Overzealous family members aside, few people would have predicted Michigan’s Kyle Connor to have the season he had 12 months ago.
That’s not to say Connor was an unknown, coming in as the reigning USHL scoring leader and a first round NHL draft pick by the Winnipeg Jets. Even the best expectations for heralded freshmen don’t involve leading the nation in points (71) and goals (35), nearing nearly unheard of in college hockey a goal per game and finishing as a Hobey Baker hat trick finalist like Connor did in 2015-16.
The past two seasons has seen a flux of high impact freshmen in college hockey. The Big Ten is no different. Besides Connor, freshman Luke Kunin led Wisconsin in goals (19) last season while Andrew Sturtz had 18 to lead Penn State. Minnesota entrusted its net to first-year Eric Schierhorn, who helped the Gophers win the Big Ten regular season title.
With the new year approaching there’s a new crop of freshmen. While it would be unfair to expect any to match Connor’s only college season, having signed with the Jets in the offseason, do expect to get to know quite a few freshmen. There are several capable of making an immediate impact.
Here is one from each school that stands out entering 2016-17.
D Luke Martin, Michigan (#2)
By now it should be no surprise to see a Wolverines freshman succeed. With this year’s class sitting at 11 players thanks to Michigan having to replace five early departures, there are several players who could get an early opportunity to shine. Steve Racine’s graduation gives Jack LaFontaine a chance to challenge Zach Nagelvoort for playing time. So should William Lockwood up front.
Then there’s Luke Martin on defense. Martin comes into Michigan from the USNTDP as one of the top American defensemen eligible for the 2017 NHL Draft. The St. Louis native already stood out in last week’s All-American Prospects Game. Michigan lost its top two defensemen last season in Zach Werenski and Michael Downing. Martin, listed at 6’2”, 201 lbs, is physically mature enough for the college game and should help replace them.
F Patrick Khodorenko, Michigan State (#55)
Khodorenko, like Martin, is an US Development Program alum accelerating to play college hockey during his draft year. He stands out among a 11 player MSU freshman class. The 17 year-old (he doesn’t turn 18 until October 13th) spent much of last year battling injuries, but is now healthy. Most of all Khodorenko possesses speed and a scoring touch the Spartans could use with Michigan State losing two of its top three goal scorers.
Also: Redshirt freshman Jerad Rosburg makes his Spartans debut on defense after missing all of last season due to knee surgery
F Rem Pitlick, Minnesota (#15)
The son of former Gopher and NHLer Lance Pitlick, Rem comes to Minnesota to build his own legacy. He does so after being named the USHL Forward & Player of the Year in 2015-16. The 5’10”, 205 lbs forward scored 46 goals with Muskegon, which led to him in his second year of eligibility being drafted this past June by the Nashville Predators. While the Gophers return most of its top-nine from a year ago, Pitlick has the capability to slide in and make an impact. 37 of his 46 goals were scored at even strength.
Also: Defenseman Ryan Lindgren, who spent much of the past two seasons playing on a pairing with Luke Martin, captained USA Hockey’s team at the U-18 World Championships this past April.
F Tanner Laczynski, Ohio State (#9)
Although Ohio State’s five man freshman class may be smaller than some of its neighbors, those coming in have produced in juniors. One of those is Laczynski, a great skater who was invited to the US NJEC over the summer. He added bulk and more scoring to his repertoire last season, finishing fourth in the USHL in points (63) split across his hometown Chicago and Lincoln. The 19 year-old joins the Buckeyes having been drafted in the sixth round by Philadelphia (like Pitlick he was chosen the second time around).
Also: Forward Sam McCormick had 32 goals in the USHL last season. His brother Max, now with the Ottawa Senators, played at Ohio State from 2011-2014.
G Peyton Jones, Penn State (#31)
Jones, a Pennsylvania native, committed to Penn State last October. Less than twelve months later the 20 year-old will have a chance to suit up and start for the Nittany Lions. Penn State’s net is open after Eamon McAdam and Matt Skoff both departed. The 6’4”, 210 lbs, Jones spent last season as Laczynski’s teammate at Lincoln, where he was one of the top USHL goalies. He finished fourth among all goalies in save percentage (.922) and seventh in GAA (2.34) as the Stars made the playoffs.
Also: Forward Denis Smirnov led Fargo (USHL) in goals (29) and points (61).
F Trent Frederic, Wisconsin (#34)
One of two Badgers selected in the first round of the 2016 NHL Draft, Frederic is the latest to come from Wisconsin’s USNTDP and St. Louis pipelines. The 6’2”, 205 lbs Frederic uses his size to impose physical play on both ends of the ice. He has a nose for the net and adds another offensive weapon to first-year head coach Tony Granato’s growing arsenal. Best of all for the Badgers is that Frederic should be around for several seasons as he is considered to be more of a long-term project by Boston, who selected him 29th overall.
Also: JD Greenway is a 6’5”, 210 lbs mobile defenseman who really broke through at the World U-18 Championships.
Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation mostly covering both the University of Minnesota and Big Ten. You can also follow him on Twitter -- Follow @gopherstate