College Hockey Preview: Freshman 15 — First-Year Players to Watch

With the team-by-team preview out of the way, it’s time to take a look at some of the individuals worth keeping a close eye on this college hockey season. The level of talent across the college ranks is as high as ever, but there is a number of intriguing first-year players that are worth highlighting.

Boston College freshman G Thatcher Demko (Photo: Tom Sorensen)

Over the last several years, freshmen have made a larger impact on the college game. Since a four-year stay in college is becoming increasingly rare for the higher-end players, the best freshmen tend to land significant roles rather immediately. Additionally, since many are fresh off their NHL Draft season, there is a little more of a spotlight on them.

Last year, freshmen made a huge impact. One such rookie was Michigan’s Jacob Trouba, who was the top-billed player on our Freshman 15 list and dominated the  competition last season. He impressed the Winnipeg Jets enough for them to urge him to go pro after just one college season.

Tuesday night, Trouba made his NHL debut and made an immediate impact once again. The 19-year-old defenseman scored his first NHL goal, which tied the game, and was on the ice to protect a one-goal lead, shorthanded and against an extra attacker. In total, he logged 25:02 of ice time and also added an assist to make one of the best NHL debuts you’ll see out of a defenseman.

So is there a player that can make that kind of impact this year? Probably not that much, but there’s a great group of high-end talent at every position. So here’s a look at United States of Hockey’s Freshman 15.

Lists like these are always tough to make. It’s so difficult to predict how a player makes the jump from wherever he is to college hockey. The fact that there are players as old as 24 or 25 on some collegiate teams makes the transition tougher, particularly for true freshmen.

Also, there are usually a lot of surprises. Riley Barber, Danny O’Regan, Jon Gillies and Connor Hellebuyck were probably among the best first-year guys in the country last season and none were on the list last year (which I look back and ask myself, “HOW!?”).

With that in mind, the first-year guys I picked to spotlight for the Freshman 15 I find most intriguing coming into the season. I’d expect most of the guys on this list to make some kind of impact on their team this season, but a few are here due to potential long-term impact on their programs as well.

Additionally, I decided to cast a bit of a wider net with “Others to Watch” since I think there are a lot of guys in this freshman class worth getting to know a bit better.

Players not listed in any particular order, click on photos for official bio.

Thatcher Demko — G — Boston College — It’s not often a Division I powerhouse turns to a true freshman in net, but that appears to be what the Eagles will do this season. Demko is actually younger than a true freshman, as he accelerated his schooling to graduate early and attend BC this year. This is a lot for an 18-year-old netminder to shoulder, but the big kid from San Diego, Calif., looks up to the challenge. He is also in his first draft-eligible season and was designated as an A-rated prospect by NHL Central Scouting in the preseason. The benefit for Demko coming into BC this year is that he played a lot of games against college competition while a member of the U.S. U18 Team last season. That team actually did abnormally well against college foes. With Demko in the net, the U18s beat Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State, Merrimack Nebraska Omaha and Alabama Huntsville. They also tied Notre Dame and New Hampshire. So Demko’s seen college shooters already and done well. After Jon Gillies’ and Connor Hellebuyck’s performances last season as freshmen in Hockey East, it’s definitely possible for a first-year guy to make a large impact. If Demko is on his game, BC is in really good shape. NHL Rights: Draft-eligible in 2014.

Ian McCoshen – D — Boston College — The highest college-bound player selected in the 2013 NHL Draft, McCoshen is another big highlight of Boston College’s rather stacked recruiting class. With three years of junior hockey under his belt, McCoshen plays a mature game. He is poised with the puck and makes a lot of strong decisions. He’s also 6-foot-3, 206 pounds, so he’s not one to get pushed around either. He was one of the USHL’s very best defensemen last season and though he was pursued heavily by the OHL, McCoshen weighed all of his options before ultimately picking BC last season. The Hudson, Wis., native should be able to jump into a meaningful role immediately and should provide a nice compliment to standout sophomore Michael Matheson. NHL Rights: Florida Panthers

