When UConn men’s hockey’s 2017-18 season ended at the hands of Boston University last March, it marked the end of an era for the Huskies. It was the final game in the careers of UConn’s first recruiting class to play all four seasons in Hockey East.
They were there for all the moments in Hockey East, from the high points — beating Boston College in their first-ever conference game, to the low points. They set the foundation for the program and changed the mentality from “hoping to win” to “expecting to win”.
On top of that, the Huskies also lost Maxim Letunov and Joe Masonius to the pros. In total, the team lost 11 players from their best season in program history. Luckily, head coach Mike Cavanaugh has experience replacing these types of classes.
“In 2001, I was part of a [Boston College] program that won a national championship,” he said. “We had eight seniors and three guys left early, so 11 guys left the program and we brought 10-11 in.”
Not only does Cavanaugh have that experience, he also has a talented incoming class. The coaching staff put together the fourth-best recruiting class in college hockey, headlined by Ruslan Iskhakov, the No. 6 freshman in the sport, both according to Neutral Zone.
While the coach did acknowledge there’s always a learning curve with freshmen in the first half of the season, they will still be expected to contribute from the start.
“I think college hockey is probably not any more unique than college basketball in that when you bring in a highly-regarded freshman they’re expected to contribute right away,” Cavanaugh said. “I know football redshirts a lot of kids but that’s not the case in our sport. When you come in as a first-year player you’re expected to contribute quite a bit.”
Most of the new players aren’t what most people think of freshmen. Instead of coming right out of high school, the freshmen are older since they’ve played a few seasons in the junior leagues. This gives the coaching staff a better feel of what they’re getting from the jump.
“We have a pretty good idea of what kind of college hockey player [older players] are instead of taking a guy who’s a sophomore in high school and hoping he blossoms,” Cavanaugh said. “I’m hoping the maturation process is a little bit quicker than it was (with high school recruits).”
The older players are also acclimated to a higher level of play and aren’t as intimidated coming into college as high schoolers may be.
“They know what they’re doing,” sophomore Adam Karashik said of the freshmen. “They have a swagger about them. They come in, they’re ready to go. They want to fight for that spot in the lineup.”
Across the board, the freshmen have also impressed their fellow teammates with their commitment level from the start. They didn’t come in with any ego or sense of entitlement.
“Something else that stood out to me is how hard they work,” senior Karl El-Mir said. “They didn’t come in here big-headed. They’re here to work and they’re buying in how to play.”
“They’re buying in right away,” Karashik echoed. “There’s not one guy that hasn’t bought into the system and how we want to play and the way the coaches want us to get out there every night. Each and every day they’re working hard and they want everything we want. They want championships, they want success, so it’s a good culture that we have.”
However, culture only goes so far. The team will need tangible production out of the freshmen to help them through the first part of the season. The Huskies play 11 of their first 15 games, including the first four, on the road to start.
How well UConn does through the first half of the season will largely hinge on how well the freshmen perform from the start. Luckily, they don’t need anyone to tell them that.
“We’re not putting any pressure on them but they all put pressure on themselves to be great,” senior captain Miles Gendron said. “They’ve proven it in practice time and time again that these kids are good players and they’ll surprise some people this year.”
Their first test will come on Friday, Oct. 12 as the Huskies take on Army West Point in their season opener. Puck drop is set for 7 p.m. with a livestream on Atlantic Hockey TV.