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10 Freshmen to Watch in the NCHC

A look at the top newcomers in the NCHC this year.

North Dakota's Nick Schmaltz should be one of the NCHC's top freshmen this year.
North Dakota's Nick Schmaltz should be one of the NCHC's top freshmen this year.
Bruce Bennett

A new college hockey season means an influx of new talent. That's especially the case in the NCHC this year. Here is a look at ten newcomers that should make an instant impact in the league this year.

1. Nick Schmaltz, Forward, North Dakota

Schmaltz joins his older brother Jordan as the only two players in the NCHC this year that were selected in the first round of the NHL Draft. Schmaltz possesses elite puckhandling abilities and has the scoring prowess to be a major factor in North Dakota's offense from day one. Schmaltz sometimes has the tendency to play with some laziness, but he brings the type of high-end skill that is missing from North Dakota's line-up.

2. Jake Randolph, Forward, Nebraska-Omaha

Randolph showed promise coming out Duluth East High School two years ago, and had a decent rookie campaign in the USHL. But last season, Randolph exploded by leading the league in scoring with 86 points. Nebraska-Omaha is replacing a big outgoing class of forwards and their newcomers, led by Randolph, will get ample opportunity to show off their skills. Randolph is a smart player in the offensive zone with excellent vision and hockey sense, which makes him an elite passer.

3. Louie Belpedio, Defenseman, Miami

Belpedio was a key piece of last year's NTDP U18 team. The smaller defenseman is a very fast skater and his poise and passing ability makes him a prime candidate to handle quarterbacking the power play. Miami has built a strong program out of smaller, faster players, and the blue line could be an area of weakness this year. Belpedio should be able to step in right away and be an effective player.

4. Tucker Poolman, Defenseman, North Dakota

Last year, Paul LaDue came to North Dakota as a 21-year-old freshman, and the extra years of junior hockey allowed him to be an impact player as a freshman. This year, Tucker Poolman looks poised to do the same thing. Like LaDue, Poolman has worked his way up from the NAHL to the USHL to North Dakota, and his maturity and experience should make him a reliable defender right from the outset in Grand Forks.

5. Aidan Muir, Forward, Western Michigan

Muir is an ideal fit for the style of hockey that Western Michigan head coach Andy Murray wants his team to play. There is very little flash in his game, but the big-bodied forward is excellent at grinding along the boards and in front of the opposition's net. His motor is always running and he plays what is described as a very heavy brand of hockey. Even if he doesn't put up huge offensive numbers, he'll still make his impact felt on the game.

6. Kasimir Kaskisuo, Goalie, Minnesota-Duluth

We already talked about how important Kaskisuo could be for Minnesota-Duluth earlier this summer. Goalies can be notoriously tough to project at the college level, but Kaskisuo has an impressive pedigree after he was dominant in the NAHL--a league that has produced many excellent NCAA goalies--and should get every opportunity to be the man in nets for the Bulldogs. If he can continue his excellent play from last season, he could be one of the top goalies in the league.

7. Danton Heinen, Forward, Denver

Heinen was completely overlooked in his first time through the NHL Draft two years ago because he was a scrawny kid playing in a Jr. B league. But Heinen moved up to the BCHL last season and tore through the league, earning rookie of the year honors and becoming a fourth round draft pick of the Boston Bruins. Heinen still isn't very big--Denver only lists him at 161 lbs.--and at one point, he was expected to play another year of junior hockey before joining the Pioneers. But with his smooth offensive skill and high upside, it was decided that Heinen was ready for college hockey this year. It may take Heinen some time to acclimate to the physicality of college hockey, but he'll give the Pioneers another pure scoring threat in their line-up.

8. Tyler Vesel, Forward, Nebraska-Omaha

Vesel was a bit overlooked on some talented Shattuck-St. Mary's teams, but last season, he partnered with Jake Randolph in Omaha(USHL) to form a dominating one-two scoring punch for the Lancers. Randolph is more of a set-up man while Vesel is more of a finisher. He makes up for his smaller stature with quick skating, and given all the ice time available at UNO this year, he should be an immediate contributor on the power play.

9. Mika Ilvonen, Defenseman, St. Cloud

Players coming over to the United States from Europe can be a bit hit-or-miss. Nobody knows that better than St. Cloud, who was seen both the good--Kalle Kossila two years ago--and the bad--Niklas Nevalainen, who really struggled as a freshman last season--in recent history. But Ilvonen comes over from Finland with a pedigree that is hard not to be excited about. The small, puck-moving defenseman scored a point per game from the blue line in Finland's top U20 league last year, and looks like he'll be playing for defending champion Finland at the World Juniors this winter. Depth on the blue line might be a concern for St. Cloud this year, but steady production from Ilvonen coud go a long ways in helping that.

10. Karson Kuhlman, Forward, Minnesota-Duluth

Kuhlman is a hometown kid that will bring great versatility to the UMD lineup. He might not be a huge scorer, but is a smart player that plays both ends of the ice well, and should provide solid depth in a second or third line role this year before taking on more responsibility in the future.