Steven Santini — D — Boston College — Three BC Eagles in a row? Well, as I said, these guys aren’t listed in any particular order, but it’s hard to get past just how talented BC’s incoming class is. Santini, like McCoshen, was a second-round NHL Draft pick. In fact, since New Jersey traded their first-rounder, he was the Devils’ first pick at the draft they hosted. A native of Mahopac, N.Y., Santini committed to BC at a young age. Since then, he’s developed into one of the best young defensive defensemen I’ve seen in the last several years. He was the directorate award winner at the World Under-18 Championship as the tournament’s best defenseman. He played huge minutes and shutdown such players as Valeri Nichushkin (a potential Calder candidate) and Canadian sensation Connor McDavid. Santini is an incredibly strong skater, he is physical and always seems to get himself to the right place in the D-zone. The offensive side of his game isn’t much, but when this 6-2, 201-pound rearguard is on the ice, other teams should have a tough time scoring. NHL Rights: New Jersey Devils

J.T. Compher — F — Michigan — Another standout from last year’s World U18 Championship, Compher has the physical strength and skill to make a sizable impact as a true freshman. At 5-11, 185, he doesn’t look big on paper, but he definitely plays big. Compher is a physical forward, who can be a violently powerful skater. He has a quick release on his shot and is very good at using his skating to make defenders miss. Compher is also extremely responsible in his own end and a strong penalty killer. His all-around capabilities as well as his physical strength put him in a position to take on a big role and really shore up Michigan’s already solid forward crop. NHL Rights: Buffalo Sabres

Taylor Cammarata — F — Minnesota — Expectations are sky high for last year’s USHL MVP. At just 5-7, 154, Cammarata has been doubted a lot over the years due to his size, however he’s always seemed to put up remarkable numbers. One of Cammarata’s claims to fame is outscoring this year’s No. 1 overall Nathan MacKinnon while the two were bantams at Shattuck-St. Mary’s. Last year, Cammarata put up 93 points including 38 goals in the often defensively-stout USHL. Over his two-year career with the Waterloo Black Hawks, Cammarata posted 162 points in 119 games. So that’s pretty jaw dropping. While the players were bigger and stronger in the USHL, they’re even bigger and even stronger in the NCAA. Every time I’ve wondered if he can make the jump, he does, so I won’t doubt the Plymouth, Minn., native coming into the season. A consistent effort to go with his immense skill will go a long way for the dynamic forward. NHL Rights: New York Islanders

Zach Stepan — F — Minnesota State — Undoubtedly the biggest and most important recruit in the new WCHA this year, Minnesota State kind of got lucky to get him. Stepan was initially committed to Ohio State, joining Mark Osiecki, who was instrumental in bringing Zach’s NHL cousin Derek to Wisconsin while an assistant there. However Osiecki was fired and soon after Stepan’s commitment to the Buckeyes was no more. Stepan made the switch to the Mavericks and made the WCHA’s best team a heck of a lot better. Part of the same vaunted Waterloo Black Hawks scoring attack as Cammarata, Stepan put up 78 points in his only USHL season last year. He has proven to be a solid two-way forward and could slot into a number of roles for Minnesota State. NHL Rights: Nashville Predators

Jake Guentzel — F — Nebraska-Omaha — The USHL’s rookie of the year last season, Guentzel made the smooth transition from Minnesota high school hockey to junior. He put up 73 points in 60 games to earn top rookie honors. Guentzel, the son of current Minnesota and former UNO assistant Mike, has some dynamic properties to his game, particularly his ability to use his high-end speed to create offense. At 5-10, 160, he’ll need to build strength over time and may not make a huge impact right away, but he adds another weapon to a team that is speedy up front. UNO needs to pull in more high-profile recruits like Guentzel to keep up with the rest of its counterparts in the new NCHC. NHL Rights: Pittsburgh Penguins

