Men's College Hockey: Breaking down National Rookie of the Year candidates

Plus: Updated Confidence Rankings, NCAA UFA updates; Harvard's incoming class

The men’s college hockey regular season is nearing its end across various leagues and just as we did last week, I wanted to take stock of another end-of-season award race. This one involves a whole bunch of NHL prospects, most of whom were drafted in 2020.

The National Rookie of the Year Award, named for the late great Tim Taylor, has been an award that doesn’t quite get the fanfare of the Hobey Baker and Mike Richter Awards, but it has become an increasingly notable one as college hockey experiences much shorter stays for some of its very best players.

Since Jack Eichel’s arrival at Boston University in 2014-15, there has been an even steadier stream of elite NHL prospects coming through college hockey. Looking at the most recent winners of the Tim Taylor Award helps tell the tale. Eichel won it along with the Hobey Baker in 2014-15, up next was Kyle Connor, then Clayton Keller, 2019-20 Hobey Baker winner Scott Perunovich, Joel Farabee and Alex Newhook.

Each of those players already is or will be an impact player in the NHL. The Hobey has become a more reliable NHL predictor in recent years, but a lot of the top NHL prospects are leaving school before they hit their collegiate primes.

That’s one of the many reasons that I wanted to take a look at the Taylor Award as it touches on some of the very best prospects in college today. It’s also an award that is near and dear to my heart as I was privileged enough to know and work with Coach Taylor while at the National Team Development Program and is someone I count as one of my greatest teachers in hockey. He remains sorely missed by the hockey community he was so big a part of.

This year’s rookie of the year race is fairly broad, though I think there’s a clear favorite at the moment. The number of freshmen that are coming into college programs and making a significant impact on their respective teams seems to grow by the year. While collegiate teams with more experience and older rosters tend to fare better, there’s no doubt the youth movement that is taking the game by storm across the world has hit the NCAA, too.

Also, a special thanks to new partner InStat for helping power the insights provided in this piece.

Tim Taylor Award Watch List

  1. Thomas Bordeleau, Michigan (SJS)

The list of credible rookie of the year candidates from Michigan is awfully long, but Bordeleau stands above his own team’s stellar class and the rest of the country. With 26 points in 20 games for the Wolverines, the Sharks prospect is averaging 1.30 points per game. Among U19 players in the NCAA over the last 20 years (minimum 20 games), Bordeleau’s points-per-game rate ranks 12th. Every single player ahead of him on that list except one became an NHL impact player. It’s good company to keep.

It’s not just that Bordeleau is scoring, though. He has the ability to take over shifts and has such tremendous feel for how to create offense. He opens so much up with his skill and smarts that it makes his linemates a bigger threat. Brendan Brisson has certainly been a beneficiary of Bordeleau’s high-end playmaking as much as anyone.

In addition to showcasing the skill, Bordeleau has been very strong at the faceoff dot, winning 58.5% of his draws, he can be relied on in late-game situations and while there’s flash in his game, there’s a good work ethic too.

  1. Veeti Miettinen, St. Cloud State (TOR)

Averaging just under a point per game with 22 points in 23 contests, Miettinen has been an offensive driver for a solid St. Cloud State squad. There were concerns for a bit that the Finnish forward getting to the U.S. as the waiting game with his student visa cut things a little close for comfort. He made it and his arrival has been a welcome one for the Huskies.

After leading Finland’s top junior circuit in scoring by a significant margin last season, I wondered how Miettinen would find the adjustment to college hockey where he’d see bigger, stronger players and a different pace to the games. He’s not struggled a bit with it. Miettinen leads St. Cloud in scoring by four points and is second on the team in goals scored. He ranks third among rookies with 62 shots on goal. On top of his offensive prowess, Miettinen has not taken a single penalty so far this year.

The Finnish forward has such a great feel for the game and can be so deceiving for defenders and goalies alike. His release is excellent and he isn’t afraid to let his shot go from distance. His transition to North America could not have been more seamless.

