UMass’ Leonard Emerging as Difference Maker
Greg Carvel still hears from Cale Makar every so often.
The 2019 Hobey Baker Memorial Award winner plays for the Colorado Avalanche now. He still keeps tabs on his old teammates, his old coach. They certainly think about him every so often, too. Even with a 6-1-0 start, it’s evident the Massachusetts still misses Makar — and fellow early departure in San Jose Sharks defenseman Mario Ferraro — greatly.
If you think about the greatest moments from last season — the year that redefined UMass hockey — Ferraro and Makar were front and center for most of them.
Carvel started hearing it before the season’s sudden finish in the college hockey season’s final game. People wanted to know how little old UMass gets another Cale Makar. They wanted to know who the next one was.
“We don’t,” he answered to the first question.
“There isn’t one,” he admitted to the second.
This isn’t so much about UMass as it is Cale Makar. He’s already among the elite offensive-defensemen in the National Hockey League. He stepped right into the Stanley Cup playoffs last April and made the Avalanche a better team. There aren’t many of those players at UMass or any of the other 59 programs in the country. Even with the dozen or so first-rounders playing college hockey right now, few will have the immediate impact Makar did on the Avalanche.
The roles Makar and Ferraro filled needed to be delegated to the returning players and the gifted crop of freshmen arriving over the summer.
Ferraro played against opponents’ best forwards and ran UMass’ second power play. Makar masterfully conducted UMass’ offense from the blue line and dominated play throughout the rink.
Most importantly, UMass always had the difference. When everything else was equal, the Minutemen had Makar. When they needed a goal, when they needed momentum, when they needed some confidence, they had Makar.
After seven games, some of the holes Makar and Ferraro left remain to be filled. The difference-maker, though. That one’s sorted.
John Leonard. The Amherst native and son of a former UMass men’s basketball coach who grew up wanting little more than play for the Minutemen.
“He’s taking over games for us right now,” UMass coach Greg Carvel said. “We’re not firing the way we will be just yet. But John’s made plays for us when we’ve needed them.”
Take Saturday night in Amherst. It happened twice.
Northeastern’s in town. The Minutemen won the weekend series’ first tilt, 6-3, in Boston. They controlled play throughout the return engagement’s first period but had nothing to show for it.
Then, Leonard gave the Minutemen a lift. He pounced on a loose puck at his own blue line, burned through the neutral zone and picked the top corner on Northeastern goaltender Craig Pantano.
In the third period, after Northeastern had worked its way back into the game, Leonard did it again.
After Jack Suter poked a puck to Leonard on the half-wall, with the score tied, he struck.
He took the puck off the boards and immediately turned.
There were about 30 feet between Leonard and a third-period lead for the Minutemen. About 30 feet, Tyler Madden, T.J. Walsh, Michael Kesselring and Craig Pantano.
A quick move to his forehand canceled Madden out. A toe drag at the face-off circle made Walsh a spectator. A blink of a release left Kesselring reaching at air and Pantano wondering what happened. The puck tucked itself under the bar once again, and the Mullins Center erupted.
“I didn’t really have anything in mind when I got the puck,” Leonard said. “(Suter) made a nice play to get it to me, and I just went to the net.”
It was 3-2 UMass on Leonard’s second goal of the night, fourth of the weekend. The Minutemen won, 4-2.
A week prior, Leonard did the same. His goal with 3 minutes left in regulation gave the Minutemen a late lead against upset-minded American International.
He’s scored seven goals in his last four games and a pair in each of his last three. While being shutout through the season’s first three games, he put 20 shots on goal.
None of this surprises Carvel really. Goals were never an issue for Leonard. He scored 13 as a freshman. He added 16 last year.
Now a junior, he’s become even more than a goal-scorer. He’s killing penalties for the Minutemen. He’s playing when they need to close a tight game. The transformation was evident the moment formal hockey activities began.
“He came to me and said he wanted to kill penalties,” Carvel said. “I love that. It showed me something about what I could expect from John this year. He’s always contributed on offense. He’s a leader now. He’s doing it all for us.”
None of that surprises Carvel much either. Leonard had a lot to learn when he got to UMass. Even with his talent and selection by the San Jose Sharks in the sixth round of the 2018 NHL Draft, the click comes differently for everyone.
Perhaps the departures of Makar and Ferraro told Leonard that his team — the one for which he wanted to play his whole life — needed him. Maybe it’s just the natural progression of a young hockey player with something to prove to turn his NHL dream into reality.
“It’s really just my mindset,” Leonard said. “I didn’t change much about the way I train, maybe a little more time in the weightroom. I think it’s just a natural part of my development. I’m a junior, an upperclassman now. It’s important that I contribute in every situation to show the young guys what’s expected around here now.”
Ultimately, the motivation is immaterial. The Minutemen are 6-1-0 on the young season.
They’ve seen freshmen emerge as contributors, formerly mid-roster players become forces in games’ key moments.
There’s no way to replace players like Cale Makar and Mario Ferraro.
“We miss those guys obviously,” Leonard said. “They’re great players. I came in with both of them. But we have a lot of good hockey players on this team, guys who were maybe a bit overshadowed and want to show everyone they can be great players, too.”
UMass needs them to.
It needs Jake McLaughlin to play shutdown minutes against opponents’ best players. It needs Mitchell Chaffee to contribute consistently in every zone. It needs Marc Del Gaizo to get healthy. It needs Filip Lindberg and Matt Murray to continue their excellent play in goal.
And, when it’s clear that only something special can turn a game, the Minutemen need John Leonard.
Originally published at https://www.collegehockeynews.com/news/2019/11/08_His-Team,-His-Team.php