The weeks have finally become days before the college hockey season begins. There will be a lot of new faces in new places, but at the center remains the college game, same as it ever was: fast, physical and full of intrigue.
Perhaps over the last several years the level of skill has ebbed and flowed, but the college game has seemingly never been so full of exciting players. Nor have they been spread out further across the country as parity becomes more of college hockey’s reality.
There is a lot of excitement heading into 2013-14 as realignment takes hold and a new era of college hockey begins. Part of that excitement stems from the number of players that will be returning from terrific performances last season.
We already covered every team and which freshmen to watch, so I decided to put together a list of 25 players across college hockey, and some honorable mentions as well, that I find most intriguing coming into the year.
It’s a bit hard to compile a true “Best Players in College Hockey,” so that’s not really what this is. Rather, it’s a list of guys who have the potential to have big seasons and be major parts of the college hockey conversation throughout the year.
There are always guys who come out of the woodwork in a given season and just produce, kind of like UNO’s Ryan Walters last season, so there’s sure to be a few surprises this season. However, the group below should include plenty of all-conference and All-America selections, and maybe the Hobey Baker winner is in here as well. That’s part of what makes college hockey a blast.
Since I already detailed which freshmen to watch, only veteran college players are included in this list.
United States of Hockey’s 25 College Players to Watch in 2013-14
1. Johnny Gaudreau — Jr. — F — Boston College — Few players in college hockey have the capability to bring you out of your seat like Gaudreau. The best stickhandler in the college game, Gaudreau out-paced his freshman point total in nine fewer games as a sophomore. With 21 goals and 30 assists, Gaudreau led the nation with 1.46 points per game and finished fourth with 51 total points. Boston College has a ton of young players this season, which puts a lot of responsibility on Gaudreau to shoulder the offensive load once again. No question the 5-7, 150-pound forward is an early favorite for the Hobey Baker. NHL Rights: Calgary Flames
2. Greg Carey — Sr. — F — St. Lawrence — The nation’s leading goal scorer last season, Carey opted to stay in school for one more year despite likely earning a lot of NHL suitors with his performance as a junior. SLU lost Kyle Flanagan, who was just a few points behind Carey’s 51. That puts even more pressure on Carey to build off of his 28-goal campaign from last year. With more teams throughout the ECAC now having to mainly key on Carey, it’s tough to see him surpass last year’s accomplishments, but if the Saints are to be competitive, he’ll have to. NHL Rights: Free Agent
3. Connor Hellebuyck — So. — G — UMass-Lowell — To put it bluntly, Hellebuyck was ridiculous last season. He made 24 appearances in his first collegiate campaign, including the last 16 games of UMass-Lowell’s run to the Frozen Four. Over that 16-game span, he went 14-2, shut out Boston University in the Hockey East final and blanked UNH to advance to the Frozen Four. His full season stat line is mind-numbing with a .952 save percentage, 1.37 goals-against average and six shutouts. The 6-4, 200-pound netminder is a big reason the River Hawks are No. 1 on a lot of preseason lists. The funny thing is, it wasn’t Hellebuyck’s net to start last year. He wrested it away from junior Doug Carr mid-season and now it should be Hellebuyck’s show. If he comes close to matching what he did as a freshman, Lowell is going to be tough to beat. NHL Rights: Winnipeg Jets
4. Jon Gillies — So. — G — Providence — Similarly to Hellebuyck, Gillies was just out of this world last season. The difference was he was doing it on a team with a lot less depth than UML at just about every position. As a true freshman, with solid numbers from his time in the USHL, Gillies just put on a show and stole some games for the Friars. He made 35 appearances, earning a 17-12-6 record to go along with a sparkling .931 save percentage, 2.08 goals-against average and five shutouts. Providence should be taking a big step forward this year as a program so long as Gillies comes back ready to pick up right where he left off. A leading candidate to start for the U.S. National Junior Team this year, Gillies is going to have a lot of eyes on him. Now there are expectations and with expectations come pressure. If Gillies handles it like he did last year, look for Providence to make some serious noise. NHL Rights: Calgary Flames
