The decision to go the college route over major junior is a tough choice that teenagers are forced to make each season. Do you sign in the CHL and risk having no career after you turn 20? Or do you go the educational route and force a longer development path with fewer games a year?
Heck, it’s hard to make a decision when education is the only thing that matters, let alone when you have to put your athletic future on the line. But both routes have their benefits: the star players can use the heavy game-load of major junior to get used to a heftier schedule in the NHL, while others benefit from hitting the weight room more often and playing against older, stronger competition in college. You can play in the NCAA and divert back to the CHL if you haven’t aged out, but not vice-versa, and playing just one game in major junior can change the course of your hockey career.
So it’s always exciting to see which freshmen make it to the NCAA. Many are candidates for a one-and-done deal – play a season, then turn pro. Oliver Wahlstrom and Joel Farabee are two examples of that, with the pair making their NHL debuts this season with the New York Islanders and Philadelphia Flyers, respectively. It’s hard to judge who’s going to do that this year at this point, but there’s no complaints about the current freshmen class.
Let’s take a look at 10 of the most impressive freshmen in the NCAA this season, featuring a mix of drafted and undrafted talent:
Nick Abruzzese, C, 20 (Harvard/Toronto)
Have the Leafs found an undersized gem? Abruzzese was passed over twice before going to Harvard but the 5-foot-9 center quickly found his groove in college, registering 28 points in his first 21 games. A stout playmaker, Abruzzese led the USHL with 51 assists and 80 points a year ago and the momentum has carried on with a strong effort for the Crimson. Abruzzese plays at a high speed and complements other top players thanks to his quick decision-making with the puck. At a 1.33 points-per-game rate, Abruzzese is a very intriguing prospect that Leaf fans will want to follow over the next few years.
Cole Caufield, RW, 18 (Wisconsin/Montreal)
Gee, Cole Caufield is good at hockey? Who knew? Caufield has been every bit the sensation Habs fans were hoping for, leading Wisconsin with 17 goals and 28 points. Regardless of age, only sophomore Griffin Loughran (20) and senior Austin Mcllmurray (18) have scored more goals than Caufield this season. Caufield had just one goal at the World Junior Championship with the United States over the Christmas break but since then, he has recorded 11 points in as many games – including his first career hat trick against Notre Dame late in January. Don’t worry, Habs fans, Caufield is living up to the hype.
Trevor Zegras, C, 18 (Boston University/Anaheim)
A first-round pick in 2019 (ninth overall), Zegras is another piece of the dominant U.S. NTDP group that graduated to college this season, and he has been exactly as advertised. One of the best playmakers of the 2019 draft class, Zegras sits second among freshmen with 19 assists, adding to a total that saw him lead all players at the World Junior Championship with nine. Zegras is a high-energy pivot who excels at both ends of the ice and rarely loses puck battles along the boards. Zegras isn’t a big forward at 5-foot-11 but his tenacity is noticeable.
Spencer Knight, G, 18 (Boston College/Florida)
Taking a goalie in the first round has been an exercise in failure over the past 20 years, but so far, Knight has remained at the top of his game. A graduate of the U.S. NTDP, Knight played some of his best hockey against NCAA teams last season and that has translated to a .928 save percentage, 2.03 goals-against average and a 15-7-1 record with five shutouts this year – by far the best stats of any freshmen goaltender. At 18, Knight is the only under-19 goalie in U.S. college who has played a game this season which makes his accomplishments even more impressive. Assuming Knight plays out the full four years with Boston, Panthers starter Sergei Bobrovsky will have three years left on his deal when Knight is ready – the thing is, Knight is one of the top goalie prospects in years and will be ready well before that.
Aidan McDonough, LW, 20 (Northeastern/Vancouver)
Another 1999-born forward, McDonough has the potential to be a true steal by the Canucks, who grabbed McDonough as a seventh-round pick in 2019 after he was passed over the previous year. A 6-foot-3 winger who weighs in at 190 pounds, McDonough was just 5-foot-8 when he was 16, so he needed some time to adjust to his size. He had just 42 points in 50 games with Cedar Rapids of the USHL last year but already has a point-per-game pace in 21 contests with Northeastern, a team that also features Canucks prospect Tyler Madden. Adding some muscle to his frame and maintaining consistency are the next steps in McDonough’s development.
Shane Pinto, C, 19 (North Dakota/Ottawa)
Pinto was an unexpected star for Team USA’s World Junior Championship entry, finishing with four goals and seven points as one of the best performers of the round robin. Had the Americans advanced farther in the tournament, Pinto would have had a legitimate shot at grabbing the tournament MVP award. Since returning to school, Pinto has five goals and eight points in eight games to give him 22 points in 25 contests – not too shabby for one of the youngest members of the scoring contingent. Pinto is proving to be a steal as a second-round pick by Ottawa (32nd overall) and is yet another exciting piece of the Senators’ promising prospect core.
Braeden Tuck, RW, 21 (Sacred Heart/undrafted)
An older freshman at 21, Tuck has played at just under a point-per-game average all season and currently sits with 26 points in 28 games. Tuck’s stat line looks funny with four goals and 22 assists (the most of any freshmen), but he was named Atlantic Hockey’s rookie of the month in November with 11 points, so his impact reaches beyond putting pucks in the net. Sacred Heart has a stacked team with Mike Lee, Jason Cotton, Matt Tuggnutt and Austin Mcillmurray, but Tuck has been a versatile two-way forward who can kill penalties and keep up with his high-paced teammates.
Henry Thrun, D, 18 (Harvard/Anaheim)
Thrun was an under-the-radar option out of the U.S. NTDP, being overshadowed by the likes of Cam York and Domenick Fensore last season. But Thrun has been a big bright spot for the Crimson, pairing well with Reilly Walsh on Harvard’s second pairing and providing a controlled presence in his own end. Thrun isn’t going to blow your mind offensively, but he’s smart passer who can play on the man advantage and makes safe and smart decisions when moving the puck.
Magnus Chrona, G, 19 (Denver/Tampa Bay)
When the Lightning drafted Chrona in the fifth round back in 2018 (152nd overall), many were puzzled. Chrona wasn’t listed on the NHL’s Central Scouting Service list and, at the time, he wasn’t playing the highest level of Swedish junior hockey. Follow that up with poor numbers with Skelleftea in the Swedish under-20 league last year and the pick looked even more confusing. But Chrona has adjusted well to life in North America, with the 6-foot-4, 209-pound goaltender posting a 13-5-3 record with a .918 SP and 2.23 GAA through 21 games. Did Tampa Bay pluck a gem out of nowhere?
Zachary Uens, D, 18 (Merrimack/undrafted)
Uens was passed over at the 2019 draft but that’s not likely to be repeated in 2020. The Vegas Golden Knights brought Uens to development camp following his graduation from Ontario Jr. A and since then, Uens has gone on to be the top-scoring under-19 defenseman in the NCAA with 16 points in 27 games. He’s not afraid to take risks to make plays happen and as he adjusts to the older competition, he has found a way to step up his game on a weekly basis. A power-play specialist, Uens is a high-end skater with the tools to be a good two-way bottom-pairing defenseman, but making sure he shows that every night is the biggest challenge. Still, he’s not going undrafted this time around.
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