While UConn men’s hockey is dealing with significant turnover at forward, it returns a veteran group of defensemen on the blue line.
UConn lost three blue-liners from last season. Ryan Wheeler and Jarrod Gourley both graduated and turned pro while Carter Berger transferred to Western Michigan. All three saw significant action — Wheeler played in every game while Gourley and Berger each missed one apiece — and contributed to varying degrees.
Wheeler capped off his career with a stellar senior season. He and Harrison Rees formed the Huskies’ steadiest defensive pairing as they were first and second on the team in blocked shots (Rees had 49, Wheeler had 42) and Wheeler had the fewest penalty minutes of any defenseman, with six.
Gourley had an up-and-down campaign after transferring from Arizona State but played his best hockey in the postseason. UConn’s hopes for a Hockey East championship sank when he left with an injury in the final — the staff had been putting him against UMass star Bobby Trivigno, who subsequently scored the game-tying goal shortly after Gourley went off.
As for Berger, his departure wasn’t overly surprising. He was a healthy scratch in the season finale against Vermont after he made a handful of back-breaking mistakes in the loss to the Catamounts the night before and rarely provided enough offense to make up for his shortcomings on the defensive end. Berger had just the fourth-most points among the blue liners, with eight, while his 15 blocked shots were fewer than every other defenseman, as well as four forwards.
UConn’s losses on the back end aren’t insignificant, but it’s nothing the team can’t overcome.
The Huskies bring back a veteran group with one fifth-year, two seniors, one junior and a sophomore.
Captain Roman Kinal is the veteran in the group and comes back despite participating in senior day last season. He’s a strong, defense-first player but still managed to find the back of the net three times last season — including the eventual game-winner in the Hockey East semifinals against Northeastern. Kinal’s plus-10 was the second-best plus/minus among defensemen, which is especially impressive considering he racked up the second-most penalty minutes on the team with 24.
Rees was UConn’s best D-man wire-to-wire. He led the Huskies with 49 blocks and a plus-13 rating while totaling the second-most points among defensemen with 13 (three goals, 10 assists). Rees isn’t flashy but he can chip in everywhere on the ice.
Jake Flynn is entering his senior year and remarkably, UConn has two freshmen forwards — Mark D’Agostino and Huston Karpman — who are older than him. Flynn arrived in Storrs as a true freshman straight out of high school and while he was billed as an offensive defenseman, he’s become more of an all-around player. He had 10 points (two goals, eight assists) in 31 games last season but also blocked 40 shots. Flynn was relegated to the extra skater spot down the stretch but recovered to re-earn a spot in the pairings for the postseason.
After a standout freshman campaign, John Spetz took a slight step back as a sophomore. He struggled with inconsistency at times and wasn’t the same dominant two-way player that we saw the year before. Despite that, Spetz still led defensemen with 18 points (four goals, 14 assists) and blocked 37 shots. He still has the potential to be UConn’s best blue-liner if he can be more consistent.
Last season, Aidan Metcalfe only appeared in one game — the regular season finale when Berger was benched. He won’t make many highlight-reel plays but showed he can be a capable fill-in when called upon.
With three defensemen out, UConn brought three in new player: Vermont transfer Andrew Lucas, along with freshmen Thomas Messineo and Jack Pascucci. While all three outgoing d-men were left-handed, Lucas and Pascucci are both right-handed, which means Kinal, Messineo and Metcalfe are the only left-shot defensemen on the roster.
Lucas is an offensive defenseman who spent time as a captain at Vermont. Last season, he had three goals and 10 assists for a Catamounts team that finished 10th in Hockey East, so the Huskies are hoping his production will increase on a better team.
Of the two freshmen, Messineo is more offensive-minded. He’s regarded as an elite skater with high potential but still has plenty of development left. As for Pascucci, he’s similar to Kinal — a strong, big-bodied, defensive defenseman who can protect the front of the net.
Assuming UConn continues to use the extra skater spot for a defenseman, it’ll dress seven players at the position each game. Kinal, Rees, Flynn, Spetz and Lucas are locks to play when healthy, which leaves two openings for Metcalfe, Messineo and Pascucci. Unless Metcalfe has made significant progress over the offseason, Messineo and Pascucci have the inside track to the final two spots.