This year’s freshmen for the Massachusetts hockey team make up one of the largest and most impressive recruiting classes in all of Division I college hockey this season, in addition to one of the best that UMass has ever seen.
After an offseason filled with eye-grabbing recruits and subsequent anticipation, the first-year players quickly find themselves out on the ice, surrounded by expectations to produce in the early goings.
Safe to say, things are going well so far. Through four matchups with non-conference opponents, the Minutemen have shot out to a 3-1 record and 10 of the their 15 goals have come off the stick of freshmen.
Underlined by top NHL draft picks Cale Makar and Mario Ferraro, the total of 13 freshman that the Minutemen feature are making a big impact out of the gate, but still with plenty of room to improve.
Makar is the highest-ever draft pick to don a UMass sweater, having been drafted by the Colorado Avalanche fourth overall in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft.
“I like the balance of our team, but we are young and we are still learning how to be better,” coach Greg Carvel said.
Aside from the highest draft picks that have ever played for UMass, in Makar and Ferraro, the first-year class also boasts a number of skilled forwards.
Jake Gaudet, a native of Ottawa, Ontario, scored his first collegiate goal in the Minutemen’s first win of the season on the road against Arizona State, two periods before fellow freshman John Leonard scored his own first collegiate goal to put the Minutemen ahead in an eventual 4-2 win.
A week later at Union, George Mika, Mitchell Chaffee and Oliver Chau all joined Gaudet on the list of freshman scorers, each notching a goal in UMass’ 5-4 win.
The style of play and sheer size that the young class brings onto the ice is a factor that was missing from last season, Carvel said. When speaking of Leonard and other freshman forwards like Chau, he also noted the physicality that they bring to the ice.
“You see how hard [Leonard] plays and how powerful he can be,” Carvel said. “Those are power forward types that we’re gonna rely on; we need guys to be effective physically.”
Leonard’s three points—two goals and an assist to Chau—on Saturday guided the Minutemen to a 3-1 victory over American International, their third consecutive win after opening the schedule with a loss.
Freshman defenseman Eetu Torpström is another notable newcomer to UMass, joining the squad all the way from Kuopio, Finland. Through four seasons and 106 games playing with KalPa’s U20 team, Torpström collected 51 career points on 12 goals and 39 assists.
At the start of the season, following six weeks of training and workout sessions on campus to get the group acclimated, Carvel emphasized his efforts to get the freshmen on the ice and in game scenarios as much as possible.
“If you look at the roster decisions we’ve made, we’ve given the younger guys the looks as opposed to the returning guys, because we don’t know what the younger guys are. We’ve seen what the upperclassmen can do in a game and we wanna see what the younger guys can do,” Carvel said.
One forward in particular who has taken advantage of the opportunities to learn and grow in the early season is Gaudet.
The 6-foot-2, 198-pound freshman played three full seasons with the Kemptville 73’s before being recruited by the Minutemen, garnering a total of 109 points and 43 goals in his time playing in the Central Canadian Hockey League.
Gaudet’s first career goal at ASU, as well as UMass’ initial success, has made dissecting his game much easier thus far, he said.
“We’ve had some success and it’s really encouraging for us, it means we’re doing the right things,” he said. “In terms of my play personally, I’m starting to find my groove a little bit. I’m more confident with the puck.”
Through just four games, however, Gaudet and the rest of the freshmen undoubtedly have things to work on that can boost their performance on the ice.
According to Carvel, “The first couple of games, [Gaudet] was very timid and not playing the way he’s capable of. When we recruited him he was a good bit of a wrecking ball and was physically very strong on the ice. So we’ve been trying to reinforce to him that for him to be effective, he has to play with that style where he’s engaged, being physical, going to the net and being a big presence.”
Physicality among the freshman is a theme that Carvel has brought up quite a bit throughout the start of the season, as well as “pushing engagement,” he said.
Being more involved in the play and causing problems with the body is something that Gaudet understands and recognizes as a factor that can take his game to the next level.
“That’s a huge part of my game,” Gaudet said. “When I play physical I’m much more involved and I’m a better hockey player. I think that’s something the coaches have recognized and I recognize as something that I try to work on day in and day out with my game.”
Before making his way to UMass over the summer, the freshman was already working on refining his game at development camp with the Ottawa Senators. Playing alongside and against some extreme competition, Gaudet said the experience really helped him prepare for entering the world of collegiate play.
“It was great for me just to play with players that are at the same NCAA-caliber, and above a little bit, just to see where I’m at against those players was really cool,” he said. “To come in with that confidence of being able to play at development camp, it really helped me transition to this level.”
Another transition that the freshman had to make upon arriving at campus was the difference in fan presence.
Through his time in the Central Canadian and Eastern Ontario Junior Hockey Leagues, “that’s something that I haven’t had in my career,” Gaudet said. “It’s awesome to have the fans’ support. It’s really cool, especially to go out there and see people in the stands and have [them] cheering.”
The fans were certainly cheering at the Mullins Center on Saturday night, when students and ticket-buyers alike were seen lining the sidewalks to get a look at the UMass home opener.
After the last few years of less-than-exciting results, the Minutemen, now 3-1 heading into a home-and-home with Ohio State for homecoming weekend. They’re putting themselves on the map and generating tangible excitement amongst students around campus, and the youngest Minutemen are responsible for much of the buzz.
Liam Flaherty can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @_LiamFlaherty.