Gustav Olofsson — D — Colorado College — When the Minnesota Wild nabbed Olofsson late in the second round, it may have surprised some, but I had heard too often just how much scouts love Olofsson’s potential. The big Swede has some good skill to his game with some solid distribution skills and excellent footwork. He’s still a little on the raw side, but really seemed to grow into his role in the USHL last season with Green Bay. There’s a lot to like about his game and where it’s headed. It may not translate into immediate impact as a freshman, but he’s a guy worth watching very closely as he’s on the cusp of becoming a pretty special prospect. NHL Rights: Minnesota Wild

Eamon McAdam — G — Penn State — The centerpiece of Penn State’s first recruiting class heading into the inaugural Big Ten season, McAdam should push Matt Skoff for the lionshare of playing time. At 6-2, 199, McAdam has good size and athleticism and has spent the last two season stopping pucks in the USHL. He was probably at his best last year for Team USA at the World Junior A Challenge where he put together a .927 save percentage as the U.S. won the tournament. McAdam didn’t have eye-popping numbers in the USHL, but the upside is there, as suggested by his lofty third-round selection by the Islanders in 2013. The Nittany Lions have a solid goaltending tandem to build around and that will go a long way in attaining respectability in the Big Ten as early as this season. As an added bonus, McAdam as a Pennsylvania native is going to be an easy guy for the home fans to root for. NHL Rights: New York Islanders

Wade Murphy — F — North Dakota — UND has a really solid recruiting class, but of all the freshmen, I think Murphy could end up having the largest impact in Year 1. A former commit to Merrimack, Murphy was dynamic in the offense-friendly BCHL. He posted 70 points for the Penticton Vees last season and spent part of the previous year as a member of the Vees’ record-smashing team that won just about everything. He also had a six-point effort last season for Canada West at the World Junior A Challenge. With North Dakota having to find replacements for the production of the graduated Corban Knight and Danny Kristo, there’s a need for Murphy to step up and contribute right away. As he’ll turn 20 in a few weeks, his physical maturity should help make that happen. NHL Rights: Nashville Predators

Will Butcher — D — Denver — One of the more gifted offensive-defensemen in this freshmen class, Denver may have been lucky to hold on to Butcher in the wake of George Gwozdecky’s firing that led to some recruits and current players jumping ship. Butcher will give Denver a second dynamic offensive player on the blueline as Joey LaLeggia heads into his junior season. With the amount of scoring off the Pioneers’ roster from last season, they need some help from the guys on the back end. Butcher is an ideal guy to help fill some of those gaps. With a spot on the U.S. WJC Team also on the line, there’s plenty of motivation for Butcher to step up and contribute. NHL Rights: Colorado Avalanche

Dominic Toninato — F — Minnesota Duluth — Another Minnesota high school-to-USHL success story, Toninato was stellar in 64 games for the Fargo Force last season. He posted 70 points, including 41 assists. Toninato’s vision and offensive instincts overall are quite strong. He’s putting strength onto his 6-1, 180-pound frame, which will help him strengthen his two-way play, though he’s pretty good in his own end already. The big thing for Toninato coming into the year is if he can slow the college game down a bit like he could in junior. He has such patience and poise with the puck, but he’s going to have even less time and space in the NCHC. If he can make that transition, he should be a solid producer as a freshman for UMD, which is building a pretty nice base of young players in the wake of its national title in 2011. NHL Rights: Toronto Maple Leafs

Mike Szmatula — F — Northeastern — After a pretty weird summer in which Szmatula seemingly tried to decommit from Northeastern, only to have his request to be released from his letter of intent denied, the former Dubuque Fighting Saint is a Husky after all. Northeastern has been burned by decommits and players leaving the program the last few years, Szmatula was left with little choice but to stay when NU decided not to release him. Assuming he wants to be there, Szmatula has potential to be a breakout player for the Huskies in need of something positive. He was the leading scorer for USHL champion Dubuque and has been a point-producing machine over the last two years. He had 76 points in the USHL last season after posting 87 in the Maritime junior league the season prior. Szmatula also comes into Northeastern as a 21-year-0ld freshman, so he’s already pretty physically mature and has valuable pre-college playing experience. That should all lead to a fairly good season for Szmatula, even if it might not translate to many more standings points for the Huskies. NHL Rights: N/A

