When UConn men’s hockey flipped Ryan Tverberg from his Harvard commitment in November, it required a leap of faith from Mike Cavanaugh. The head coach had never seen Tverberg play in person and needed to rely on the word of his associate head coach and lead recruiter Joe Pereira.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Cavanaugh said. “I had never seen him play live. Joe Pereira had seen him play live and he was trying to explain what type of player he was to me and describe him as a player. I watched him on video play some games this year, which is always tough for me anyway.”
While that illustrates the level of trust between Cavanaugh and his coaching staff, it also highlights a major challenge for the program during the pandemic: the lack of in-person recruiting.
When the pandemic first hit the United States last year, the NCAA Division I Council implemented a recruiting dead period which has since been extended to April 15, 2021. That means coaches cannot travel to watch prospects play in person or host any official visits.
While that hasn’t affected UConn’s recruiting in the short-term — the Huskies have received eight commitments since last March — there’s an entire crop of younger players the staff hasn’t seen in person yet due to NCAA’s bylaws about recruiting players before a certain age.
“We don’t have a great feel for players two years down the road where this time of year we normally would,” Cavanaugh said. “Next year’s players are kids that we all had a chance to see play. But coming up on this March will be a year where we haven’t been out watching hockey live.”
UConn has eight players projected to come in next season but only four commits projected for the class of 2022 and just two beyond that (recruiting classes for hockey are more fluid than those for basketball and football).
Those numbers probably won’t change anytime soon, either. While some coaches may not have a problem recruiting off of video, it’s important to Cavanaugh to see them play live. That’s partly because certain aspects of the game don’t come through as well through video but also because he wants to see how players act throughout the course of a game.
“It’s a lot different because you can’t see a lot of play away from the play sometimes, it’s always focused on the puck,” Cavanaugh said. “I can’t tell body language on the bench, those types of things. It’s very hard to judge the speed of a game by watching it on film...So, I just think television and video takes away that feeling when you’re at the game and you can actually see how fast players are. So those are a few of the things for me.”
Watching games live can also help the coaching staff find players they previously didn’t know about. For example, Cavanaugh mentioned Pereira first noticed Hudson Schandor while recruiting a different prospect.
Because of all that, UConn’s staff won’t offer a spot to a player without seeing them live — barring extenuating circumstances.
“I just don’t really want to do it. I don’t want to take players that we’ve just seen on video,” Cavanaugh said. “I want to be able to get eyeballs on these kids live before we commit to them.”
Recruiting could be further complicated by the NCAA’s decision to grant all winter athletes an extra year of eligibility. That could create a glut of graduate transfers from current seniors who want to play another season but can’t do it at their current school. Programs will likely take on players they haven’t seen play in person, though that’s often the case with transfers.
UConn dipped into that talent pool by adding Darion Hanson, a goaltender from Union who will join the team next season. While the bulk of the Huskies’ scouting likely relied on his tape, they had also seen him play in juniors and at the Friendship Four Tournament in Belfast, Northern Ireland back during the 2018-19 season, further underscoring Cavanaugh’s philosophy.
Those transfers, along with seniors who return for another year with their current program, could fill roster spots that were originally expected to be open and leave fewer spots for incoming players. That could prove beneficial to UConn, who landed Artem Shlaine and Yan Kuznetsov by bringing them onboard earlier than other schools preferred.
“I think what’s going to happen here in the spring is that there’s gonna be a lot of players that are expecting to go into a college and because of the extra year of eligibility, there might not be room for them to go into that college,” Cavanaugh said. “So there might be players that we have been involved with before that can’t go to school and if we have an open spot we’d be amenable to taking those kids — if we think it’s a good fit.”
Cavanaugh didn’t rule out the possibility of bringing back any of his team’s seniors, though he mentioned those decisions won’t come until after the season.
“I would entertain bringing them all back. I think that’s just gonna be their personal choice,” he said. “I think they’ve all been great contributors to this program and they’re excellent students and they do things the right way... From my standpoint, I think they’ve been great ambassadors for our program and if they were interested in taking another year I’m certainly open to it.”
Sophomore defenseman Roman Kinal will be out at least four weeks due to an MCL injury suffered in Saturday’s loss to Boston College, according to Cavanaugh. Other than that, UConn is expecting to have everyone else available this weekend.
How to watch
Both games are set for 3:00 p.m. starts with a free stream on SportsLive. Friday night’s clash will be at Lawler Rink in North Andover, Massachusetts while Saturday’s matchup will be at Freitas Ice Forum in Storrs.