The details regarding the upcoming college hockey season are still being worked out, but if what transpired during the second and final day of the 2020 NHL draft is any indication, this could be a season to remember for Connecticut college hockey programs.
UConn sophomore defenseman Yan Kuznetsov got it started when he was selected 50th overall by the Calgary Flames, joining 2017 first-rounder Juuso Valimaki as the only defensemen taken by Calgary in the top 50 picks since 2013. It was the team that was the most diligent checking in on Kuznetsov in the weeks leading up to the draft.
“They also checked on me,” Kuznetsov said. “They asked if am I in Russia or the United States, what is my health status?”
Kuznetsov, who was just 17 when he made his debut as a freshman at UConn, had two goals and nine assists in 34 games as a college freshman.
“I advanced my game a lot,” Kuznetsov said. “I played against pretty good competition and I was able to grow as a player.”
Photo: Contributed Photo /UConn Athletics /
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It is the third time in the last five drafts that a player from UConn went in the top 50. Tage Thompson was the 26th overall selection in 2016 and Ruslan Iskhakov was picked 43rd by the New York Islanders in 2018.
UConn coach Mike Cavanaugh said Kuznetsov reminds him of two-time Stanley Cup champion Brooks Orpik who Cavanaugh worked with when he was an assistant coach at Boston College. Kuznetsov said he would like to pattern his game after Seth Jones of the Nashville Predators.
Quinnipiac freshman forward Ty Smilanic was being touted as a potential first-round selection, but he was slowed by three separate injuries or illnesses while playing for the U.S. National Team Development Program.
“I think they got a good one here, I think there is a lot of untapped potential in Ty’s game,” said Brian Lawton, the first American-born player selected No. 1 in the NHL draft and a former general manager with the Tampa Bay Lightning said on the NHL Network broadcast after Smilanic was picked 74th overall by the Florida Panthers. “I think he got chipped down a little bit quite frankly because of the injuries.”
Smilanic is the third Quinnipiac product selected in the top 100. He went lower than expected as a bout with mononucleosis as well as a sprained ankle and broken finger slowed him during the 2019-20 season.
“Seeing names pop up and seeing names being picked, it was kind of upsetting but at the end of the day I got drafted by an NHL team. I am here with my family and it is a pretty special moment,” Smilanic said.
Smilanic is on campus and eager to get his freshman season started. That is likely at least a month away as the ECAC has yet to make an announcement about the 2020-21 season.
Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold has been impressed with not only how he has looked during drills but also how well he has meshed with his teammates.
“I think Florida got a steal,” Pecknold said. “I thought he was going to go a lot higher. I am sure he is probably a little disappointed that he went a little later. He looks like a dominant talent to me, he makes plays in small areas, he competes, he is an elite level skater, we have been really happy with him. I think he is going to be one of the more dominant freshmen in our league.”
Smilanic figures to make an impact when the season begins which Pecknold is hoping happens somewhere around Nov. 13.
“We’ve been skating every day over the past month and we have a really talented group this year and we can go as far as we want to so it is really up to us,” Smilanic said. “We have really been buying in as far as practice and weight lifting so if everything goes as planned, it is going to be a pretty special year for me and my teammates.
“Quinnipiac has a phenomenal hockey program, they have shown that over the past 10-15 years and they’ve never won a national championship so I looked at it as a great opportunity to come in an already great team and hopefully be the team that is the first Quinnipiac hockey team to win a national championship.”
Alex Jefferies, who had 60 goals and 66 assists in 63 games in two seasons at The Gunnery School, was picked by the New York Islanders with the 121st pick and UConn freshman Artem Shlaine, Kuznetsov’s roommate, was picked 130th by the New Jersey Devils. UConn freshman forward Nick Capone of East Haven went to the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning in the sixth round, with pick No. 157 giving the Huskies three players selected.
“I am really happy for the guys,” Kuznetsov said. “I am pretty sure they have the same emotions, it is a great day.”
Tampa Bay selected another New Haven area player in 2013 when it used a second-round pick on Adam Erne, who is now with Detroit.
It’s been a seven-year process of Capone moving to different teams and cities with the hopes of playing college hockey and ultimately head into pro hockey.
“When I was like 11, I decided that this is what I want to do and I started to work for it,” Capone said. “I was scoring more and changing the level I was on and that was when I started to realize I could do something.”
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