Seeing Maroon: John Leonard proving the process works

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Published: 1/18/2021 7:15:44 PM

When you think of the Greg Carvel era at UMass, the first and most obvious name that comes to mind is Cale Makar.

Makar was a cornerstone for the rebirth of the Minutemen program, coming to Amherst as a blue-chip recruit and living up to the hype by winning the Hobey Baker Award and leading UMass to its first-ever Frozen Four in the 2018-19 season.

There’s no doubt Carvel and the Minutemen coaching staff deserve a ton of credit for getting the most out of Makar and utilizing his talents the right way. Makar helped put UMass on the map, showing top level talent that they can come play for the Minutemen, develop and have success, and go on to play well in the NHL.

With all that said, I’d argue John Leonard should be the poster boy UMass shows recruits.

A local kid who grew up in Amherst, Leonard joined the Minutemen in the same legendary recruiting class headlined by Makar and Mario Ferraro. Makar was the fourth overall pick in the 2017 NHL draft by the Colorado Avalanche while Ferraro was selected 49th overall by the San Jose Sharks, so both arrived on campus with lofty expectations.

With all the talent around him, it was Leonard who led UMass in points his freshman year with 28. His 13 goals tied for second all-time for tallies by a freshman in the program’s Hockey East era.

He was then selected in the sixth round by the Sharks in the 2018 draft, and last week made his debut with the team, picking up an assist in his first NHL contest.

“I don’t know if anyone would have expected that when he came on campus,” Carvel said last week. “It’s a strong statement about John, it’s a strong statement about our program.”

After being drafted, Leonard stayed with the Minutemen for two more seasons. His sophomore year he scored 40 points in 40 games, playing a huge role in UMass’ run to the Frozen Four. Last season, he led the country with 27 goals, being named a top-10 Hobey Baker finalist for his accomplishments.

It’s easy for coaches to recruit a ton of high-end players and win games based on talent alone. The great coaches are able to identify talented players who might have slipped through the cracks, work on their deficiencies and over time, get them to reach their full potential. It might be enough to make blue-chip programs wonder what they missed during the recruiting cycle.

“We like to think we coached him well,” Carvel said. “We were hard on him, we pushed him to make him uncomfortable when necessary so he would be ready for this. He’s earned this.”

If Makar showed top level recruits that Carvel can get the most out of them, Leonard showed all the undervalued players that if they work hard enough, the UMass coaching staff will put them in the best position to succeed and give them an opportunity to continue playing at the next level.

The fact Leonard made the San Jose roster is a testament to the work he put in and how well prepared he was coming out of college. With a shortened offseason in the NHL, the expectation was that Leonard would start in the AHL and move up, but he proved he was ready for the big show early in camp and it’s clear he’s ready based on his short sample size playing in NHL games.

“We hear that from scouts, NHL management that they think kids develop well at UMass,” Carvel said. “The number of kids who have been drafted after coming to UMass, enough evidence has come around that we do a really good job of developing kids and making them better, getting the most out of them. We do a really good job of getting the most offensively out of them. It helps us in recruiting, it gives us more options and makes recruiting a lot easier. The top level recruits are putting UMass on their short list. It wasn’t the case three, four years ago. Now it’s on us to choose the right kids.”

A prime example of a current UMass player developing quickly under Carvel is Matthew Kessel. Before arriving in Amherst, Kessel played in the USHL, scoring just two goals in 114 games. In his freshman year with the Minutemen, Kessel had seven goals, leading the nation among freshman defensemen. So far this year, Kessel has already put eight pucks in the back of the net, continuing to improve on the offensive end of the ice.

With UMass becoming one of the premier hockey programs in New England the last couple years, expect to see plenty more players like John Leonard go on to play at the next level in the years to come.

Thomas Johnston is a Recorder sports reporter and UMass alum. He can be reached at tjohnston@recorder.com


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