It’s safe to say that no team in men’s college hockey this year has exceeded preseason expectations as much as Ohio State.
The Buckeyes came into the 2021-2022 season picked to finish dead last in the Big Ten preseason coaches poll. It was probably a fair given projection, given that the Buckeyes suffered through an ugly 2020-2021 season that ended with a 7-19-1 overall record and a sixth place finish in the Big Ten standings. On top of that, the team lost veteran goalie Tommy Nappier, a former Big Ten goalie of the year winner, and the team’s top NHL draft pick in defenseman Layton Ahac, who signed a pro contract with Vegas.
But as of today, Ohio State is 21-7-2 on the season, and sitting at 11th in the Pairwise Rankings, which gives them a strong likelihood of making the NCAA Tournament. They currently lead the Big Ten in total points, though sit just behind Michigan in terms of point percentage. They’ll close out the regular season with a pair of huge league series, hosting Minnesota at home this weekend, and then traveling to Ann Arbor the following weekend for a series that could decide the Big Ten regular season title.
So what has been the key to Ohio State’s incredible turnaround this season? An influx of new talent that has made an impact far greater, and far quicker than I think anyone could have reasonably expected.
As it does for nearly every team in college hockey, success starts with solid defensive play for the Buckeyes. They sit at seventh in the nation in goals allowed per game with 2.10. After returning junior Ryan Snowden started the first game of the season for Ohio State—a 2-1 loss to Bentley—freshman goalie Jakub Dobes was given the starting job and has been outstanding ever since. Dobes has, to this point, exceeded even the best season by Nappier, posting a .938 save percentage, which ranks third nationally.
Dobes was a fifth-round draft pick of the Montreal Canadiens in the 2020 NHL Draft, coming off a season in which he was outstanding for the Topeka Pilots of the NAHL. He had less inspiring numbers last season, despite playing on a fairly decent Omaha team in the USHL. But he has rebounded in a big way this year. Dobes has always had good size for a goalie at 6’4” and nice athleticism for a bigger goalie. But working with Ohio State goalie coach Dustin Carlson, who is on pace for Dobes to be his third Richter Award finalist in five seasons, Dobes has cleaned up some of his positioning to become a more efficient and consistent goalie. It feels like a classic case of an NHL team taking a late-round flyer on a raw, high-upside player, and that player putting it all together and making the jump once he matures. Ohio State is probably thankful the Canadiens grabbed him with that late-round pick because it probably means they’ll get an extra year or two out of him, whereas Dobes would have likely been a highly-coveted free agent this off-season if he had gone undrafted.
The defense has been just one piece of the puzzle for Ohio State, however. The biggest difference from last year is on the offensive end. Last year, the Buckeyes ranked 44th nationally with 1.96 goals per game. This year, they’re sixth nationally, scoring 3.73 goals per game. And it’s the newcomers leading the way. The team’s top four scorers are all new to the team this year.
The top scorer is undrafted Russian freshman Georgii Merkulov. Merkulov leads the Buckeyes with 18 goals on the season, which is the most in the nation by a freshman, and tied for fifth overall, one goal behind four other players. But the remarkable thing about Merkulov is that his 18 goals have come in just 45 shots on goal, for an astounding 40% shooting percentage. In the nine years that College Hockey Inc kept track of stats from 2013-2021, Arizona State’s Willie Knierim was the only player to hit 30% for a full season, scoring 15 goals on 50 shots in 2020.
Sky-high shooting percentages tend to be a bit of a red flag in the scouting/analytics community. And there is no way any player, no matter how good is going to continue to score on two out of every five shots on goal forever. Merkulov was never really considered a big goal scorer prior to this year. He scored 20 goals in 74 career USHL games, which isn’t bad, but not particularly notable for an older player in the league.
However, looking at some of the goals Merkulov has scored this season, there aren’t a lot of cheap ones in there. Only three of the 18 have come via the power play as well, meaning 15 were scored at even strength. He’s got a very good stick and a nice release on his shot. And I don’t think you can get to 18 goals in an NCAA season by accident. If anything, the low shot totals might point to the fact that Merkulov has been a little too picky in trying to get the puck on the net, and if he starts shooting more, his shooting percentage might go down, but his goal rate wouldn’t.
Helping Merkulov is the fact that he has some tremendous playmakers surrounding him. Freshman defenseman Mason Lohrei is in the running for top rookie in college hockey this year. Lohrei has a 4-25-29 scoring line, which is best among a deep class of rookie defensemen and third nationally behind Merkulov and Arizona State’s Josh Doan among all freshmen scorers.
Lohrei was a second round pick of the Boston Bruins in the 2020 NHL Draft, although that was considered a bit of a surprise at the time, since many outlets overlooked Lohrei, who was in his second year of draft eligibility, heading into that draft. But again, like Dobes, Lohrei had a huge frame and good athleticism, and after being given time to develop by playing an extra season in the USHL last year, Lohrei has come in as a 20-year-old freshman and been ready from Day 1 to be a top-end college hockey player. His size and athleticism allow him to create space for himself with the puck and he’s got really nice vision and passing ability. He tends to be overshadowed by some of the big names among defensemen in the West, but he has been as solid as any of them so far this season.
The odd one of the bunch is senior Boston University transfer Jake Wise. While the other impact newcomers are all late-blooming freshmen, Wise is almost the opposite. A Massachusetts youth hockey legend, Wise tabbed as a future first round draft pick at 10 years old and the next Jack Eichel at 14. But a combination of the rest of the field beginning to catch up to him and a myriad of upper body injuries slowing him down and keeping him out of the line-up, he left Boston University with just 17 points over 50 games played in three years for the Terriers.
But a change of scenery and better luck with his health has been terrific for Wise. He has been at nearly a point-per-game for the Buckeyes and gives them some legit secondary scoring depth.
Finally, arguably the least-heralded, but equally important of the newcomers is undrafted freshman forward Cam Thiesing. Thiesing is a native of the Nashville area that played Midget AAA hockey in the Chicago area. He didn’t draw a ton of recruiting attention in the more wide-open youth hockey ranks, but was picked up by the Chippewa Steel of the NAHL and absolutely thrived in the more physical, heavy world of junior hockey. The Buckeyes list Thiesing at 6-0 184 lbs., but he’s a player that plays bigger than his listed size. He’s got the combination of speed and willingness to battle for pucks that makes him really effective at creating opportunities for teammates.
In total, this group seems to represent the model for success in the modern era of college hockey: older freshmen that were late-bloomers and battle-tested through the grind of junior hockey. Given their age and experience, it’s perhaps no surprise that they’ve been able to make such an immediate impact.