After more than a few twists and turns to get here, UConn men’s hockey will finally begin its 2020-21 season on Friday night at UMass. After a promising campaign last year that saw the Huskies finish in fifth place for the second time in three years, Mike Cavanaugh is looking to take his program to the next level.
UConn certainly isn’t short on talent this year. But, as always, there are still question marks surrounding the team:
How much will COVID affect the season?
Even with all the excitement surrounding UConn this season, the COVID-19 pandemic will be the main storyline all year long. Schedule disruptions are a matter of when, not if — as we’ve seen with the Huskies’ first weekend.
Hockey East planned for this, building three “flex” weekends into the schedule that can be used to make up conference games that couldn’t be played earlier in the season. But the fact that the league already has to start filling these before the first puck hits the ice is not a good sign.
There’s also the matter of competitive balance. If a player tests positive for COVID and the entire team is forced to quarantine for two weeks, they can’t practice together in that time. Is it safe for that team to face an opponent that hasn’t missed a day on the ice in that same timeframe?
In fact, should hockey even be played at all right now? If Vermont — the state that has a better handle on the pandemic than anywhere else in the country — determined it isn’t safe for its teams to play games, how is it safe for the rest of the conference?
These are all questions that school and league officials will be grappling with. UConn and Hockey East have both put established good protocols and guidelines for the season. It’ll also help that the general student population will be leaving campus for two months during winter break, which will leave the Huskies in a pseudo-bubble.
But that doesn’t eliminate the risk of playing a high-contact sport in the middle of a pandemic — especially with COVID cases continuing to rise.
Can UConn avoid the bad losses?
At times last season, UConn looked the part of a Hockey East contender. The Huskies were tough, resilient and weren’t out of place against some of the best teams in the conference. At times.
Their problem was consistency. UConn had one stretch where it split with a less-than-impressive Merrimack squad and got its doors blown off by Boston College early in the season. In January, the Huskies hit another skid with three straight losses to open the new year — including an embarrassing 6-2 defeat to Merrimack.
Even with those results, UConn still finished fifth in the conference with a record above .500. But, that also illustrates just how thin the margins are in Hockey East.
If the Huskies swept all three games against lowly Merrimack and held on for 53 more seconds to get the tie against Maine in February, they would’ve had 31 points — good for second place in the conference.
For UConn to become a true Hockey East contender, it’s not a matter of ability. The Huskies showed last season (and in the final few games of the 2018-19 campaign as well) that they can play with any team in the conference.
But for them to make the leap from being a good team — where they’ve firmly established themselves with two fifth-place finishes in three years — into a contender, they can’t drop points against inferior teams.
Will Tomas Vomacka improve or regress?
As a freshman, Tomas Vomacka was impressive enough to wrestle the starting goaltender job away from incumbent Adam Huska. With Vomacka in net, UConn went 5-2-0 down the stretch, including upset wins over No. 13 Northeastern and No. 2 UMass.
Vomacka finished the year with the second-best goals against average in program history at 2.32 along with a .922 save percentage. However, those numbers came in just 15 appearances.
As expected, Vomacka regressed as UConn’s full-time starter last season. He allowed 3.13 goals per game and saved shots at just a .898 clip — though he wasn’t bad. He rarely allowed soft goals and almost always kept the Huskies in the game.
Now, Vomacka has reached his make-or-break season. Huska, his predecessor, fell apart as a junior. Though his stats (3.34 GAA, .896 SV%) are similar to Vomacka’s as a sophomore, Huska routinely let in easy goals and, more importantly, UConn went just 5-13-2 when he was in net compared to 7-7-0 with Vomacka.
However, there’s reason to believe Vomacka improve rather than continue to regress.
“One of the things about [Vomacka] is he’s a very talented goalie but he’s also a goalie that galvanizes our team. He really does,” Cavanaugh said. “He brings everyone together and when he’s playing well, he gives so much confidence to every other player on the ice. So he’s gonna be a big, big piece of our team this season.”
To this point in his career, Vomacka has established himself as a good, but not great, goalie. He makes all the saves he should and is also good for a spectacular stop here and there, but hasn’t proven that he can win a game all on his own.
How much will the young defensemen improve?
Some of Vomacka’s regression can be attributed to the young group of defensemen in front of him last season. Of the seven healthy blue-liners on the roster at the start of the year, four were freshman.
This season, the Huskies are without Wyatt Newpower — whose senior season was the best by any defenseman in the program’s Hockey East history — but they should be able to replace his production (three goals, 19 assists) with contributions from the returning defensemen.
There’s certainly plenty of talent there. Carter Berger (2019 fourth round, Florida Panthers) and Yan Kuznetsov (2020 second round, Calgary Flames) are both NHL Draft picks while Jake Flynn just missed out on being selected as well. All three bring offense to the blue line as well — something that UConn’s been lacking for much of its time in Hockey East.
Meanwhile, Harrison Rees provides a steadying presence in back while Roman Kinal returns after missing all of last year with blood clots. Add highly-touted freshman John Spetz in and all but two of UConn’s defensemen are underclassmen.
All-in-all, the Huskies’ defensive potential rests in the hands of a bunch of young — though talented — d-men. How well this group performs will likely decide just how high UConn’s ceiling is.
Will special teams improve?
Last year, UConn’s penalty kill was second-worst in the country at just 71.8 percent. Its power play unit was slightly better — it was only eighth-worst in the nation at 13.5 percent.
The Huskies’ special teams also struggled in 2018-19, but prior to that, their power play and penalty kills units generally sat in the middle of the pack. In 2015-16, UConn’s power play ranked 19th in the nation with a 19.7 percent mark while its best penalty kill came during the 2017-18 campaign when it ranked 18th and killed off 82.7 percent of its penalties.
This season, UConn needs both units to improve significantly.
On the penalty kill, the development of the young defensemen will certainly help and there’s a base to build off as well. Though the raw numbers last season were bad, the Huskies’ PK unit actually came up big in the second half. Once the calendar flipped to a new year, UConn didn’t allow a single power play goal in the third period for a span of 13 games and 11 penalty kills.
The power play is a different story. Too often over the last couple years, the Huskies have spent too much time passing the puck around the perimeter instead of throwing shots on net. Ultimately, UConn needs to be more aggressive with an extra skater.
Unsurprisingly, improving the specials teams has been a major point of emphasis for the Huskies this preseason.
“We’ve practiced probably almost every day, our special teams, and they’ve really buckled down, done a ton of video, a ton of research over the summer and we switched a bunch of things up,” Carter Turnbull said. “Honestly, I think it looks great. We’re getting lots of good looks at practice. And I think we can expect a big jump this year and not in that regard.”
UConn still finished in fifth place in Hockey East despite its poor special teams. That isn’t a recipe for success though — especially in a postseason tournament. The Huskies don’t need its power play or penalty kill units to be elite (although that would certainly help) but it needs to be significant better in those areas this season.