The College Hockey Landscape: A Study of the 21-year-old Freshman


The Big 10 this past year found themselves in a contentious debate when they attempted to bring the maximum age of freshman in hockey to 20. The implications were major and after much discussion and debate they decided to withdraw their pledge and give it more time and consideration. We see both sides of the argument, in some ways older players are making the barriers to entry too high to play at the college level and the trickle-down effect could be damaging to youth hockey throughout the US/CAN. However, the great parity that exists in college hockey is largely in part to the age divide, where lower budget teams are able to compete with higher budget programs because they can recruit older, more experienced players.  Those are at least two of the popular arguments between the parties. However, we want to take a different look at the 21-year-old freshman dilemma. We want to look at the landscape of college hockey and where the 21-year-old freshman fits into it both at the D1 and D3 levels.

A lot of the focus at the professional and college ranks have been on analytics. However, anyone worth their salt in statistics will admit that data is only as good as the question it answers. With that in mind we have put together a list of questions that are of major importance to college, junior and high school coaches, scouts, parents and players.

We have updated our Team Recruiting Rankings for every NCAA DI and DII/DIII program in the country. While the rankings are fun and gives players, coaches and fans an opportunity to see who they have coming in next year and where our scouts have them ranked, it is probably more important to take a step back and look at what is happening with college hockey.


How old are the freshman for this upcoming year?

College hockey is unique compared to other sports where the natural maturation from senior in high school to freshman in college rarely occurs. The rise of junior hockey has paved the way for freshman being either 18, 19, 20 or 21 when they step foot on campus in the fall. In the context of this upcoming season, freshman will have been born anytime within 1995-1998.

Division I Division III


Commits % DOB Commits



179 32.97% 1995 433 72.41%


198 36.46% 1996 120



119 21.92% 1997 39


1998 47 8.66% 1998 7



There are currently 599 players committed D3. 72% or 433 of those players are 1995 birth years which means they will be 21/22 during their freshman year in college. 20% or 120 are 1996 birth years which means they will be 20/21 during their freshman year. Only the remaining 8% will be 1997 or 1998’s.

Why is this significant? It’s not really news to anyone in the industry, as the rise of junior hockey has created new pathways to the NCAA, but it shows that the line from High School hockey to D3 is nearly extinct. While New England Prep School represents nearly 7% of the 2016 D3 recruiting class, most of those players repeated or did a post grad year.

Compare that to the Division 1, where currently there are 542 players committed to be freshman this fall and 178 or 33% are 1995’s, 198 or 37% are 1996’s, 119 or 22% are 1997’s and 65 or 8% are 1998’s. Division 1 teams shows a much more balanced approach among the age pool.


What leagues are the rising freshman coming from?

It’s not only age that divides incoming freshman from D1 to D3, it is also the leagues they come from. Nearly 70% of D1 committed players are coming from Tier 1 (Junior A) or Tier 2 leagues where they pay no tuition to play. Compare that to D3 and we see a much different picture. In the case of Division 3 we see that approximately 90% are coming out of pay to play leagues. Why does this matter? If we look at the data so far it shows the majority of players are having to play at least two years of junior hockey and 9 out of 10 of them are paying for it. Therefore, the road to Division 3 costs the average family between $10,000-$25,000 before they attend college, where they will not be eligible for athletic scholarships.

From the Division 3 perspective, on the plus side, older, more experienced junior players have a quicker learning curve to the college game. They are physically more mature and that leads to bigger, faster and more competitive play on the ice.  However, on the negative side, the barriers to entry to Division 3 has increased to the point that the freshman may become simply the ones who can afford it and the ones who are willing to play juniors and not necessarily the best. Some of the best D3 prospects are being priced out of the game.

Division I Division III  



Commits % League Commits %
USHL 199 36.6 EHL 152



87 16 USPHL 64 12.8
BCHL 85 15.6 NAHL 62



37 6.8 NA3HL 58 11.6
USPHL 32 5.8 USPHL Elite 50



28 5.1 OJHL 50 10
NTDP 20 3.6 NE Prep 38



17 3.1 CCHL 25 5
NE Prep 8 1.4 WSHL 17



7 1.2 NOJHL 13 2.6
SJHL 6 1.1 USPHL Mid 13



1 >1 SIJHL 12



1 >1 BCHL 12 2.4
EHL 3 >1 MJHL 9



12 2.2 AJHL 7 1.4



6 1.2
Other 5



How many of 1995’s committed in their final year of junior hockey? What junior leagues did they come from and what schools did they go to?

If we isolate the 1995 players we can see some fascinating trends. First off, there are 179 1995’s who will be D1 freshman next season. Nearly 27% of these players are committed before they enter their final year of juniors, so that leaves 73% or 131 players uncommitted at the start of the season. Of the 131 players committing in their final season we see over 65% are coming from Tier 1 or Tier 2 junior leagues who charge no tuition. Therefore, of the 180+ Tier 3 junior teams in the United States and the over 60 pay to play junior teams in Canada, only 45 players out of those leagues are committing Division 1 this year.


