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How UConn men’s hockey built the 2021-22 roster

The Huskies adjusted their recruiting philosophies and put together their entire 2021 class in less than a year.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Throughout Mike Cavanaugh’s eight-year tenure as head coach of UConn men’s hockey, the Huskies have never been afraid of getting creative in order to acquire Hockey East-caliber talent.

Since UConn didn’t have the history, facilities, or pedigree of many of its conference counterparts, it couldn’t compete directly with them on the recruiting trail. Instead, the Huskies looked elsewhere, such as Europe, where they most notably established a pipeline of Russian players.

As the Huskies became more successful and established in the league, they started to attract more interest from higher-rated talents and convinced them to come by bringing them in at an earlier age than other schools would’ve.

So as UConn set out to construct its roster for the 2021-22 season, Cavanaugh and his staff turned to a market they’d previously left untapped: Transfers. Previously, the Huskies had only added two transfers since Cavanaugh took over in 2013. But this year alone, UConn will add three: Forward Kevin O’Neil (Yale), defenseman Jarrod Gourley (Arizona State) and goaltender Darion Hanson (Union).

UConn made this shift for a few reasons. First, it’s easier to acquire transfers thanks to the NCAA’s new rule that allows players to change schools once without sitting out. On top of that, the bonus COVID year created an entire class of fifth-year seniors.

The Huskies are projected to lose at least seven forwards to either graduation or the pro ranks after this season. It’s inevitable that the team will take a step back next year, so they wanted to load up as best they could right now and a transfer is more likely to contribute right away than a freshman.

That’s especially true at goaltender, where UConn expected to lose Vomacka to an NHL deal after the season. Though the staff brought in freshman Logan Terness, one of the top goaltending prospects in Canada, they wanted a veteran option to go alongside him. Hanson became an option after Union canceled its 2020-21 season.

“We had a good inkling that Tomas was probably going to sign at the end of the season,” Cavanaugh said. “So it was nice to have an experienced goaltender, someone who had played three years of college hockey (in Hanson).”

For O’Neil, he knew his career at Yale was over once the Ivy League canceled the season. The conference doesn’t allow athletes to play a fifth year, so he needed to go elsewhere if he wanted to use his fifth season. UConn had recruited O’Neil out of high school, making it an easy fit.

“He was looking for a place to play,” Cavanaugh said. “We needed to get an experienced forward.”

Gourley also comes in as a plug-and-play option, though his path to Storrs was different than Hanson and O’Neil. Gourley played three seasons at Arizona State and put his name in the transfer portal after his junior season.

UConn found itself in need of a d-man after Kuznetsov unexpectedly signed with the Calgary Flames. The staff evaluated its options and Gourley emerged.

“Jarrod came to us when we lost Yan Kuznetsov,” Cavanaugh said. “When he decided to turn pro we had a need on defense and it just so turned out that Jarrod was looking for a place to play.”

When Gourley committed in July, he was expected to be the final addition to UConn’s roster. He’d replace Kuznetsov while freshman Jake Veilleux would take the spot vacated by Karashik, giving the Huskies eight defensemen. But Cavanaugh wanted another for good measure.

“This year we wanted to carry nine defensemen just because it seems like year-in and year-out, it’s hard to go through an entire year without a defenseman getting hurt,” the coach said. “Then all of a sudden when that happens, you’re in practice and we only have seven defensemen and it makes it hard to scrimmage. So we wanted to have extra defenseman for depth.”

That led UConn to Aidan Metcalfe, a 6-foot-3, 194 left-hander from California, to fill out the defensive corps.

At forward, UConn needed additional reinforcements after Brian Rigali and Zac Robbins graduated, Eric Linell transferred to Bentley and Howarth turned pro. The Huskies went after players that would help them maintain their identity as a big-hitting team while also making them more dynamic up top.

Chase Bradley — a 2020 seventh-round pick of the Detroit Red Wings — and Sasha Teleguine — a North Attleboro, Massachusetts native — fit the bill.

“(The freshman forwards will) give us a little bit more speed up front, for sure,” Cavanaugh said. “Both Chase and Sasha skate extremely well.”

In a sport where many players commit years before they’re expected to join their respective schools, all eight of UConn’s incoming players joined on in the last year. The Huskies’ class of 2021 started with Terness on Nov. 2 and finished with Metcalfe on July 29.

Though it’s a little unusual, that’s the nature of the sport in today’s day and age. And as always, Cavanaugh and his staff aren’t afraid of trying new things when it comes to putting a roster together.

“It was a little different and I think it’s going to be that way going forward,” he said of this year’s roster build. “It’s just something that we’re going to have to acclimate ourselves to and get used to.”