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A Way-Too-Early Look at the 2015-16 UConn Men's Hockey Team

Breaking down what to watch from returning players as the Huskies move into the next chapter of the Hockey East era.

Rob Nichols will again be a star for the Huskies in 2015-16.
Rob Nichols will again be a star for the Huskies in 2015-16.
Jonathan Radcliffe/The UConn Blog

The 2014-15 season was a historic one for the UConn men's hockey team.

UConn's move from Atlantic Hockey to Hockey East was an immediate success. Despite a 10-19-7 final record, the Huskies finished ninth in Hockey East after being picked to finish 12th and were in the fight for home-ice advantage in the opening round of the conference tournament until the final day of the season. UConn also finished second in the conference in home attendance, gating an average of 5,536 fans.

Of course, the 2014-15 season also brought about the creation of UConn's identity as #IceBus, which UConn Country got behind immediately.

The 2015-16 season promises to be even more eventful for UConn. Next year's senior class is the last of Bruce Marshall's AHA recruiting classes, meaning Cavanaugh will have nearly an entire squad of Hockey East-caliber players that he picked.

On Tuesday, we looked at the potential incoming freshmen. It is possible that not everyone on that list will sign in 2015 – some might go to juniors or sign with other schools – but the Huskies have a strong class developing.

UConn has an exciting schedule developing for the 2015-16 season, one that includes a trip to the Mecca of college hockey venues, according to Mike Anthony of the Hartford Courant.

It is never too early to take a look at what the Huskies have in store for the upcoming season. Here is a look at what the Huskies will have back in 2015-16.

2014-15 Record: 10-17-7 (7-11-4 Hockey East), Ninth Place

Hockey East Playoffs: Swept at New Hampshire in opening round.

Key Losses: Ryan Tyson, Cody Sharib, Trevor Gerling, Jacob Poe

Known 2015-16 Non-Conference Opponents: at Alabama-Huntsville (Oct. 9 and 10); vs. Arizona State (Oct. 17); vs. Quinnipiac (Oct. 18), vs. Army (Nov. 11); at Mariucci Classic vs. Minnesota/Ferris State/Michigan Tech (TBD)

Hockey East Schedule Notes: Host Notre Dame for two games, at Boston University for two games. Rest likely home-and-home.

Top Returning Players

  • Forward – Spencer Naas: Naas had an impressive rookie season for the Huskies, and Cavanaugh said during the year that Naas reminds him of players who scored 30 goals for him at Boston College. The Minnesota native had 13 goals and four assists for the Huskies this season, including a goal in Game 1 against New Hampshire in the Hockey East playoffs. The Huskies 7-3-2 in games when Naas scored, thanks in part to his five game-winning goals, which ranked eighth nationally and second in Hockey East.
  • Defenseman – Johnny Austin: UConn missed Austin dearly after he broke his finger in January. The Huskies' struggles, which included blowout losses to Providence, Northeastern and New Hampshire, came during the 10-game absence of Naas' high school teammate. When Austin is in the lineup, he makes a difference. It was clear in the UNH series that he is an impactful defenseman. He will not block as many shots as Pratt, but he made matters difficult for the Wildcats' offense and finished with a plus-1 rating in the series. Austin is also a key cog on the power play, which moved the puck effectively with Austin and Joona Kunnas at the point.
  • Goaltender – Rob Nichols: There is no doubt about who will be in net for the Huskies next season. Nichols had 1,052 saves this season, the second-highest total in the nation and the third highest in UConn history. The soon-to-be junior stopped 41 shots three times in the regular season and a career-high 42 in Game 2 against UNH. As UConn continues to improve, Nichols will likely face less shots per game, but he will still be vital for the Huskies. A team with a great goaltender can go as far as it wants. With Nichols in net, the Huskies have a bright future.
Pick a Captain
  • Patrick Kirtland: Everyone involved in the program has a say in who will be the team's captain, but Kirtland seems to be next in line. Kirtland was an associate captain this season and has been an important player for the Huskies over the last three seasons. In 2014-15, he was all over the ice, winning puck battles in the corners that led to goals and notching a few of his own. Before UNH broke the deadlock in Game 2 of the Hockey East playoffs, Kirtland nearly put UConn ahead twice with tricky shots from the top of the left circle that nearly froze Wildcats goaltender Danny Tirone. Shawn Pauly is another likely candidate for captain.
Best Potential Line
  • Spencer Naas-Kasperi Ojantakanen-Corey Ronan: This line combination debuted Dec. 27, when the Huskies knocked off reigning national champion Union, with Ojantakanen and Ronan assisting Naas on the winning goal. The "freshman line" played 13 games together in the second half of the season, producing nine goals and 18 points, the most of any line combination for the Huskies. Their explosiveness and energy made them a fun group to watch on the ice. Cavanaugh broke them up when the Huskies started to struggle in mid-February, but it would be fun to see them back together in October.
Player With Most Potential to Improve
  • Evan Richardson: The Boston College transfer immediately showed off his skills for the Huskies, scoring the game-winning goal against his former school in UConn's home opener Nov. 5. Richardson finished the season with five goals (three on the power play) and five assists in 21 games, and he missed the last seven games of the year with a concussion. He has the potential to be a breakout player for the Huskies in 2015-16, especially on the power play, which struggled this year. The soon-to-be junior can play either wing and can essentially fill in on any line, making him an excellent asset for the Huskies.
UConn's Greatest Strength
  • The Defense: While the Huskies allowed a ton of goals, especially late in the season, experience will make them better. UConn's only blue line departure is Jacob Poe, and Cavanaugh has a hell of a get with Gendron, who should be able to earn a spot in the lineup right away. The Huskies might play seven defensemen at times, when Cavanaugh chooses to play one on a forward line. Joona Kunnas saw a lot of time at left wing late in the season, and Austin and Ryan Segalla each played forward at times early in the season.
If Someone Was to Transfer...
  • Will Golonka: This is simply conjecture, but Golonka would be the most likely Husky to move on after the 2014-15 season. The freshman only played in 10 games and did not produce a single point. With UConn bringing in a lot of offensive talent, Golonka may look elsewhere. Again, this is conjecture.
Way-Too-Early Line Chart Speculation

Keep in mind that lines change nearly every game, but this could be a possible look the first weekend (because everyone knows exactly what is going to happen about eight months in advance, right?)
  • FWD 1: Patrick Kirtland–Shawn Pauly–Evan Richardson
  • FWD 2: Spencer Naas–Kasperi Ojantakanen–Corey Ronan
  • FWD 3: Joona Kunnas–Brent Norris–Tage Thompson
  • FWD 4: Jeff Wight–Karl El Mir–Joey Ferriss
  • DEF 1: Ryan Segalla–David Drake
  • DEF 2: Johnny Austin–Miles Gendron
  • DEF 3: Kyle Huson–Derek Pratt