Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

UMass hockey’s freshmen class is being counted on to produce instantly for the Minutemen

Katherine Mayo/Collegian
Katherine Mayo/Collegian

Freshmen in college hockey aren’t typically relied upon to step right into a lineup and have an immediate impact. Unless that player is a special talent like former Boston University forward and current member of the Buffalo Sabres, Jack Eichel, most freshmen have to earn their ice time and prove they belong.

This year’s Massachusetts hockey team is in a bit of a different situation though, as all eight players in this year’s freshmen class have been given ample opportunities to establish themselves.

All eight skated in at least one of the two games in UMass’ season opener against Colorado College Oct. 7-8, and Minutemen coach Greg Carvel has already liked what he has seen from his freshmen in the early goings of the season.

“We have four forwards in our top three lines, we’ve got two defenseman playing important roles and a goaltender who’s battling for the (job in) net so I’m happy with the group,” Carvel said. “Not only are they playing on a certain level on the ice, but off the ice, they’re mature and they’re kids that are doing things the way that we need things to be done around here to change the culture.”

Goaltender Ryan Wischow made headlines after he recorded a shutout victory in his first career start in net in the season opener for UMass, clinching a 3-0 win over CC. Jonny Lazarus scored in both contests against the Tigers and leads the Minutemen in goals after two games. Griff Jeszka recorded a goal and assist in the opening series and has also been a force in the faceoff circle winning 68 percent (17-for-25) of faceoff draws. Defenseman Shane Bear has seen significant ice-time as he’s been on the first defensemen pair as well as the first power-play unit, earning an assist in the 7-4 loss to CC on Oct. 8.

“They’re an older group that has had to take not the easiest path to Division I, so those kids come in with good character and they’re not taking anything for granted and they don’t expect anything to be handed to them,” Carvel said.

With a new coach and numerous fresh faces in the program this season, UMass should be an intriguing team to watch, as the underclassmen, including this year’s freshmen class, should largely factor in the success of Carvel’s first team.

Although the Minutemen are infused with youth, compared to the rest of Hockey East, they are one of the oldest teams in the conference. BU and Boston College are the two youngest teams in the nation with an average age of 20 years, one month.

The average age of the UMass roster this season is 21 years, eight months, which is the second eldest in the Hockey East, trailing only Vermont.

Again, since this is Carvel’s first year manning the post as head coach of the Minutemen, he’ll be in charge of developing this group for the next four years as they’ll arguably be the most important class involved in turning around a program that hasn’t had much to celebrate the last few years.

“As a group, I really like the group,” Carvel said. “I think they are going to be important players and help a lot in turning things around here over four years.”

While the positive results might not come immediately for UMass, the progression and transformation of its young players will go a long way in setting up a bright future for Minutemen hockey, and Carvel seems to have solidified that foundation with a group of freshmen that have the potential to lead a new generation of UMass hockey players.

Lazarus’ Lightning Fast Start

Not too long ago, Lazarus wasn’t sure if his career would extend beyond junior hockey. After playing two seasons for the Wichita Falls Wildcats of the North American Hockey League (NAHL) where he put up 86 total points. However, despite the success, things weren’t looking too promising for Lazarus’ college hopes.

“I was getting looked at a bit but no one really offered me any scholarships,” Lazarus said. “I wasn’t really sure if I would play Division I because I was only talking to Division III schools pretty much, so there was a lot of doubt sometimes. But I guess everything ended up working out.”

Lazarus credited assistant coach Ben Barr as a major reason he’s a Minuteman on this year’s roster, as Barr was the one who reached out to Lazarus and started to show serious interest in his game.

Heading into this season, Lazarus wasn’t really sure where he would fit in the lineup, but after scoring a goal in each of the first two games, he’s already the team’s leading goal scorer just weeks into his collegiate career.

“Definitely not,” Lazarus said about if he expected to produce right away. “As a freshman, you kind of just want to make any impact you can. I was fortunate enough to be put on a line with [Dominic] Trento and [Patrick] Lee and each of them gave me a beautiful pass both nights and I was just fortunate enough to have them go in.”

Since he’s arrived in Amherst, the Syosset, New York native has been a consistent producer scoring those two goals, as well as earning time on the first power-play unit.

“We brought him in here because he has the ability to score and create offense,” Carvel said of Lazarus. “He needs to play a little quicker, work on his feet a little bit, get stronger in battles because when he’s around the net with the puck on his stick he does a lot of good stuff. Again, if he can find more pace to his game, he’ll be even more dangerous because he does have that ability to score.”

Now that Lazarus has gotten a little taste of college hockey, he wants to use what he’s learned so far to help the rest of the team succeed.

“Whatever I can do to help the team,” Lazarus said. “Whether it be set up them for goals, but if the puck keeps coming to me hopefully I’ll keep putting it in.”

Bearing the Load

Much like a rookie NHL defenseman, a freshman college defenseman is one of the hardest positions in all of sports to master. The speed of the game is much faster, opposing players are much bigger and mistakes are much more costly.

Despite this belief, Bear has started his career at UMass relatively smoothly.

“It’s been a big adjustment to say the least,” Bear said. “I think something that has made it easier is the group of guys that we have here and how supportive they are.”

Last season, William Lagesson and Ivan Chukarov were highly touted recruits and have since turned into catalysts on the backend for UMass. Bear admits to looking at both Lagesson and Chukarov as role models during his first go-around in college hockey.

“My (defense)-partner, William Lagesson, he’s a great guy to play with,” Bear said. “I feel like he’s a guy that’s pushed me in the right direction, and I feel like getting the opportunity to play with him is helping me with the transition.”

Bear, who hails from Calgary, Alberta, played his junior hockey for the Brooks Bandits of the Alberta Junior Hockey League, the former junior team of fellow Minutemen Patrick Lee and Austin Plevy. As a member of the Bandits, Bear registered 108 points over 156 career games, and won an AJHL championship.

As a member of UMass’ hockey team, Bear has already catapulted to the top of the defensemen depth chart and is one of the leaders on the Minutemen blue line.

“Shane’s hockey sense is really good, he’s a competitive kid who really knows how to play at his size, and he knows what he isn’t,” Carvel said. “That’s important because when you know what you are and what you aren’t, you don’t put yourself in situations where you won’t be successful and he does a real good job playing to his strengths.”

Defensemen are one of the most active members on a hockey team, given they usually get the most ice-time every game, and with Bear getting so much playing time so soon, there’s a potential for burnout, especially as a young, inexperienced player. However, Carvel has faith he’ll stay sharp throughout the year.

“I don’t think he’ll have much problem,” Carvel said. ”We’ll have to work to keep him fresh and make sure he stays healthy and ahead of his school work, but he’s done a great job so far.”

Much like the rest of his teammates, Bear doesn’t have any personal goals this season, instead, he wants to see UMass hockey take a step in the right direction.

“I think the biggest thing for me is setting myself up for success and contributing to the team’s overall goals in terms of success,” Bear said. “I’m very fortunate and very excited about being a part of that change and I’m going to do whatever the coaches ask me to do to make sure that I’m doing everything possible to make that happen.”

Ryan Ames can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @_RyanAmes.

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