Ahead of UConn men’s hockey’s final regular-season game, head coach Mike Cavanaugh said he hoped the team’s seniors would return for their extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA to all winter athletes due to the pandemic.
“I’m hoping we can keep some of them (the seniors) for next year,” he said. “With that rule (the extra year of eligibility) going into effect, they’re guys that I’d like to bring back, but that’s going to be their decision.”
Ultimately, the Huskies’ four seniors — defenseman Adam Karashik, forwards Brian Rigali, and Zac Robbins, and goaltender Bradley Stone — have all decided to move on from the program, one way or another.
Karashik, the captain this past season and UConn’s “heart and soul” as Cavanaugh often referred to him, will head to Notre Dame for his bonus year.
“It was very mutual. Adam and I have a great relationship and when we spoke, he just said ‘Coach, I’ve been here for four years and I’m going to get my degree and I’m always going to be a Husky,’” Cavanaugh relayed. “He said, ‘I would never transfer within the conference ever but I’d like to explore options, maybe go somewhere else to grow,’ and I didn’t take offense to that. It’s totally understandable.”
Though the coach speculated that Karashik would’ve returned to UConn had the right opportunity not opened up, the chance to go to Notre Dame was too much to pass up.
“I respected that,” Cavanaugh said. “It wasn’t like he was disenchanted at UConn. He had a great experience here.”
Karashik’s four years at UConn coincided with the most successful stretch in program history. He came to Storrs ahead of the 2017-18 season and helped bridge the gap between the Huskies’ first era in Hockey East from 2014-18 — when they were still getting their feet under themselves in the conference — and the second era from 2018 to now — finishing fourth and fifth the last two seasons, respectively. In 119 career games, Karashik totaled five goals and 14 assists as a defenseman.
Rigali, meanwhile, committed to play at AIC next season. He scored 16 goals — four of which were shorthanded — along with 18 assists in 121 games with the Huskies and will join a Yellow Jackets squad coming off an NCAA Tournament appearance.
Stone is also in the transfer portal, though Cavanaugh wasn’t sure what his plans are.
“I don’t know what Brad’s going to do just yet,” he said. “He may graduate and move on. I’m not sure.”
While Stone only played in one career game as a backup goalie for UConn, Cavanaugh called him one of the team’s “unsung heroes” this past season.
Robbins is also set to graduate and will retire from competitive hockey.
Sophomore forward Eric Linell entered the transfer portal and will play at Bentley next season. He appeared in 28 games over his two seasons with the Huskies but only recorded one goal.
Sophomore goaltender Ryan Keane and junior defenseman Ryan Wheeler are both in the portal as well, though both are exploring their options and may still opt to return.
“If they decided to come back to UConn, we’d welcome them back,” Cavanaugh said.
Along with Kale Howarth, UConn will also lose sophomore defenseman Yan Kuznetsov (Calgary Flames) and junior goaltender Tomas Vomacka (Nashville Predators) to the pros.
Cavanaugh hoped those will be the team’s only losses this offseason.
The Huskies have been planning for Vomacka’s departure. In the past year, they’ve landed Union grad transfer Darion Hansen and also picked up a commitment from Logan Terness, a top goaltending prospect from Canada.
“We would love to have had Tomas back but going into this year [signing with Nashville] was the game plan and he was upfront about that,” Cavanaugh said. “[Vomacka told the staff] ‘If I have a good year and Nashville wants to sign me, I’ll go. If they don’t, then I’d be happy to come back.’”
With so few NHL spots available to goaltenders, Cavanaugh didn’t begrudge Vomacka for leaving.
“The thing with goaltenders, there’s only five or six in an NHL organization that are going to get an NHL deal,” the coach said. “When you get offered an NHL deal as a goaltender, it’s really hard to turn that down. The NHL team is basically saying ‘Hey we believe you have a chance to play in our organization.’ I was really happy for him.”
Though he’s only a junior, Vomacka only needs a couple summer classes and “one or two” more in the fall to graduate. He’ll be on campus this summer to work out with goaltending coach Vince Stalletti.
As for Kuznetsov, Cavanaugh was surprised by his decision to sign with the Flames.
“I wasn’t expecting him to go pro,” the coach said. “I spoke about this: I thought he could use another year of development here with us at UConn.”
Despite that, Cavanaugh had nothing but good things to say about Kuznetsov.
“He was a model student, an outstanding student,” Cavanaugh said. “His work ethic was outstanding for the two years he was here. He did everything we asked of him and I think he was getting better. He wanted to take his game to a different level and at the end of the day, that’s always his choice and I supported him.”
Last offseason, UConn couldn’t hold its typical summer workouts due to the pandemic and had to settle for a virtual development camp. While the school will allow teams to convene on-campus this year, Cavanaugh hasn’t made a decision about his own program yet.
“It’s gonna be tricky. I don’t know. We’re still trying to figure out what the protocols are going to be on campus,” he said. “I think for our players, if the protocols are going to be very similar to what they went through this past year in July, I might be hesitant to bring them all back.”
Coming off a season in which players were restricted to either their dorms or apartments and the rink from August to April, Cavanaugh doesn’t want to force them into a similar situation this summer.
“If [strict protocols similar to last season] are going to stay in place, which it looks like they might and probably for good reason, I would let them all just stay home and work out like they did last summer,” he said.