Why Ryan Ufko could be Nashville’s next great blueline prospect

And what he needs to do to take the next step.

Over the past few years, the University of Massachusetts (UMass) has become a factory of NHL defenders. Mario Ferraro, Cale Makar, and Zac Jones stand out, and there are a few more making their way, including Milwaukee’s Marc Del Gaizo.

With a fourth-round pick in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, the Nashville Predators might have found one of the next blue-chip blue-line prospects to come out of UMass in Ryan Ufko.

Standing at just 5’10”, Ufko has already outperformed his 115th overall selection at the NCAA level (I had him ranked 54th on my final board). And now, the 19-year-old defender is playing for a spot on the United States’ 2023 World Junior Championship roster.

In his draft year, Ufko led all blueliners on a loaded Chicago Steel (USHL) roster with ten goals and 39 points in 53 games. In the 2021-22 season, he transitioned to college hockey with ease, scoring five goals and 31 points in 37 games, including eight primary points scored at even strength. He finished second among all UMass defenders in scoring to fellow freshman Scott Morrow (33) and third among all freshman blueliners nationwide to Morrow and Luke Hughes.

Ufko’s advanced metrics last season were even more impressive. In ten games I tracked, he recorded a 56.52% even-strength Corsi, notched 11.82 shot attempts per 60 minutes, allowed just 2.78 high-danger shots per 60 minutes, and let opponents gain the offensive zone with possession just one-third of the time.

This year, playing top minutes on the Minutemen blue line, Ufko has kept up his impressive development and more.

Through 15 games, Ufko has already posted three goals and 13 points, tying Scott Morrow for the team’s scoring lead among defenders. While just three of those points have been primary ones scored at even strength, it’s clear that Ufko is capable of more five-on-five offensive involvement; I’ll get into that later.

Through four games of his I’ve tracked this year, Ufko has a 54.08% Corsi at even strength, recorded 11.49 shot attempts per 60 minutes, and allowed just 1.77 high-danger shots per 60 minutes.

Defensively, Ufko has maintained his success rate of blocking two-thirds of controlled zone entries, and he’s kept two-thirds of the entries he’s allowed to the perimeter of his zone. In transition, the Smithtown, New York native has completed 66.67% of his zone exit attempts, but he’s skated just 37.50% of those exits out himself. And that’s where—despite all of the positives—the limitations (temporary, I believe) of Ufko’s game currently lie.

Below, I break down some of Ufko’s game tape from this season to examine what’s working and what he needs to do to take the next step to be a top-tier NHL prospect.

My biggest criticism of Ryan Ufko (#6, maroon) in his draft year was his tendency to lose one-on-one defensive situations—mostly due to his size and lack of high-end speed. In the clip above, we see Ufko adjust and pivot well to disrupt Providence’s controlled zone entry. He plays the body decently, but he still can’t get around #23’s excellent puck-protection skills. And he ultimately loses his man with a lack of acceleration, demonstrating that while he’s learned to adjust his defensive skills against college competition, but there are still natural growing pains.

Above is another example of his pivot timing and adjustment. Even though he may be a half-step behind, Ufko stays with the New Hampshire forward and takes a proper bodychecking angle to force a turnover.

And here’s one more exhibit of flawless zone-entry defense from Ufko.

One of Ryan Ufko’s best assets is his skating mechanics. While he doesn’t have elite footspeed, Ufko maintains good control of his edges, has proper knee bend, and recovers his stride fully under the center of his body. And while he’s a better-than-average skater, Ufko doesn’t often lead UMass’ transition himself as evidenced by the low carry-out zone exit rate I previously noted.

In the clip above, as Ufko comes around his own net with the puck, he uses linear crossovers well while surveying the ice. But he slows himself down, allowing Providence to clutter the far side of the ice and force a dump-in. This is a commonly-seen move when watching Ufko’s games; whether it's a stylistic approach directed by the coaching staff or Ufko’s own preference compared to the oft-activating Scott Morrow, he has the skating and offensive skills to take more chances in transition.

When he joins the rush, Ufko can tease with excellent puck skills and the confidence to activate from the blue line and put higher-danger shot attempts on-net, as seen above.

As we see with this primary assist, Ufko excels at bombing hard, accurate shots from the point that give his teammates plenty of deflection opportunities too.

Take this overtime shift above as a good example of his puck control abilities, poise under pressure, and vision at both ends of the ice.

And finally, when he’s unleashed, Ryan Ufko can be as good as anyone else on the ice in generating high-danger scoring chances. In the clip above, Ufko continues to survey his passing options while dekeing out of pressure from his opponents; he dances around half of the Union College players on the ice, walks a tightrope with the puck along the blue line, and dive bombs toward the net to nearly put a goal home.

This is the Ryan Ufko that I’ve seen in flashes of brilliance. Combine that with excellent rush defense, good passing and skating skills, and and improving physicality and man-on-man coverage, and Nashville may have just found their next great blueline prospect.

All statistics are courtesy of eliteprospects.com, collegehockeynews.com, or manually tracked.