Walfish: Chaffee, McLaughlin signings a credit to culture shift at UMass

  • UMass junior Mitchell Chaffee is shown during a game against Northeastern on Nov. 1 in Boston. AP

  • Mitchell Chaffee, left, of UMass, moves the puck past Shane Bear, of RPI, Oct. 11 at the Mullins Center. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Published: 3/24/2020 3:49:28 PM

On Tuesday, Mitchell Chaffee made it official and inked a two-year entry-level deal with the Minnesota Wild.

He becomes the third member of UMass’ program-changing recruiting class from 2017 to sign with a professional franchise, joining Mario Ferraro and Cale Makar, both of whom made the jump last season. There will likely be a fourth NHL contract signed from that class as Amherst native John Leonard has until July 1, 2021, to put pen to paper for the San Jose Sharks.

Chaffee, though, is the outlier among the group of four that were at the center of UMass’ revival. Makar was the No. 4 overall pick in 2017, Ferraro was a second-round selection by the Sharks that year, and Leonard was drafted in the sixth round in 2018 by San Jose. However, Chaffee was an undrafted free agent, not a tremendous oversight given the expectations placed on him coming to Amherst.

He registered just 30 points on 16 goals and 14 assists in 110 games over two seasons in the USHL prior to signing with UMass. In just one fewer game over three seasons at UMass, Chaffee scored 47 goals and had 95 points. He was also named a first-team All-American as a sophomore. The junior matured and grew his way into becoming an NHL player thanks in large part to the coaching staff.

“Our entire UMass hockey program is excited for the opportunity in the NHL that Mitchell has earned,” Carvel said in a press release. “He has been on the forefront of the culture change within our program since the day he stepped on campus. His play on the ice, his success in the classroom and his leadership amongst his peers have all been impressive to witness. Mitchell is a rare power forward who plays a heavy game and can score goals. He will be a great addition to the Minnesota Wild organization and the UMass coaching staff is extremely proud!”

Chaffee isn’t the only one who has grown under Carvel’s tutelage into a professional hockey player. Before his senior year, did anyone outside of Brett Boeing and his family believe that he could be a pro in the United States? Yet this year he scored nine goals and had 11 assists in 40 games for the Toledo Walleye of the ECHL.

How about Jake McLaughlin, who really struggled his first two years in Amherst? Did anyone expect him to become a shutdown defenseman as a senior and sign an AHL contract with the to-be-named affiliate of the Vegas Golden Knights? Yet just last week, McLaughlin signed his deal to become part of the franchise. Vegas made the announcement official on Tuesday.

“It’s very exciting to hear that Jake McLaughlin has signed a professional contract with the Vegas Golden Knights organization,” Carvel said in a release. “Jake proved this season that he is an NHL prospect and I believe he has the ability to play in the NHL. Jake was an elite defensive defenseman this year, but also has an offensive component to his game. He was one of the national leaders in plus-minus and was largely responsible for UMass hockey being one of the best defensive teams in the country. Our entire staff wishes Jake the best as he moves on to the professional ranks!”

The credit for all of this belongs with Carvel, Ben Barr and Jared DeMichiel for recruiting and developing players for the next level. But perhaps more than the wins and losses of the past two seasons, the maturation of the players on the ice is the biggest sign of the culture shift at UMass.

It’s easier to win when you have NHL talent like the foursome from that 2017 class or the three other players currently on the roster who were drafted by an NHL club. It’s not the only ingredient in winning, of course, – see Wisconsin this year – but it’s a component for sure. It’s even easier to win when you have players like Boeing or McLaughlin, who improve so much over four years that they actually become pro-level players themselves.

Then there are players like Chaffee, the ones who maybe found the right system to showcase their talent or just grew into their own role. Those are the players that seem to click right away in college and really become the glue of great teams. They make NHL franchises almost immediately regret passing up on their rights when they had the chance and become critical members of great teams.

The national narrative last season was that Makar carried UMass to the national championship game. The story about this season outside Amherst was about how the Minutemen were going to replace Makar’s talent. The answer to that question was obviously the culture Carvel created in the locker room, but it’s more than that.

UMass’ culture has shifted in large part because the coaching staff has taken the time and put in the energy to help develop the players on the ice. The Minutemen have become one of the best programs in the country because of players like Chaffee and McLaughlin finding another gear and playing their way into professional contracts.

Wins and losses are ultimately what we judge coaches upon, but in this case, it’s almost as impressive to judge the number of professional UMass has had in just the last two years. And that is a credit to the culture.

Josh Walfish can be reached at jwalfish@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @JoshWalfishDHG. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.

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