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UConn men’s hockey’s offensive turnaround boosted by blue line

For the first time under Mike Cavanaugh, the Huskies’ defensemen are playing a crucial role on offense.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

For most of its Hockey East Era, UConn men’s hockey hasn’t gotten much production from its defensemen.

Since the 2014-15 season, the Huskies have never had more than three defensemen finish with 10+ points in a season and overall, only 12 d-men have done so in total. But this year, six of the team’s eight defensemen are on pace to reach that mark if UConn played a 36-game season (the length of a typical, non-pandemic season).

While senior Adam Karashik (14.4 projected points) and freshman John Spetz (20.6) have both contributed, that dramatic improvement is thanks in large part to the Huskies’ true sophomore class of Yan Kuznetsov (22.5 projected points), Carter Berger (13.8), and Jake Flynn (12.0).

Whereas someone like Karashik is a defense-first defenseman who can help out on offense, the three sophomores are all offensive-defensemen. Berger and Flynn are both smooth skaters who are comfortable with the puck on their stick while Kuznetsov isn’t afraid to let shots fly from the blue line.

They were all part of UConn’s 2019 recruiting class which included five defensemen and each player had promising, if not spectacular, freshman seasons. As sophomores, they’ve all taken the ever-important second-year leap and have become indispensable pieces for the Huskies.

“Carter Berger and Jake Flynn are two power play guys for us. They’re excellent skaters and they can push the pace offensively for us,” head coach Mike Cavanaugh said. “Yan Kuznetsov I think has taken a tremendous jump...he was so young last year and having come back from the World Juniors, I think he’s playing big minutes and important minutes for us against other teams’ top lines.”

While some players have skillsets that help them make more of an impact in the offensive zone than others, the most important aspect for any defensemen to learn is how to get the puck to the net through traffic.

“I think one of the most underrated skills for defensemen is being able to get pucks down to the net. You can kick it out to the point but if you can’t get past that first layer of defenders, you’re not going to create a lot of offense,” Cavanaugh said. “In our league, if you look at most of the defensemen’s points, they come off of shots from the point and then there’s a rebound and a goal or a deflection and a goal.”

Assistant coach Tyler Helton — a former UConn defenseman himself — spends a lot of time working with the Huskies’ blue liners both during team practice and in individual workouts. They don’t just run through standard drills, either. Cavanaugh said Helton “gets really creative” with his workouts, which sometimes means taking inspiration from the movie “Dodgeball.”

“There’s different things you can work on,” Cavanaugh said. “Working on one-timing the puck before the defense gets set. There’s different drills where you throw a cone at a guy and he’s got to dodge the cone and get the puck down. There’s different ways you can practice it without having to have a guy go out there and actually try to block the shot.”

That work is translating into results for UConn. Last weekend against Merrimack, seven of the team’s 12 goals over the two games were directly created by a defenseman getting the puck on net. Overall, d-men were responsible for two goals and eight assists in the series.

“I think that’s the one area where we’ve improved the most is we’re not getting as many shots blocked from the point and we’re getting them down to that second layer where good things can happen,” Cavanaugh said.

The defensemen have played no small part in UConn’s offensive explosion over the last six games, too. In that span, the Huskies have recorded 90 total points — 29 of which came from defensemen, nearly a third. Through the team’s first nine games, it only managed 48 total points, of which blue liners contributed just 10 — under 20 percent.

Unlike past years where UConn only had a handful of defensemen that could threaten in the offensive zone, the Huskies are dangerous from all three pairings. That helps spread the defense out, opening up space for the forwards close to net.

As Cavanaugh continues to build the program, finally having offensive defensemen is a crucial piece of the puzzle that will help the Huskies take the next step from being a good team in Hockey East into true contenders for trophies.

Two Huskies earn national recognition

UConn is having its best season in program history and as a result, two of its key players picked up national recognition this week. Junior forward Jonny Evans was named a candidate for the Hobey Baker Award, which goes to the nation’s best player, while junior Tomas Vomacka made the watch list for the Mike Richter Award, which is given to the best goaltender in the nation.

Injury report

Roman Kinal remains out with an MCL injury. Aside from him, Cavanaugh said the team is “relatively healthy” going into practice on Thursday.

How to watch

UConn’s Friday night matchup at Northeastern will air on SportsLive at 5:00 p.m. Thursday’s game at UMass Lowell will be broadcast on NESN, also at 5:00 p.m.