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UConn men’s hockey position preview: Defensemen

The Huskies will have an experienced and balanced group of blue liners this season.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

As UConn men’s hockey set out to build its 2021-22 roster, head coach Mike Cavanaugh decided to take a slightly unconventional approach with his defensive corps. Instead of having the standard eight defensemen (who compete for six spots on the line sheet), he wanted nine to ensure the team would have enough depth to last the entire season.

“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,” Cavanaugh 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 defensemen for depth.”

After losing senior Adam Karashik to graduation (he then transferred to Notre Dame for his extra COVID year) and sophomore Yan Kuznetsov to an NHL entry contract with the Calgary Flames, UConn added Arizona State transfer Jarrod Gourley and freshmen Aidan Metcalfe and Jake Veilleux to replace them.

Those three joined a roster that already included senior Ryan Wheeler, juniors Carter Berger, Jake Flynn, Roman Kinal and Harrison Rees along with sophomore John Spetz on the blue line.

As a group, UConn’s defensemen are well-balanced. Not only is there a mix of youth and experience, the Huskies also have a combination of offensive-minded and defense-first players.

Returners

Ryan Wheeler — Senior (2g, 0a in 18 games)

After exploring the transfer portal during the offseason, Wheeler is back for his senior season. He spent much of last year on the fringe of the lineup, bouncing between the extra skater spot and being a healthy scratch but projects to have a more stable role with both Karashik and Kuznetsov gone. Wheeler doesn’t do anything flashy but he should provide the Huskies with steady, reliable play on defense.

Carter Berger — Junior (1g, 8a in 21 games)

Berger is a speedster who is arguably at his best in transition where he can use his skating ability and passing to spring the Huskies on an odd-man rush. He finished with eight assists last season, tied for the most of any defenseman, despite getting off to a slow start due to a non-COVID illness.

Jake Flynn — Junior (1g, 5a in 23 games)

Meanwhile, Flynn brings a different type of offense from the blue line. He’s excellent with the puck on his stick, whether it be to help UConn out of the defensive zone or to deke to past the first level of defense to fire a shot on net. With those skills, Flynn will run one of UConn’s power play units. He also arrived to campus in top shape and is having a strong preseason from all accounts.

“I really like the way Jake Flynn and Carter Berger have played early on here and in our early practices,” Cavanaugh said.

Roman Kinal — Redshirt junior (1g, 5a in 16 games)

Though Kinal is more of a defensive defenseman, the junior still recorded six points in 16 games last year. He’s been through a lot in his UConn career — he missed his entire sophomore season due to blood clots and then sat out seven games in 2020 due to a knee injury — but Kinal has persevered to become one of the Huskies’ top defensemen as well as an alternate captain. Cavanaugh compared him to former UConn defenseman Wyatt Newpower.

“He’s really on a trajectory that I thought a Wyatt Newpower was on. Both struggled their freshman year in the classroom and on the ice,” he said. “They went through a lot of adversity.”

With all that (hopefully) behind Kinal, Cavanaugh expects big things out of the junior.

“I think he’s poised to have just a breakout year for us on defense, just being that shutdown defender who can kill penalties and give you quality minutes night-in, night-out to help us be successful,” Cavanaugh said.

Harrison Rees — Junior (2g, 3a in 21 games)

During the 2019-20 season, The UConn Blog was granted behind-the-scenes access to UConn men’s hockey in the lead-up to Connecticut Ice. During a coach’s meeting one morning, Cavanaugh paused to marvel at the unwavering steadiness of then-freshman Harrison Rees.

Two seasons later, not much has changed. Rees will rarely be on a highlight reel but has shown consistent improvement over the course of his UConn career. Though he’s generally a defensive defenseman, he flashed some offensive ability with two goals and three assists last season.

John Spetz — Sophomore (3g, 8a in 22 games)

Despite being a freshman, Spetz was arguably UConn’s best defenseman last season. He excelled both offensively and defensively while playing in every scenario and even quarterbacked a power play unit. As a sophomore, Spetz expected to do a lot more of the same.

Newcomers

Jarrod Gourley — Senior (2g, 2a at Arizona State)

Gourley comes to UConn after three seasons at Arizona State, where he recorded seven goals and 13 assists in 90 games. Cavanaugh described him as “a bigger, stronger Roman”, which isn’t a knock on Kinal — Gourley has 22 pounds on the junior and also set the program record for cleans (a type of weight lifting) in the preseason.

“[Gourley] is right up there, strength wise, with anybody,” Cavanaugh said.

Aidan Metcalfe — Freshman

At 6-foot-3, 191 pounds, Metcalfe is one of the biggest players on the team. Though he isn’t expected to see a ton of playing time this season, he’s regarded as a consistent player who does what’s needed on defense. Metcalfe also played at the Berkshire School under former UConn player Dan Driscoll.

Jake Veilleux — Freshman

As for the freshman, Jake Veilleux is a local product out of South Windsor who can play both on defense and at forward — though he’s listed as a defenseman on the roster. With the the depth ahead of him, Veilleux probably won’t see much time as a freshman barring a rash of injuries.