UMass hockey: Minutemen look to turn the page from disappointing season as 2023-24 campaign begins against AIC

Massachusetts defenseman Scott Morrow (23) skates against Brown last season in Amherst. Morrow and the Minutemen open their 2023-24 campaign Saturday against AIC at the Mullins Center.

Massachusetts defenseman Scott Morrow (23) skates against Brown last season in Amherst. Morrow and the Minutemen open their 2023-24 campaign Saturday against AIC at the Mullins Center. AP FILE

By HANNAH BEVIS 

Staff Writer 

Published: 10-05-2023 6:02 PM

Modified: 10-05-2023 6:05 PM


Sometimes, the best thing for a team to do is wipe the slate clean and start over. 

It was a disappointing finish last year for the UMass ice hockey team – the squad stumbled to a 13-17-5 record and was ousted in the first round of the Hockey East tournament via a 5-2 loss to No. 8 Boston College. Just a year prior to that, the Minutemen were Hockey East champions, and they were at the top of the college hockey world in 2021, winning it all for the program’s first NCAA championship. 

Last season was a long fall from grace for UMass, but that’s yesterday’s news. This year’s group is ready for a fresh start.

As one might expect, lots of changes have been made – head coach Greg Carvel’s personal coaching style, the addition of former UMass goaltender Steve Mastalerz as Director of Player Development, nine new freshmen who have joined the program in addition to four new transfers – but one thing that has remained the same is UMass’ team identity. There may be new players on the team, but the Minutemen want to remain, first and foremost, a difficult team to play against. 

“Same as always — we’re going to play intensely, we’re going to play fast, we’re going to play hard,” UMass senior captain Aaron Bohlinger said. “We’re not really resting on our laurels… it’s a new team, we have a lot of new guys, new identity, but as a team we’ve got the same identity. We want to keep bringing the standard up and get back to where we were.”

Bringing up the standard to a national championship level is challenging for any team, but listening to Carvel talk, this is a team that’s poised to bounce back from last season. The Minutemen addressed depth issues in goal and along the blue line, bringing in two freshmen netminders in Michael Hrabal and Jackson Irving, and bringing in graduate transfer defenseman Samuli Niinisaari in addition to the freshman crop along the back end.

“I think our freshman class is outstanding. From Hrabal, who’s young but he should turn into a really good goaltender (and) we've got three excellent freshman forwards that we're going to attempt to play together,” Carvel said. “We weren't deep in goal or defense last year. I think we're deep in both of those positions, and I think offensively we have as good a top nine forwards as we've ever had here.”

The Minutemen have 15 returners this year and 13 newcomers – nine freshmen and four transfers. One of the changes Carvel talked about was how he and the coaching staff approached the transfer portal. Since rules changed in 2021 allowing student-athletes to join their teams right away and not have to sit out a year, coaches and staff have had to adjust their recruiting strategies to accommodate the high volume of transfers. This year, the Minutemen put an emphasis on age and experience – all four of their transfers are graduate students. 

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“We have changed our philosophy on how we wanted to use the portal… we're not against bringing in a transfer out of the portal, but I think the thing that I learned the first couple years of the portal is you don't really know what you're getting. You haven't recruited these kids and got to build relationships with them,” Carvel said. “We decided we needed some size, some maturity and some leadership... so we used the portal to get back to our identity a little bit without affecting any of kids that we've recruited.”

Something else that Carvel changed his philosophy on over the summer was his coaching strategy. He mentioned how adjustments needed to be made to coaching over the years, and he wants to be a coach that “challenges and pushes” his players without negatively impacting them. As much as he wants his players to step up, he realized he needed to make changes as well. 

“I also needed to make changes for myself personally. There's ways to be intense, and I didn't like the way that intensity was coming out of me. I made a promise to the team and to myself that I'd make some positive changes,” Carvel said. “Obviously, a lot of changes need to be made after last year and if I'm not leading the way and showing the guys that I'm trying to do better then I can’t expect anything from them. I'm enjoying it. I think we're always talking about positive change in our lives and sometimes you need a crap season like we had last year to kind of hit the bottom of the barrel, to make significant changes.”

They’ll know pretty quickly whether or not the changes they’ve made have made a big impact in their first series of the season. UMass will face off against American International College on Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Mullins Center, the same team they battled against to open last year. Then there’s an exhibition game on Sunday against Dartmouth before a monster series at home against Michigan the following weekend.

“I wish we could play [AIC the] first game every year because they make you learn where your your flaws are pretty quickly,” Carvel said. “They'll expose you because they're extremely well coached. Have a lot of respect for that program.”

Hannah Bevis can be reached at hbevis@gazettenet.com. Follow her on Twitter @Hannah_Bevis1.