Seven National Hockey League teams own the draft rights of eight players on the UConn men’s hockey team ahead of the 2023-24 season, which begins on Saturday in Hamilton, New York, against the Colgate Raiders. Six of those players went in the fifth round or later in different drafts while the New Jersey Devils selected sophomore forward Samu Salminen 68th overall in the third round two years ago. The eighth athlete, however, significantly stands out.
18-year-old forward Matthew Wood entered rarified air this past June when the Nashville Predators took him 15th overall in the 2023 NHL entry-level draft. Selected one pick later than the New Orleans Pelicans drafted UConn men’s basketball guard Jordan Hawkins a week prior, Wood became the second first-round selection in UConn hockey history and the first since Buffalo Sabres center Tage Thompson went 26th overall in 2016.
Because of his very high draft selection, the sophomore will most likely spend one more year in Storrs before starting his professional career with the Predators. Unlike other leagues, NHL players do not lose their eligibility if teams select them in the entry-level draft and are not obligated to sign a professional contract immediately. NHL teams hold the rights of any NCAA player they draft for their entire collegiate career plus an additional 30 days after they graduate. Should the player not sign within that month-long window upon obtaining their degree, they become an unrestricted free agent and can choose the team they sign with. For the most part, NCAA hockey players taken in the early rounds of the NHL Draft spend no more than two years in college before going pro.
Past Hockey East Conference stars such as 2022 Conn Smythe (Stanley Cup Playoffs MVP) winner Cale Makar, Minnesota Wild right winger Matthew Boldy and 2022 Second All-Star Team defenseman Charlie McAvoy, each a first-round pick, all went pro after their sophomore year of college. Even Thompson left for the pros after his second season with the Ice Bus, repeating his 32-point freshman campaign with that many in two fewer games in 2016-17 as the team’s leading scorer. More than halfway toward passing the Sabres’ leading scorer’s collegiate point totals, Wood has higher expectations after a strong freshman season ahead with the program’s first-ever lottery pick selection now included in his repertoire. In 35 contests last year, the Western Canada native led the Huskies with 15 assists and 34 points while tying current captain Hudson Schandor for third with 11 goals.
Breaking down his rookie campaign even further, the former freshman found the net three times in the first three weekends of the season and never went three straight games without getting on the scoresheet. That earned him a spot on the Hockey East Pro Ambitions All-Rookie Team, becoming a unanimous selection alongside 2022 fifth-overall pick Cutter Gauthier and Hockey East Rookie of the Year Lane Hutson. Wood collected all of those accolades in his age-17 campaign, maintaining the hype built around him as the program’s highest-rated recruit after finishing high school a year early.
Listed as a second-line right winger on the depth chart for most contests last season, I would not be surprised if the 18-year-old became an immediate first line forward for UConn. Getting that spot, however, may require converting to center, as leading goal-scorer Ryan Tverberg’s departure leaves an opening at the position. Junior Chase Bradley and senior Nick Capone covered the wings on the first line for the majority of the year, and with both 2020 NHL Draft selections among the top five in points among returning players, I do not expect either veteran to relinquish their hard-earned first line position this winter. Already a top-six forward for the Ice Bus, Wood’s sophomore year will set him up for a top-six spot the moment he sets foot in Nashville.
Smashville solely needs stronger play from their wings beyond alternate captain Filip Forsberg, given the Daily Faceoff’s projected forward combinations. Listed as a center on Hockey Reference, Forsberg finished second on the team with 19 goals and fourth with 42 points. The site additionally has 13-year veteran Gustav Nyquist, who had 27 points for two teams last year, on the second line with North Dakota alum Cole Smith and 22-year-old Finnish forward Juuso Pärssinen rounding out the left wing. Right winger Nino Niederreiter scored 28 points in 56 games before being traded to the Winnipeg Jets at the trade deadline, and he still would have led his position had he stayed put in Nashville. 2019 first-round pick Philip Tomasino comes in at second with 18 points in 31 games despite Hockey Reference listing him as a center, while free agent addition Denis Gurianov, who played for two teams last season, and 2020 second-round selection Luke Evangelista finished not far behind.
Had he played in the Music City last year, Wood’s freshman-season numbers in just a 35-game sample would have placed him seventh on the team in points, 10th in goals and tied for fifth in assists, all of which would have boosted their average goals and total points scored. Whether their most recent first-round pick gets the direct call to the pros or takes a detour to the American Hockey League’s Milwaukee Admirals after signing his entry-level contract remains in the air, but the Predators will experience long-term benefits on offense once Wood debuts in the NHL.
Until that happens, however, UConn hockey fans will watch their second-ever first-round pick strive for another successful year. Winter sports in Storrs have already started with a bang after the No. 14 UConn women’s hockey team departed Happy Valley with a win and a tie against the then-No. 11 Penn State Nittany Lions. Both basketball teams have their own superstars that make them perennial national title contenders, such as senior guard Paige Bueckers and sophomore center Donovan Clingan, but Wood can forge his own path while setting a new standard for UConn hockey.