In 2nd Season, Greg Carvel's Rebuild of UMass Is In Full Swing
BOSTON It's been about 16 months since Greg Carvel was named the head coach at Massachusetts, and a lot has already changed.
There has been so much change around the Amherst campus that Carvel likes to call his program "New Mass," as the Minutemen bring in 15 new players — there are only 13 returning — completely overhauling a roster that finished with just five wins in his first season behind the bench one year ago.
But there's more change than just the personnel. UMass has invested money in the Mullins Center, renovating portions of the building that will affect fan experience. At the same time, the weight room has been overhauled and Carvel said the program has added a new video room, which has already come in handy with so many players on the roster.
"It's a tangible feeling," Carvel said. "People around our program, who know, and have been around, they tell me the feeling around the team is completely different. We throw 'New Mass' on everything but we really are trying to be new. We need to change our reputation around the school and Hockey East."
Newcomer Cale Makar has helped change the program's perception and he's yet to set foot on the ice in a regular-season game. The fourth-overall pick in last summer's NHL Draft, he's the highest drafted player in UMass history. His fellow freshman teammate, Mario Ferraro, was selected in the second round by the San Jose Sharks and he's the second-highest drafted player in the history of the UMass program.
"We have gotten a lot out of Cale already," Carvel said. "With him and Mario, they give us credibility and our program desperately needed some of that credibility."
Added Makar, "We're a new team, everything is new. We want to build off of last year and just continue to move forward. It's an exciting time for this team. I don't give myself individual goals, there are only team goals. Throughout the summer we were building an connection as a team. We feel we have a very unique group.
"(The older players) have stressed compete level. It needs to be super high. It needs to keep ramping up. The little things are also important. We need to do everything right because our conference is so good. We want to be a team that competes every night and we have confident as a team that we can do that."
Makar committed to UMass' previous coaching staff, leading many to believe he would decommit and land with another program when Carvel took over. Throughout last season, as Makar shot up draft boards with a 75-point campaign in the Alberta Junior Hockey League, pundits predicted he would never see the Mullins Center ice. Then, after the Colorado Avalanche took him fourth overall, there was speculation he would sign right away and either begin his NHL career this season or the Avalanche could assign him to the WHL.
Yet, here he is. Ready as an 18-year-old to help shoulder the load for a program that is hoping to find itself back on sturdy ground.
"It was a kind of a whirlwind summer," Makar said. "But I'm finally here and we're ready to get started. I can't wait."
Carvel took a trip out west to see his top prospect around this time last year and couldn't believe his eyes. He knew Makar was good, but what he saw on that trip was a player who could help transform his program.
"I went to watch him last fall before he really blew up, and I remember calling our assistants after the game and telling them that we had Erik Karlsson coming to our team this year," Carvel said. "About a month later he blew up. In the transition we're in, we're very fortunate to have a player like him to bring our program attention. We're predicted to finish last in the league again, but I'm completely optimistic that the buzz around our program is strong. He's helped bring a lot of positive energy."
There have been other sweeping changes. The Minutemen will enter this new era without a captain, with Carvel opting to see who emerges into the leadership role. Last week, Carvel said he gave his team a pop quiz, which is something he's never done before in his career.
"We're trying to teach 15 guys, and we changed our systems a little bit, so really we're teaching 28 guys and when you go up there and draw it on the board and ask if everyone understands, of course everyone says that they do," he said. "Then we give them a pop quiz and find out they don't all understand. We have been a little more one-on-one with our teaching and video. Every kid learns things differently."
And every kid is part of what Carvel hopes is the new foundation for his program. He acknowledges he doesn't know how many games the Minutemen will win this season — even doubling last year's total only puts them at 10 — but there is reason for optimism. Despite being picked to finish last in the annual coaches poll, there is a feeling that the program is back on solid footing, and the team has depth that it was lacking last season.
Nine underclassmen didn't return, reportedly either leaving due to a concern over a lack of playing time or they were asked to leave.
Those roster spots opened the door for a large freshman class and transfers Niko Rufo (Providence) and Josh Couturier (Boston College).
"What I like about this class is this gives us foundation and depth," Carvel said. "Last year I didn't feel like we had a lot of depth or the ability to put out lines, consistently, who could compete. This year we'll have a team that competes harder, has a better skill level and has better chemistry and the team culture is much better. It's the New Mass. We're on the ladder now, but we need to work our way up.
"I don't know how many games we'll win this year, but I'm excited because I know our team will play more to the identity I want them to play, and then we have a better skill set. I've believed since I came back to the college game that you need defensemen to run your team. They have to run your offense and be your best players. Cale and Mario are two players in that mold. We took over a team where the forwards were 6-(foot-)4 and the defensemen were 5-7, and now we've kind of switched that, and I believe that's what you need to be successful."