Neutral Zone has created an algorithm-based ranking system for college hockey recruiting, a description of which can be found under the Team Rankings tab. Every player committed to a D1 or D2/D3 school is assigned a star rating based on our scouts’ viewings with additional consideration and points given for the league and their age. These points are derived from the most recent five years of NCAA data trends demonstrating a correlation between age and league as predictive data for success at the college level.
The 2016 class features a lot of high-end prospects, many of who are likely to go in the first round of the NHL draft this upcoming fall. These prospects include Dante Fabbro, Tyson Jost, Clayton Keller, Kiefer Bellows, Riley Tufte and Dennis Cholowski.
At this point in the year, and it’s far from over, we will go over the top 5 recruiting classes in the country for 2016, analyze what each of these five teams lose to graduation (and early pro signings), and what we can expect to see from these high-impact recruits this coming season:
1.Boston University (7 Commits, 1534 points) – The Terriers were unable to fill the shoes of departed Hobey Baker winner Jack Eichel after their NCAA Championship bid in 2015. Last summer, they also lost one of their leading recruits, dynamic forward Max Letunov, who went on to be on the NCAA All-Rookie Team with UCONN. While they lose four of their top seven scorers to graduation, the remaining three were all freshmen.
Losses: Up front they lose two first liners in Danny O’Regan and Ahti Oskanen; a quality second/third liner in Matt Lane and depth forward Mike Moran. BU’s blueline is their strength and they only lose one in captain Matt Grzelcyk (unless McAvoy goes pro). In net they relied heavily on senior starter Sean Maguire down the stretch who will also be gone despite having one year left of eligibility.
Incoming: From a talent standpoint, other college coaches have referred to this class as “one of the greatest of all time”. It starts upfront with two high-end offensive talents from the National Development Program in Clayton Keller and Kiefer Bellows– both five-star recruits. These players have played on the same line all season and shown dominance against both international and college competition with a combined 87 goals in 62 games. Keller is the more dynamic of the pair; he’s the play creator- smooth stick, great speed in every direction, vision and creativity. Bellows brings the power, the net-front presence, the shot and the ability to take over below the dots. The two could be one of the best one-two punches in college hockey despite their age and inexperience. Keller and Bellows are sure-fire first round NHL draft picks this summer and will likely both go in the top 20 (Keller maybe the top 10). To round out the offense, the Terriers are bringing in Patrick Curry, an older, more experienced two-way forward out of Bloomington who is likely a four-year guy as well as Patrick Harper a small, but highly skilled playmaker. Harper is an interesting take because conventional wisdom would say he needs to play a year of junior hockey to get bigger and stronger and prove himself at the high levels after dominating the New England prep scene at Avon Old Farms the past two seasons. However, the BU staff has a lot of confidence in him and rightfully so, he’s one of the smartest players in the country and has exceptional hands and vision. The only issue would be that he’s not built to play a bottom six role so he’d have to make an immediate impact as a top-six, power-play type or he could get lost in the shuffle.
While they lose Grzelcyk, one of the best offensive defenseman in college hockey, they bring in a pair of high-end, puck moving defensemen in Dante Fabbro and Chad Krys. Fabbro is a top 20 NHL pick, while Krys has seen his draft stock fall in the second half of the year to a late first rounder or early to mid-second rounder. Both will be able to make an immediate impact at the college level, log time on power-play units and make plays at both ends.
Maguire leaves a void between the pipes, which is not an easy role to fill; however, Jake Oettinger is one of the premiere goalies in the country. He’s not eligible for this summer’s draft because he’s a late ’98 birth year but he has the size, composure and athleticism to be a freshman starter. The NTDP goalie posted over .900 save percentage against college competition this season.
Final Word: BU has tremendous talent coming in next season; however, they are very young. With the exception of Patrick Curry, the other six recruits will be 19 or younger. The other potential hurdle for Quinn is managing egos and expectations as most of these players will not play four years at BU. With that being said, the talent level is undeniable and we’d go as far to say that if Oettinger and LaCouvee can hold down the fort in net then BU should be considered a national contender.
2. North Dakota (11 commits, 1291 points) The defending National Champions brought their momentum to the recruiting ground and have signed another championship caliber group. However, the Hawks lost several key players to their championship run to the NHL or graduation, including three of their top four defensemen and four of their top-ten scorers. The best news North Dakota fans got was a month ago when freshman phenom, Brock Boeser, decided to return to North Dakota for his sophomore season.
Loses: North Dakota loses three of their top four defensemen, which leaves them with holes on the back end. Stecher, LaDue and Thompson were all puck-moving defensemen who could contribute in man-up or man-down situations, play a lot of minutes, and make plays at both ends. Senior forward Drake Caggiula was one of the team’s best overall players and finished second on the team in points. Those are their biggest holes to contend with going forward as they lose some scoring, some size and a lot of experience and leadership.
