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UConn men’s hockey roster review: Forwards

The Huskies return most of their forwards from last year while adding an elite freshman class.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

This past season, UConn men’s hockey quietly put together the best offensive season of its Hockey East tenure. The Huskies finished 20th in the nation with 282 points — 18 spots higher than their previous best. In the conference, only Boston College and BU racked up more points than UConn.

The Huskies’ high-flying offense wasn’t powered by one or two star players, either. An incredible seven different players reached the 20-point mark while Jonny Evans just missed with 19 points. Carter Turnbull and Sasha Payusov led the team with 12 goals each and Vlad Firstov was the only other player to reach double-digit goals. Of the skaters who saw action in over 20 games, all but defensemen Adam Karashik and Ryan Wheeler found the back of the net.

UConn consistently scored from all four lines which meant defenses couldn’t take a shift off all game long. The team prided itself on balance and its fortunes weren’t tied to the play of individuals.

While the Huskies lose a lot with Benjamin Freeman (7 goals, 21 assists), Payusov (12 goals, 10 assists) and Justin Howell (3 goals, 3 assists) graduating, that’s just part of the typical cycle of college hockey. UConn returns loads of rising talent while also welcoming in another strong freshman class to mitigate the losses.

Before we get into it, here are our previous breakdowns:

Season review
Goaltenders
Defensemen

Zac Robbins - Senior

After spending his first two seasons in Storrs on and off the line charts, Robbins settled in as a fourth-line regular in his junior year and more than doubled his career point total. In 33 games, he recorded three goals and four assists (seven points), bringing his career total to 13. If he can make another leap as a senior, Robbins will help UConn maintain one of the top fourth lines in the country next season.

Brian Rigali - Senior

After being paired with Robbins on the fourth line most of last season, the two will now serve as co-assistant captains next season along with Turnbull. Rigali’s numbers are solid at five goals and five assists last year, but he missed more than a handful of chances in front of net which would’ve increased those numbers by a significant margin.

Rigali’s best trait is his ability to get himself in position to set himself and his teammates up to score, but he lacks the necessary skill to make the final play to get the puck past the goaltender. Nevertheless, he still gives the Huskies a dangerous option on the fourth line that doesn’t let opposing defenses get a break.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Jonny Evans - Junior

Last season, just three players in the country recorded two hat tricks. Evans is one of them, notching three goals against Vermont and UNH. These prolific performances proved to be statistical outliers, however, as he only found the back of the net three times in the other 25 games he played in.

Evans came off a fantastic freshman year in which he added 16 points (eight goals, eight assists) in just 22 games. After a broken finger forced him to miss some time in the first half of this season, he was able to play in 27 games where he accrued 19 points (nine goals, 10 assists).

If anything, it was just a typical sophomore season. Evans flashed his potential with moments of brilliance in those hat trick games but too often disappeared. Expectations for him will be high once again as he enters his junior year, where the Huskies will rely on him to be one of the team’s top offensive threats.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Ruslan Iskhakov - Junior

UPDATE: Iskhakov has left the program to sign a pro contract in Finland due to a situation caused by the COVID-19 crisis.

Like his partner-in-crime, Evans, Iskhakov is also coming off a somewhat disappointing sophomore season. Though nine points and 12 assists is nothing to sneeze at, he didn’t make the leap most expected him to after a brilliant close to his freshman year.

In terms of raw talent, nobody else on UConn’s roster is more skilled than Iskhakov. He’s a Hobey Baker Award-type player, a sentiment shared by those who work inside the confines of Freitas Ice Forum. Unfortunately, this talent has sometimes been his downfall. Iskhakov can too often rely too much on his skill but not his effort, which leads to him vanishing for periods on the ice or turning the puck over too often. If the Huskies can get him to play at 100 percent every shift, Iskhakov will unlock his frightening potential.

Marc Gatcomb - Junior

Prior to the season, Cavanaugh declared Gatcomb as the team’s most improved player over the offseason, but that improvement failed to carry over once the games began. Gatcomb finished the season with just 12 points (seven goals, five assists), though he did score the game-tying goal against UMass in the Huskies’ incredible senior night comeback.

This upcoming season will be important for Gatcomb. He seems to do everything right behind the scenes but is still looking for that same success in games.

Kale Howarth - Junior

Despite playing in three fewer games than his freshman season due to illness, Howarth upped his totals from 11 points (five goals, six assists) to 16 points (six goals, 10 assists) as a sophomore. Howarth provided one of the best highlights in program history when he flicked in a rebound to give UConn an incredible 3-2 win over UMass with 7.8 seconds left.

