For the second year in a row, UConn men’s hockey faced significant turnover. Entering the 2018-19 season, the Huskies lost a nine-player senior class and replaced it with a 12-player freshman class. Prior to this past campaign, UConn overhauled its defensive core, bringing in four defensemen to replace senior Miles Gendron and two other departures, junior Philip Nyberg and freshman Corson Green.
Those four freshmen made up half of UConn’s defense unit and regularly accounted for four of the team’s six defensive spots on the line chart. Despite needing to rely on them from the first game of the season, head coach Mike Cavanaugh was pleased with how well the group performed over the course of the season.
“I thought the freshmen defensemen exceeded my expectations. Essentially, every freshman defenseman was in double-digits for scoring,” Cavanaugh said. “When you can get that type of production from your freshmen defensemen and on top of it, they were all even or plus players, those are very, very strong freshmen years, rookie seasons. That’s really good hockey.”
However, each one had a good season for a freshman. Next season should be the Huskies’ best roster in program history, but much of that relies on the freshmen class making a leap as sophomores with a year of experience under their belt.
“Now, they’re going to have to put in the work,” Cavanaugh said. “You can’t just rely on those experiences to be successful. There’s an old saying: At some point, winter’s going to say ‘What were you doing all summer?’ They’re going to have to put in the work to develop and get better.”
Adam Karashik - Senior
The team’s lone captain for next season, Karashik is coming off a somewhat disappointing junior campaign. As a freshman, he recorded eight points with four goals and four assists. As a sophomore, that number dropped to just four assists with a weaker team, but he finished even in +/-. But this past year, Karashik was tied for last with a -7 +/- and only recorded three assists.
While +/- isn’t the end-all, be-all stat, Cavanaugh likes to say that if it’s a really high number or a really low number, that probably means something. Karashik is the lynchpin for the Huskies’ defense next season as the only senior and one of just two upperclassmen. He may not have the offensive game to put up numbers like Wyatt Newpower, but UConn will rely on Karashik to have a bounce-back season as a senior.
Ryan Wheeler - Junior
With the addition of freshman John Spetz and the return of Roman Kinal, Ryan Wheeler will need to fight to keep a spot in UConn’s line chart next year. The rising junior only played in 28 of 34 games this season and contributed just four points — all assists. However, he stayed out of the penalty box (just three minor penalties all year) and finished fourth on the team with a +10.
While Wheeler is a solid option as a defense-first defenseman, he’ll need to improve a lot this offseason in order to avoid getting buried on the depth chart.
Roman Kinal - Redshirt sophomore
Kinal’s second season in Storrs was cut short before it began after he suffered serious blood clots in his shoulder area. While he was forced to sit out the entire year, Kinal returned to the ice by the end of the season and is expected to be cleared to play for the start of the 2020-21 campaign.
As a freshman, he played in all 34 games and finished with one goal and six assists — solid numbers for a rookie considering how bad the Huskies offense was at times that season. Now that he’s healthy again, Kinal should play a big role as a redshirt sophomore.
“We’re excited to get him back because he had a very solid freshman year,” Cavanaugh said. “We were really high on him for this year. He’s a big body that plays physical so we’re expecting great things from him this year.”
Carter Berger - Sophomore
A fourth round pick of the Florida Panthers in last year’s draft, Berger lived up to the hype early in his collegiate career. He always found himself with or around the puck in the offensive zone and looked comfortable with it on his stick. Berger closed the first half with four points (one goal, three assists) in the last four games and came back with another assist to start the second half.
But after that, he disappeared and failed to record another point until the second-to-last weekend of the year — a 12 game span — and found himself as a healthy scratch for a handful of times as well. It’s not unusual to see freshmen hit a wall in the middle of the season, Berger’s just lasted longer than most.
Despite this stretch of mediocrity, it’s hard to deny his talent. He provides a dynamic element to UConn’s defense with his blazing speed and a skillset that sometimes looks more like a forward’s than a defenseman’s. Berger is one of the more exciting prospects to watch moving ahead.
Jake Flynn - Sophomore
Flynn was UConn’s token prep school recruit this past season and, despite being younger than most freshmen in college hockey, he excelled. After missing some time during the first half with a shoulder injury, Flynn flashed potential as an offensive-defenseman for the Huskies with nine points (two goals, seven assists) — including this impressive game-tying goal against UMass.
UConn GOALLLL!!!!!! Huskies tie it up at 2-2 as frosh Jake Flynn buries one!#IceBus pic.twitter.com/I82NjsjBzh— UConn Men's Hockey (@UConnMHOC) March 1, 2020
Flynn has a strong and accurate shot from the blue line and isn’t afraid to rip it either, along with good puck-handling skills (as seen above). He’s eligible for the NHL Draft this year (whenever it happens) and is rated as the 122nd overall skater in the NHL Scouting Central rankings.
Yan Kuznetsov - Sophomore
Kuznetsov came to UConn at the tender age of 17, making him one of the youngest freshmen in the nation. With that in mind, the big Russian held his own and finished with 11 points — the most of all the freshmen defensemen. However, he was also tied for last on the team with a -7, a microcosm of his season.
Kuznetsov struggled with consistency but he has arguably the highest potential of any defenseman on the squad with his 6-foot-4, 200 pound frame, a desire to play physical, and offensive skills to boot. If he can continue to develop, Kuznetsov could become a force of nature on the ice. He’s eligible for the NHL Draft as well and is rated as the No. 36 prospect, which puts him in the discussion as a potential first-round pick.
Harrison Rees - Sophomore
Rees came to UConn as the least-heralded freshman defenseman but was arguably the group’s most consistent player from start-to-finish. He’s steady, despite not making a ton of flashy plays, and rarely makes mistakes that hurt the team. Rees played in every game and finished with nine points (one goal, nine assists) and a dead even +/-.
While he’s not exciting as the likes of Berger, Flynn or Kuznetsov, Rees can still carve out an important role as a defense-first defenseman for the Huskies if he continues to develop over the next three seasons.
John Spetz - Freshman
One of the top players in UConn’s loaded 2020 class, Spetz could’ve come to Storrs this past season, but needed an extra year to work on his academics. Now that he’s arrived, he should be an impact player from the start of the season as a 20-year old freshman.
When he committed last June, a source called Spetz “a warrior, built like a tank with high-end skill.” He was also described as a high-intensity, offensive-minded player without many flaws. While fellow classmates Nick Capone or Artem Shlaine might be drawing more attention, Spetz could well be the best player in UConn’s freshman class and has the potential to step in and be the Huskies’ best defenseman from day one.