UMass junior forward John Leonard’s scoring ability takes him to the front step of NHL

  • John Leonard, left, of UMass, moves the puck against Benton Maass, of New Hampshire, Friday, Jan. 24, 2020 at the Mullins Center. Matthew Kessel looks on. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • John Leonard of UMass, right, moves the puck against Vermont defenders Derek Lodermeier, left, and Owen Grant, Thursday, Mar. 5, 2020 at the Mullins Center. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • John Leonard of UMass, right, looks for a shot while defended by Owen Grant of Vermont, Thursday, Mar. 5, 2020 at the Mullins Center. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • John Leonard, left, of UMass, faces off against Liam Blackburn, of New Hampshire, Friday, Jan. 24, 2020 at the Mullins Center. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • John Leonard, left, of UMass, moves the puck against Ryan Mahshie, of RPI, Friday, Oct. 11, 2019 at the Mullins Center. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • UMass forward John Leonard shouts in celebration after scoring against Denver during the Frozen Four semifinals last year in Buffalo. STAFF FILE PHOTO

  • UMass forward John Leonard, front, is congratulated by teammates after his goal against Harvard during the third period of an NCAA Tournament game in Manchester, N.H., March 29, 2019. AP

  • UMass forward John Leonard, front, pumps his fist as he skates past the Notre Dame bench after his goal during the NCAA Tournament, in Manchester, N.H., March 30, 2019. AP

  • UMass forward John Leonard, right, fakes Notre Dame goaltender Cale Morris, center, as he sets up his goal during the second period of an NCAA Tournament regional game in Manchester, N.H., March 30, 2019. AP

  • Mario Ferraro (5) and John Leonard (9) during a game against AIC at the Mullins Center on October 14, 2017. STAFF PHOTO/CAROLINE O’CONNOR

  • Johnny Leonard, front, of Cathedral, moves the puck against Needham, Feb. 20, 2014 at Olympia Rink. JERREY ROBERTS

  • John Leonard, front, of Cathedral, eyes the goal just before scoring against Bridgewater-Raynham Jan. 8, 2015, at Olympia Rink. JERREY ROBERTS

  • John Leonard, left, of Cathedral, celebrates his first of two goals against Bridgewater-Raynham with Dan Petrick, Jan. 8, 2015, at Olympia Rink in West Springfield. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • John Leonard, left, of Cathedral, handles Brian Cellini, of Bridgewater-Raynham, Jan. 8, 2015, at Olympia Rink. JERREY ROBERTS

For The Gazette
Published: 4/4/2020 1:01:38 PM

In the afterglow of a national championship game appearance last year, the sharks were literally circling for John Leonard.

The San Jose Sharks showed interest in signing Leonard, their 2018 sixth-round selection, to an entry-level deal. But UMass coach Greg Carvel – an eight-year veteran NHL assistant coach – knew Leonard probably wasn’t ready to take the next step. There were still so many details Leonard needed to work on in his game, and felt another year in Amherst would help.

Turns out Leonard, an Amherst native, only needed a summer to change Carvel’s mind.

“The way he ended his sophomore year, I didn’t think he was very close and we told him that,” Carvel said. “When he stepped on the ice at the beginning of September, we were all like wow, he had found another gear. He became an elite breakaway skater, he wasn’t doing that previously. He was scoring goals because he’s an elite goal scorer, but he found another gear with his speed.”

Leonard finally agreed to his entry-level contract earlier this week – he won’t put pen to paper until the fate of the NHL season is determined – forgoing his final year of eligibility at UMass. The 21-year-old led the nation with 27 goals this season and was one of the top-10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award. He was a first-team all-Hockey East selection after scoring 21 goals in league play, the most by any player in nearly a decade.

All of Leonard’s progress, though, began with those summer workouts after a historic season. He said he felt like he was too inconsistent as a sophomore while earning top-six minutes every night, and he worked last summer to fix those gaps. After seeing the strides Leonard made in three short months, Carvel trusted Leonard more and put him on the ice in every situation, including on the penalty kill.

Brian Foley, who coached Leonard for Springfield Cathedral now Pope Francis, said he wasn’t surprised to see Leonard make the jump he did this year. Foley’s son, Matt, was part of Leonard’s workouts, so Foley was around the rink and observed his former pupil working to take his game to the next level.

“I could just tell they were all working really hard, and John in particular was working really hard,” Foley said. “But he’s always worked hard. You’ve just got to keep grinding hockey and he’s a great example of continuing to improve year to year. That’s the hardest thing about hockey is improving year to year and when you’ve had success is to take another step. He’s shown that he has done that every year at UMass.”

