Keeping Score with Chip Ainsworth: What’s ahead for Greg Carvel’s crew?

Published: 04-19-2024 3:15 PM

Modified: 04-19-2024 5:35 PM


Good morning!
During Denver’s four-game run to its 10th national title, Pioneers goalie Matt Davis allowed three goals. The first was by Liam Gorman, his only goal in a UMass uniform, the second by Cornell’s Nick DeSantis, and the last was by BU’s Luke Tuch in the Frozen Four semifinals.

That didn’t faze BC forward Cutter Gauthier whose 38 goals led the nation, or Ryan Leonard who tweaked the twine 31 times this season. The final 60 minutes, said Gauthier, were a mere prelude to the championship.

“There will be a lot of tears for that team over there,” Gauthier said on ESPN’s pregame show.

The Pioneers never would’ve gotten out of Springfield without Davis’s 46 saves against UMass and 24 stops against Cornell. Two weeks later the 22-year-old Calgary native shut his eyes and looked skyward waiting for overtime against BU. Was he praying? Meditating? Nervous?

“All the above,” texted Denver alum Robbie Cohn, who was with his wife Mary and seated next to Davis’s parents at the sold out Xcel Center in Minneapolis. “Wonderful people. Their other son goes to Notre Dame.”

Watching Davis’s acrobatics was reminiscent of Ken Dryden frustrating Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and Johnny Bucyk in the 1971 playoffs and of Jim Craig stoning the Soviets at Lake Placid. When you’re hot, you’re hot.

Despite a modest futures bet on BC, it was gratifying to see the Eagles get their comeuppance. Maybe it taught Ryan Leonard some humility. The petulant teenager was getting hard to take, screaming in opponents’ faces, tripping players before faceoffs and taunting fans at the World Juniors. He wore No. 9 at the Heights, but didn’t play like No. 9 in Detroit.

Looking Ahead to 2024-25

As for UMass, the season’s in the books and it’s time to regroup and reload. Attendance averaged 5,554, second only to BC in Hockey East and 11th of 64 teams overall. They won 20 games, made the NCAA tournament and took Denver to double overtime.

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UMass is losing three forwards but has its entire first and third lines returning. Taylor Makar is off to Maine and will play for former UMass assistant coach Ben Barr. “He left on good terms, both ways,” said Carvel.

Everyone wants to know how Carvel will fill the gaps on defense where Linden Alger is the only returning blueliner. “We have a large group of freshmen D coming in next year that we really like, five in all, and we also hope to pull a defenseman off the transfer portal,” said Carvel.

Defensemen Larry Keenan and Kazimier Sobieski are intriguing newcomers. Keenan is a 6-foot-3, 185-pound graduate of Culver Military Academy who’s coming to Amherst off of one season with the Penticon (B.C.) Vees where he had six goals and 24 assists in 53 games.

Taken by the Red Wings in the fourth round (117th overall) of last year’s draft, Keenan has a strong NHL pedigree. His grandfather, also named Larry Keenan, played for the St. Louis Blues, scored the franchise’s first goal and was on the ice when Bobby Orr beat them in overtime on May 10, 1970.

Keenan the younger was quoted in Culver’s alumni magazine calling himself “a big solid defenseman with a two-way game, good work ethic and high hockey IQ.”

“Keenan has a lot of potential, but needs to build strength and learn to play with an edge,” says Carvel.

Meanwhile, the 20-year-old Sobieski hails from Deerfield but played schoolboy hockey at prestigious Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Minnesota. According to eliteprospects.com, he had 54 penalty minutes in 48 games for this year’s Sioux Falls Stampede (USHL). “Sobieski is a good two-way player,” emailed Carvel. “He should be an important player for us immediately. Local kid, excited to see how he plays at our level.”

Other blueliners include 20-year-old Finn Loftus, a Minnesotan who had seven goals and 27 assists in 61 games for the Sioux City Musketeers. “He should be solid for us from day one,” said Carvel.

Indeed, therinklive.com reported that at Sioux Falls he was a “breakout player his second season.”

Two other defensemen who are expected to get playing time in 2024-25 are Charlie Lieberman of Greater Chicago and the Omaha Lancers, and Francesco Dell’Elce who played in Penticon alongside Keenan and had nine goals and 29 assists in 54 games.

“Lieberman is a BIG man, 6-feet-5, who plays with an edge and should be a good depth defenseman for us,” said Carvel. “Dell’Elce is a slick, talented player who has all the tools but needs to get stronger.” 

Calling All Snipers

UMass averaged under three goals a game this season, but Carvel expects it’ll improve as freshmen Jack Musa, Aydar Suniev, Cam O’Neill and Dans Locmelis will be a year older and more experienced.

Jack Musa’s brother Joey will be arriving as a grad transfer from Dartmouth. “We’re excited to add another Musa to our team. He’s a smart and scrappy player like his brother,” said Carvel, who hopes he may have landed a much-needed sniper when Daniel Jencko committed to UMass last week.

The 19-year-old center/left wing hails from Slovakia and is experienced beyond his years. According to eliteprospects.com, he’s played 236 games for amateur teams in his homeland and for Youngstown of the USHL. In that time he’s averaged more than a point a game with 109 goals and 138 assists.

“We’re still looking for one D and one forward to round out our roster for next year,” said Carvel.

One Size not Fitting All

During the regional semifinals at the MassMutual Center a Pittsburgh Penguins scout said UMass needs to shrink its rink to conform to NHL standards. Recruits, he said, prefer it that way.

The Mullins Center was built in the early 1990s when Olympic-sized rinks were the rage. Its ice surface is 200 feet by 95 feet, 10 feet wider than an NHL rink.

According to a press release issued last spring by JLG Architects of North Dakota, Olympic-size rinks became popular after the U.S. won the gold medal at Lake Placid in 1980.

“The thought was that programs could pitch the idea of developing players into Olympic athletes – an understandable draw at the time. Coaches hoped to open up the game with more flow and movement, less hitting, and more space to use creatively.

“Most European rinks are Olympic size. European hockey has tended to be more movement and less contact, much like soccer with lower scoring games [but] North American fans prefer more goals and more contact.”

“Mullins might need to be knocked back at least five feet,” agreed Brock Hines, who called hundreds of games at the Mullins Center. “It doesn't prepare them well for the next level. They did the full 15 feet at (UNH’s Whittemore Center Arena) a few years back.”

When the subject was broached to Carvel he said, “The rink dimensions haven’t been a discussion topic yet.”

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Greenfield’s Doug Muehlburg and Steve Lovett were among the UMass supporters at the MassMutual Center. Lovett wore his Green Wave hockey jacket and Muehlburg wore his North Dakota jersey. He graduated from North Dakota in 1973 when they were the Fighting Sioux “and that’s what they’ll always be to me,” he said.

At the end of regulation more beer had flowed than bladders could hold, and the relief line stretched out of the men’s room and down the hallway.

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So long, Elliott McDermott. The Colgate transfer was a steady Eddie who played 35 games this season and was on the ice for the last UMass goal of the season. He felt he wasn’t getting enough ice time and transferred to RPI.

“We knew he was going into the portal. Great kid, wish him well,” said Carvel.

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UMass basketball fans felt betrayed and abandoned when the team’s best player Matt Cross eschewed a good offer from the Collective and entered the transfer portal this week. “Shame on Matt,” said a reliable source. “The offer was for one year, in the vicinity of $100K.”

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for decades in the Pioneer Valley. He can be reached at chipjet715@icloud.com