UMass hockey notebook: Return was season’s missing piece; Jones signs with Rangers

  • Massachusetts' Zac Jones (24) is greeted by teammates after scoring against Minnesota Duluth during the first period of an NCAA men's Frozen Four hockey semifinal in Pittsburgh last week. AP

Staff Writer
Published: 4/13/2021 8:18:34 PM

The final piece of UMass’ national championship hockey season fell into place when the team’s Peter Pan bus rounded the final corner approaching the Mullins Center.

Hundreds of fans thronged the parking lot. Some climbed trees for a clearer view of the Minutemen as they returned with the trophy. Matt Murray let out a laughing “woah-ha-ho-ho” in disbelief.

UMass couldn’t play in front of fans at its home arena all year because of COVID-19 protocols. The Minutemen had a few family members at the NCAA East Regional, and roughly 4,000 total fans were allowed in PPG Paints Arena for the Frozen Four.

Sunday’s return to campus was the team’s first – and only – chance to connect directly with its fans during a historic season.

“I wasn’t sure what to expect. You could feel the emotion and the gratitude. That’s been the missing part of this whole season, the fan support and reaction, the buzz and the energy that they bring. We were all so grateful. It was fun,” UMass coach Greg Carvel said. “They’d earned that. It was great for the kids for them to feel that from the university, from their peers.”

The gathering and recognition was a capstone moment for UMass’ five four-year seniors: Philip Lagunov, captain Jake Gaudet, Oliver Chau, George Mika and Murray. They entered the program as part of a 13-member class and are the only ones still at the university. Four are playing professional hockey (three in the NHL, one AHL), some transferred out and another returned to Europe.

“You can’t overstate the value of good people in your program,” Carvel said. “They’re culture builders. You need those kids. They all contributed on the ice. They made their mark, but more so off the ice. We don’t establish the culture that we have if those kids don’t turn it around. I’ll always fondly remember them.”

DEPARTURES – Zac Jones is officially a New York Ranger, the team announced Tuesday. The sophomore defenseman signed his entry-level contract forgoing his final two years of eligibility at UMass.

Jones was a third-round pick in 2019 that earned second-team all-America honors this season. The 20-year-old was also named to the Frozen Four All-Tournament team.

Carvel was surprised to see him leave school, as they had laid out a three-year plan when he arrived at UMass.

“That was a little surprising. I don’t know what transpired. He said many times he was coming back,” Carvel said. “When you win the whole thing and you’re an all-American and you play really well, you put yourself in a situation where you can make the decision. I respect his decision, love him as a kid. One of the best players I’ve ever coached. We would have loved to have him back another year because it would have been a little easier to repeat.”

Jones is the fifth player in the past three years to leave early for the NHL. Cale Makar and Mario Ferraro signed contracts after the 2019 national title loss to Minnesota Duluth, and John Leonard and Mitchell Chaffee left last year when the CO ID-19 pandemic shut down the postseason.

“You think you get used to it or when it happens you wouldn’t be as emotionally connect to it, but you are,” Carvel said.

Though all of UMass’ seniors are technically eligible to return, Carvel doesn’t expect them back. He said Lagunov and Murray had already entered the transfer portal, and with incoming recruits and scholarship limits, there may not be room for a fifth year.

“We’re as normal. We only get 18 scholarships. We’ve got kids to come in. I think four years at an institution should be enough,” Carvel said. “It’s something we didn’t want to broach until the season is over.”

UMass will hold its exit meetings with players over the next few days after they had some time off following the national championship. The plan for roster construction will crystallize with those meetings and depending on which players sign professional contracts. Three other Minutemen are NHL draft picks: goalie Filip Lindberg (Minnesota) and defensemen Matthew Kessel (St. Louis) and Marc Del Gaizo (Nashville).

COACHING STAFF –  After any championship run, the team’s assistants become hot head coaching prospects. Ben Barr and Jared DeMichiel have been considered for positions in the past, but Carvel isn’t as worried about them leaving as he has been in previous seasons.

“We all joke we’re all replaceable, but those guys will be tough to replace when they do decide to leave. We’ve got a really good thing going here. Not only the winning, it’s the functioning of the program. We appreciate what we’re doing and understand that going somewhere else you may not have the same thing. I think those guys will be more selective when those things come,” Carvel said. “You’d hate to walk away from a good thing just to get more money. When they feel ‘I think this is the right move,’ I’ll be 100 percent behind them. I won’t be as nervous as I was a couple years ago because we needed to get foundations set, and now those things are set.”

CAWLIDGE HOCKEY – Carvel found his place in college hockey and doesn’t plan on returning to the NHL.

“It’s the personal relationships. It’s the investment you can make in an individual and the mutual relationship. In pro it’s an individual thing. The players’ contracts determine what they do individually, not what the team does. At the college level, ADs recognize what you’re doing. You don’t necessarily have to win for the AD to see you’re doing a good job,” he said. “I feel very fortunate to be where I am. I always knew where I wanted to be was at this level because of the type of coach I am and what I wanted to do and accomplish with players can’t be done at the NHL level.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @Kylegrbwsk.




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