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John Altavilla | The Hartford Courant | September 28, 2017

UConn's Cavanaugh has wealth of Hockey East experience in returners

UConn junior Karl El-Mir scored nine goals for the Huskies last season.

For the first time in Mike Cavanaugh's five-year run as UConn men's hockey coach he will have a team that only knows what it's like to play in Hockey East.

His nine seniors were freshman when the Huskies began play in the league in 2014-15 and by now are familiar with the terrain it needs to travel to work its way into the top echelon of the conference.

This experience is one of the elements Cavanaugh hopes will work in his favor as his Huskies try to take the next step.

"This is the most veteran team that I've had by far," Cavanaugh said. "At some point, I know they all are going to be contributors to the club. ... It's been fun this preseason because they all know the way we want to play. We've been able to get right into some systems play without really needing to teach it. Practices have seemed to go rather smoothly lately."

They will begin the season Oct. 6-7 with consecutive games at Maine as the seventh-ranked team in the 11-team league according to the vote of the head coaches. They will begin aware that they finished ninth last season before being quickly eliminated by Northeastern in the first round of the league playoffs.

Like every season, the passage of time has brought change to the Huskies, this time in two major areas.

Leading scorer Tage Thompson, the forward who was a first-round draft pick of the St. Louis Blues in 2016, left school after his sophomore season to sign with the NHL team.

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"I remember Bill O'Flaherty, the old-time Clarkson coach, saying once when I was at Boston College after we'd lost a couple of kids, 'Hey, don't complain about that,'" Cavanaugh said. "'You're not going to be any good if you're not losing good players.'

"I believe in that. Would I have loved to have Tage for another year, for two more years? Sure. But the reality is, it's our job to prepare them [his players] for the next level. We're happy for him and rooting for him to make the St. Louis Blues."

And goaltender Robbie Nichols, who shared the starting goalie responsibilities with Adam Huska, has graduated, leaving Huska, now a sophomore, to carry the load without a backup goalie who appeared in even one game last season.

Thompson scored 19 goals and had 32 points last season, by far the most productive player on the team. If there is any good news about his departure, it's that UConn returns 72.7 percent of their points (189) and 66.7 percent of their goal scoring (64).

Senior Spencer Naas is the team's top returning goal scorer (15) and his 37 career goals are tops among current UConn scorers. But what would help UConn this season is a bounce-back year from junior forward Maxim Letunov, who was second on the club with 27 points last year. Letunov had 40 points as a freshman.

"Max is a marquee forward and he's been our best player in training camp," Cavanaugh said. "He's come back in excellent shape after spending all summer with Mo Butler [UConn's strength and conditioning coach] and it really has showed. He is in the best shape he's ever been in."

After Letunov and Naas, the Huskies will likely depend on juniors Max Kalter and Karl El-Mir. Kalter scored 20 points with four goals with 16 assists. El-Mir scored nine goals.

The defense in front of Huska will be experienced. Eight players return, led by senior captain Derek Pratt, David Drake, Johnny Austin, Miles Gendron and Joseph Masonius. They all played critical roles on a unit that helped hold UConn's goals-against average to a 2.89.

"This camp has been tougher," Pratt said. "We've been skating more, with a real focus on our conditioning with the goal that it's going to pay off in all the third periods we play. We want to play further [into the season] than we've been playing.

"I look back to our playoff series against Northeastern last year [UConn was swept in two games] because it's still fresh in my mind. If you take film from an NHL regular season game and run it next to an NHL postseason game, you would be able to tell the difference [in energy]. If you took film from our regular season games and put it next to film of the Northeastern series, I'm not sure you would be able to tell the difference."

Huska, a New York Rangers' draft pick, appeared in 21 games last season with a 2.87 goals-against average and 91.6 save percentage. In Hockey East games, he was 7-4-3 with a 2.40 goals-against and 92.8 save percentage.

Backing him up will be senior Tanner Creel, who did not appear in a game last season, and freshman Bradley Stone. Cavanaugh said Creel will get a number of starts.

"Adam and I have a great relationship," Creel said. "We are always pushing each other, trying to improve each other. Adam knows it's a long season and you can't play every game so I will be there when he can't play to push the team in the right direction." 

This article is written by John Altavilla from The Hartford Courant and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to

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