Blues prospect Matt Kessel got two seasons for the price of one this year.
The young defenseman was able to get in a third season at Massachusetts, the school for which he won the NCAA championship in 2021, and turn pro and still play what effectively was his rookie season as a professional, all in the span of nine months.
And now, he could be fast tracking his way to the NHL, though the Blues might have more defensemen at the moment than they know what to do with.
“You can see he’s going to be a good player,” said forward Mackenzie MacEachern, a teammate of Kessel at Springfield who signed as a free agent with Carolina. “He’s a big boy, he can move the puck and skate really well.”
“He’s got a real good taste of what to expect in training camp next year and he improved dramatically,” Blues director of player development Tim Taylor said. “We thought highly of him. But now that watching his feet play and his puck positioning and his heads-up plays that he makes open up guys at the pro level, it gives us a real sense of gratitude knowing that it was a great experience for him.”
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Kessel, the Blues’ fifth-round pick in the 2020 draft, was in town for the team’s recent development camp. But after a year in which he played in 70 games, nearly a full professional season, he didn’t take part in on-ice work.
It had been Kessel’s plan all along to play a third season with UMass and then turn pro. The Minutemen lost to Minnesota in the NCAA regionals on March 25 and two days later Kessel signed with the Blues. He was practicing with Springfield the next day (UMass is about a half-hour drive from Springfield) and less than a week after his final college game, he was in the lineup for Springfield on April 1.
“It was a great experience to get in and it’s almost like a rookie season there,” Kessel said. “You start … (to) see how a pro life is, to see how practices are, see how competition is … and just have a better idea in the summer knowing you have to work on everything so you’re even more prepared for the next season.
“It was definitely a great opportunity and a lot of great guys there with good character helped me get acclimated, (to) fit in. And being able to obviously jump on a good team like that and start playing right away was just a great experience that I can take into next year.”
“You see the growth in his game and how far he’s come,” Springfield coach Drew Bannister said.
After scoring six goals in 37 games with UMass, Kessel had just one goal in his 33 AHL games. The goal was special, coming in overtime of Game 1 of the Calder Cup Final, the AHL championship series, against the Chicago Wolves.
“It was awesome,” he said. “It was good to finally get a goal and it came at a good time obviously, but it was definitely special, getting that feed from James Neal in the overtime to win Game 1.”
Springfield ultimately lost that series, but the playoffs exposed him to an even more intense level of AHL action. Kessel is at home in the postseason. After his first season in 2019-20 was abruptly ended because of COVID, the 2020-’21 team went 20-5-4 and won the NCAA title. Kessel had a goal in UMass’ 5-0 win over St. Cloud State in the final. His 10 goals in 29 games that season were the most in the nation by a defenseman.
“The COVID year almost made it even more special,” he said. “We just had a lot of time to focus on hockey, no other outside distractions and just spend a lot of time with the guys. It was great for UMass, great for the town there. That program was building up to that point and they’re going to stay and keep fighting for some more.”
“The systems there we play are very fun. Coach (Greg) Carvel does a great job allowing our D to be active in the D-zone, pinching down the wall but being smart while we do it. It was a lot of fun.”
Taylor compares Kessel’s progress to that made by Colton Parayko in 2014-15, when he finished his college career and was able to get 22 games with the Blues’ AHL team at the end of that season. The Blues also will be looking for a similar offseason for Kessel, in adding size and strength. He was listed at 6-3, 215 pounds at UMass.
“Just continue to get stronger, continue to get faster are the biggest things to focus on,” said Kessel, “and continue my skills on the ice as well. I think those will have me ready to go into camp.”
Kessel, who was born in Scottsdale, Arizona, but grew up the Detroit area, is no relation to NHL veteran Phil Kessel (or women’s hockey gold medalist Amanda Kessel, Phil’s sister) though the question has followed him through his career from a young age.
“More than you think,” he said. “Growing up, whenever I started playing (on traveling teams), if I’m playing against people or from meeting people, they’re always asking me if I’m related to Phil and sometimes back in those days, I’d maybe say ‘yes’ just to joke with them.”
Kessel is on track to make a name for himself.