A lot has been said about UConn men’s hockey’s now-graduated senior class and how they have created lots of turnover for the Huskies. Gone is Spencer Naas and his goal-scoring ability. Same with Johnny Austin and his power play prowess, as is Derek Pratt’s steady defense.
As a result, Mike Cavanaugh’s crew is going to look much different, with those senior leaders being replaced with a potentially freshman class that was ranked No. 4 in the country by Neutral Zone.
“When you bring in a highly-regarded freshman they’re expected to contribute right away,” Cavanaugh said.
Though there was lots of turnover elsewhere on the roster, the man between the pipes will be the same.
Adam Huska, now a junior, is going to be the man who gets the most minutes at goaltender. With primary backup Tanner Creel gone due to graduation, sophomore Bradley Stone and Tomas Vomacka will be competing to give Huska a spell.
Stone only appeared in relief during Dec. 5’s trouncing of UMass, allowing a goal on two shots in just over five minutes of play, while Vomacka had a .903 save percentage with the Lincoln Stars of the USHL.
Last year’s departures will be most apparent in front of Huska. Four defensemen who played lots of minutes last year are gone, while three remain.
Sophomore Adam Karashik as well as juniors Wyatt Newpower and Philip Nyberg will be anchoring the blue line for UConn this season, with each of Corson Green, Roman Kinal and Ryan Wheeler being forced to step in and play right away as freshmen.
Helping that trio is their age and physical maturity. Green will be celebrating his 20th birthday in March, Kinal is already 20-years-old and Wheeler turned 21 on August 24.
Each of the three have spent at least one year away from home playing junior hockey, easing the transition to college life.
“In some ways it’s easier because they’re a little more mature, they’ve been on their own, lived on their own for a couple of years,” Cavanaugh said.
Captain Miles Gendron, who played more forward in 2017-18 but began his career as a defenseman, could also factor into the equation.
Up front, mainstays Karl El-Mir, Benjamin Freeman, Max Kalter and Alexander Payusov will be mixed with arguably the most talented group of freshmen Cavanaugh and associate head coach Joe Periera were able to get to Storrs.
“With the group of freshmen coming in, I think we can see we have a lot of potential there,” El-Mir said.
Headlining that group is Ruslan Iskhakov. Committing late in the process on June 18, he was drafted in No. 43 overall in June’s NHL Entry Draft and scored 30 points (6-24—30) as a 17-year-old in Russia’s U-20 league.
He could be a speedy playmaker in the mold of Kalter and would pair well with goalscorer Jordan Timmons, a 6-foot-2 freshman who scored 24 goals in 50 games in the USHL.
Kale Howarth, Jonny Evans and Carter Turnbull also averaged approximately a point per game each during their USHL careers, with Turnbull putting up 30 goals in last season.
Each should figure heavily into UConn’s early forward lines, along with returning sophomores Evan Wisocky, Brian Rigali, Zac Robbins and Justin Howell, who impressed the coaching staff when they returned to Connecticut in the summer.
“Evan Wisocky, Adam Karashik, Brian Rigali and Zac Robbins, all four of them,” Cavanaugh said. “I’m really excited with how they came back physically.”
The NCAA also is allowing teams to dress a 19th skater in addition to the tradition four forward lines and three defensive pairings, which will change how teams prepare.
“I think it’s going to be dependent on our opponent [how we use it],” Cavanaugh said. “There’s some nights where we might feel like we need an extra defenseman the way they play or other nights we feel we need another forward.”
Especially with the 19th skater in the mix, look for lots of different combinations early on in the season, with lots of travel on deck.
UConn opens in West Point, New York against Army on October 12 and heads to Quinnipiac that Tuesday. October 19 begins a brutal stretch, with No. 4 Providence hosting the Huskies before they trek 168 miles to play RPI on Saturday, a team that has Friday off.
“I like it, I like getting out on the road,” Cavanaugh said. “There’s the old adage that the team grows and gets a little closer on the road.”
All in all, UConn will play 11 of their first 15 games on the road with a Friday night tilt at Northeastern and a home-and-home series with UMass Lowell mixed in before the longest road trip of the year to Belfast, which includes an intercontinental flight.
Along with Boston University, Union and Yale, the Huskies are participating in the Friendship Four, which is an event in its fourth year that included the first college hockey game played outside the United States.
“It’s one of those experiences that whether you win the tournament, you win the game or not, when you look back at it 10 years after you left, it’s going to be an experience you never forget,” Cavanaugh said. “I’m looking for an Irish history professor to brush the guys up on what to expect.”