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How UConn men’s hockey builds a recruiting class; Huskies looking to add goaltender for 2021

Catching up on the latest UConn men’s hockey recruiting news.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Despite the pandemic, UConn men’s hockey has been busy tearing up the recruiting trail. Here are some updates on what Coach Cav and his staff have been up to over the last few months:

How a recruiting class comes together

Last month, UConn men’s hockey announced its incoming freshmen class. Head Coach Mike Cavanaugh broke down the class player-by-player, but also delved into how he and his staff build a recruiting class in a given year.

“I think in every class you go into — I don’t know if we have goals for it — I think it’s more we have to meet or fill our needs,” he said. “We knew we were going to be losing Wyatt Newpower and he’s a big one to replace. I thought we did that very well with John Spetz. We weren’t expecting to lose Ruslan but we weren’t expecting to get Artem Shlaine either...I thought we wanted to get some big bodies because we lost Ben Freeman. Nick Capone’s a big, physical player. So we’re really happy with that.”

After adding four freshmen defensemen last season, UConn put an emphasis on forwards for 2020. As a result, five out of six of their incoming freshmen will play up front for the Huskies.

Another focus for 2020 was balancing out the roster. In 2018, UConn lost 11 players — nine seniors and two others. That meant the Huskies were forced to have a freshmen-heavy roster with 12 new players in 2018-19, which resulted in a 12-20-2 campaign.

There’s no one way to even out the classes so the program isn’t saddled with a huge freshmen class every four years. The key, according to Cavanaugh, is remaining flexible and being prepared for anything to happen.

“We knew with that big class that they all weren’t going to stay four years, so that kind of helps,” the coach said. “Now, we’ve kind of planned it like ‘We’re probably going to lose this guy.’ Now, Ruslan [Iskhakov] left a year earlier than we thought he was going to leave. It’s very, very fluid. It’s something we have to be flexible with.”

The unique nature of hockey recruiting also plays a part. Unlike basketball or football where most players come straight out of high school or a postgrad year, the majority of hockey players spend a year in the junior leagues before college. Though the coaching staff usually has a general idea of which year they want a player to be part of, that timeframe can move up or down depending on both the player’s development and what happens within the program.

“It’s all kind of on what are we going to lose, what we might lose, there’s always that surprise,” Cavanaugh said. “Sometimes if you can get a player to take a year of juniors, that buys you a little bit of flexibility. If a guy leaves, you bring (the recruit) in. If he doesn’t, you have him take another year of juniors and then you get the player for when the guy does leave.”

Though UConn’s 2018 class started with 12 players, it’s now down to only nine. On top of that, players whose rights are owned by NHL teams — Kale Howarth, Jachym Kondelik and Tomas Vomacka — must be signed by their respective teams or their rights will be forfeited. That means if all three players turn pro after this season, the Huskies will only need to replace six players, when the class graduates after the 2022 season, instead of 12.

2023 forward commits

UConn men’s hockey picked up one of its youngest commitments in August with forward Mike Murtagh. A native of East Greenbush, New York near Albany, Murtagh will turn 16 in September and doesn’t graduate from the Frederick Gunn School in Washington, Connecticut until 2022. Murtagh won’t join the Huskies until the class of 2023 at the earliest.

Remaining targets for 2021

UConn currenty has four players committed for the class of 2021: Forwards Mark D’Agostino, Tabor Heaslip, and Brandon Santa Juana, and defenseman Jack Pascucci.

Though goaltender Tomas Vomacka is only entering his junior season, the Huskies are preparing for him to leave and sign with the Nashville Predators — the team that selected him in the fifth round of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft — at the end of the season. UConn will also lose backup Bradley Stone to graduation, which leaves just two goaltenders on the roster in 2021-22: sophomores Ryan Keane and Matt Pasquale.

Because of that, finding another elite goaltender will be the top priority for the Huskies in the class of 2021.

“We’re preparing that Tomas could leave,” Cavanaugh said. “There’s a possibility that could happen so obviously goaltending is going to be a position we’re looking at very heavily this year.”

Additionally, Coach Cav and his staff plan on targeting two to three more forwards to round out the class.

Here’s a complete breakdown of UConn men’s hockey commitments:

2021: Forwards Mark D’Agostino, Tabor Heaslip, Brandon Santa Juana; defenseman Jack Pascucci

2022: Forwards Ignat Belov, Sean Donaldson, Oliver Flynn

2023: Forward Matt Murtagh