There’s a lot of optimism surrounding the Massachusetts hockey team for next season, and most of it rests in the well-regarded group of players who will suit up for UMass next fall.
Five incoming recruits for the Minutemen found themselves on the 2017 NHL Central Scouting List’s final rankings and other than top recruit Cale Makar (No. 1 defenseman, No. 10 overall) and local standout John Leonard, UMass assistant coach Ben Barr has had a hand in bringing in the majority of this year’s high-end bunch.
“We’re excited about all of them,” Barr said. “We think they’ll add something to our team and push the guys already on our team.”
Goaltender Matt Murray (No. 29 goalie), defenseman Mario Ferraro (No. 78), center Philip Lagunov (No. 116), and defenseman Jayson Dobay (No. 216) compose the other ranked players.
Barr concluded his first season in Amherst alongside head coach Greg Carvel and assistant coach Jared DeMichiel, rounding out the trio of new voices leading the charge behind the bench.
The Minutemen only managed five wins in 2016-2017 however Barr still managed to attract quality players to the Pioneer Valley. This isn’t something foreign to Barr, who also had stops at Union and Providence where he helped rebuild struggling programs into national championship winners – 2014 for the Dutchmen and 2015 for the Friars – and he feels the group coming in has the drive to start turning the UMass hockey program around.
“We’re all optimistic,” Barr said. “They’re all really hard workers, and all are good hockey players. We hope to be an instant success but it’s hard to say until they get here.”
Smaller, less popular schools in college hockey have a harder time bringing top-talent to campus when they are competing against traditional powers like Boston College, Boston University, Minnesota and Michigan, to name a few, who snatch the top junior and prep school players available, leaving the rest to search in other, less glamourous spots. Most of the popular schools get commitments from players in their early teens and have rosters lined up years down the road. For Barr, his recruiting strategy is the opposite of these big schools.
“The trend [for commitments] is to go younger, younger and younger, but we try not to get caught up in that,” Barr said. “Everyone’s different, and everyone develops differently. If you’re patient, you can find guys that can fit a specific need.”
Along with some of the ranked prospects joining the Minutemen next year, other players such as forwards Oliver Chau, Jake Gaudet, George Mika, Marco Bozzo, and Mitchell Chaffee are all slated to arrive to UMass.
“Maybe somebody isn’t the best player at 14, 15 or 16 years old, maybe they are at 19 years old,” Barr added. “The most important thing is to develop a relationship with these players.”
Before he arrived at UMass, Barr was an associate head coach at Western Michigan for two seasons, where he also assembled a roster that went on to qualify for the NCAA tournament this past season for the first time since 2011-2012.
Barr is considered one of the top assistant coaches in college hockey because of his ability to scout and evaluate players and he said his first stop at Union was where he learned the most.
“I started with Nate Leaman at Union and he brought me to Providence but I don’t think you can teach it,” Barr said about the skills it takes to identify solid players. “You either appreciate a player or you don’t but I realized it’s very, very hardworking. You see guys four to five times over the course of the year and you also have to put a lot of work in online.”
With many junior hockey games being broadcasted and available on the internet, Barr recognized how digital scouting has made it more accessible to see certain players as many times as need be without having to travel around the country.
The Minutemen will have a young team in general next season given that some of the upperclassmen on the roster were asked to leave the program to make way for this class, and combined with the amount of freshman and sophomores that UMass will boast, Barr is hopeful this heralded class of players will start to contribute sooner rather than later.
“Obviously we live in a ‘we want [results] now’ kind of world,” Barr said. “I’d like to think they can contribute right away, but it’ll probably take half a year to get acclimated to Hockey East. We’re very, very young but hopefully we’ll see results soon.”
If Barr’s track record is any indicator, winning results are almost certainly on the cusp.
Ryan Ames can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @_RyanAmes.