Part of the beauty of college hockey is that with the sport's heavy roster turnover every year, each new season provides an opportunity for new players to emerge and become important contributors to their team. Some, it's safe to say, are pretty expected. Most people expected Jack Eichel to be an important piece for Boston University this year. But it's far less of a guarantee with other players, and there's a certain joy and excitement in watching a player take that next step and become a top-notch college hockey player.
With that said, we asked our staff to pick a player whose development has been a pleasant surprise to them so far this season:
Nebraska-Omaha's entire top line has been excellent so far this season. In the case of Jake Guentzel, I think most people were expecting him to build on his 34 points as a freshman. Dominic Zombo scored double-digit goal totals in each of the past two years, so he was a known commodity too. But the emergence of Austin Ortega, who has seven points in his first four games, has been a huge factor in the Mavericks' 3-1-0 start.
Ortega scored 60 points in his final year of junior hockey, so he knows how to score, but people forgot about him a bit last year when he only scored 19 points in a lesser role for the Mavericks. People were wondering who would step up for UNO after all their forward departures last year, and Ortega seems to be the guy.
Union's Mike Vecchione seems up to the task of replacing the production of the key contributors the Dutchmen lost from last year's national title team. The sophomore has tallied three goals and an NCAA-leading nine points in four games this season. In fact, he's already over a quarter of the way to replicating his freshmen year scoring totals (14+20=34).
Minnesota-Duluth has played 4 games this season and in all 4 games sophomore forward Dominic Toninato has lit the lamp. It's a return to scoring form for Toninato, who nearly had 30 goals in the USHL with two seasons ago, and surprisingly above fellow sophomores Kyle Osterberg and linemate Alex Iafallo. His 5 goals this season is more than halfway to last season's 8.
The latest one came shorthanded this Saturday, giving the Bulldogs a 3-2 lead against Minnesota State it wouldn't relinquish. The secret to Toninato's success on the scoresheet so far may be that; the fact he's succeeding in all situations. Along with a power play in the season opener, Saturday's goal was his nation-leading second shorthanded goal of the year.
St. Lawrence may only be 2-2 on the young season, but Kyle Hayton has played more than admirably in goal for the Saints and opened eyes across the country this past weekend.
The freshman from Denver, Colo. made 44 saves, the most by a Saint goalie since January 2012, on 47 shots in a 3-2 overtime loss to Ferris State on Friday night. However, he took it upon himself to make Saturday night would go the Saints' way on home ice. The SLU defense allowed 33 shots on goal, including 15 in the third period, but Hayton pitched the shutout in a 2-0 win over the No. 4 Bulldogs.
Hayton became the first SLU freshman to record a shutout since Matt Weninger did so in 2010-11, on his way to becoming the go-to man for the entirety of his stay in Canton, N.Y. which included starts in 72 of the Saints' final 76 games in his career. It looks like a similar script is in the process of being written.