  1. Matty Beniers, Michigan (2021 eligible)

The hardest part about putting this list together is figuring out where to put what Wolverines. It can go a lot of different ways. Beniers is the third leading scorer for Michigan with 19 points in 20 games. He trails teammate Kent Johnson by four points in two fewer games. While Johnson has a spot on the list, I’m leaning Beniers for the overall game he brings to the table. The Wolverines have not given up many goals when Beniers is on the ice — six at even strength, actually.

One of only four freshmen in the country to have scored a hat trick so far this year, as he did last weekend, Beniers finds so many different ways to impact the game. He’s noticeable every single time he touches the ice. He can build a better case for himself with a few more points, but I’ve obviously watched a lot of Michigan this year and I’ve thought Beniers has been their best player on many different occasions, even when he didn’t hit the score sheet.

  1. Ty Smilanic, Quinnipiac (FLA)

Going into last season, I thought Smilanic had a legit chance to go in the first round of the draft. An injury sidelined him for most of the season and it really hurt his draft stock. The Panthers were able to snap him up in the third round and he’s showing now that there’s some solid tools in his game.

The biggest so far has been his goal scoring. Smilanic leads all freshmen with 14 goals in 25 games. He’s been a power-play weapon with six goals on the man advantage, but the reasons he’s also scored eight goals at even strength this year is that he always finds ways to get open and he does a lot of damage from in close to the net.

Smilanic is a strong individual and gets the most out of his 6-foot-1, 179-pound frame. He hunts pucks and is always ready to shoot. I think his play away from the puck still has a ways to go and I think he is going to need to learn to drive play a bit more on his own, but he’s made a big-time impact for a team that I think has a legit shot at making a run this year.

  1. Kent Johnson, Michigan (2021 eligible)

He might already be one of the most entertaining players in college hockey with elite hand skills and offensive know-how. The reigning CJHL MVP came ready to play. He’s second in scoring among all freshmen and has been given the room to play the game the way he knows how. It’s been a lot of fun to watch.

When I did a story for ESPN about this freshman class, I thought Strauss Mann put it best when he said going against Johnson in practice, you know he has about five different things he can do with the puck where everyone else has one or two. That has shown up a lot as he’s often deferred to for zone entries and he can extend plays with the best of them in the offensive zone. His defensive game still needs work, but with 23 points in 22 games so far this season, he’s made a great case for himself to be in the mix for this award.

  1. Owen Power, Michigan (2021 eligible)

The projected No. 1 pick for the NHL Draft is the only non-forward to make the list. He’s not putting up big gaudy numbers, but he does lead all first-year defensemen with 15 points in 22 games. In addition to that, he’s just reliable. Power makes a lot of simple plays at both ends and has great smarts.

I’ve seen a few instances where he showed his youth defensively and got caught, but more times than not, he’s making the stop and he’s creating offense through good transitional passes and smart reads. One of the things that has impressed me most about his defensive game is how clean it is. He can use a good defensive stick, he can play the body, he can gap up and close quickly. Then he has tremendous range due to his size and skating ability. And while this isn’t what I meant when I said he defends cleanly, he’s only taken three penalties all year. For a guy that plays the minutes he does, that’s astounding.

  1. Nikita Nesterenko, Boston College (MIN)

The sophomores are the stars for Boston College, but freshmen Nesterenko and Colby Ambrosio have provided some really great support to that group. Nesterenkno is third on the team with 18 points, with 14 of those points being primary. He can play with skill, but shows good responsibility in the defensive zone as well. The offensive tools are the big standout traits though.

Nesterenko has a nice, quick release that has fooled a few goalies. I like the way he plays off the rush and always has an eye towards the net. A sixth-round pick by the Wild in 2019, Nesterenko appears to have made the most of his extra year of junior hockey in the BCHL last season as he came to Boston College ready to make an impact.

  1. Carter Savoie, Denver (EDM)

The way Savoie was scoring at the beginning of the season, I wondered if we’d see some records set. The goals eventually cooled and Denver has been struggling a bit more than I expected them to this season. Either way, there’s little denying that they have a very important piece of the puzzle to their next few years with Savoie.