Pothole on the road

The path from local hotshot to NHL prospect was a long one for Leonard, who left Cathedral after three seasons of being the star of the show. Foley said it wasn’t difficult to see as a freshman in high school that Leonard was going to be special and had all the potential to be a Division I player. As a junior in 2014-15, Leonard scored 47 goals and assisted on 28 others in just 25 games for the Panthers.

The next step in the journey was in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where Leonard played for the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers. That first season provided a rude awakening to the teenager after he scored just five goals and finished with nine points in 48 games. But it also provided the necessary blueprint for success that came to define Leonard over the next four hockey seasons.

“John won almost every award Massachusetts had to offer in terms of high school hockey, and he went to Green Bay and was amongst players who were at the same level as he was,” his older sister, Alyssa, said. “He came back each summer, you saw in him an extra drive to be better and an extra investment in himself as a hockey player. It was just a completely new investment in himself and a growth in getting better. And it humbled him for sure – not that he needed to be humbled by any means, he’s always been a very humble kid – but Green Bay was ‘I’ve got to work harder in order to separate myself and really drive to be better.’ He’s done that and he’s risen to every challenge that’s been thrown in front of him and responds appropriately.”

Leonard nearly quadrupled his production in his second year with the Gamblers, but he was passed over in the 2017 NHL Draft the summer before he came to UMass. He still had one year left of eligibility for the draft, but was headed to Amherst to join a program that had just completed a five-win season in Carvel’s first year that included 17 straight losses to end the season.

“Everybody dreams about (becoming a pro), and you want to be able to put yourself in that conversation,” John Leonard said. “My junior career was not great, and I just used it as motivation. I came to UMass with 13 freshmen where there was a lot of opportunity and we tried to make a statement as early as we could.”

Coming home

The Leonard family has a deep connection to UMass which greatly influenced John’s decision to play college hockey with the Minutemen. His father, also named John, was an assistant basketball coach with the Minutemen under Steve Lappas from 2001-05, and it was during that period that Leonard first fell in love with the school.

It made sense that Leonard would return home to play college hockey when given the chance, and he said it was important for him to get a chance to play in front of friends and family. Any fewer than a dozen Leonard family members and friends at a UMass home game was a rarity, although Alyssa didn’t get a chance to watch John often in her role as UMass’ assistant athletics director for sales and fan experience.

Nevertheless, the younger John said the experience of playing in his hometown was everything he hoped it would be and he appreciates the uniqueness of the situation.

“It’s definitely something special,” Leonard said. “It’s definitely something I don’t take for granted and something I’ll keep with me for the rest of my life and think about how special it was to be able to play in front of friends and family every night.”

Leonard’s UMass career began much how it ended with him scoring a game-winning goal.

His first collegiate goal was a tiebreaking goal midway through the third period in the second game of the season at Arizona State. It was on that opening weekend trip to Tempe that Carvel first thought Leonard was a player who could potentially get drafted the following June.

“We went to Arizona State to start the season,” Carvel said. “John, when we started that weekend, was on our fourth line and the second night he scored, he scored a goal scorer’s goal, and it hit me right there ‘this kid’s going to be a player for us,’ and we bumped him up in the lineup. He quickly jumped up to be a top-six forward right away.”

As the season progressed, Carvel tried to convince NHL teams to draft Leonard and fellow winger Mitchell Chaffee. The Sharks took a flyer on Leonard with the 182nd overall selection while Chaffee went undrafted that year. Both players ended up signing entry-level contracts within a week of each other. Chaffee signed with the Minnesota Wild last week.

Leonard continued to take steps with his 40-point sophomore season as UMass reached a new pinnacle in the program’s history. He scored a goal in each of the first three NCAA Tournament games to help the Minutemen advance to the national championship game for the first time in program history.

Yet while Leonard’s offensive production was evident, he struggled to become a consistent player on both ends of the ice, which became a point of emphasis for the coaching staff.

“That’s where John grew as a player, he became much more reliable, a much better checker,” Carvel said. “As much as we’re trying to win games and do things here, we want these kids to be successful at the next level. It’s always part of the equation and part of the conversation with John and other drafted players, it’s ‘Hey, you need to be able to do this at the pro level or you’re not going to last very long.’”

Hobey letdown

What ended up being Leonard’s final collegiate season was a record-setting one for the winger in the scoring department. His 27 goals were the most in UMass’ Division I era and he had six game-winning tallies – a single-season record. During the season he became just the sixth player in program history to reach 50 goals and 100 points for his career, the first to do so as a junior.