5. Nic Kerdiles — So. — F — Wisconsin — After enduring a 10-game ban at the hands of the heavy-handed NCAA, Kerdiles joined a Wisconsin team that looked dead in the water with just one win over the first 10 games of the year. I cautioned Badger fans not to expect Kerdiles to come in and be the savior for the struggling hockey club, however over the next 11 games, the Badgers didn’t lose once. Now it wasn’t all Kerdiles, but the team was definitely different with him the lineup. As a true-freshman coming into a season 10 games late, Kerdiles was magnificent. He posted 33 points in 32 games and was a threat to do something just about every shift. With a full off-season to prepare and getting an on-time start, Kerdiles is part of a Badger lineup that looks poised to contend for a national title. That could be a recipe for a very special season. NHL Rights: Anaheim Ducks
6. Austin Czarnik — Jr. — F — Miami — Now the captain of the Miami hockey team, the undrafted Czarnik is at the forefront of one of the nation’s most potent offensive teams. On a line with last year’s most productive freshman in Riley Barber, Czarnik is poised for another big season. He posted 40 points last year as part of Miami’s top line. That chemistry with Barber, as well as Czarnik’s two years of college experience in a scoring role should lead to a big season for the undersized center. If Miami is to meet the lofty expectations this year, it’s going to be Czarnik driving the bus. NHL Rights: Free Agent
7. Riley Barber — So. — F — Miami — You can’t break up Czarnik and Barber on the ice, so I won’t on this list. Barber was an absolute revelation last year for Miami. A consistent producer, he led all freshmen with 39 points. Last year had to be a huge confidence booster for Barber. He had such a terrific freshman campaign, but also was part of the U.S. National Junior Team that won gold in Ufa, Russia. He’ll likely be a leader on Team USA this year in the repeat bid. With Austin Czarnik and Barber, the RedHawks’ top line is going to be tough to handle in the NCHC. It may be the best 1-2 scoring punch in the NCAA this year. If Barber took even a small step forward developmentally, he has 50-point potential this year. NHL Rights: Washington Capitals
8. Kyle Rau — Jr. — F — Minnesota — One of the most tenaciously competitive players in all of college hockey, Rau has a nasty side to his game. That, along with his speed and ability to get to the net make him really tough to play against. Rau’s goal scoring numbers took a slight dip in his sophomore season, but he was still a point-per-game player. With so many players leaving from the would-be senior class, the Gophers are his team now. Rau will have to be the offensive catalyst. He has 83 points over 80 career college games. It is going to be tough for the Gophers to weather this season without a number of key players from last season, but Minnesota is Minnesota. They should still be competitive and it will be Rau driving them this year. It also may be his last run in college hockey as the Panthers very well could urge him to sign at the end of the season. NHL Rights: Florida Panthers
9. Ryan Walters — Sr. — F — Nebraska Omaha — To say Walters was a surprise last season is putting it incredibly mildly. As a freshman, Walters had 23 points. As a sophomore, he put up 25. So when Walters dropped 52 last season, including 22 goals, jaws dropped right along with it. Walters undoubtedly was drawing pro interest, but opted to return for one more kick at the can for the Mavericks. With losses in net and on the blueline, as well as some players kicked out of the program over the summer, it’s going to be tough for UNO to keep up with their new NCHC counterparts. There’s still plenty of talent up front, and Walters will have to lead the charge. Was last year a fluke? It’s tough to know for sure, but Walters has a golden opportunity to more definitively answer that question this year. NHL Rights: Free Agent
