Welcome to a new bi-weekly column at Pro Hockey Rumors, where we’ll stray from the “pro” in favor of the “soon-to-be pro”. The depth of talent at the college level in hockey is at an all-time high. Of the 217 players selected in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, 72 were either enrolled or committed to an NCAA institution, with others likely to follow suit. This included nine first-round picks, including eight from the lauded U.S. National Team Development Program. The talent level is also evident in the parity between NCAA programs. Of the 16 teams in the 2019 NCAA Tournament, only six had won a national championship and historic powerhouses Boston College, Boston University, Michigan, Minnesota and North Dakota were all absent for the first time since 1970. College hockey is growing – in ability, popularity, and geography – and we here at PHR hope you will enjoy the expanded coverage that the collegiate level has earned.
The Season Begins
The NCAA season is only about two weeks old, getting underway back on Saturday, October 5th. Yet, there has already been rankings movement among the Top 20 teams in the country, after some impressive performances.
While most top teams schedule cushy match-ups for opening weekend, No. 13 Providence College and the University of Maine got right to it with an early Hockey East clash. It wasn’t the battle many expected though, as the Friars cruised to a 7-0 win. Mostly due to that blowout, through two games Providence’s Greg Printz is the top per-game goal scorer in the NCAA with five tallies, as well as one helper.
This past weekend featured more heavyweight bouts, including the No. 3 University of Minnesota-Duluth facing the first test in their pursuit of a third straight championship. They faced No. 18 University of Massachusetts Lowell in a two-game home series and it was the River Hawks who took the first game, 3-2. While the Bulldogs edged out the 2-1 win in game two, the early-season loss was enough to bounce them from the No. 1 ranking. As for UMass Lowell, the team entered the Top 20 with a 3-1 start to the year, led by goaltender Tyler Wall (NYR), who boasts a .942 save percentage thus far.
In a battle between star-studded squads, No. 6 Boston College took down No. 17 University of Wisconsin by a score of 5-3. The game featured five 2019 first-round picks in Alex Turcotte (LAK) and Cole Caufield (MTL) for the Badgers and Spencer Knight (FLA), Matthew Boldy (MIN), and Alex Newhook (COL) for the Eagles. Wisconsin took their frustration from the loss out on a different Hockey East the following night, scoring eleven goals in a win over Merrimack College. In his first two college games, Caufield recorded four goals and five points and it certainly looks like his torrid scoring pace from the USNTDP could continue in the NCAA. Meanwhile, Caufield’s former teammate Knight is also continuing his dominance despite transitioning to the college level. He has a .954 save percentage and perfect 2-0 record thus far with BC.
The No. 1 ranked team in the country is now the University of Denver. The Pioneers have jumped out to a 4-0 record and, while their competition has not been elite, most teams haven’t even played four games, nevertheless won all four. Freshman goaltender Magnus Chrona (TBL) manned the net in all four wins, posting a .935 save percentage and 1.75 goals against average, getting off to a hot start. Ian Mitchell (CHI), Bobby Brink (PHI), and the rest of the Pioneers will face their first real test this coming weekend when they host Boston College.
Other standout performances from the first two weeks of the season came from a pair of intriguing undrafted prospects. Speedy senior forward Nate Sucese of No. 9 Penn State University is the NCAA’s scoring leader with seven points in just two games. In net, No. 2 Minnesota State University got a stellar performance from keeper Dryden McKay as he won his first two games while sporting a .975 save percentage.
Penn State may be losing Sucese at the end of this season, but they may already have a suitable replacement waiting in the wings. Small but skilled 16-year-old forward Colby Saganiuk announced that he has committed to play his college hockey for the Nittany Lions. A current member of the USNTDP’s U-17 team, Saganiuk is unlikely to arrive at State College, PA until at least 2021, but when he does he will make an instant impact. Already on the radar for the 2021 NHL Draft, Saganiuk scored at a point-per-game clip for the U-16 Pittsburgh Penguins Elite last year and will grow tremendously with the USNTDP.
Saganiuk’s teammate with the USNTDP and fellow top 2021 draft prospect Matthew Beniers has also planned his college career. Beniers will attend Harvard University and reportedly will enroll next year. While Beniers is just 16, the talented center has played exclusively with the U-18 team with the USNTDP so far this season and played in 20 games with the top team last year compared to 42 with the U-17 team. A mature player with a well-rounded game, Beniers will be one of the top players to watch in college hockey next season, likely as the top draft-eligible prospect playing in the NCAA.
Wisconsin forward Dylan Holloway and University of Connecticut defenseman Yan Kuznetsov may be the only current college players who will be drafted next June, but there are plenty of future NCAA players set to be selected. NHL Central Scouting released a preliminary watch list last week for the upcoming draft class which featured a number of USNTDP standouts headed for the college level. University of North Dakota commit Jake Sanderson led the way with an “A” rating, alongside Ty Smilanic, who has yet to decide on his college destination. One of these two is likely to follow Holloway as the top college-bound player selected this summer. Sanderson’s current teammate and fellow North Dakota prospect Tyler Kleven, University of Michigan commit Thomas Bordeleau, Boston College commit Eamon Powell, Boston University duo Luke Tuch and Dylan Peterson, and undecided Brock Faber all received “B” ratings and could push for first-round consideration. Ten other USNTDP players received “C” ratings. While this draft class may not be nearly as strong as last season’s historic group when it comes to Americans and NCAA prospects, many of these players will be high picks and future pros, after they take their talents to the college game.