A fifth round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2017, this could well be Howarth’s final season with the Huskies.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Jachym Kondelik - Junior

Coming off a strong freshman campaign in which he recorded 22 assists and four goals, Kondelik followed it up with a more balanced statline of eight goals and 15 assists. The big centerman isn’t flashy, but he’s a steady player that racks up points for UConn. As a 4th-round pick of the Nashville Predators in 2018, this upcoming season will likely be Kondelik’s last in Storrs before he signs a professional contract.

Eric Linell - Sophomore

Linell played in just 14 games as a freshman and looked overmatched on the ice as he failed to record a single point. Coach Cavanaugh is still bullish on the freshman, however, despite the first-year struggles.

“He’s a hard-working kid. He needs to work on his hockey strength and his battles,” Cavanaugh said. “We discussed that. He’s going to need to be able to consistently win 1-on-1 battles and come out of the corner with pucks and be strong because he shoots the puck really well. He’s not afraid to go to the dirty areas and we’re hoping he has a breakout year next year.”

Carter Turnbull - Junior

From start-to-finish, Turnbull was unquestionably UConn’s best forward last season. He finished tied with Alexander Payusov for the team lead in goals (12) and racked up the second-most points on the squad with 24, trailing only Benjamin Freeman (28).

Turnbull blends his unique skillset with toughness and smarts on the ice to find the back of the net. He can score by putting himself in the right spot, making a move to beat the goalie, or by wanting it more than the other team, like he did on this goal against BU:

Along with his play on the ice, Turnbull was also voted an assistant captain by his teammates — a high honor as a junior. With Freeman and Payusov both graduated, UConn will rely on Turnbull up top, on and off the ice.

John Wojciechowski - Junior

Wojciechowski only dressed in two games this season when the Huskies were devastated by injuries. With just three games played in his first two seasons, it’s hard to imagine Wojciechowski becoming anything more than a depth option at this point, especially with a strong group of forwards coming in.

Vladislav Firstov - Sophomore

First off, Firstov had a phenomenal freshman season for UConn, finishing with 11 goals — second-most on the team — and 23 points — third-most. It didn’t take him long to adjust to the college game and once he did, he became one of the Huskies’ most dangerous options up top despite being just 18 years old. Firstov’s abilities are undeniable, but the key for the rising sophomore will be making sure he doesn’t rest his laurels on one good season.

“He’s got a lot of talent but Vlad’s going to have to put the work in,” Cavanaugh said. “If he thinks he can come and say ‘This year I had 23 points, next year I’ll have 33 points,’ it doesn’t work that way. The minute you stand still, people are going by you. But I’m confident he’ll be doing the things it takes to get better.”

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Cassidy Bowes - Freshman

One of the older incoming freshman, the 21-year old Bowes had previously committed to Michigan before flipping to the Huskies. He’s described as a gritty, physical player with a penchant for finding the back of the net. The 6-foot forward will likely play as a left wing or center.

Nick Capone - Freshman

The crown jewel of UConn’s 2020 class, Capone is the first elite Connecticut player to sign with the Huskies. A native of East Haven, he is rated as the No. 126 prospect in the NHL Draft by the NHL Central Scouting rankings. When Capone signed his National Letter of Intent to UConn back in November, Cavanaugh likened him to former Boston Bruins great Cam Neely.

“He’s your throwback power forward,” Cavanaugh said. “He’s 6-2, 205 pounds. Really physical player. Can shoot the puck well, can also make plays. But he’s your old-school, Cam Neely-type power forward.”

Gavin Puskar - Freshman

The latest player to come to UConn straight from the prep school-level, Puskar has been described as “a good, solid player” with skill and scoring touch. Despite his talents, he may need some time in the weight room to bulk up before he’s ready to make an impact on the ice with the Huskies.

Hudson Schandor - Freshman

One of the less-heralded players in UConn’s freshman class, Schandor is the type of player the Huskies’ coaching staff wants to bring in consistently: a skilled player that battles on the ice. Last year in the BCHL, Schandor recorded 25 goals and 36 assists (61 points) in 56 games for the Surrey Eagles.

Artem Shlaine - Freshman

Like Firstov last year, Shlaine is a late boost to UConn’s 2020 class. The Huskies flipped the Russian-born Shlaine from BU and landed him over Boston College and UMass. He played for Shattuck St. Mary’s — a powerhouse prep school that has produced the likes of Sidney Crosby, Nate MacKinnon and Jonathan Toews. Shlaine’s skill and hockey IQ are already well-regarded and he’s still growing into his 6-foot-1, 174 pound frame. Like Capone, Shlaine is projected to go high in the NHL Draft as The Hockey News’ No. 83 overall prospect.