Matt Buckles — F — Cornell — Though not getting a ton of pre-season attention, Buckles could be a truly high-impact freshman for the Big Red. A 6-2, 205-pound forward, Buckles took a giant step forward in his development last season with the St. Michael’s Buzzers of the Ontario Junior Hockey League. In his second year of junior hockey, Buckles put up 71 points, nearly doubling his point total from his rookie season. His 40 goals last season were a 25-goal improvement from the year before. He also plays with a lot of grit, which fits right into the Big Red’s style. I think Cornell is going to be improved this season, due in large part to what they’re returning up front. Adding Buckles to that mix only helps. NHL Rights: Florida Panthers

John Hayden – F — Yale — The defending national champion have a blue-chipper in their first class since taking the title. A bruising power-forward with terrific on-ice work ethic, Hayden likely won’t be able to help replace the scoring the Bulldogs will be looking for, but he should make an impact in all zones. At 6-3, 210, Hayden has the frame to play a man’s game and he knows how to do it. Never one to shy away from the physical game, he doesn’t necessarily play with nastiness. Instead, Hayden is efficient and effective with his physicality. He has enough offensive capability to contribute some points, but his style makes him effective defensively as well. As he tacks on even more strength, he could become a dominant presence in the college game. NHL Rights: Chicago Blackhawks

Others To Watch

Grant Besse — F — Wisconsin — Minnesota’s Mr. Hockey last year, Besse  is undersized, but has dynamic skills. He scored five goals in Benilde-St. Margaret’s State Championship win in 2012, which basically makes him a Minnesota high school hockey legend. NHL Rights: Anaheim Ducks

Justin Kloos — F — Minnesota — Another guy with a Mr. Hockey on his resume, Kloos got a year of seasoning in the USHL in 2012-13 and put up 87 points for the Waterloo Black Hawks. He and Taylor Cammarata are going to give a lot of college teams fits with their skill. NHL Rights: N/A 

Gage Ausmus — D — North Dakota — A solid stay-at-home type defenseman with a physical edge, Ausmus decommitted from Denver after George Gwozdecky’s sudden ouster. It was fortuitous for North Dakota, which lost Derek Forbort and Andrew MacWilliam from last year’s D corps. Ausmus has the size and D responsibility to play meaningful shifts right away. NHL Rights: San Jose Sharks

Alex Lyon — G — Yale — One of the best goaltenders in the USHL over the last two seasons with the Omaha Lancers, Lyon has played a ton of minutes which should prepare him well if Yale needs him to step into a starting role right away (and they probably do). NHL Rights: N/A

Vince Hinostroza — F — Notre Dame — An energetic player who plays a 200-foot game, Hinostroza is another Waterloo Black Hawk that can put up points. He improved in each of his three seasons in the USHL and was dominant in last year’s World Junior A Challenge. He should be of great help to the Irish in Hockey East this year. NHL Rights: Chicago Blackhawks

Ryan Fitzgerald — F — Boston College — Another one from BC’s vaunted freshman class, Fitzgerald has NHL bloodlines (dad is former NHLer Tom) and a strong all-around game. He was the MVP of last-year’s All-American Prospects Game and followed that up with a strong junior season in the EJHL. NHL Rights: Boston Bruins

Michael Downing — D — Michigan — With big shoes left to fill on the Michigan blue line, Downing should jump into a pretty substantial role right away. He has some decent offensive capabilities, but Downing really has grown his defensive game. He was a key part of Dubuque’s run to the USHL title last year, so he’s battle tested as well. NHL Rights: Florida Panthers

Adam Tambellini — F — North Dakota — The big, wiry son of former Oilers GM Steve Tambellini, Adam has been a producer in the BCHL over the last two seasons with 121 points to his name. He should help bring offense to UND. NHL Rights: New York Rangers

Charlie Lindgren — G — St. Cloud State — Named USA Hockey’s goalie of the year last season, Lindgren logged a lot of minutes between the pipes over the last two seasons in the USHL.  NHL Rights: N/A

