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UConn men’s hockey’s 2021-22 roster sets the stage for another breakthrough season

The Huskies should have their most talented roster in program history for the third consecutive season.

Courtesy of Stephen Slade/UConn Athletic Communications

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UConn men’s hockey put the final touches on its squad for next season this past week, adding Arizona State transfer Jarrod Gourley. With that, the Huskies’ 2020-21 roster is now complete with 16 forwards, seven defensemen, and four goaltenders.

Loaded up top

UConn lost just four forwards (Kale Howarth, Eric Linell, Brian Rigali, and Zac Robbins) who combined for nine goals and six assists last season while adding Yale grad transfer Kevin O’Neil and freshmen Chase Bradley (a seventh-round pick of the Detroit Red Wings) and Sasha Teleguine, all of whom are expected to be immediate impact players.

More importantly, the Huskies will bring back all of their top scorers from last season.

The most notable returner is senior Jonny Evans, who is out to prove his 14-goal, 15-assist All-American campaign in 2020-21 wasn’t a fluke. Meanwhile, Jachym Kondelik is six assists away from becoming UConn’s all-time assist leader in the Hockey East Era, a title currently held by Max Letunov with 60.

Carter Turnbull will look to bounce back after an up-and-down season that saw him rack up nine goals and four assists. Marc Gatcomb should continue to be his reliable self following a 12-point (six goals, six assists) junior season.

Vladislav Firstov is the only junior forward on the roster and should have a more sizable impact after being limited to just 13 of 23 games last year due to the World Junior Championships and injuries.

Arguably the most intriguing group of players on this roster are the rising sophomore forwards. Hudson Schandor led the way with six goals and eight assists last year, though Artem Shlaine and Nick Capone both had their moments with nine and five points, respectively. If these three players — or fellow sophomores Cassidy Bowes and Gavin Puskar — take a step forward, few teams in the nation will have as much forward depth 1-12 as the Huskies.

Turnover at goaltender

For the first time in three years, UConn will be entering a season with a new starting goaltender. Tomas Vomacka was an iron man in net for the Huskies, playing 3,340:42 of 3,413:40 possible minutes over the last two years. But he’s gone after signing an entry-level contract with the Nashville Predators.

The Huskies were prepared for Vomacka’s departure and brought in Union grad transfer Darion Hanson as the presumptive starter. In 79 career games with the Dutchmen, he owned a 2.55 goals against average and a .913 save percentage. During his junior year, Hanson faced the second-most shots in the nation and still only allowed 2.79 goals per game with a .910 save percentage as Union went 8-25-4.

The only concern with Hanson will be rust. Union was one of a handful of schools to opt out of the 2020-21 college hockey season, so the netminder hasn’t played a meaningful game since March 8, 2020. Whether or not Hanson is affected by that time off will be a key storyline to watch in the preseason.

Behind him, junior Ryan Keane returns after exploring the transfer portal while sophomore Matt Pasquale is back after missing all of last season due to hip surgery. UConn will also add freshman Logan Terness, one of the best goaltending prospects in Canada. Though he’s projected to be the goaltender of the future, Terness will battle with Keane and Pasquale for backup duties this season.

Defensive questions

Strictly in terms of production, UConn men’s hockey isn’t losing too much from last season aside from Vomacka. But in terms of leadership, the Huskies will need to fill the void for captain Adam Karashik, who head coach Mike Cavanaugh frequently referred to as the heart and soul of the team.

While UConn has plenty of experience in its defensive core with two seniors, four juniors, and a sophomore, someone will have to emerge as the new leader.

Another question mark with the blueliners is their ability to stop the puck. Rising sophomore John Spetz led Hockey East with 53 blocks last season and Karashik was second on the team with 33. The next three players on that list were all forwards with Harrison Rees tied for fifth, Jake Flynn sixth, Roman Kinal tenth, Ryan Wheeler eleventh, and Carter Berger sixteenth.

While that’s far from a perfect stat to measure their defensive impact, the Huskies also allowed the fifth-most shots on goal per game in Hockey East last season and the 18th most (out of 51) nationally.

Though most of the d-men also contribute on the offensive end — UConn has been getting more production from the blue line than any other time in Cavanaugh’s tenure — how much this group develops defensively will be something to watch.

Transfer heavy

UConn hadn’t brought in a transfer since Brian Morgan in 2016-17 before adding three for this year, one at each position. The Huskies went to the grad transfer well with O’Neil from Yale and Hanson from Union while landing Gourley from Arizona State with two years of eligibility left.

There are a few reasons for this sudden change. First, there’s a much larger pool of transfers available because of a handful of schools not playing in 2020-21 and the NCAA giving all players a bonus year of eligibility due to the pandemic. Without those two factors, Hanson and O’Neil both would’ve exhausted their four years this past season.

Second, UConn is clearly pushing its chips to the center of the table for this year. The Huskies are coming off their best season in program history — one in which they earned home ice in the playoffs and were nationally ranked for the first time. With most of the roster returning and a large, talented senior class set to graduate, the staff wanted to load up as best they could.

Hanson is a veteran that will (hopefully) ensure the season won’t be derailed by poor goaltending while O’Neil gives UConn another weapon in an already-loaded group of forwards. The Huskies are looking to win right now and adding both players gives them the best possible chance to do so.

The increase in transfers also mirrors the business of UConn’s roster changes. When Rob Nichols graduated in 2017, Adam Huska had made 21 starts. When Huska turned pro in 2019, Vomacka had already taken over the starting spot. There was no ready-made replacement for Vomacka on UConn’s roster, so the staff found an experienced option to help bridge the gap to Terness.

On defense, Kuznetsov left a year earlier than expected. Though the Huskies initially went after a highly-touted prospect to replace him, Gourley’s two years of eligibility made him a better fit than a freshman to fill Kuznetsov’s spot.

Overall, there’s balance at all three levels and despite a few questions marks, there are no glaring holes. Injuries or random departures can always change things, but this should be UConn’s most talented roster ever — the third consecutive year which that can be said.