Chart Explained: The top of the chart shows how many players committed D1 in their final year of juniors or before their final year of juniors. The second part of the chart shows that among the pool of players who did commit in their final year of juniors (131 players), what schools did those players commit to. The last part of the data looks at the junior leagues those 131 players who committed in their final years of junior came from.

1995 Players Breakdown


Commit Year

Commits %




Before 48





Hockey East

15 11.45%


Big 10

8 6.11%



44 33.59%



Commits %



28 21.37%



12 9.16%



8 6.11%







2 1.53%



1 0.76%






What are the chances for an uncommitted player in this last year of junior eligibility signing with a Division 1 team?

The question would have much different answers depending on the league. For example, uncommitted 1995’s in the USHL almost entirely get picked up by Division 1 schools. The BCHL does see some players choose CIS and Division 3 but the overwhelming majority will go Division 1. However, in the pay to play leagues, which account for most of the junior hockey environment, the numbers are much more daunting. If we assume that every junior team in the pay to play leagues rostered just three 1995’s this past season (a modest figure) than the odds of those players making it to Division 1 were around 5% or 1 in 20.

This next part is loose data because we are going on the word of coaches and players through interviews, but we estimate that of the 131 players who committed D1 in their final year of juniors only 68 (52%) are receiving any scholarship. Also, we found that an estimated 41 or 31% of the uncommitted 1995’s had offers before their final year in juniors but hadn’t made up their mind. The other interesting data here comes from the NCAA league breakdown where we can see that the top 3 leagues according to the Pairwise Rankings account for about 34% of the 1995 commits while the bottom 3 leagues account for 66% of the 1995 commits. This makes sense as the big budget schools attract the blue chip prospects and the lower budget schools typically rely on the older, veteran junior players to stay competitive.


For the uncommitted 19-year-old player finishing up his first year of juniors. Is there an added value to playing another year of juniors?

We are not in the advice business, we are in the scouting business, but our analytics clearly show that in most cases, if you are not good enough to play Tier 1 or Tier 2 juniors, then the value added for playing that final year in pay to play leagues is very small. Most players would be doing themselves a service by playing one year of junior and committing to a Division 3 college. However, in the Tier 1 and Tier 2 leagues it’s a different story, the odds of playing Division 1 are much higher, especially in the USHL and BCHL.

Division I                             Division III


Star Rating D.O.B Star Rating


3.53 1995 2.12
1996 3.65 1996



3.86 1997


1998 4.35 1998






To test that theory we analyzed the star ratings our scouts compile for every D1 and D3 committed prospect for the fall of 2016. The ratings show minimal changes from 1995 to 1996 prospects in regard to their ability (within .10). However, the jump from 1996 to 1997 shows somewhat significant increase, especially in D3 (.40). There is also a significant increase in the average star rating from a 1997 to a 1998 commit in Division 1, but for Division 3 it goes down very slightly. So what does this prove? For Division 3 it shows that there are two groups: the under 20 group and the over 20 group. There are no significant increases from 20 to 21 and there are no significant increases from 18 to 19. The major differences are between 18-19 years olds vs. 20-21 year olds. Therefore, the extra year of juniors shows minimal talent differences. On the D1 side we see a clear pattern that the younger the player, the better the player. The difference in star rating between the average committed 1995 to 1998 is 3.5 to 4.35, a massive variation.


How did the older freshman compare to the younger freshman this past season?

The data above would seem to illustrate that younger freshman are better than older freshman, but is that true? It is a tough question to prove because the metric isn’t simple to select. Goals? Time on Ice? Corsi?  How do you evaluate who are the best players in college? Most would agree that in the 2014-2015 the four best players in college hockey were among the youngest players in Jack Eichel, Noah Hanafin, Zach Werenski and Dylan Larkin. All of whom where 18 during the season and all of whom came from NTDP and were first round draft picks in the NHL. Eichel and Larkin were candidates for NHL Rookie of the Year this season and Hanafin was a top 4 defenseman for Carolina Hurricanes. In this past season, there were a mix of younger and older stars.  Some of the best players in the league were upper-classmen in their 20’s like Jimmy Vesey (Harvard), Sam Anas (Quinnipiac), Alex Lyon (Yale) and Thatcher Demko (Boston College). However, the leading scorer in the country was Kyle Connor who started the season as an 18-year-old and turned 19 at the halfway mark. National Champion North Dakota was led by freshman Brock Boeser, the team’s leader in points, who was 18 most of the season but turned 19 in late February. Boeser and Connor were the no.1 and no.3 leading point producers in all of college hockey last season (they were also both first round NHL Draft picks).

Obviously Boeser and Connor are great examples of how high end 18 year olds can produce despite their age; but a story that doesn’t get enough play is the performance of Colin White. White was as an 18-year-old, coming off a first round draft selection by Ottawa who went on to lead the BC offense, which was somewhat surprising because he wasn’t known as an elite point producer.