10. Kenny Agostino — Sr. — F — Yale — Last season was a wild one for Agostino. Sure, he won a national title with Yale, which was pretty big. But has also was one of the prospects the Pittsburgh Penguins sent to Calgary in exchange for Jarome Iginla. It’s not every day you get traded away for a franchise legend. Agostino is no footnote, though. He tied for Yale’s scoring lead last season with 41 points, which included a team-high 24 assists. He has a lot of speed and good offensive instincts. Agostino has also become physically stronger over his three years at Yale, which has positioned him better as a pro prospect. As a senior with a title to defend, Agostino is obviously a major key to the Bulldogs’ season. He’ll have his center Jesse Root back, but gone off his line is Andrew Miller, who was a dynamic offensive talent. Agostino is a member of the century club with 100 points in 101 NCAA games. He’s the guy now at Yale and must seize that opportunity. NHL Rights: Calgary Flames (via Pittsburgh Penguins)
11. Kevin Goumas — Sr. — F — New Hampshire — He probably could have earned a free-agent deal last season after a remarkable junior year for the Wildcats, but Goumas is back. He posted over 1.1 points per game and led a Wildcats team that was strong for most of last season. Now a senior, Goumas will remain the focal point of UNH’s offense. What makes some of his production even more remarkable was the fact that his family, based in Long Beach, N.Y., was impacted by Superstorm Sandy. Despite that distraction, he still put up points in bunches. Goumas is a really competitive, smart hockey player who can impact just about every game he plays in. He’s due for a big year and could be a Hobey hopeful coming in. NHL Rights: Free Agent
12. Kevin Roy — So. — F — Northeastern — Dynamic. That’s just what Kevin Roy is, and what he has been for several years now. As a freshman on a weak Northeastern club, Roy put up 34 points for an average of 1.17 per game. The year before, he was setting USHL marks for goals and points. Roy may get a little help in the form of 21-year-old incoming freshman Mike Szmatula to lighten the offensive burden, but either way Roy is the main attraction when it comes to Northeastern hockey. He’s had chances to leave, but you have to give Roy credit for sticking things out in Northeastern. Expect him to put together another strong season. NHL Rights: Anaheim Ducks
13. Jake McCabe — Jr. — D — Wisconsin — After captaining the U.S. National Junior Team to gold last season, McCabe really jumped into the spotlight as an incredibly strong pro prospect. He also continued to prove that he is one of the best defensemen in all of college hockey. A physical stalwart in his own end, McCabe also moves the puck well. He’s a big key to Wisconsin’s ability to compete this year. With 21 points last season, McCabe is likely to expand on that total as his role continues to increase. He is certainly a difference-making defenseman, who play a ton of minutes against opposing teams’ top lines. NHL Rights: Buffalo Sabres
14. Jason Kasdorf — So. — G — RPI — Last season was the year of the freshman goaltender and Kasdorf was right in there with Gillies, Hellebuyck, Stephon Williams and Ryan McKay as one of the best in the country. The big 6-foot-4, Winnipeg native made 22 starts, posting a .935 save percentage and 1.62 goals-against average. RPI’s roster is veteran-laden and the Engineers should be a major factor in the ECAC race, but it will require another strong year out of Kasdorf. He was named ECAC rookie of the year and first-team all-conference, but didn’t get a lot of the accolades as his fellow freshmen. Everyone should know who he is this season. NHL Rights: Winnipeg Jets
15. Rocco Grimaldi — So. (RS) — F — North Dakota — Grimaldi posted 36 points as a red-shirt freshman, making him the third leading scorer on the club. The two guys ahead of him — Corban Knight and Danny Kristo — are gone, which means there’s a lot more scoring responsibility on the 5-foot-6 dynamo. Grimaldi has elite speed and a devastating release on his shot. When he doesn’t try to do too much, he can be an extremely dangerous offensive player. He had two goals in Team USA’s gold-medal game win over Sweden at the WJC and has played in many big-game situations before. His freshman campaign was solid, but with more responsibility and a featured scoring role, his numbers should spike. NHL Rights: Florida Panthers
