For young developing hockey players, transitioning to the college game typically takes time. Freshmen skate against older players and usually face a more physical game. For this reason, expectations for first-year players in the NCAA are more modest and realistic.
This season, college hockey had a group of freshmen who needed a shorter adjustment period. The 2019 NHL Entry Draft was dominated by prospects heading to the NCAA, so it might not be much of a surprise. Still, some first-year players took the league by storm, making a strong impact on their program.
In past years, cutting down the list of standout freshmen was simple. This time around, it was a challenge. Names like Shane Pinto and Zachary Jones, who had great years, didn’t make the list. Let’s take a look at who did.
Without a doubt, Alex Newhook had the best regular season of any freshman. His 40 points not only led all first-year players in that category but also ranked sixth among all college players. Additionally, Newhook’s 19 goals put him at the top of the freshman list along with Cole Caufield.
Being cut from Canada’s World Junior roster turned out to be a blessing for the former 16th-overall pick. His amazing second half played a role in Boston College’s ascension to the top of Hockey East. Although he had a respectable start to the season, Newhook became one of the top players in college hockey once the calendar turned to 2020.
The big question surrounding Newhook is whether he will be back for his sophomore season. He’s demonstrated his impressive skillset and proved worthy of that coveted entry-level contract. However, a second year with Boston College would allow him to come in as an established star and assume a leadership role. The key will be whether the Colorado Avalanche decide to remain patient with their second 2019 first-round selection. They may not think it’s necessary for him to turn pro just yet.
Heading into the 2019-20 NCAA season, no player received more hype than the goal-scoring machine, Cole Caufield. As a result, the University of Wisconsin received a lot of attention and praise. Although the Badges struggled to live up to the hype, Caufield did not. In his first 34 college games, he led all Badgers with 36 points. Fellow freshman Alex Turcotte was second, ten points behind him. Caufield also led Wisconsin in goals with 19 and put together five multi-goal games.
Although Caufield’s scoring ability is undeniable, there were some inconsistencies in his production. As is the case with a lot of quality goal-scorers, he was streaky in his freshman campaign. He was either producing multi-point contests or not scoring at all. A second year with Wisconsin may help his consistency issues. The Montreal Canadiens appear to feel the same way as they have hinted at pushing pause on signing him to his pro contract until after his sophomore year.
Hopefully, Wisconsin will be better as a unit next season. Playing on a team contending for a national title would go a long way in furthering Caufield’s development, especially if he can assume a leadership role on the Badgers.
Nicholas Abruzzese, a 2019 fourth-round selection by the Toronto Maple Leafs, is one of the biggest surprises in college hockey. The first-year Harvard player led his team in scoring with an incredible 39 points in 29 games. He scored a modest 13 goals, but it was still enough to rank second on the team in that category. On the other hand, his 26 assists led the team.
Abruzzese had a spectacular regular season, one that few people expected him to produce. Still, the Maple Leafs are in no rush to make him a pro and will likely hold off on signing him to his entry-level deal. If he puts together a sophomore campaign similar to this season, it will be difficult to allow him to play his junior year with Harvard.
Before this season, Trevor Zegras was considered a prospect with tremendous upside who would need a few seasons to fully develop the intricate aspects of his game. Luckily for the Anaheim Ducks, Zegras proved to be ahead of schedule with Boston University this season. The Bedford, New York native ranked third among Terriers in points with 34, as well as third among all freshmen. Zegras is first and foremost a playmaker and demonstrated that with Boston. He recorded 23 assists, tied with Patrick Harper for second on the team.
Zegras is a prime candidate for a one-and-done tenure with Boston University. The Ducks are in the midst of a youth movement, making it the perfect opportunity to bring him into the ranks and have him continue his development either in Anaheim or San Diego.
American goalie phenom, Spencer Knight, has been living up to his draft hype. The Florida Panthers broke the trend of not selecting goalies in the first round, and it appears to be paying off already. Knight put together a remarkable freshman year with Boston College, averaging a stunning 1.97 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage. Along with Newhook, Knight was a major reason the Eagles had a strong regular season in Hockey East.
Luckily for Boston College, Knight isn’t going anywhere. Even though all signs point to him becoming a great goalie down the road, netminders still take more time to develop. Expect Knight to remain a member of the Eagles for one or two more seasons.
Transitioning to the college game is never easy. Regardless of how skilled you were in your prior league, playing in the NCAA involves an adjustment period. Luckily for these five freshmen and the teams that drafted them, it took less time to get used to playing college hockey, translating into quality freshmen years.