UMass hockey’s incoming class boasts size and a European flair

By KYLE GRABOWSKI

Staff Writer

Published: 07-03-2023 3:02 PM

The transfer portal forced a dramatic turnover of the UMass hockey team’s roster for the third season in a row. Nine players that could have returned to the program left, which altered the makeup of the Minutemen’s incoming class. Greg Carvel and his staff only brought in three transfers, all graduate transfers, but will welcome nine freshmen, some of whom weren’t supposed to come until the following year.

“It is a big group but that’s life now in the transfer portal,” Carvel said. “That’s what the NCAA wants, so that’s what we’ve got now.”

The three grad transfers each fit a different profile than UMass has targeted recently. Rather than looking for skill that hasn’t necessarily translated to the Hockey East level, the Minutemen focused on power. Liam Gorman is a 6-foot-3 center from Princeton that was drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins before his rights were traded to the Chicago Blackhawks.

Lucas Vanroboys, a 6-foot-2 center, is coming from Bentley with a big body and a strong reputation in the faceoff circle. Finnish defenseman Samuli Niinisaari from Brown, also 6-2, uses his frame to stay at home and block shots.

“It’s a change in direction from our [past] grad transfers. We got big kids that play the game hard,” Carvel said. “This past year we weren’t as hard a team as we used to be, so we tried to address that.”

Niinisaari also represents a European flair that is a theme with this class. UMass is bringing in players from Latvia, Russia, Sweden and the Czech Republic.

“We never made that decision like, ‘we need to bring Europeans in.’ Every player is case by case. It just happened to be we have four,” Carvel said. “Although I’ve asked my assistants to start working on their European and international connections because there’s a lot of good players that are available. You’re seeing a lot of teams go heavier. The Europeans are eager to come over here to play, even high level ones.”

Newly minted 2023 NHL Draft picks goaltender Michael Hrabal (Czech Republic) and forward Aydar Suniev (Russia) show the level of talent available. Hrabal, who stands at 6-7, is the program’s highest draft pick since Cale Makar, when he went No. 38 overall to the Arizona Coyotes. He’ll compete for starting goalie minutes with UMass’ lone returner in net Cole Brady and fellow freshman Jackson Irving.

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Suniev was selected by the Calgary Flames in the third round, 80th overall. He was originally committed to Harvard before flipping from crimson to maroon.

“Both Hrabal and Suniev are coming on the highest academic merits,” Carvel said. “A couple of those players, especially the European players, their advisers will deliver them to you. It’s been helpful that we are recognized as one of the top developmental programs so that narrows the list for a lot of kids and we get a lot of good players and that does make a difference.”

Latvian Dans Locmelis represented his country at both the World Junior Championships and senior IIHF World Championships. The Boston Bruins draft pick (fourth round, 2022) took home a bronze medal at the world championships after scoring two goals with an assist.

“For a kid his age playing in a men’s tournament like that, playing regularly against men is really impressive,” Carvel said.

Swede Sebastian Tornqvist has been committed to UMass for a while and spent last season with the USHL’s Tri-City Storm. He’s an offensive-minded, puck-moving defenseman in what has become the Minutemen’s classic mold.

The class also includes forwards Bo Cosman, Jack Musa, Cameron O’Neill and Nicholas VanTassell. 

O’Neill was selected by the Ottawa Senators in the fifth round last year, while the Senators took VanTassell in the seventh round last week.

Carvel compared Musa to a UMass legend the Minutemen could have used last season.

“He’s got some Bobby Trivigno in him,” Carvel said. “We have a lot of size in this class, and Musa’s not but he’s got a big heart and he’s competitive and he’s talented.”

Because of the turnover, many of those players will likely be relied on in higher leverage minutes. But UMass also has a fairly full cupboard with its top end defensemen Ryan Ufko and Scott Morrow returning as well as forwards Kenny Connors, Cole O’Hara and Taylor Makar poised for larger roles. The Minutemen won’t have a senior forward next year.

“We’ll have young difference makers. It’s hard to be a difference maker as a freshman. We’ve got five or six kids that at some point have that ability, it’s just a lot to ask early on,” Carvel said. “You’re seeing now with the transfer portal teams that are doing well and going deeper in the playoffs and the NCAA Tournament are older teams.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.]]>