NHL Notebook: UMass, AIC make headlines at NCAA Tournament, taking stock of available college free agents & more

(Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

A number of blue-blood programs are in an unfamiliar spot this spring during the NCAA Men's Hockey Tournament, with regulars such as Boston University, Boston College, Minnesota and Michigan all on the outside looking in at brackets they've become accustomed to dominating.

And yet, there is still a distinct New England presence during this year's tournament —with both new and old programs making their mark in the 16-team field.  In total, six teams from New England earned a spot in the tournament: UMass, Providence, Harvard, Northeastern, Quinnipiac and American International College.

And while the Crimson, Huskies and Yellow Jackets have seen their seasons come to a close, both the Friars and Bobcats will play Sunday for a chance to advance to the Frozen Four — which will be held on April 11-13 at the KeyBank Center in Buffalo. One team that's already punched its ticket to the Frozen Four? The top-seeded Minutemen, who beat Harvard and Notre Dame during the Northeast Regional in Manchester to secure their place among the final four teams in the tourney for the first time in program history.

After going 17-20-2 last year, Greg Carvel’s Minutemen have orchestrated one of the most impressive turnaround seasons in recent memory — with UMass standing as one of the favorites among the field to take home an NCAA title. It's been quite the ride for Carvel, who posted a record of 5-29-2 in his first season at the helm of the UMass program back in 2016.

And while the Minutemen came up short against BC in the Hockey East Semifinal earlier this month, they didn't let the setback hamper their play on the national stage. During their regional matchups against the Crimson and Fighting Irish, UMass outscored the competition, 8-0, while outshooting both teams by an absurd margin of 70-30.

While the likely Hobey Baker winner in defenseman Cale Makar has led the way all season, don’t sell the rest of this UMass team short — they close gaps in a hurry with blueliners like Mario Ferraro and Marc Del Gaizo in tow, while 14 different players on the roster have recorded at least 10 points this season. This is a complete team — and a joy to watch if you’re a hockey fan.

"That was maybe as complete a game that we've played this year, and this weekend I thought we were outstanding for 120 minutes," Carvel said postgame after a 4-0 victory over Notre Dame in the regional final. I thought we controlled the play for two complete games. ...  I'm extremely proud of this group, staff, players, administration, this is a first for our program and we didn't stumble into this, we knocked the door down, and we're headed to the Frozen Four flying high."

While boasting a generational talent in Makar has put UMass over the top in a similar fashion as the Jack Eichel-led Terriers in 2015, this UMass team rolls out four talented lines and freshman goalie Filip Lindberg is red hot after posting a pair of shutouts this weekend. Don't sleep on the Minutemen.

UMass will face off against Denver, the West Regional winner, on Thursday, April 11 in Buffalo. A start time is TBD, but the game will be shown on ESPN.

Denver advanced to the Frozen Four by beating the Cinderella of the NCAA Tournament in the Yellow Jackets — who stole plenty of headlines this weekend for reeling off one of the greatest upsets in college hockey history. Much like Carvel's efforts to revive the Minutemen, major props have to be given to Eric Lang and his staff for the job they've done with bringing AIC into national prominence. Entering this season with an all-time record of 665-1,026-97 across both Division II and Division I play, AIC finally put it all together this season — with a strong junior class and balanced roster helping the club post its first winning record as a D-I program in 2018-19.

What better way to build off of that milestone than putting together one of the most stunning results ever in a tournament matchup — as AIC earned its first-ever win over a National No. 1 team with its 2-1 win over St. Cloud on Friday, in what was the program’s first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament.

Despite getting outshot, 34-13, AIC clogged up the Huskies’ shooting lanes and limited Grade-A looks all night, while both Joel Kocur and Brennan Kapcheck scored for the Yellow Jackets (23-16-1) to put them ahead for good. Goalie Zackarias Skog finished with 33 saves.

And while the Yellow Jackets' season came to a close against the Pioneers on Saturday in a 3-0 result, the surging program doesn't seem to be going away any time soon, especially with just three players set to graduate and both their five top scorers and five of their six starting defensemen set to return.

Top College Free Agents

While the end of March usually marks the time for NHL clubs to brace for a Stanley Cup playoffs push, it also stands as a window for most organizations to inject new talent into their prospect pipelines.

As hockey campaigns in both juniors and the collegiate ranks come to a close, a slew of premier prospects are taking the next step in their pro hockey careers, signing entry-level deals and closing out the year with games either down in the AHL or up in the NHL.

But this time of the year is also fascinating for another angle when it comes to roster building, as numerous college-level free agents are also able to be scooped up on deals. While signing these players (usually undrafted juniors or seniors) doesn’t totally guarantee that you have a top-flight prospect on your hands,  the Bruins have had some luck over the years when it comes to parsing through available talent during the UFA pool — signing regulars like Torey Krug (Michigan State) and Kevan Miller (Vermont) at the end of their respective collegiate seasons.

“We tell them that if they deserve to play, we’ll find room for them to play, and it’s shown over the years,” Cam Neely said of the Bruins luck with college UFAs. “It’s shown that, if there’s an opportunity for them to play in this league, we’ll find it for them on our team, and we’ll make room if they’re going to be able to help us here in Boston. You take a look at a city like Providence, I think it’s a great city to live in if you’re a hockey player. I mean, there’s a lot going on for Providence, and the proximity to Boston, I think, has some appeal to it too.”

While Boston has a crop of prospects ready to take a leap next season in Jack Studnicka, Urho Vaakanainen, Jakub Lauko and others, there are plenty of intriguing skaters out on the market that Boston could be in play for over the next week.

Let’s take a look at some of the top college free agents still available:

Nico Sturm, Center
Age: 23
Height: 6-foot-3
Weight: 207 pounds
Team: Clarkson
Stats: 39 Games Played — 14 goals, 45 points

Alright, let’s get it out of the way real quick — he’s not related to Marco SturmBut with other electric collegiate UFAs like Michigan State’s Taro Hirose (Red Wings) and Princeton’s Max Veronneau (Senators) already off the board, Sturm has become one of the most prized free-agent forwards on the market — due in large part to his overall body of work.

While most productive college forwards that were passed over in their draft-eligible years were often knocked for size (think Krug or an Austin Czarnik), Sturm already has a frame that can handle a heavier workload up in the pro ranks, measuring out at 6-foot-3, 207 pounds.