Thom Kendall/UMass Athletics
Thom Kendall/UMass Athletics

‘Matt Kessel is the best NHL prospect on our team right now’: How Matthew Kessel went from late addition to do-it-all defenseman for UMass

It’s been a whirlwind, unexpected journey for Matthew Kessel

April 6, 2021

Greg Carvel has seen firsthand the benefits of building up a college program fast and successfully.

There was a National Championship appearance in Year No. 3. In that same season, the Massachusetts hockey team finished first in Hockey East. All of that earned Carvel the 2019 Spencer Penrose Award, annually given to the coach of the year in men’s Division I ice hockey.

A symptom of producing this kind of talent is them leaving for the NHL before their four years are up.

Yes, Carvel gets to bask in his past successes when he gets home late from Mullins Center, kicks his feet up and turns on NHL Network. But what would the 2020-21 version of the Minutemen look like with Chaffee and Leonard still running the top-six? How about if Mario Ferraro stuck around for one more year? Though it’s part of the deal with really good players, they’re still questions that can’t help but be asked.

So, when Carvel was asked about defenseman Matt Kessel’s readiness for the NHL, he was understandably annoyed.

“Hopefully after four years of college,” Carvel said in response to my question on when Kessel, a St. Louis Blues draft pick, might be ready to turn pro. “Evan, don’t be pushing him out of here any sooner than he needs to be. I’ll get you fired if you get on some kind of program to get Matt Kessel out of school early.”

Carvel was joking there. His next sentence, however, was not.

“Matt Kessel is the best NHL prospect on our team right now.”

Given what Kessel has become in two years at UMass – an elite, two-way defender at the college level – it’s not that surprising.

It does become a bit of a shock when you consider how it all started.

***

Nina Walat/Daily Collegian

***

In March 2019, the University of Miami Ohio hockey team fired longtime head coach Enrico Blasi.

“This is a difficult day for Miami Athletics and our hockey program,” athletic director David Sayler said at the time regarding the firing.

Collateral damage to that “difficult day” was a tall, two-way defender from the USHL named Matthew Kessel. He’d committed there under Blasi. When news reached him the 20-year head coach had stood on the Miami bench for the final time, Kessel decommitted. He still really wanted to play college hockey.

Just a few months later, about 821 miles from Oxford, Ohio, UMass had a Finnish defenseman get homesick and leave the team. Suddenly, the Minutemen were on the hunt to add someone and it was late – by this point, it was early August.

Ben Barr and Jared DeMichiel – UMass’ assistant coaches and recruiting gurus – had to throw together a list of potential kids to recruit in a very short time. When Barr took another look at the list, one name stood out.

Matt Kessel.

Barr coached Kessel’s older brother Will as an assistant at Western Michigan. It was enough of a connection for the Minutemen assistant to give Kessel a call about coming to UMass without ever having seen the campus and been recruited normally.

Remember: This was August. The season began in October.

“As soon as we had a conversation with Matt, we felt like he was one of our guys who would fit in here,” DeMichiel said. “He didn’t blink for a second.”

DeMichiel told him he had to come in for the fall. Then came the application to get into the school. Finding a dorm to live in came next. Kessel badly wanted to move onto college hockey, so he was equally all in on speeding up the process to get to Amherst.

The two UMass assistants watched some film on Kessel. Both had also seen Kessel a lot while recruiting Ryan Sullivan in the USHL.

“Even when a kid is committed to another school, it’s not like you’re looking at their committed guys, but you see those guys,” DeMichiel said. “You know them for years.”

Carvel, on the other hand, had never seen Kessel play before and he was upfront about that in his first conversation with the future Minuteman. The UMass head coach makes it known that he tries to stay out of the way of his trusty sidekicks while recruiting until late in the process.

There was a clear message from the conversation that stuck with Kessel as he made his way east.

“He let me know that there was definitely an opportunity for me to play here.”

It was an opportunity Kessel practically dove headfirst into.

We felt like he was one of our guys who would fit in here. He didn’t blink for a second.”

— Jared DeMichael

***

A little over two months after being on the open market for a school to play at, Matt Kessel found himself as one of the opening night defensemen on a team that played in the National Championship the previous year. He was also part of the crew looking to fill the massive, NHL-sized holes left behind by Cale Makar and Mario Ferraro. It certainly was not an easy job.

Kessel didn’t have much time to think about any of that though. He was still busy acclimating to campus. Fortunately for him, he split time with the Fargo Force and the Chicago Steel in his first USHL season. He then went to the Sioux Falls Stampede his second season. He knew a thing or three about moving around to new places.

The defender also had friends on the team like Ty Farmer, Ryan Sullivan and Cal Kiefiuk.

“They definitely helped me transition right away,” Kessel said. “So, it made it a little smoother.”

What Kessel didn’t know a ton about was scoring goals. In the USHL, he was a classic stay-at-home defender. His focus was on his own zone, and he did a darn good job of patrolling it. The offensive end, however, wasn’t his neck of the woods.

