For the first time in four years, UConn men’s hockey is dealing with an overhaul at forward. How quickly the group gels together will play a big part in the success of the Huskies’ season.
UConn lost an All-American (Jonny Evans), its career points leader in the Hockey East Era (Jachym Kondelik), its most talented player (Vladislav Firstov), a former leading goal scorer (Carter Turnbull), its fourth-leading scorer (Marc Gatcomb) and two steady veterans (Kevin O’Neil, John Wojciechowski) to graduation and the pros. Artem Shlaine, Sasha Teleguine, Cassidy Bowes and Gavin Puskar entered the transfer portal, too, leaving the Huskies with just five returning forwards.
Together, those 11 players combined for 62.4 percent of UConn’s goals and 59.4 percent of its points last season. To replace that production, the Huskies will count on a mix of improvement from their returners, transfers and high-upside freshmen.
If you’re only going to bring back five forwards, it helps to have an All-American among them. Ryan Tverberg is coming off a spectacular 14-goal, 18-assist campaign that earned him CCM/ACHA All-American honors. His combination of speed, skating, strength and skill make him a nightmare for defenses.
That doesn’t mean Tverberg will pick up where he left off, though. As Evans showed this past season, it’s difficult to follow up an All-American campaign. Tverberg will need to adjust to being the No. 1 target of opposing defenses with a potentially weaker surrounding cast.
Along with Tverberg, Hudson Schandor is one of UConn’s most important returners. The rising junior has been steady in his first two seasons with the Huskies, collecting 32 points (11 goals, 21 assists) in 50 career games. Schandor has the inside track to be the team’s top center and should play on every special teams unit.
The rest of the returners are less proven.
Nick Capone is the best Connecticut prospect UConn has landed but he hasn’t found much of a scoring touch through two years, with just five career goals. Mike Cavanaugh has talked about Capone’s offensive potential since the day he stepped on campus but he needs to show that sooner rather than later.
The junior also has to play more disciplined after leading the team with 28 penalty minutes last season. While physical play is a big part of Capone’s game, he’s still too susceptible to bad penalties. It’s one thing to go to the box for hitting too hard. It’s another to take an unnecessary boarding or interference penalty.
Meanwhile, Chase Bradley is the top breakout candidate for the Huskies. He didn’t produce much as a freshman with just four goals and five assists but the coaching staff raves about his impact beyond the stat sheet thanks to his combination of toughness and intellect. When Bradley missed six games with an injury in February, UConn went just 2-4 and the team doesn’t think that’s a coincidence. He returned for the playoffs and impressed even further by playing on a broken leg during the Huskies’ run to the Hockey East finals. With so much production gone, Bradley is primed to take a leap as a sophomore.
Lastly, there’s Jake Veilleux. The walk-on from South Windsor was one of the biggest surprises last season after earning a spot in the lineup in late January and holding onto it for the rest of the year. While he only totaled one goal and two assists, Veilleux did everything that could be asked of a fourth liner by winning puck battles and staying out of the penalty box. While he’ll need to re-earn his spot in the lineup, he’s already proven himself to be a valuable piece of a winning team.
UConn added 12 forwards, which fit into three categories: Transfers, high-ceiling freshmen and the rest of the first-year players.
For the second straight season, the Huskies tapped into the portal to land Ty Amonte (Boston University), Adam Dawe (Maine) and Justin Pearson (Yale). All three have found success at the collegiate level but are coming off down years.
Amonte played just two games between 2019-2021 due to injuries and was again limited to just 22 games this past season. If he’s healthy, UConn is confident he’ll contribute. That’s a big if, though.
Dawe and Pearson are both coming from similar situations. They each led their respective squads earlier in their careers but struggled last year on bad teams. Dawe is a pass-first player with a mean streak while Pearson is a prototypical power forward, so both should find a way to contribute even if they don’t rack up the points. But if UConn wants to avoid taking a big step back, it’ll need all three transfers to be productive.
As for the freshmen, Matthew Wood and Samu Salminen headline the class. Wood is the Huskies’ best recruit ever and will be the youngest player in the country at 17 years old. His style of play falls somewhere between a power forward and a playmaker, but his shot is what makes him elite. Despite Wood’s age, UConn is counting on him to be an impact player from day one.
Salminen isn’t quite at the level of Wood but he’s still a big pickup for the Huskies. They were fortunate to nab the Finland native after he ran into admissions trouble at Denver and expect him to step in as one of the team’s top centers right away.
The rest of the freshman class features a mix of different players. There are two-way forwards (Tristan Fraser, Jake Percival), goal scorers (Jake Black, Mark D’Agostino, Ryan Tattle) and high-energy, physical players (Tabor Heaslip, Huston Karpman). A couple will slot into the lineup while the rest will provide depth throughout the season.
Projecting the lineup
Assuming everyone is healthy, UConn only has two or three openings in the lineup. The only upperclassman without a secure spot is Veilleux and even then, it’d be a mild surprise if he wasn’t dressed in the season opener against Vermont. Add in Salminen and Wood and 10 of 12 spots are already accounted for. That leaves the other seven freshmen to duke it out for the final two spots. For now, we’ll predict that Fraser and Percival get the first crack at it.