He is second among all freshmen with 12 goals — six of which came through his first five collegiate games, a record for DU to start a career. With Denver’s final regular-season series with Colorado College cancelled, it’s unlikely Savoie will make up the ground necessary to make a case for himself to be in the mix for this award, but he’s had a great start to his NCAA career nonetheless.

  1. Josh Lopina, UMass (2021 eligible)

In his third year of draft eligibility, there is a growing belief that Lopina is going to get drafted this time around. He’s made a great case for himself anyway at UMass, where he has 17 points through 21 games. Lopina is 20 years old and a big body at 6-2, 194. He had a couple of seasons of reasonable production in the USHL with Lincoln, but has taken on a pretty sizable role for the contending Minutemen. He’s tied for third most points on the team. Lopina has been a faceoff machine as well, winning 57.3% of his draws while taking more faceoffs than any other freshman in the country.

  1. Landon Slaggert, Notre Dame (CHI)

The most recent national rookie of the month, Slaggert has 11 points in his last eight games as he’s taken on a leading role for Notre Dame, the team he essentially grew up around as the son of longtime associate head coach Andy Slaggert. While Landon has put up the points of late, he’s not necessarily going to be a top end scorer when he graduates to the next level.

He plays the game with really strong pace and gets after it physically. He has to be one of the best freshman forecheckers in the nation and puts a lot of pressure on defensemen. He missed four games while away at the World Juniors where he won gold with Team USA alongside Beniers. The Irish have had their ups and downs this year, but this freshman has been awfully reliable on a game-to-game basis.

Honorable mention:

Brendan Brisson, Michigan (VGK)

Randy Hernandez, Robert Morris

Matt Kopperud, Arizona State

Colby Ambrosio, Boston College (COL)

Alex Campbell, Clarkson (NSH)

Riese Gaber, North Dakota

Gunnarwolfe Fontaine, Northeastern (NSH)

Top Freshman Goalies:

The goaltenders have a little too stiff a competition from the forwards, mostly due to most first-year goalies playing in tandem situations or just not having enough games played to really judge against the forwards. I wanted to make sure to recognize these four, because they’ve played very well. Each has posted a .920 save percentage or higher, highest among all first-year netminders.

Cameron Rowe, Wisconsin: 8-1-1, 1.77 GAA, .939 SV%

Ludvig Persson, Miami: 5-10-2, 2.40 GAA, .930 SV%

Drew Commesso, Boston University (CHI): 6-1-0, 2.75 GAA, .923 SV%

Ethan Haider, Clarkson (NSH): 7-5-4, 2.00 GAA, .921 SV%

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Updated Confidence Rankings

Each week, I’ll take a renewed look at the teams I have the most confidence in to contend for the national championship. Here’s this week’s batch:

  1. North Dakota (Last week: 1)

  2. Boston College (2)

  3. Minnesota (3)

  4. Minnesota State (4)

  5. Wisconsin (5)

  6. UMass (9)

  7. Michigan (7)

  8. St. Cloud State (6)

  9. Minnesota Duluth (HM)

  10. Quinnipiac (8)

College Free Agent Watch Update

I’m going to have a much larger look at college free agents to know about next week, but it sounds like two potentially intriguing ones are not going to be on the market.

Ben Meyers, Minnesota

According to NHL sources, undrafted Minnesota sophomore forward Ben Meyers has begun to inform teams of his intention to return to school next season. Meyers is second for the Gophers with 24 points this season, averaging a point per game, well ahead of his pace from his freshman season. The 22-year-old had multiple teams interested and they probably still will be next season if he stays on this progression. While things can always change, it sounded like Meyers wanted to let the coaching staff know his plans early enough in the event they would have had to replace him.

He’s looked really strong this season and I’m sure the interest will continue next season. Meyers has a proven track record at the high school, junior and now college level.

