In October of 2019, UMass hockey head coach Greg Carvel met with reporters for the first time since his squad made a run to the Frozen Four and lost in the national title game just a handful of months prior. It was the program’s first appearance in the Frozen Four.
“I’ve never been as excited for a season but also as nervous for a season as I am for this one, because I’m scared to death of any complacency in the program,” Carvel told reporters at the time. “But also excited for the challenge of maintaining the program.”
Two years later and UMass is in a very similar spot. It’s clear Carvel held up his end of the bargain and maintained the program — UMass lifted the national championship trophy in April.
But that fear of complacency, simply being satisfied with only one championship, still permeates through the dressing room.
“It starts with me,” Carvel told NCAA.com last week. “I think things trickle down from the coach through the team. If they see me acting complacent, then they’re going to be complacent. I’ve put a lot of responsibility on me to lead the players and so they see me and how I continue to push forward.
“It’s not that we’re not happy — winning the championship was great. It just wasn’t the end goal. It was just the next step. Now the next step is to try and repeat and complacency is a major concern.”
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Avoiding complacency won’t be the only speed bump UMass encounters to repeating as champs in 2021-22. The Minutemen lost two of their most important defensemen to the NHL. One was Marc Del Gaizo, who Carvel leaned on heavily in any situation. The other was Zac Jones, who was a puck-moving guru and key cog on the power play.
“They’re very big shoes to fill, but so were Cale Makar and Mario Ferraro and Jake McLaughlin,” Carvel said.
The Minutemen have brought in senior transfer Slava Denim by way of Denver to help out on the backend. They also add freshmen Ryan Ufko and Scott Morrow — two rookies who Carvel has high hopes for.
Both were taken in this summer’s NHL draft. Morrow went 40th overall to the Carolina Hurricanes. The Nashville Predators selected Ufko in the fourth round.
“I think we’re going to have again a very, very strong backend,” Carvel said. “We’ve got eight rostered defensemen and all eight kids can play. It’s going to be a competition. It’s the first time where I feel like it’s going to be really tough to decide which six kids get to play from night-to-night.”
Up front, graduate transfer Carson Gicewicz — UMass’ leading goal-scorer last season — is now gone. Carvel and the coaching staff brought in graduate forward Cam Donaldson from Cornell.
Donaldson comes in at 5-8, 170 pounds. His best season at Cornell came in 2018-19 when he posted 25 points in 34 games. Along with the rest of the ECAC, he didn’t play last season.
“He’s going to score points...I expect him to be an important part of our offense,” Carvel said of Donaldson. “He’s a fun player to watch, very shifty, great IQ, great vision.”
Last season saw then-freshman Josh Lopina step up and become a major player in the UMass offense, centering a top-six line between Bobby Trivigno and Garrett Wait.
Heading into this one, Carvel sees freshman Lucas Mercuri, a sixth-round pick by the Hurricanes in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, making a similar leap into prominence.
“He’s looked good early on,” Carvel said. “He could be a top-six player early in his career.”
The one sure bet Carvel knows he can make on his squad this year is good, consistent play in net.
For the first time in his collegiate career, goalie Matt Murray, now a graduate student, will have the net all to himself. When he was a freshman, he was battling then-sophomore Ryan Wischow for the starting job. Filip Lindberg came in the next season, sparking a three-year back-and-forth with Murray.
Lindberg signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins over the offseason, leaving Murray as the last man standing.
“I’m happy for Matt that there’s a big gap right now between him and our other goalies, which that’s never been the case for him,” Carvel said. “He’s going to carry the weight. I hope he plays every game. I hope he has numbers like we saw last year and I hope the team plays really well in front of him and he has an outstanding year and signs a contract at the end of the year like Lindberg did last year.”
Murray played in 14 games last year, going 10-4 with a 1.97 goals against average and .917 save percentage. His best and most important start came against Minnesota Duluth in the Frozen Four, stopping 36 shots and leading UMass to a 3-2 OT win.
Carvel is entering his sixth season as head honcho for UMass. Every season has been better than the one that came before and the program has undergone a complete 180.
“When we got here five years ago, UMass was a long way from even dreaming of winning championships,” Carvel said. “You ask how it feels to win a championship? I don’t think about that game. I think about what we’ve done to build our culture, which is the big reason why we win and that’s what I’m really proud of.”
Now that Carvel has brought UMass to the top of the college hockey mountain, the ability to keep it there begins with him.
That time starts now.