Yet, it could have been an even better year but the COVID-19 pandemic forced the NCAA to cancel the postseason. No one in the country was playing better than Leonard heading into the conference tournament. After being scratched for a road game at New Hampshire in late January, Leonard scored 10 goals in six games in February – including two hat tricks – to help an injury-depleted UMass squad finish second in Hockey East.

“I didn’t try to put any pressure on myself (during that stretch), but at the same time, it brings out the best in me sometimes,” Leonard said. “I want to be able to help the team offensively and make plays for the team and all that kind of stuff. I just tried to play my game, move my feet and create offense as much as I can.”

Leonard wasn’t just scoring goals, either, but was making his case to appear on ESPN every Friday and Saturday night with how he was scoring. He would go end to end with relative ease, using his speed and quick hands to move around defensemen like they were standing still. Each goal was almost better than the previous one and left friends, family, teammates and coaches with their jaws on the floor.

“I’ve seen him do things with the puck that I’ve never seen before,” sophomore forward Bobby Trivigno said after a 4-3 win over UConn on Feb. 29 in which Leonard scored once and had three assists. “I probably shouldn’t say this because you’re not supposed to be watching the puck on the ice like that, but when I see him pick up speed, I’m like ‘Here we go, he’s going to put it through a defenseman’s legs or something like that.’ He’s definitely insane to watch.”

His late-season surge helped thrust Leonard into the conversation for the Hobey Baker Award. Although he wasn’t named one of the three finalists on Thursday, Leonard still garnered a lot of debate online afterward because of the impact he made. It was easy for Carvel to think that most of Leonard’s goals were unassisted – only three were officially – because many of the players who ended up earning assists on Leonard’s goals simply made a pass in the defensive or neutral zone and it was Leonard who made the magic happen.

Carvel said he understands the fact Leonard only had 10 assists likely hurt his chances, but he said Leonard did everything Cale Makar did last year in terms of single-handedly winning games for UMass and taking over games at critical junctures.

“It’s hard to put the puck in the back of the net, and he wasn’t banging in rebounds, he was scoring and beating goalies.” Carvel said. “Almost every single goal he scored, he beat the goalie, he wasn’t tapping pucks into empty nets. The fact he didn’t have a lot of assists hurts his point total, but goals are a bigger telltale than points. When you go to a hockey game (you want to see) who pops off the page, and that was John Leonard. We played a lot of good teams, we saw some of the competition, and I don’t know if anybody had more influence in games or had more highlight situations. He was doing a lot of stuff simply by himself.”

Unknown future

Whenever Leonard first suits up in an NHL game he will become just the third Cathedral High alum to play in the top league, joining Paul Fenton (1977) and Bob Kudelski (1982). Right now, he’s simply in limbo as the sports world tries to assess a path forward out of the global pandemic. He said he’s doing a lot of home workouts and bike rides to keep fit as he prepares for his next chance to impress on the ice.

In the meantime, his family and community in Amherst are reveling in the pride they have for him and his accomplishments.

“He’s devoted his entire life to this sport,” Alyssa said. “He misses a lot of family functions and things because of hockey and I don’t think any of us would trade that because we’ve been able to see all of his hard work and dedicated efforts really pay off.”

Similar to his jump from high school to the USHL, there are questions about how Leonard’s game will translate to the professional ranks. Leonard was scratched this season for losing his details in the defensive zone, and he was on the ice for UMass-Lowell’s fluky winning goal on Feb. 21. Although there is still plenty of room for growth there, no one doubts Leonard will eventually find the back of the net regularly in the pros.

What has made Leonard a special player is his natural goal-scoring abilities, which he honed with plenty of shots in his driveway growing up. Foley said Leonard’s offensive creativity won’t go away because of the desire in him to score no matter the situation – a trait he shares with his younger brother Ryan, who just finished his freshman year at Pope Francis.

“The biggest thing I see with both of those kids is in practice, they finished every drill,” Foley said. “(John) wants to score every second that he has the puck in practice every day, and that just translates to how many goals he scores during games. He’s always finishing drills and putting pucks in the net. When you score that many goals, they’re not all pretty. He’s a human highlight reel but he also gets to the net and gets his share of pucks in the dirty areas.”

It’s not known if Leonard will start in the AHL with the Barracuda or in the NHL with the Sharks and his former UMass teammate Mario Ferraro. But Leonard isn’t letting that worry him yet, he said he just wants to keep working, keep grinding until he can show that he belongs in the NHL.

“That’s something I’m going to have to take upon myself to prove my spot,” Leonard said. “It doesn’t look like anything is going to happen with pro sports this year, so it’s going to be on me to prove myself this summer and beginning of the year next year.”


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