Johnny Walker, Arizona State

Another bit of a surprising note came late Thursday when Arizona State head coach Greg Powers stated to the media that senior captain Johnny Walker, who has missed a significant chunk of this season, will return for a fifth and final season. The NCAA was granting an extra year of eligibility to athletes this season regardless of if they played or not. Walker is taking it, per Powers.

Walker has proven a lot in his career already. Not getting a full season this year hurts, but I don’t think it would have prevented him from getting a deal. What makes this decision a little more interesting is that Walker turns 25 this summer. That means his first NHL contract, should a team grant him one, would not have to fall under the entry-level system. That doesn’t mean Walker would make more than he would under the entry-level system, but if there’s enough interest he could have some unique leverage for a college free agent.

In 115 NCAA games, Walker has 109 points including 64 goals. His return is a huge boost for the Sun Devils after what has been a really challenging season, having played exclusively on the road. Brighter days are ahead for the program, though, and Walker will be one of the guys helping to push forward. Him being back next year is going to make this team a lot more competitive.

Checking in on Harvard’s incoming class

This hockey season has just felt incomplete without the Ivies. Knowing how good these teams could have been is especially disappointing. It’s going to take some time for them to recover fully, but Harvard should have a pretty good jump start on next season with the quality of their incoming freshman class.

Assuming things are back to mostly normal after this summer and believe me I know that’s a big if, the Crimson should have a robust freshman class that will feature each of the top two scorers in the USHL and a host of others that should be able to provide an immediate impact.

I just so happened to be at a game Saturday that featured five Harvard recruits playing in, most of which should be on the roster next season.

Sean Farrell, C, Chicago Steel (MTL): I’ve been a Sean Farrell fan over the last three seasons. He plays the game at a high rate of speed and has been a dominant performer in the USHL. He would have been on Harvard’s roster and likely made a significant impact this season, but he’s made the most of going back to the USHL. He is now the Chicago Steel’s all-time leader in assists. Farrell also currently leads the USHL with 67 points in just 34 games. He’ll be over-ripe by the time he gets to Cambridge.

Matt Coronato, LW, Chicago Steel (2021-eligible): Coronato is building a strong case for himself to be taken in the first round of the NHL draft this year. He as a force in the game I saw, scoring a goal and adding an assist. He leads the USHL with 31 goals this season and is second to Farrell with 59 points. Having taken such a big leap this year, the expectations should be especially high for him heading into next season.

Jack Bar, D, Chicago Steel (2021-eligible): Bar has good size and strength as a right-shot defenseman. He doesn’t have a ton of points so far this season, which isn’t a huge concern. Bar was supposed to go to the Penticton Vees this year, but when the BCHL season was delayed, he called an audible and went to Chicago which has been a bit of a hot house lately for top talent. Bar will likely be drafted in the mid-rounds this year as there’s a lot of projectable tools.

Ian Moore, D, Chicago Steel (ANA): After spending last season primarily in prep school, Moore entered the USHL as a third-round NHL draft pick and was expected to play a year in the league regardless of the pandemic. He’s getting some quality training and looked awfully smooth in the game. Moore had a few hiccups defensively, but mostly the Crimson can expect a well-polished player by the time he gets on campus.

Alex Gaffney, C/W, Waterloo Black Hawks: After going undrafted last year, Gaffney may get another look this year, but I’m not sure he’ll hear his name called. That said, he has 14 points in 15 games since being acquired from the Omaha Lancers and made an especially positive impact on the game I saw. I liked his ability to get pucks up ice in transition and make plays at the other end. The skills are certainly there for him to be an even bigger impact player, but he may require a bit more patience than some of the others.

Those are just the players I saw last weekend. The Crimson could also bring in Bruins draft pick Mason Langenbrunner and Red Wings draftee Kyle Aucoin, each with strong NHL bloodlines, among others to next year’s class. While Harvard sustained significant veteran losses, adding those players and having Nick Abbruzzese (TOR) back to lead the offense, they’ve got a chance to recover a little quicker than some of their Ivy League counterparts.

Coming up next week: Ranking the top college free agents available this year. Don’t miss it! Subscribe today.