NCAA DI Men's Hockey

Macklin Celebrini, Will Smith Lead List Of College Hockey's Top 25 Freshmen

Macklin Celebrini, Will Smith Lead List Of College Hockey's Top 25 Freshmen

The 2023-24 season could very well be defined by the incredible quality of the freshman class. Prospect analyst Chris Peters breaks down the top 25.

Oct 3, 2023 by Chris Peters

Each year in men's college hockey, the freshman class is often chock full of high-end future NHL talent. This year will be no different with multiple high-end NHL Draft eligible players, several players who have already been selected in the first round and many more that have been drafted by NHL teams.

Many of them will also make appearances on FloHockey throughout the season.

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To get you ready for the 2023-24 season, I wanted to detail the top 25 incoming players that we should be hearing a lot from in this campaign. The ranking is based on the projected impact the players will have as rookies in college hockey and not necessarily a reflection of their pro potential.

Let’s get to it.

1. Macklin Celebrini, C, Boston University (2024 NHL Draft Eligible)

The projected No. 1 pick for the 2024 NHL Draft, Celebrini made a clean sweep of the USHL’s major awards last year, becoming the first player in the Tier 1 era to claim the league’s Rookie, Forward and Player of the Year Awards. He did so with a league-best 86 points which was the highest total in the league’s history for a player in his U17 season. Celebrini followed that up by tying Canada’s single-tournament scoring record at the IIHF World Men’s Under-18 Championship when he had 15 points in leading Canada to the bronze medal.

After recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, Celebrini is expected to start the season on time with the Terriers. He is likely to be among the featured forwards for the Terriers and despite being the youngest player in college hockey this season, he’s going to be viewed as a legitimate threat to win the Hobey Baker, which has been claimed by just three freshmen previously including Adam Fantilli last year.

Celebrini is a two-way center with higher-end offensive traits including evasive puck skills and a goal-scorer’s shot. He gets to the interior well and can make defenders look silly on the rush. BU has been home to two top-five draft picks as freshmen in the last decade with Jack Eichel and Brady Tkachuk taking steps towards NHL stardom as Terrier freshmen. Look for Celebrini to do the same.

2. Will Smith, C, Boston College (San Jose Sharks)

The No. 4 overall pick in the 2023 NHL Draft, Smith is a dynamic center who produced 127n points at the National Team Development Program last season, good for second most in a single season in the NTDP's history. An elite playmaker with NHL-ready vision, Smith tied Jack Hughes’s U.S. single-tournament scoring record at the 2023 IIHF World Under-18 Championship, posting 20 points on the way to a gold medal and MVP honors.

This year, he’s the centerpiece of the top recruiting class in the country and could help bring the Eagles back to prominence after a few years without an NCAA tournament berth. Smith will be joined by record-breaking NTDP linemates Ryan Leonard and Gabe Perreault, who are both on this list. Should the Eagles keep that trio together, there could be a lot of highlights coming out Chestnut Hill this year.

3. Artyom Levshunov, D, Michigan State (2024 NHL Draft Eligible)

An exceptional rookie defenseman in the USHL last season with the Green Bay Gamblers, Levshunov pulled a bit of a surprise when it was announced he’d committed to Michigan State this summer. A potential top-10 pick in the 2024 NHL Draft, Levshunov has size, smarts, mobility and some serious skill. Assuming he makes the adjustment to college hockey as smoothly as he did the USHL last season, this Belarusian blueliner could make a significant impact right away for the Spartans.

4. Ryan Leonard, RW, Boston College (Washington Capitals)

A goal scorer with edge, Leonard has the physical strength to withstand the grind of college hockey and its older players. Being able to play a hard-nosed style while maintaining his strong offensive abilities is what makes Leonard stand out among his peers and should continue in college hockey. The eighth overall pick in last year's draft put up 51 goals last season including the OT game-winner in USA’s gold-medal clinching victory over Sweden at the 2023 IIHF U18 World Championship.

5. Tom Willander, D, Boston University (Vancouver Canucks)

Swedish players have come through the college hockey ranks in the past, but few with the pre-college pedigree that Willander boasts. Selected 11th overall by the Vancouver Canucks in the 2023 NHL Draft, Willander is a two-way defenseman with elite skating ability and high-end defensive sense. He will likely play big minutes on the BU blue line as he makes his adjustment to college hockey.

