UMass junior John Leonard among 10 Hobey Baker finalists

  • John Leonard, left, of UMass, moves the puck against Benton Maass, of New Hampshire, Jan. 24 at the Mullins Center. Matthew Kessel looks on. Leonard was named a Hobey Baker Award finalist on Wednesday. STAFF FILE PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • John Leonard, left, of UMass, faces off against Liam Blackburn, of New Hampshire, Friday, Jan. 24, 2020 at the Mullins Center. Leonard was named a Hobey Baker Award finalist on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 3/19/2020 4:34:00 PM
Modified: 3/19/2020 4:33:49 PM

AMHERST — No school has had back-to-back Hobey Baker Award winners since Maine in 1992 and 1993.

A year after Cale Makar took home the most prestigious trophy in college hockey, it didn’t seem likely that UMass would have someone who would contend for the award. The Minutemen ended up nominating juniors Mitchell Chaffee and John Leonard for the fan vote, two All-American-level players who might not have had the flash or gaudy statistics to win the Hobey Baker. Then Leonard got on a roll.

A scorching-hot February in which the Amherst native scored 10 times and added five assists in eight games vaulted Leonard atop the national leaderboard with 27 goals on the season. He scored two hat tricks in that span and entrenched himself fully in the picture for the Hobey Baker. On Wednesday, Leonard was one of 10 finalists named for the award, becoming just the third UMass player to accomplish the feat.

UMass coach Greg Carvel said the only person who came close to matching Leonard’s goal scoring talent was Greg Carey, who played under Carvel at St. Lawrence and was a top-10 finalist in 2013 and a Hobey Hat Trick finalist (top three) the following year. The difference is just how different the two were at scoring goals with Carey doing it with a killer shot, but Leonard using far more tools in his arsenal to light the lamp.

“He’s easily the best (college goal scorer I’ve coached),” Carvel said on Feb. 22 after Leonard’s second hat trick of the season in a 5-3 win over UMass-Lowell. (Carvel was unavailable for comment.) “His ability to finish is remarkable, his desire, he wants to score. He’s not here to pass the puck, he’s here to score, it’s all he knows, it’s what he’s done his whole life, he’s superb. … (Carey) scored with his shot, he was all shot, but John is speed, finesse. Greg Carey was an outstanding goal scorer, too, but Leno, he scores with flash.”

In addition to the Hobey Baker news, Leonard was named to Hockey East’s first-team all-star team, improving upon his second-team placement a year ago. He was joined on the all-star teams by senior defenseman Jake McLaughlin, who was a third-team honoree. The fact that there were only two UMass players on the all-conference teams despite finishing second in the league is a reason why many experts were concerned about the post-Makar hangover the Minutemen would experience.

Even though the media and coaches picked UMass to finish second in the league, there was still skepticism of how much the program could rebound from losing Makar. That was answered with the fact UMass stayed inside the top-10 in the U.S. College Hockey Online poll for all but one week and were a near lock to qualify for the NCAA Tournament for a second consecutive year.

The Minutemen split their 12 ranked matchups this season and finished second in an competitive Hockey East race. So what they lost in star power, they made up for with a strong culture that continued from previous seasons.

“The way Greg operates the culture he’s built, his program is built to last,” athletics director Ryan Bamford said last week. “I have great affection for the way he carries himself and his program. I’m not surprised we had success this year, we certainly had the right talent back, but we also had the right mindset. The one thing about this program that people learned pretty quickly last year was success to this group was never a surprise. Success was always in the plans.”

What the future looks like is still up in the air for the program. UMass will lose three seniors who played critical roles – McLaughlin, who anchored the blue line on the No. 1 pairing; Jack Suter, who became the team’s No. 1 center by early January; and two-year captain Niko Hildenbrand, who played so many roles for the Minutemen. There are also questions about whether Leonard, a sixth-round draft pick in 2018 of the San Jose Sharks, will turn pro after his sensational season, and what Chaffee, one of the more sought-after undrafted free agents, will do after missing most of February with an upper-body injury.

However, the Minutemen expect six of their top-seven defensemen to return as well as the young forwards who went through some growing pains this season. That will all complement a recruiting class that continues to get stronger as more talented players decide they want to come to Amherst. Although there might not end up being a third-straight Hobey Baker finalist on the roster, Bamford said he knows UMass will still be a force to be reckoned with in Hockey East and on the national landscape.

“I don’t know what we’re going to have in terms of roster attrition, but I will tell you that the guys that are in that locker room moving forward are guys that believe they can win and win at a high level,” Bamford said. “We’re investing in (the program) to be able to continue to compete and that’s what we expect. We’ve got a great leader (in Carvel) who’s driving those performances and that level of success.”

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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