Incoming: With 8 departures as of now, it’s tough to imagine they’ll actually bring in 11 recruits, but as it stands right now they have 11 slated for 2016-2017. The class is diverse in leagues, age, and style of play. Up front they bring in highly touted five-star recruit Tyson Jost out of the BCHL, the leading point- per-game player in the BCHL as a 17-year-old with a 42-62-104 line in 48 games. He’s an explosive skater with an expansive skill set who creates a lot of offense for himself and for his line mates. He can win battles, he can beat defenseman wide, he can stickhandle his way through traffic, and when there is an opening he’s a gifted scorer. The other forward who will be counted on to contribute right away is Norwegian Ludvig Hoff, the fourth ranked forward in the 1996 class. He plays the game with pace, he’s strong on the puck, win’s battles and has proven that he can score in a multitude of ways. The other forwards who will be chomping at the bit for playing time are NHL prospect Mitch Mattson out of the USHL, Dixon Bowen out of the BCHL and veteran junior players Cole Smith (MJHL) and Zach Yon (USHL). Mattson is a bit raw but has a high ceiling with his size and skating ability. He has a long reach, competes at both ends and can fill a lot of different holes in the lineup. However, he may be a year away from a big impact at the college level. Dixon Bowen had a solid season for the deep Penticton Vees team converting from offense to defense. He committed to North Dakota as a forward, but it will be interesting to see how he is used in college. Smith and Yon are both 20 year olds who have played several seasons of juniors and have shown they have the skill, the scoring and the grit to compete for ice time.
On defense, North Dakota doesn’t look to rebuild, but reload with a plethora of big, talented players. Colton Poolman, younger brother of Tucker Poolman, was one of the premiere ‘95s in junior hockey this season. He has size, he’s tough, he wins battles in the dirty areas, makes good decisions with the puck and can carry it end to end effortlessly. After Poolman, there are four other defenseman who could wind up in this class, but it will likely only be two or three of them when it’s all said and done. Christian Evers played two season with the NTDP as a bottom pair defenseman who could kill penalties and shut down opposing forwards. This past season after being the first overall pick in the USHL, he was one of the catalysts to Lincoln’s turnaround as a big, steady, reliable, physical defenseman who logged a lot of minutes. Casey Johnson brings a similar flare with size, honest defensive zone play, and toughness around the net. The other two USHL defenseman commits, Matt Kiersted and Andrew Peski, bring a different element to the North Dakota blue line as they are more athletic, like to play with the puck on their stick, and jump into the rush. The balance of size with both reliable stay-at-home defensemen and offensive minded defensemen are the strengths of the incoming defensive class.
Final Word: North Dakota graduated a lot of talent, but they are bringing in a great mix of older guys who can fill out the depth chart as well as high-end prospects who can demonstrate an impact day 1 with both size and athleticism on the blue line. With the core group up front returning, as well as the goaltending, it looks like the only significant hole to fill is the one at the blue line and they have more than enough talent to choose from for next fall.
3. Michigan (11 commits, 1273 points) It is no secret that last year’s talented Michigan squad got depleted by early NHL signings; however, they have done a nice job in their backyard attracting four blue chip prospects out of the National Development Program. They lose three to graduation and five to early signings so unless others bolt before the season that leaves eight openings. Therefore, some of these eleven commits may get pushed back to 2017.
Losses: The Wolverines have the steep task of replacing their top three forwards, as well as their top two defensemen, which includes Kyle Connor and Zach Werenski, arguably the two best players this past season in college hockey. They also graduate their starting goalie. Overall they only lose 3 seniors to graduation, but add 5 to early NHL signings and the holes become sizable.
Incoming: Led by five NTDP commits, the Wolverines add a large class with a mix of talented young players and older, more experienced junior players. Offensively, Michigan has six commits to replace the five they lost. Although their top three offensive recruits from the National Program are young, William Lockwood, Nick Pastujov and James Sanchez should all factor into the Wolverine offense. Lockwood is a fast, shifty skater with quick hands and shot. Pastujov has a powerful stride, high compete, protects the puck well and excels below the dots where he can be physical and make plays in traffic. Sanchez is the power forward of the mix with a nice combo of soft hands, long reach, and a quick, strong release. These three are nicely complimented by two older junior players out of Bloomington Thunder (USHL), Jake Slaker and Steve Merl, along with longtime NAHL standout Adam Winborg. Slaker is the most recent addition after being committed to St. Lawrence, but switching when Coach Carvel took the job at UMass. He’s an explosive skater with both speed and strong edges; he has quick and agile hands, and can get pucks off in high traffic areas around the net. Merl is a big, tough power forward who can play wing or center, he blocks shots, takes the body and is tough to defend against in the corners and in front of the net. Lastly, Winborg just ended his fourth year in junior hockey after playing in the USHL for one season and the NAHL for three. He’s a polished skater with size and toughness who takes advantage of his opportunities in the offensive zone and doesn’t shy away from his responsibilities in the defensive zone. With a college-ready style of play, he should work his way up the depth chart over his four years in Ann Arbor.