16. T.J. Tynan — Sr. — F — Notre Dame — The most shocking part of Notre Dame’s under-achieving season last year was Tynan’s production. In fact, Tynan’s numbers have declined each season since his explosive freshman campaign in which he put up 54 points. Tynan had just 28 points over 41 games last year. He still has dynamic capabilities and speed, which should both come in handy in the very fast Hockey East. The question is whether or not last year was an anomaly or if Tynan has plateaued. I don’t think he has. Notre Dame has a lot of experience throughout its lineup and should be better, but it’s going to mean Tynan has to carry a heavy offensive load. NHL Rights: Columbus Blue Jackets
17. Joey LaLeggia — Jr. — D — Denver — Perhaps the most gifted offensive defenseman in college hockey, LaLeggia could end up being one of the most important players for the Pioneers as they transition into the Jim Montgomery era. He has 67 points in 82 career college games including 22 goals. LaLeggia is a weapon on the back end, deadly on the power play and excellent when moving the puck. Denver will need him to provide plenty of production from the backend with the amount of production they have to replace. He is the team’s leading returning scorer, so it’s reasonable to expect big things from him in his third year of college hockey. NHL Rights: Edmonton Oilers
18. Nic Dowd — Sr. — F — St. Cloud State — The Huskies may have lost Hobey Baker winner Drew LeBlanc, but they are lucky to still have Dowd. A solid two-way player, Dowd posted 39 points last season and should be more of a featured producer this season. With linemate Ben Hanowski gone to graduation, Dowd still has right-winger Jimmy Murray returning. It also wouldn’t be much of a shock to see Dowd get some time with last season’s scoring sensation Jonny Brodzinski. St. Cloud has plenty of talent up front, but with LeBlanc gone, more will rest on Dowd’s shoulders and if the Huskies are to be competitive right away in the NCHC, he’s going to have to deliver. NHL Rights: Los Angeles Kings
19. Michael Mersch — Sr. — F — Wisconsin — If there’s one thing you can say about Mersch, it’s that he’s a scorer. He’s always had that knack for putting the puck in the net, but it’s how he does it nowadays. Mersch has a terrific release, but he’s also a highly mobile 6-foot-1, 225-pound power forward type. He gets to the nest extremely well and scores as many dirty goals as he does off of snipe shots, if not more. He scored 23 times last season and led Wisconsin with 36 points. Mersch has seemingly taken steps forward developmentally every season and as a senior, he should be able to impose his will on some games, particularly in the Big Ten. NHL Rights: Los Angeles Kings
20. Stephen Johns — Sr. –D — Notre Dame — It appeared the Chicago Blackhawks were ready and willing to sign Johns after his junior campaign, but the 6-foot-4, 233-pound defenseman wanted to come back and finish things out with the Irish. Johns is big and mean. He may be one of the most crushing body-checkers in the college game. He used to be a bit wilder, making bad decisions and taking ill-timed penalties, but in each of the last two years his penalty minutes have dropped (though they’re still high). He plays on the edge, but he also is a strong skater who has improved his puck-moving abilities. Johns is the kind of defenseman teams hate having to go up against. Expect him to introduce himself rather unpolitely to the rest of Hockey East this year. NHL Rights: Chicago Blackhawks
21. Mark Zengerle — Sr. — F — Wisconsin — Slowed by injuries last season, Zengerle was a 50-point man in 2011-12 as a sophomore. He had 32 in 36 games last year, so still pretty good. Zengerle is a dynamic playmaking center, which makes him a guy opposing teams always have to account for. His ability as a set-up man could be to the benefit of Nic Kerdiles this year. Zengerle has averaged better than a point-per-game over his career with 118 NCAA points to his name. The Badgers are expected to contend for the national title this year, which puts Zengerle in a position to potentially get back to the form he showed in his highly-productive sophomore season. NHL Rights: Free Agent
