Kessel and Cassaro adjusting well to college hockey and solidifying UMass hockey’s back-end

Growing pains seem few and far between for the defensive pairing

Nina+Walat

Nina Walat

By Evan Marinofsky, Collegian Staff

If a poll was done at the start of the season asking who the most impressive freshman would be for the Massachusetts hockey team through seven games, approximately zero people probably would’ve said defenseman Matthew Kessel.

And that’s no slight at Kessel. It’s just that he was the last recruit and came in roughly a month before school started. It’d take some time to adjust, right? Getting used to the up-tempo systems of college hockey provides a challenge to any player, let alone one who comes in on such short notice.

Wrong.

Head coach Greg Carvel came out after UMass’ 6-3 win over Northeastern last Friday night and dubbed him the “most impressive freshman.”

“He’s a really smart hockey player,” Carvel said Friday. “He has a great stick, he has great offensive sense, he’s big, he’s strong, he’s a hockey player. Every game I’ve been most impressed with him out of that freshman class, and we’ve got a good class, but he’s been a horse.”

Kessel certainly didn’t mind the compliment.

“Yeah it’s obviously great hearing that from our head coach,” Kessel said with a smile. “It’s great hearing it from him. I just think it comes to sticking with the basics, playing my game and working hard is what they want.”

The Minutemen haven’t exactly had it easy on defense this season with Marc Del Gaizo’s injuries. And with Cale Makar and Mario Ferraro’s departures, most expected the back-end to regress.

Instead, Kessel and fellow freshman Gianfranco Cassaro have solidified the third-pairing. In the past few games, the two freshmen have manned the top of the offensive zone on the second power play unit. Kessel’s become a catalyst on one of college hockey’s best penalty kills; Cassaro’s still adjusting to the penalty kill.

“I’ve started to play a couple shifts here and there on the PK and obviously it’s something I have to work on,” Cassaro said. “As time goes on and I get more penalty kill time, it’s going to be a lot easier for me.”

The pairing has been a match that’s worked really well thus far. They’re roommates and have acclimated to each other’s style of play quickly.

“He’s one of my best friends on the team,” Cassaro said of Kessel. “We’re with each other all the time so it’s pretty easy playing with someone you know and someone you’re with every single minute of the day. It was really easy stepping in with him. He makes my night easy and hopefully I make his easy sometimes.”

That last part was exactly how Carvel and the coaching staff planned the pairing to be – one would always provide insurance for the other.

“Cassaro is the more offensive-minded, high-risk, too high-risk at times, and Matt’s not,” Carvel said of the freshmen. “Matt’s very calculated. We’ve matched a bigger guy with a smaller guy and that just seemed to be the right fit for us.”

The adjustments to the college hockey level for both have been different. For an offensive defenseman such as Cassaro, things aren’t going to be easy at first. Rushing the puck and the scoring chances that were once there in juniors aren’t always going to be present.

“When I’m on the power play playing against other kills, they block a lot more shots so it’s kind of harder to get shots through,” Cassaro said.

Despite that, Cassaro says nothing has really surprised him at this level.

Kessel on the other hand admits that there was a big adjustment, at least for the first game.

“The first game was a bit of a learning curve,” Kessel said. “It was a pretty fast paced game. I think I wasn’t quite ready for that. But after getting a few under my belt, I think I’ve adjusted to the speed very well.”

Even though Kessel’s not as offensive as Cassaro, No. 4’s actually put up some points this season – two goals and two assists to boast. But what’s impressed his coach most?

Consistency.

“Very consistent,” Carvel said of Kessel. “He goes out and he’s the same every shift. He competes, he’s smart, he’s got good puck sense, got good puck skills. He’s a really complete defenseman – he helps you at both ends of the ice and he’s got a tremendous attitude and competes hard. He fits our identity really well.”

Alongside the coaching staff helping Kessel out early into his time at UMass, having two older brothers who also played college hockey has also helped ease the transition. William Kessel played at Western Michigan and Peter Kessel currently plays at Holy Cross.

The younger Kessel says he’s looked up to the older two his whole life and they’ve handed him some advice as he’s made the jump to hockey at UMass.

“Just telling me to keep working hard and improving every day,” Kessel said of his brothers’ advice. “Nothing too specific. I get some comments after each game for sure from them.”

Kessel’s next jersey number

UMass announced on Tuesday that they would be retiring Pat Keenan’s No. 4, which then begs the question: what will Kessel’s next number be?

“I heard about that, but we’ll just have to see,” Kessel said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Any preference?

“Nothing really,” he said. “I’m good with whatever.”

Unfortunately for him, his number in juniors is already taken.

“I was No. 2 in juniors, so [that belongs to] Marc Del Gaizo. Won’t be taking that.”

Evan Marinofsky can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @emarinofsky.