The UConn men's hockey team is preparing for its second season as a member of Hockey East with heightened expectations, especially after the addition of a highly-rated incoming recruiting class. However, head coach Mike Cavanaugh cautions against expecting major improvement based solely on the team's newest players.
"It's not the freshman class that's going to determine how we do this year," Cavanaugh said Tuesday at the team's media day. "It's what kind of jump our sophomores and juniors are going to take."
There are only four seniors and four juniors on the roster, so this year's Huskies will be relying on their youth. Luckily Cavanaugh has a talented group of sophomores to work with which includes defenseman Derek Pratt, who has shown such strong leadership he was voted a team captain, last year's leading goal-scorer, Spencer Naas, who found the back of the net 13 times—five of those for game-winning goals—and Kasperi Ojantakanen, who had a productive freshman campaign despite getting off to a late start.
On the blue line, UConn is returning six defensemen and adding two freshmen: Miles Gendron, who was drafted in the third round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft by the Ottawa Senators, and Joe Masonius, who is eligible for the 2016 draft. They are going to help UConn move the puck out of its zone and expedite the attack.
"(With Masonius and Gendron) we're bringing in two mobile defensemen who can play both ends of the ice and ignite an offense and transition game," Cavanaugh said.
"I've been paired up with both Miles and Joe," senior defenseman Kyle Huson said. "They're able to rush the puck really well, but are also solid in the defensive zone."
Masonius last played for the U.S. National Team Development Program U-18 team along with fellow UConn freshman Tage Thompson, one of five freshman forwards who are looking to make an impact on this year's team.
"I think this freshman group we have is definitely going to bring a little offensive flair," Thompson said. "I think that's going to help out a lot this year, get some more goals, get some more wins."
His head coach and teammates would agree.
"We're bringing in five pretty talented forwards," Cavanaugh said. "I think up front with Max Letunov, Tage Thompson, Marco Richter, Max Kalter and Karl El-Mir, all five guys can skate and have skills.
"We want to play a fast game. We want to transition and put pressure on the other team."
Senior captain Patrick Kirtland noticed two differences from last year that will help the team make that vision a reality.
"The skill level and speed, both with the returners and the freshmen," Kirtland said. "(With) Tage, Letunov and you can go down the list with all of them. Those are the two biggest things."
"The team is definitely a little faster," senior captain Shawn Pauly added. "We have a lot of team speed. It's hard to keep up with some of the young guys. (We're) definitely a fast team. A lot of good passers, a lot of good skill out there."
Letunov, a Boston University de-commit, may be the most highly-touted player among the newcomers. He was a second-round pick by the St. Louis Blues in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft before his rights were traded to the Arizona Coyotes. The Russian native moved to the United States five years ago, most recently playing for the Youngstown Phantoms of the USHL, where he scored 25 goals and made 39 assists in 58 games this past season.
"I can't wait for our preseason game on Saturday," Letunov said. "It's probably going to take some time to adjust, but I'm feeling pretty comfortable."
UConn opens its season Saturday with an exhibition game against Queens University from Kingston, Ontario. The regular season will start with a two-game series on the road against Alabama-Hunstville Oct. 9 and 10. The home opener is Oct. 16 against Arizona State.