Over the course of 114 USHL games, Kessel registered two goals and 22 points.

In the second game of the season, Kessel raised eyebrows by scoring the team’s lone goal in a 3-1 loss to Northeastern. He put up three more points – a goal and two assists – in a weekend set with the Huskies less than a month later.

Less than 31 days into the season and he’d already matched his goal output for three seasons in the USHL.

His offensive emergence, along with his defensive wizardry, earned him the promotion to playing top-four minutes alongside do-it-all defenseman Marc Del Gaizo.

He ended the season with seven goals, which was tops among all UMass defensemen, as well as all freshmen defensemen in division I.

“In the USHL, I took pride in the defensive part of my game,” Kessel said regarding his added scoring prowess. “I think here I was able to step in right away, get comfortable playing defense and then helping out with offense as much as I could.”

Part of the reason Kessel felt so comfortable in the defensive zone was the system Carvel has in place. UMass prides itself on man-to-man defense in its own end. It comes down to picking out a player from the opposing team, keeping up with them (speed) and finding a way to steal the puck (strength).

Carvel and the coaching staff prepare new players for this with rigorous, intense practices well before the season starts. Battle drills dominate the schedule.

“I think that was a big part of it,” Kessel said of those tough practices.

Those tough practices led to the two-way play, which led to an increased job description, which led to more scoring, which led to more publicity on the defenseman who historically hadn’t garnered much attention.

That came to a head one day on an Amherst golf course on Oct. 7, 2020.

As Kessel played a round of golf, his phone began blowing up with text messages. The texts were so many that Kessel still didn’t know exactly why all these people were contacting him.

Then he looked it up: In the 2020 NHL Draft, he’d been selected in the fifth round by the St. Louis Blues.

“It was very exciting,” Kessel recalled. “Definitely something I’ll never forget.”

This season, Carvel paired Kessel with Zac Jones – one of the most dynamic defenders in college hockey. Jones was a 2019 third-round pick by the New York Rangers. The duo work seamlessly, blending Kessel’s stout defensive play and heavy shot with Jones’ elusiveness and puck-carrying skills. They balance – and strengthen — each other’s weaknesses.

The two even man one of the Minutemen’s two power play units with Jones acting as the distributor at the top of the umbrella and Kessel setting up to his partner’s left for the one-timer.

“The last two years, I’ve really seen his offensive game start to come along and he looks way more comfortable with the puck,” Jones said of his d-partner. “He’s making plays left and right, he’s got great hands and he’s using that confidence in himself to make himself a better player. It’s been great. He’s made my life a lot easier this year, so I’ve been nothing but pleased with him.”

That confidence has propelled Kessel to leading the nation in goals among all defenseman with nine lamplighters. Five of those were on the power play. That leads the nation, too. His 22 points rank him seventh.

Is Kessel surprised by any of it?

“Wouldn’t say super surprised,” he said. “Just thankful for how everything worked out. Always believed in myself and I think things worked out very well here.”

***

Nina Walat/Daily Collegian

***

It comes as no surprise that the two NHL defensemen Matt Kessel watches most closely are Seth Jones of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Colton Parayko of the St. Louis Blues. Kessel is listed at 6-foot-3, 203 lbs. Jones comes in at 6-foot-4, 205 lbs; Parayko is 6-foot-6, 230.

Jones and Parayko are elite right-shot defenders who take pride in their ability to thrive in any situation. When Kessel makes the jump to the NHL, his best-case scenario would be emulating the impact of those two.

Kessel admits he thinks about the NHL sometimes. How could he not? He’s drafted. It’s the level of hockey every kid works towards growing up. All the weights lifted, early-morning practices, moving away from home – it’s all in pursuit of dawning an NHL sweater.

He’s made serious strides at UMass, turning from a defensive d-man to one who can be successfully deployed at both ends of the ice.

“There’s still room for growth,” Carvel points out. “I don’t know if he’ll make it four years here. He’s not ready yet, but he will be at some point.”

Kessel agrees. He thinks he still has a lot more to give at the collegiate level. He’s not quite ready to leave Amherst for St. Louis.

“I plan on coming back next year and being a big part for the Minutemen,” Kessel confirmed in a recent phone conversation.

As much as that’s music to Carvel’s ears, next year is far from the focus.

“Still got a lot of work to do this season,” Kessel said when asked about the NHL. “I think we can go far the rest of the season and hopefully we’ve got a lot of games to win.”

Kessel’s prophecy was correct – they haven’t lost a game since. That was said prior to this year’s Hockey East playoffs, which UMass won for the first time in school history. That was also said before the NCAA tournament. The Minutemen patiently await a rematch of the 2019 National Championship in the Frozen Four.

Carvel and co. certainly hope there are still more games to win. But if there’s one thing for certain, it’s that the Minutemen have a pretty good shot at making that come true with Kessel in the lineup for the rest of this season.

And next year’s, too.

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