The last chart showed that our data suggests that the younger committed players had higher star ratings than the older players. While this made sense in theory, the information could be discounted given that it is our subjective ranking system that is being used. While we have a team of over 30 elite scouts throughout North America watching these players throughout the season and evaluating them, it’s still subjective reasoning. So to test whether our claim that younger committed players tend to be more skilled than the older players we took a look at ALL the freshman on the top 20 teams in the pairwise rankings for Division 1. Why chose that sample?  Well, it is indicative of success, the top 20 teams represent the top 33% of the league which tells us what the pattern is among the best teams. We assume the best teams are doing the best job in recruiting. We did not choose to look at D3 data because the sample size for 21-year-old freshman vs. 18-20 year olds was over 3:1 which would not yield clear results.


Chart Explained:  There were 127 freshman playing Division 1 college hockey (non-goalies) among the top 20 teams (according to Pairwise Rankings). They played in a total of 3,691 games this season totaling 1,549 points. As a result the average freshman on those teams played 29 games and scored 12 points. The comp average is a metric that compares that birth year’s results to the national average where all the birth years are combined.


NCAA Division 1 Freshman 2015-2016 Season Statistics (Top 20 Teams)

Birth Yr

Games Points Avg GP Comp Avg Avg Pts Comp Avg


490 151 23.33 -5.7 7.2



1270 454 27.02 -2.0 9.7


1996 1268 588 32.51 3.5 15.1



663 356 33.15 4.1 17.8 5.6
ALL 3691 1549 29.06 12.19


In this breakdown of birth years to games played and points produced we see a clear demonstration that our star ratings are in line with last year’s data. 1994’s played in nearly 6 games less than the average freshman and as a result had 5 less points. 1995’s also produced less than average results despite doing better than the 1994’s. The 1996’s were significantly better than the 1995’s scoring nearly 3 points over the national average and playing in nearly 4 more games. The most telling data came from observing 1994’s vs. 1997’s where the youngest players average 10 games more than the oldest players and average over 10 points more in a season.


So in the end, is the 21-year-old freshman a good or bad thing for college hockey?

We wrap up our data by asking the question to our Director of Scouting, Brendan Collins, who spends over 250 days a year on the road watching all levels from Bantams to Division 1 college.

“It’s a complex question which commands a complex answer. An answer that frankly I don’t have because both sides have compelling arguments. In many ways junior hockey has changed the college hockey landscape. The USHL, for example, has created a highly competitive environment for the countries best players which is then keeping them in the United States playing college hockey as oppose to going to the CHL. Without the USHL and the US National Development program you wouldn’t see 11 players in the 2016 NHL Draft coming from the college ranks. With that being said, junior hockey is also the driver to why D3 is chalk full of 21-year-old freshman. Many players who we interview playing on Tier 3 junior teams are there because they are trying to get a D1 scholarship, which the data proves is very rare. Therefore, we see a lot of players in the junior hockey circuit who are being set up to fail. Which brings us back to the essential question, is a 21-year-old freshman a good thing or bad thing for the game? It all depends who you ask. Fans are being rewarded with older, bigger, faster competition. Coaches are being given a larger talent pool to choose from and the ability to level the playing field among big and small budget programs. Players are given more time to develop and achieve their dreams of playing college hockey. Those are all positive. The negatives are fans may not be watching as skilled a game, as junior teams typically play a chip and chase, throw it on net and crash the posts style of play as oppose to the wide open, puck possession game you see in prep, high school and midget hockey. Coaches are having to recruit coast to coast to evaluate this massive talent pool which takes their time and energy away from working with their current players. Lastly, players and parents are stuck fronting the bill, in many cases, to a dream that is not likely attainable.

In the end I think that age plays a significant role in the parity of college hockey. Union which offers no athletic scholarships can win a national championship in a league where teams have over 10,000 fans at their games and offer 18 full scholarships. With that being said, I think the trickle-down effect of the 21-year-old freshman is dangerous as it potentially prices families out of the game. The fact that in order to play Division 3 hockey, where the players receive no athletic scholarship, a player will have to play an average of two years of juniors in pay to play leagues is alarming and goes against a lot of the foundations of Division 3 athletics.

In my experience, it starts with the players. Most of the focus from the player’s perspective is short-sighted. Committing D1 is far different than playing D1 and very few understand the difference. Is the 21-year-old freshman at Maine who only dressed 4 games this season happy about his decision to pursue two years of junior hockey in order to play D1? Was it worth it? Is the D1 player at a school who averages under 500 fans per game having a better college hockey experience than the leading scorer at Plattsburgh?  Keep this in mind, in 2014-2015, Utica averaged just shy of 3,700 fans at their home games. The Division 1 National Champion Providence averaged under 3,000. In fact, Utica has better attendance than 3 of the last 4 D1 National Championship teams: Yale, Union and Providence.”


We don’t take sides at Neutral Zone, hence our name, we ask questions and seek data to find the answers, which leads to more questions. Is the 21-year-old freshman good for college hockey? We don’t know, you tell us!


Photo Credit: Dan Hickling/Hickling Images