Preview: Connecticut Huskies

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In the coming weeks, NU Hockey Blog will be counting down to the start of the 2017-18 Hockey East season with a look at the upcoming year for each of the eleven returning clubs (Note: Get lost Notre Dame). Today, we look at our projected seventh place finisher, the University of Connecticut Huskies

Always an intriguing storyline, the Connecticut Huskies enter their fourth season in Hockey East, led by head coach Mike Cavanaugh. In the three seasons prior, Cavanaugh has guided UConn to no finish higher than eighth in the regular season standings. Since their immersion into the conference, Connecticut has had individual talents that very clearly belong among the top talents in Hockey East. The best player of the Cavanaugh era, bar none, has been Tage Thompson, who led UConn in scoring and goals the past two seasons. Sadly for fans of the blue Huskies, Thompson has taken his talents to the St. Louis Blues organization, and it will be quite the challenge for Cavanaugh and his staff to replace his production.

2016-17 Performance– Overall, the Huskies compiled a record of 12 wins, 16 losses, and 8 ties. In conference, they gathered 8 wins, 10 losses, and 4 ties. After starting the season well with a sweep of Alabama-Huntsville, UConn would only win six more games over the first half of the season. They had three statement wins, all road victories against NCAA tournament teams- Notre Dame (4-2), Boston University (4-0), and UMass-Lowell (3-2). Those are the kinds of wins that teams rally behind and use to propel them forward. Unfortunately for the Huskies, they also had a number of bad losses that half, including to Sacred Heart (4-2, at home).

The second half of the Huskies was even worse in terms of results, with only four more wins the rest of the season. In fact, they only had two wins in 2017 until the final regular season weekend sweep against New Hampshire. Their only other wins were home against Maine (6-3) and Vermont (3-1). Nearly every other loss in 2017 was to a Hockey East opponent (Yale being the lone exception). The Huskies’ season came to an end inside the hallowed walls of Matthews Arena, where Northeastern swept them in the first round of the Hockey East playoffs.

As stated, UConn was led in scoring by Tage Thompson, who amassed 19 goals and 32 points. Behind him was Maxim Letunov (27 points, 7 goals), Spencer Naas (22 points, 15 goals), and Evan Richardson (22 points, 6 goals). The defense was led by Joseph Masonius, who was also the top scoring defenseman with 13 points. In net, the duties were split by Robbie Nichols and Adam Huska. Nichols, a since-graduated senior, played 16 games and recorded a 91.3 save percentage and 2.59 goals-against-average. Rising sophomore and New York Rangers draftee Adam Huska played 21 games, posting a 91.6 SV% and 2.87 GAA.

In terms of possession and team statistics, UConn was mediocre in many categories. They scored 96 goals, 39th-best in the nation. They put up 1053 shots, 42nd-best in the nation, and shot 9.1% on those shots, tied for 39th in the nation. Their overall Corsi% was 46.9%, good for 46th in the nation. Their Corsi Close and Corsi Even Strength are not much different, 46.7% and 47.2% respectively. Their powerplay scored at a 16.3% clip, 40th best in the country. Their penalty kill succeeded 81.8% of the time, 34th-best in the nation.

Returning Players– While Tage Thompson does not return to UConn’s roster for 2017-18, the Huskies do have some talented players with past contributions returning. Max Letunov is their top returning scorer (27 points), however he is far more valuable as a distributor, setting up players for goals with his accurate passes rather than scoring goals himself. It remains to be seen whether the Sharks prospect can improve his goal scoring, and if he does, that will be extremely valuable to the Huskies. Spencer Naas is the top returning goal scorer (15), and will be looked to repeat his goal-scoring ways. He has only one season in Storrs where he scored single-digit goals (9, in 2015-16), so his consitency is a good crutch for Cavanaugh to rely on.

The goaltending duties will fall squarely on Adam Huska’s shoulders, and he appears to be more than capable to handle the load. His USHL pedigree predicted success for his time in college, and his first season, he did not look out of place. At times a victim of poor team defense, Huska shows great size in net, taking away shooting angles and space for opponents to target. I expect him to improve on his numbers from last season, especially when considering that all regular starters fin UConn’s  defensive corps are returning.

Incoming Recruits– Admittedly, I do not follow the UConn recruiting pipeline closely, so I cannot say with 100% certainty they types of players that UConn is bringing into the program. They did in five freshmen, incuding three forwards, one defenseman, and one goaltender. The majority of them are coming from the United States Hockey League, which should help them transition to the NCAA level quickly. 

The top scorer in the class is forward Brian Rigali, who played last season with Sioux City in the USHL. He totaled 30 points in 59 games, and added 4 points in the playoffs. In total, he scored 13 goals, a skill that will be valuable to the Huskies if he can replicate it at this level. Forward Zac Robbins scored 40 points in 116 career games with Cedar Rapids in the USHL. The third forward in the class is Evan Wisocky, who scored 22 points in nearly 60 games last season.

The lone defenseman of the class is Adam Karashik, who is fresh off a Clark Cup victory with the Chicago Steel of the USHL. Not much of an offensive dynamo, Karashik will be a stabilizing force, though it may be tough to garner playing time his freshman year. Goaltender Bradley Stone rounds out the class, and comes from the USPHL.

Season Outlook– With Huska and all six starters on defense returning, I expect Connecticut to have a stout, improved defense compared to what they showed last season. While they are infamous for “parking the ice bus” in games and relying too heavily on their goaltending when leading, I believe Huska is the type of talent that can be relied on consistently Their offense, however, will be the biggest question mark facing them in 2017-18. Losing Tage Thompson is a massive blow to a team that struggles to scores as it is, and no player on the roster appears capable of replicating the offensive production that Thompson put out in two seasons in Storrs. If UConn cannot find some answers to their goal-scoring questions, their upside is quite limited, and they may be looking at another finish in the bottom half of Hockey East.