Defensively, the Wolverines have four prospects to fill the two vacancies left by Zach Werenski and Michael Downing when they left early for the NHL. The two that will be looked at to fill that void are NTDP defenders Griffin Luce and Luke Martin. Martin is a big, versatile defender who can separate opposing forwards from the puck with his strength, positioning and skating ability, but can also contribute offensively with a booming shot from the point. Griffin Luce is a heavy, shut down defenseman who plays a simple, yet physical game. Both of these players will be drafted this summer. The next two defensemen may need another year to develop as Christian Meike is coming off an injury and a mediocre season in the USHL and Kenny Johnson is young and coming right out of midget hockey. Meike adds an offensive element to their blue line while Johnson adds size, strong defensive zone play and mature puck decisions.
In the net they bring in another Bloomington Thunder prospect, Hayden Lavigne, who is a good sized, mobile goaltender who plays beyond the crease, challenges shooters and can make the net look small. Lavingne plays a consistent game, doesn’t get rattled when things aren’t going his way, and has improved his rebound control from the previous season. While he has obvious talent, it would be a steep task to ask him to take over the starting role next season.
Final Word: Michigan has done a great job recruiting players of different size, age and skill sets. While they have some top flight young players, it doesn’t look like they will be able to replace the CCM line nor do they have an elite two-way defenseman like Werenski. They also take a hit between the pipes, but Lavigne will help create needed depth and could see some action as a freshman. A great class, but it may not be enough to keep Michigan at the level it played last season.
4. Northeastern (10 commits, 1232 points) Northeastern took college hockey by storm last season. After starting the year 1-11-2 they finished with a 20-1-2 record in their final 23 games. While Northeastern is a program on the rise, they only lose 5 seniors so they obviously are not bringing in 10 next fall, but still have some big roles to fill.
Loses: While Northeastern loses two of their most dynamic forwards in Kevin Roy and Mike McMurty, they return their top three scorers (unless they go pro this summer) in Zach Aston-Reese and the Stevens brothers. They also return their freshman goaltender and three of their top four defensemen.
Incoming: As noted before, Northeastern will cut this class down after they have a clearer picture of who will come back next season as some may get tempted by pro teams. Northeastern doesn’t have a Tyson Jost like North Dakota or Clayton Keller like BU, but they have a lot of talent depth. Up front they bring in Liam Pecararo, a UMaine transfer who led the Waterloo Blackhawks (USHL) in points-per-game this season. He has one season in the Hockey East and will be looked upon to come right in and add his speed and playmaking ability to the offensive unit. The other three forwards who could vie for early playing time are Grant Jozefek, Matt Filipe and Biagio Lerario. Lerario is an older, veteran junior player who plays a physical, high compete, two-way game but can chip in offense and hound the puck defensively. Jozefek and Filipe are younger, but have a combined three years of USHL experience. Filipe is a local boy who played Mass High School hockey and has climbed up the NHL Central Scouting board as he’s proven to be an effective power forward who has good feet and ability to make plays at both ends. Jozefek is a composed, cerebral playmaker with a great stick who has proven point production at every level he’s played. The last forward would be another local in John Picking, a fast, high compete player coming off his third season with the Boston Jr. Bruins (USPHL). He’s seen as a depth guy by most, but our scouts think he could climb his way up the depth chart over his four years there because of his speed, work ethic and grit.
On defense, they lost 3 and look to have four ready for next season (if they take all four). The top defensemen are both skilled, puck movers out of the USHL in Jeremy Davies and former BC High star Ryan Shea. Davies was the leading scoring defenseman in the USHL this past season and can run a college power play right away. Ryan Shea is a good-sized, elite skating, highly athletic, two-way defender who was drafted in the fourth round by the Chicago Blackhawks last summer. Nick Fiorentino comes from the BCHL where he led all Merritt defenseman in points. He’s a big, strong presence who can handle the puck and make passes up ice. His mobility is good for his size, but he will need to continue to improve in order to make an immediate impact. Their last defenseman commit is Garrett Cecere, an undersized, agile defenseman who left Colorado College just four games into his sophomore year to play in the USHL. We are not sure of his eligibility for next season and he may need to sit out the first semester, but he’s got a full season of college hockey experience and logged a lot of minutes in the USHL this season. He’s a mobile, quick first pass defenseman who plays a smart, calculated game.