Anthony Louis — F — Miami — The diminutive forward has a great work ethic and some really strong offensive creativity. Playing alongside some of Miami’s high-end offensive talents should really boost Louis’ production. NHL Rights: Chicago Blackhawks

Tyler Kelleher — F — New Hampshire — Another undersized forward, Kelleher uses his speed and quick hands to dart through defenses. He could inject some excitement into the UNH lineup after two years of being an offensive leader at the NTDP. NHL Rights: N/A

Tyler Motte — F — Michigan — Though less heralded than his former NTDP and current Michigan teammate J.T. Compher, Motte has the capability to be an impact freshman. He is a good two-way player, despite his size and has a knack for producing. He and Compher were consistently Team USA’s best forwards at the U18 World Championship. NHL Rights: Chicago Blackhawks

Mike Brodzinski — D — Minnesota — A strong offensive-minded defenseman with aspirations of making the U.S. Junior Team, Brodzinski has plenty of skill. He had 16 goals and 33 points as a USHL rookie last season, which is better than good for a 17-year-old in that league. He should make Minnesota’s D even more mobile, if that was at all possible. NHL Rights: San Jose Sharks

Connor Clifton — D — Quinnipiac — Quinnipiac may have bought low on Clifton, when it earned his commitment. Clifton is one of those rare offensive defensemen who just loves to hit. He is a bit undersized for a physical D at 5-11, 180, but Clifton has good physical strength and a rocket shot. He’s a great get for last year’s national runner-up. NHL Rights: Phoenix Coyotes

Coming soon: United States of Hockey’s Top 25 Players to Watch heading into the 2013-14 college season.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
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8 Responses to College Hockey Preview: Freshman 15 — First-Year Players to Watch

  1. What does it say about a coach when he’s able to attract the son of another team’s assistant coach to his program? Or what does it say about the coach who is unable to get his assistant’s kid?

    • Chris Lerch says:

      Some fathers and sons don’t want that situation. At RIT, the coach’s son plays for Yale and the assistant’s son is a freshman at SLU this season. On the other hand, the same assistant’s daughter played for RIT. Army coach’s son is at Mercyhurst. Air Force coach’s son played for Minnesota, but daughter was at Air Force. Some kids want to go away to school, or play for a more visible program.

  2. Luke says:

    Some (including me) would make the argument Ausmus is the 3rd best freshman defenseman on his own team (Thompson, LaDue). Thoughts?

    • Chris Peters says:

      I think over the longer term, both Thompson and LaDue are better prospects, but in terms of freshman impact, Ausmus is a bit more physically developed and his defensive capabilities stand out most to me. Both LaDue and Thompson have really solid puck-moving skills, but I think both will take time to be effective in the college game.

  3. David Maciuk says:

    Ryan Papa fwd headed to St Cloud is a sleeper among college freshman has been in top 5 in scoring all through and every team he has been on

    Thanks !

  4. vizoroo says:

    I really don’t think you can say the early departures from DU were caused by Gwoz’s firing.
    >Nick Shore was on the King’s top 3 to sign. They even burned a year by having him become one of the “Black Aces”. Older brother, Drew, also signed after 3 years. He had 1 year to skate on the same team with younger brother, Quentin, who is still at DU, . Like it or not Nick was leaving.
    >Scott Mayfield signing with the Isles was not a surprise. Most DU fans assumed he would be gone after 2 years at DU.
    >Juho Olkinuora was ready to go back to Finland when Steve Miller offered a chance at DU. Jussi went from a little known, late, non-scholie recruit as the 3rd goalie to starter in just a few weeks.(Brittain recuperating from surgery, out until February and Murray suffers a groin injury after just a few games) He earned a scholie and beat out both incumbents as a sophomore. Became a hot prospect. Financial decision, chance to play in the NHL, coach fired. Perhaps some of all three.

    The recruits may be different story entirely. Ausmus decommited and chose North Dakota EEK!
    Ray Pigozzi ,now at UMass, was penciled in for 2013 or 2014. Landon Smith, USHL Chicago Wolves, the same. Gwoz leaving or Montgomery deferring ?

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