Oddly enough, a two-game stint in the Allsvenskan – Sweden’s second-tier professional league – will cost Willander two games of NCAA eligibility as he’ll be suspended equivalent to the number of professional games he appeared in even though he had never signed a professional contract.

6. Gabriel Perreault, LW, Boston College (New York Rangers)

After obliterating the NTDP's single-season scoring record with 132 points last season, besting Auston Matthews’ previous mark by 17 points, the expectations for Perreault to produce at BC are very high. A heady playmaker who plays a more deliberate style than a simple run-and-gun offensive game, Perreault has built-in chemistry with Smith and Leonard. He also has the ability to drive play all on his own and while his passing is exceptional, he scored 53 goals for the NTDP last season.

7. Oliver Moore, C, Minnesota (Chicago Blackhawks)

With Logan Cooley leaving the program late in the summer, the focus on Moore only intensifies. He’s not going to be a true replacement of Cooley as they play different styles and Moore should not be viewed as a candidate to put up similar numbers. That said, Moore may already be the fastest skater in college hockey and can flip games with his speed. On top of that, Moore has a two-way game that allows him to make an impact in all situations. He should see significant minutes as a true freshman as the Gophers look to rekindle some magic from last season despite significant losses off their national runner-up roster.

8. Trey Augustine, G, Michigan State (Detroit Red Wings)

A massive piece for a resurgent Michigan State team, Augustine is expected to get a lot of the starts in net for the Spartans. He is likely to be the No. 1 goalie for Team USA at the World Junior Championship, too. After closing out his year by being USA’s best player in a tight gold-medal game against Sweden, Augustine brings a championship pedigree to the Green and White. He’ll also have an awful lot of fans in Red and White as Augustine was a second-round pick of the nearby Detroit Red Wings who will be keeping close tabs on the netminder with an especially high hockey IQ and polished technique.

9. Bradly Nadeau, C/W, Maine (Carolina Hurricanes)

It’s been a long, long time since Maine had a prospect as exciting as Nadeau. He put up 113 points in the BCHL last year and was selected by the Carolina Hurricanes 30th overall in the NHL Draft. He’s an elite-level shooter with one of the best one-timers from last year’s draft class and he’ll have built in chemistry with older brother Josh, who is also expected to be an impact player for the Black Bears.

10. Jacob Fowler, G, Boston College (Montreal Canadiens)

After one of the best USHL postseason runs by a goaltender, Fowler enters the season with the ability to make an immediate impact as the Eagles’ No. 1 goalie and Augustine’s biggest threat to the No. 1 job for the U.S. National Junior Team. Fowler had a .952 save percentage while going 8-1 in Youngstown’s run to the Clark Cup last year. He was the postseason MVP and the USHL’s Goalie of the Year and now has a chance to join a decorated lineage of Boston College goalies.

11. Maxim Strbak, D, Michigan State (Buffalo Sabres)

Strbak had an up-and-down year in the USHL, but when he donned his national team’s jersey at both the World Juniors and World Under-18 Championship, he was exceptional. Strbak is an adequate puck-mover, but really showcased a vast skillset defensively, especially in those international tournaments for Slovakia. He should be able to play in high-leverage situations quickly for MSU.

12. Jayden Perron, RW, North Dakota (Carolina Hurricanes)

After a decorated USHL career topped off with a 72-point season in 2022-23, Perron could walk into North Dakota’s top six and make it better right off the hop. Perron is a gifted shooter with shifty skill. Some viewed his slide to the third round of the draft a bit surprising, but Perron has often played with a chip on his shoulder with a desire to prove doubters wrong.

13. Eric Pohlkamp, D, Bemidji State (San Jose Sharks)

Pohlkamp had perhaps one of the most remarkable transformations I’ve seen in a one-year span in the USHL. Though under 6-foot, Pohlkamp is sturdy and plays a physical brand of hockey. He also showed last year that he can produce with 51 points – 33 more than he had as a rookie the year before. Pohlkamp is a power-play weapon with a devastating shot from the point and he has a little bit of a mean streak to him, too. The USHL Defenseman of the Year is in line to make the U.S. National Junior Team, which is note especially common among CCHA players.

