From Russia, with potential: Max Letunov looking to make UConn a hockey powerhouse too

[caption id="attachment_3237" align="alignright" width="150"] FRIDAY ON ASN: Vermont at UConn, 8:30 p.m. ET (click logo for local listings)[/caption]

Max Letunov was taken in the second round of the 2014 NHL draft by the St. Louis Blues. But in an unusual twist, he the Blues traded his rights to the Arizona Coyotes for veteran defenseman Zbynek Michalek and a conditional third round pick in last year’s draft.

“Obviously it kind of took me by surprise,” Letunov said, “You don’t see a lot of trades like that, an NHL player for a prospect. I was sitting in school when I got an alert on my phone. I did make a few calls after class to figure out what was going on, but really, I don’t mind. I like the warm weather of Arizona and hate cold.”

It’s not the first time the UConn freshman from Moscow, Russia has made changes on the fly. He became this season’s centerpiece of a young Huskies squad only after he ran into admissions problems at Boston University, his original scholarship commitment.

When he found out he couldn’t play in Boston, he started looking for a young team where he could make a difference.

Welcome to UConn, a traditional basketball powerhouse with a ton of hockey potential.

Through 23 games the freshman forward is tied for 24th in the nation in scoring with nine goals and 16 assists. He’s one of four NHL draft picks on a Huskies team that is midway through its second season in Hockey East.

His talents will be on display Friday night on ASN when UConn tries to even the season series against Vermont, which won the first meeting, 2-1.

UConn enters with an 8-13-2 overall record and 4-7-2 in Hockey East. The Catamounts are 9-14-2 overall and 3-7-2 in conference play.

“Hartford has a big hockey community and has been wanting a team to really support since the Whalers (now the Carolina Hurricanes) left (in 1997),” UConn junior goalie Rob Nichols said. “We’d love to get this program to where the basketball teams are. This is a school that has done well in a lot of sports, and joining Hockey East last year was a big deal. It’s like a tournament every weekend. The talent level is so high, No. 12 can beat No. 1 on any given night.”

The Huskies rank third in attendance in Hockey East this season, drawing more than 5,200 fans per outing, but there is room for 9,000 at the XL Center in downtown Hartford, 28 miles from the Storrs, CT., campus.

Landing players of Letunov’s caliber can expedite the growth process.

“He’s just got a knack for game,” Nichols said. “He’s a versatile player and he makes outstanding plays with the puck most of us can’t see. He’s got an elusive shot you can’t tell where he’s putting it. He’s just a dynamic offensive player.”

Nichols is no slouch, either. Having grown up playing golf with world No. 1 Jordan Spieth, the goalie posted back-to-back shutouts over the past two weekends against Arizona State and Maine to earn Hockey East Defensive Player of the Week honors for the second time this season.

Nichols stopped 82 of 83 shots against Maine, which on Tuesday battled No. 1 Quinnipiac to a 3-3 tie. He is the first UConn goaltender to post consecutive shutouts. He has a 2.75 goals against average and a .913 save percentage and his 596 saves are fifth most in the nation.

Not bad, considering he had surgery performed on both his hips after last season and couldn’t skate until the second week of his season. Like many goalies the wear and tear of putting on the pads and constant stretching for saves took its toll.

“Thatcher Demko (BC goalie) had the same thing,” Nichols said. “After the last game last season I had trouble walking. I went to the same adviser as Thatcher and a lot of NHL goalies. Since the Christmas break I’ve felt much better.”

As for his golf days with Spieth, he says he never beat him.

“We played on the same golf team and he was unbelievable back then,” Nichols said. “Everybody on the team knew he’d be the next Tiger Woods. It’s pretty cool to see he’s the same guy I grew up with and it’s incredible what he’s done.”

As for Friday’s rematch, Nichols expects it to be physical.

“It was a hostile environment when we played them in their house and it was a lot of fun,” he said. “I think we’ve come a long way since then.”

Above: Max Letunov found out he was part of one of the more unusual draft trades while sitting in class. (Courtesy Steve Slade/UConn Athletic Communications)

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