Collegian)

Massachusetts hockey coach Greg Carvel is excited.

The bench boss of the Minutemen is entering his second year with the program and is looking forward to seeing what his young squad can do on the ice in 2017-18.

“We’re trying to create an identity as a team, which I don’t think we were really able to do last year,” Carvel said. “The character of [the freshman class] is really impressive…which I’m really excited about.”

UMass went through a complete overhaul of its roster last spring, which saw nine players either transfer or leave the Minutemen, and welcomed 13 freshmen – ranked as the third best recruiting class in the country per NeutralZone.net – with the spotlight being shined particularly on Cale Makar and Mario Ferraro.

Makar was selected fourth overall – the highest UMass player ever drafted – by the Colorado Avalanche in the National Hockey League Entry Draft in June, while Ferraro was picked 49th overall by the San Jose Sharks.

“They created that buzz by being really good hockey players, and we’re very fortunate to have them here,” said Carvel. “They’ll help us tremendously. They’re both really gifted players, and will play really important roles for us from day one.”

Makar and Ferraro alone comprise much of the excitement surrounding the Minutemen this season, but Carvel recognized some other names that have impressed him through this early part of the year.

“A couple guys that have jumped out at me are Jake Gaudet, who’s an older kid,” Carvel said.  “He’s one of these classic late bloomers out of Ottawa. He’s a big body, 6-foot-3 center iceman, which you need guys like that. We didn’t have that presence up front last year. We expect him to be an important player. Phil Lagunov is another freshman center. Those two guys are probably going to be our first two centers, and that’s asking a lot out of young guys.”

Gaudet starred for the Kemptville 73’s of the Central Canada Hockey League, tallying 109 points in over 148 career regular season games, while Lagunov scored 88 points over 101 career regular season games with three separate teams in the Ontario Junior Hockey League.

Given the large faction of fresh faces UMass now has and the praise that has followed them, the veterans (six upperclassmen, including lone senior Jake Horton) have been put in a bit of a precarious position, with competition for playing time seeing a tremendous uptick.

“I give our returners a lot of credit, because it’s been a unique situation since I got here with the transition of the program,” said Carvel.  “But I think the kids that are here now feel firmly established. We’re trying to build a culture here and it doesn’t build unless everybody buys in. The upperclassmen I think feel completely bought in, they’ve been great role models to our younger guys.

“It’s just a really good energy in the locker room right now… I said this last year all the time, as a coach I get judged on wins and losses but I judge my team on how well they play and what standard we set, and if they’re able to move beyond that standard,” he added. “I’m excited to see this team just really evolve, and play hockey in a way I want this program to play going forward.”

Less than a week away from the Minutemen’s scrimmage against Queens University on Sept. 30, UMass’ lineup is still very much in its trial phase.

“Because there are so many new guys and because so many of the veterans came back in much better shape than they’ve ever been, it’s kind of been from day one, a completely wide open roster, and that’s good and bad,” Carvel said.

“[It’s] bad in that, I still don’t know who our line combinations are,” he added. “It’s good for the players up and down the lineup in that they’ve got an absolutely fair, even chance to get in the lineup. But I’ve got to hunker down with my coaches and we’ve got to figure out which 12 forwards deserve to play in that exhibition game. Unfortunately, we only have six healthy [defensemen], so all six of those guys will play, but I like the six guys we have back there.”

On Sept. 24th the Hockey East Writers & Broadcasters Association released its preseason poll, and the Minutemen were ranked No. 10, one ahead of last-place Maine. More preseason rankings that show UMass in the basement among Hockey East teams are probable, but Carvel doesn’t necessarily see that as a bad thing.

“I don’t want false expectations for these guys. Again, we’re extremely young, these guys just need to play and play without pressure. I think if you watch a hockey team, you know if they’re playing hard and playing right. That’s what I want,” said Carvel.

It’s been a long road for Minutemen hockey with last season, which saw UMass win only five games, as no exception. Yet, the hype surrounding the Minutemen could very well be entering its peak this fall, setting up an auspicious future.

“I heard this word about buzz about the program and I understand why, and we should be better, but we’re going to be extremely young, we’re going to make mistakes, but I’m excited to see how this group grows,” said Carvel. “As this freshmen class goes through four years, I imagine that the hockey program is going to improve dramatically. Due to the size of this class and the character of this class, I feel that they have the potential to do that.”

Ryan Ames can be reached at rames@umass.edu or on Twitter @_RyanAmes.

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