22. Bill Arnold — Sr. — F — Boston College — Overshadowed by the flashier Gaudreau, Arnold has quietly become one of college hockey’s elite two-way forwards. With a big shot and some impressive physical strength, Arnold is a force at both ends of the ice. With 17 goals in each of the last two seasons, he’s certainly shown enough of a scoring touch. He goes to all the hard areas of the ice and has a solid hockey IQ, which makes him a factor in his own end. At 6-feet, 210, Arnold is a solid skater who is difficult to move off the puck. With Pat Mullane and Steven Whitney gone, Arnold may have to step into an even bigger scoring role in 2013-14. NHL Rights: Calgary Flames
23. Trevor van Riemsdyk — Jr. — D — UNH — One of the top producing college defensemen last season, van Riemsdyk had 33 points including 25 assists. He was an All-Hockey East First Team selection. With good size and a fluidity to his game, van Riemsdyk showed a lot of poise in his puck-moving ability last year. He is terrific in transition and does a great job of getting pucks to the net when he’s in the offensive zone. He could end up as one of the most sought after college free agents when all is said and done. The younger brother of Maple Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk, Trevor is really starting to make a solid name for himself. With TVR, Eric Knodel and Brett Pesce, the Wildcats D corps is one of the better ones in Hockey East. It should be another exciting season for UNH. NHL Rights: Free Agent
24. Stephon Williams — So. — G — Minnesota State — While playing in the final year in the WCHA, the Mavericks remained a major player within the conference all season long. Some of that had to do with Matt Leitner and Eriah Hayes getting the job done up front, but without Williams, it’s hard to see Minnesota State as competitive as they were. Now they’ll be top dogs in the new WCHA and Williams’ numbers could get even better from his ridiculous freshman campaign. Named first-team All-WCHA as a freshman, Williams posted a 21-12-2 record, .924 save percentage, 2.00 goals-against average and four shutouts. At 6-2, 190, he’s a good, big presence in the net and after all the experience he gained last year, Williams could lead the Mavericks to a deep postseason run. NHL Rights: New York Islanders
T-25. Michael Matheson — So. — D — Boston College — OK, this is cheating a bit, but I couldn’t make a top 25 without having two of the best defensive prospects in college hockey on here. One of the few first-round draft picks in college hockey this year, Matheson was every bit as good as expected last season for BC. He was so good, in fact, it sounded as though Florida was interested in getting him under contract after just one year of college. Matheson decided to stay and he’ll be the focal point of the Boston College defense. He should play huge minutes and after putting up a solid 25 points including eight goals as a true freshman last year. This very well could be Matheson’s last season in college hockey so he’ll want to go out with a bang. NHL Rights: Florida Panthers
T-25. Matt Grzelcyk — So. — D — Boston University — Grzelcyk was a real bright spot in a down season for the Terriers. He had 20 assists and showed some terrific poise for a true freshman. That extra year or experience should help him make an even bigger impact as a sophomore. Undoubtedly a lock to be part of the U.S. National Junior Team this year, Grzelcyk thinks the game at a level well above his years. He is a smooth skater and has some really slick puck skills for a defenseman. Grzelcyk is likely to be a high-impact player in what should be a very difficult Hockey East this year. NHL Rights: Boston Bruins
(EDIT: Oct. 7) Matthew Peca — Jr. — F — Quinnipiac — This addition to the list is to correct a gross oversight on my part in the initial publication. Matthew Peca was not included on the original 25 players to watch list, nor was he on the others to watch, which was a mistake on my part only realized after the weekend. Needless to say, I regret the error and am correcting it now.