14. Cole Knuble, C/W, Notre Dame (Philadelphia Flyers)

After another strong season in the USHL, Knuble should arrive to South Bend poised to make a very quick impact. He plays a gritty two-way game, has an unrelenting motor and I’ve often thought his hands are especially underrated. After averaging nearly a point per game in his USHL career, he should be an offensive linchpin for the Irish.

15. Ryan Walsh, C/W, Cornell (Boston Bruins)

The second-leading scorer in the USHL last season with 79 points in 61 games for the the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders, Walsh brings a much-needed dose of production to the Big Red. He also can play the gritty style Cornell thrives with, which should endear him to the veteran coaching staff quickly and allow him to play a significant role early on.

16. Michael Hrabal, G, UMass (Arizona Coyotes)

The initial plan was for Hrabal to spend one more year in the USHL, but plans changed and now he’ll likely be in a platoon role with New Jersey Devils prospect Cole Brady. The 6-foot-6 second-round pick can be a real difference-maker when he’s on his game and will likely be reporting to Team Czechia for the World Juniors around the holidays.

17. Sam Rinzel, D, Minnesota (Chicago Blackhawks)

Patience has been the key with Rinzel after the Blackhawks took him in the first round of the 2022 NHL Draft. After an extra year of seasoning in the USHL, he’ll be tasked with helping plug some holes left by NHL departures off of last year’s Minnesota blue line. Rinzel still has a rawness to him, but the tools are there for him to be a key player for the Gophers this year.

18. William Whitelaw, C/W, Wisconsin (Columbus Blue Jackets)

With a skilled, abrasive style of play, Whitelaw is part of an incoming class that brings with it raised expectations for the Badgers. After playing a key role in leading the Youngstown Phantoms to the Clark Cup in the USHL, Whitelaw should be a key contributor early.

19. Danny Nelson, C, Notre Dame (New York Islanders)

At 6-foot-3, 217, Nelson should be able to make a substantial impact on the Irish roster as a gifted two-way player. He can be a force down the middle and provides a little extra scoring pop for Notre Dame.

20. Aydar Suniev, LW, UMass (Calgary Flames)

A fascinating addition to the UMass recruiting class, Suniev has size and legit scoring ability. A Russian import who has spent three of the last four seasons in North America including all of last year with the Penticton Vees, he could be an early difference-maker for the Minutemen. We’ll see how he adjusts to the collegiate pace, but this third-round pick has loads of upside.

21. Josh Nadeau, LW, Maine (Undrafted)

After spending the last two years across the continent with the Penticton Vees, the New Brunswick native will be a little closer to home at Maine. Along with brother Bradly, Josh should be viewed as a legitimate scoring threat. He had 36 points in 17 playoff games, underscoring the impact he can have at the top of his game.

22. Zeev Buium, D, Denver (2024 NHL Draft Eligible)

Denver has had a lot of success with puckmoving defensemen over the years and Buium looks like a good bet to be another one. He put up 35 assists with the U.S. National Under-18 Team including five at the World Under-18 Championship where he helped the Americans win gold.

23. Nick Moldenhauer, C/W, Michigan (Toronto Maple Leafs)

Moldenhauer took his time on his college commitment, but will tread a similar path to Ann Arbor as many recent Chicago Steel greats took. Moldenhauer was healthy last season and it showed as he produced 75 points to be among the USHL's top scorers. Michigan does not have the same level of incoming class compared to the multiple first-rounders they've brought to campus in recent years, but Moldenhauer has potential to be an immediate contributor. 

24. Aiden Fink, RW, Penn State (Nashville Predators)

Playing for the vaunted Brooks Bandits in the AJHL last season, Fink torched the league to the tune of 97 points in 54 games, leading all players. He flipped his commitment to Penn State, giving the program a legit blue-chipper who should fit into their high-event style.

25. Miko Matikka, C/W, Denver (Arizona Coyotes)

An unexpected delay to his college career allowed Matikka to get an extra year of seasoning in the USHL. He responded with 55 points in his first season in North America. The 2022 third-round pick has size and skill that could make him a handful early, even in the NCHC.