While the Huskies star freshman goalie has mostly locked up the goaltending duties, they only had two goalies that played on the roster last year and have added Curtis Frye out of the Philadelphia Jr Flyers (USPHL). The once NTDP goaltender has played in the USPHL for the past three seasons. He’s a technical goalie with size and good feet, he tracks the puck well and has improved his glove over the past season. We don’t see him competing for the starting role right away, but he adds much needed depth to their crease.
Final Word: Northeastern loses a few key players to graduation, but this class brings more depth and overall talent to their lineup. They have two transfers with a year of college hockey experience and a great mix of older, experienced junior players coming out of the USHL, BCHL and USPHL. They took proven players at the junior level who can all make contributions in their freshman year. Expect their ranking to fall, however, as they are unlikely to bring in 10 players this fall after losing only 5 to graduation.
5. Miami Ohio (14 commits, 1,185 points) Miami Ohio has a massive freshman class coming in, which should bring new life to the program that has underachieved the past few seasons. While they lose some key contributors, especially in net, they still return four of their top five scorers and their best defenseman. The Red Hawks could still lose another player or two to the NHL before the summer ends.
Losses: The Red Hawks lose 11 players to graduation including first line defenseman Matt Caito, their two starting goalies in Jay Williams and Ryan McKay and the team’s leading assist producer Sean Kuraly. More than front line talent, they lose a lot of experience and depth with this senior class.
Incoming: The RedHawks have fourteen players with signed National Letter of Intents arriving this fall. This class has the potential to change the program immediately with eight players from the USHL, five from the NAHL and one from the OJHL. Offensively, the class is led by three USHL wingers Carson Meyer, William Knierim and Karch Bachman. Meyer and Bachman bring a lot of speed and goal scoring ability to the lineup as they push the pace and can fire the puck. Knierim has a unique style as a heavy power forward type with soft hands and vision. He lacks the explosive first step like Bachman and Meyer, but he’s more effective in the tough ice. Gordie Green is another young player who will be able to come in and compete for ice time early despite his size; he’s a smart, crafty playmaker with vision and energy. The offensive incomers also include three 20-year-old prospects out of the NAHL in Christian Mohs, Carter Johnson and Alex Alger. Mohs is a solid, all-around player who competes every shift, does all the little things, and puts his teammates in position to score. Johnson is a big framed, physical forward who finishes checks, blocks shots and can contribute in man up or man down situations. Alex Alger plays the game with a lot of pace, he has great speed, can make decisions and find teammates without having to slow down. He’s college ready from the pace of the game perspective, but will need to get stronger.
Defensively, Miami brings in four players after losing five to graduation. The group is headlined by former NTDP defenseman Grant Frederic, a top 20 ranked defenseman for his age group. He’s got great size and toughness, a heavy shot from the point and the hockey sense to make smart, simple plays. He’ll need to improve his agility and quickness, but he’s physically and mentally ready for the college level. Bryce Hatten, who sat out most of last season in the USHL with an injury, is also a big bodied, reliable defenseman, but is a bit raw at this point. Chaz Switzer is a good-sized, physical defenseman who is tough to play against, but can also break the puck out and make a clean first pass. Last of the D corps is Jared Brandt, a standout this past season for the Minot Minotauros (NAHL). He’s a gifted skater who is tough to beat on the rush, is able to carry the puck up ice, and makes excellent passes in all three zones.
Miami loses its two starting goaltenders so they focused on bringing in three freshmen to compete for the starting job. The most well known of this group is Ryan Larkin out of Cedar Rapids (USHL) who was ranked the 6th best goalie in North America by Central Scouting, but ended up undrafted last summer. Larkin was held out this season with a hip injury so he could start a bit rusty compared to the other incoming net-minders. Chase Munroe is a veteran junior goalie who has started for three seasons in the NAHL and is coming off his best season yet with a 2.22 GA and .912 SV%. He’s got pro size, understands his positioning and angles, and cuts down the net on opposing scorers. His lateral mobility and rebound control have been his weaknesses early in his junior career, but he’s shown improvement this past season. The most recent sign for the Red Hawks was a hidden gem out of the Georgetown Raiders (OJHL) organization Andrew Masters. He’s had a dominate year in the OJHL putting up 2.00 GAA and .934 SV% over 43 starts. He doesn’t have the size or the resume of Larkin and Munroe but our scouts are confident that he has enough to make the starting decision a three-way race.
Final Word: The Red Hawks have taken their program to the next level with this class. They brought in immediate impact forwards, size and toughness on the blue line and three top flight goalies in the crease. They may not have an immediate turnaround given the sheer number of new players to the program (and having to rely on a freshman goalie), but they set the table for a bright future ahead.
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**Disclaimer – These are the top 5 teams in points, there is another metric measured by average star rating and those top five teams are: 1. Boston University (4.68), 2. Notre Dame (4.25), 3. Minnesota (4.25), 4. Western Michigan (4.19) and 5. Providence (4.15).