I’ve been high on Peca since getting a few looks at him on TV last season and also watching his remarkable performances during the NCAA tournament. The undersized Peca is extremely skilled and also has some really solid offensive smarts. He scored 15 goals as a sophomore last season and posted 30 points. He’s good in tight quarters and with another year of strength, he should be able to up his production. Quinnipiac’s losses are significant heading into this season. A run at repeating last year’s accomplishments will be difficult, but the Bobcats have one of the ECAC’s best returning players in Peca. He’ll have to be a leader this year and carry a much bigger offensive burden, but he should be more than up to the task. NHL Rights: Tampa Bay Lightning
Ryan McKay — So. — G — Miami — Though he eventually became the go-to guy, McKay split a lot of time in net with Jay Williams last year. That said, McKay put together some absolutely ridiculous numbers. In 23 appearances, McKay had a .946 save percentage, which was second best in the country, and a 1.39 goals-against average. With a fairly young D corps in front of him this year, McKay will have to be as solid as ever. He has a pretty solid track record of success, having spent time with the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers during championship seasons. The RedHawks look like a championship caliber team, so they’ll need a championship-caliber goalie in McKay. NHL Rights: Free Agent
Andrew Calof — Sr. — F — Princeton — Overshadowed by more players on contending teams, Calof was a terrific producer for the Tigers last season. He was Princeton’s leader in every major offensive category as the team went a disappointing 10-16-5. Calof averaged 1.23 points-per-game last season, which is a near Hobey-caliber pace and could be this year if the Tigers have any amount of competitiveness. As a senior, his experience will help, but it’s going to be tough to get the attention he probably deserves because of where he plays. NHL Rights: Free Agent
Alex Krushelnyski — Sr. — F — Colorado College — Rylan Schwartz grabbed all the attention last year, but Krushelnyski was one of the best big-game players CC had on its roster. After a pair of modest seasons for the Tigers, Krushelnyski went off last season with 43 points in 42 games. He plays with such energy and last year it helped translate to more offense. With Schwartz gone, Krushelnyski will be one of the key producers CC will have to lean on in the new NCHC. It’s not necessarily going to be an easy year, but after what Krushelnyski did last season, he is absolutely a guy to keep a close eye on. NHL teams certainly will be. NHL Rights: Free Agent
Shayne Gostisbehere — Jr. — D — Union — Over two seasons, Gostisbehere has put up 48 points, which considering how difficult the jump from prep school to the NCAA can be to make, is rather remarkable. Gostisbehere has turned himself into one of the nation’s elite puck-moving defensemen. He has speed, vision and really good hands. Union should have a really competitive club in ECAC this year, which means expectations for Gostisbehere could be at an all-time high. He looks more than fit to meet that challenge. NHL Rights: Philadelphia Flyers
Danny O’Regan — So. — F — Boston University — Had Boston University not struggled so much in the standings, O’Regan would have been one of the biggest names in college hockey last season. He led the Terriers last season with 38 points, including 16 goals. O’Regan is a subtly skilled centerman, who takes care of his defensive responsibilities, but makes a lot of players with the puck on his stick. Assuming he got a little stronger from last season, he really should be able to make an even bigger impact in the first year of the David Quinn era at BU. He’s a likely choice for the U.S. National Junior Team, so he’ll be worth watching particularly closely at the beginning of the season. NHL Rights: San Jose Sharks
Others to Watch:
Frank Slubowski, G, Western Michigan; Matt Leitner, F, Minnesota State; Mike Collins, F, Merrimack; Tony Capobianco, G, Canisius; Brett Gensler, F, Bentley; Jimmy Vesey, F, Harvard; Casey DeSmith, G, UNH; Eric Knodel, D, UNH; Joel Rumpel, G, Wisconsin; Adam Wilcox, G, Minnesota; Joseph Pendenza, F, UMass-Lowell; Mac Bennett, D, Michigan; Evan Rodrigues, F, Boston University; Derek Army, F, Providence; Andy Iles, G, Cornell; Matt Lorito, F, Brown; Cason Hohmann, F, Boston University; David Glen, F, Penn State; C.J. Motte, G, Ferris State; Dillon Simpson, D, North Dakota; Kyle Gibbons, F, Canisius; Garrett Noonan, D, Boston University; Nate Condon, F, Minnesota; Christian Folin, D, UMass-Lowell; Jonny Brodzinski, F, St. Cloud State; Ryan Misiak, F, Mercyhurst; Ryan Dzingel, F, Ohio State; Mark MacMillan, F, North Dakota; Jordan Schmaltz, D, North Dakota.
United States of Hockey 2013-14 College Hockey Preview —
All school images and statistics via collegehockeystats.net