If you look at the NHL’s rookie scoring leaders right now, you’ll notice it has a very distinct NCAA flavor to it. Five of the top 10 rookie scorers are alumni of top men’s Division I programs, with three of them gracing collegiate ice just last season. Expanding it to the top 15 scorers and you’ve got seven former college players, with five of them playing in college last season.
The player commanding much of the attention right now, however, is former University of North Dakota standout and Vancouver Canucks scoring sensation Brock Boeser. Leading all rookies with 22 goals, Boeser was recently named to the Pacific Division roster for the 2018 NHL All-Star Game hosted by the Tampa Bay Lightning. He’s also getting heavy Calder Trophy consideration.
Before lighting the lamp in the NHL, he put up 94 points in 74 games for the Fighting Hawks. As a freshman, he was part of North Dakota’s dreaded CBS Line with Drake Caggiula and Nick Schmaltz, both in the NHL now with the Edmonton Oilers and Chicago Blackhawks, respectively. He was one of the top freshmen in all of college hockey, putting up 60 points in 42 games as North Dakota won the National Championship. Boeser had a goal and three assists in the final.
In his sophomore season, Boeser dealt with injuries, including one that cost him a return trip to the World Junior Championship where Team USA earned a gold medal. He still managed to put up 34 points, but his goal scoring dipped to 16 goals. While the talent was still evident, it would have been especially hard to predict just how quickly the Burnsville, Minn., native would be able to make an impact for a struggling Vancouver team.
Turns out, it didn’t take much time at all. Boeser signed his first NHL contract with the Canucks after North Dakota dropped a heartbreaker to Boston University. The very next day, he was in Vancouver’s lineup playing in his home state against the Minnesota Wild. Boeser’s parents, Duke and Laurie, were brought into the Canucks’ dressing room to read the starting lineup to the team. To cap off that emotional moment, Boeser scored his first NHL goal in the game. He scored three more over the course of the nine games he played to finish out the season.
Now in his first year as a full-timer, Boeser has been rolling with 22 goals in just 42 games, putting him on pace to finish with 41. It is incredibly rare for a rookie to score 40 goals in a season. In fact, only two rookies have done it in the last 20 years – Alex Ovechkin and Auston Matthews. This season has been special so far for the 20-year-old.
Boeser is currently leading the Canucks in scoring by eight points and has nine more goals than his next closest teammate – University of Minnesota alum Thomas Vanek. Even though his team almost certainly won’t make the playoffs this year, Boeser has given Canucks fans everywhere some hope for the future. He could end up as the centerpiece as the club faces a rebuilding phase with future Hall of Famers Daniel and Henrik Sedin nearing the completion of their careers.
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As noted, Boeser is not alone among former NCAA stars ripping it up in their first season. Clayton Keller, whose Boston University Terriers ousted Boeser’s Fighting Hawks in last year’s national tournament, had a tremendous start to the year for the Arizona Coyotes. He is third among rookies with 34 points so far. Right after Keller is Boston Bruins winger and former Denver Pioneer Danton Heinen, who did not start the season in the NHL, but has been highly productive since being called up from the American Hockey League. He is fourth among rookies with 31 points, but has appeared in 38 games while most other top rookie scorers have played anywhere from 42 to 46 games already.
Bruins notebook:— Boston Globe Sports (@BGlobeSports) January 7, 2018
Danton Heinen has been the team’s most consistent offensive producer the last six weeks.
Tuukka Rask has not lost a game in regulation for some five weeks.
Ryan Spooner is ailing.https://t.co/ijWNC8W0At
Rounding out the recent NCAA alumni in the top 10 of rookie scoring is Harvard graduate Alexander Kerfoot of the Colorado Avalanche, who ranks sixth among first-year players with 30 points, and former Hobey Baker finalist and University of Michigan freshman scoring star Kyle Connor, who is eighth with 28 points in 40 games for the Winnipeg Jets.
That’s a whole bunch of forwards, but there are also a couple of defensemen that are making massive impacts for their teams.
Last year’s Hobey Baker winner Will Butcher picked a good landing spot, having signed with the New Jersey Devils following his remarkable senior season that ended with him captaining Denver to the national title. He is tied for first among rookie defensemen with 26 points in 43 games, and has been one of a few new players to help the Devils turn their fortunes around far earlier than anyone expected.
However, the rookie defenseman generating the most buzz has to be Bruins blueliner Charlie McAvoy. He’s getting significant Calder Trophy consideration along with Boeser due to how quickly he’s been able to bolster the team’s defensive group.
Averaging nearly 23 minutes a game, no rookie comes close to the usage McAvoy has been tasked with in his first season. He’s been very important to the team’s ability to defend, but he’s also chipping in offensively. He’s third among rookie defensemen with 24 points in 42 games. If he keeps this up, there’s little doubt he’ll be among the three finalists for the Calder Trophy, making for a compelling race to the finish.
NCAA Alumni in the All-Star Game
The NHL All-Star Weekend is set for Jan. 27 and 28 in Tampa, Fla. Seven former NCAA players will be involved in the game, which features three 3-on-3 games in a tournament format.
Five of the selections will be appearing in their first All-Star game including Jack Eichel (Boston University), Noah Hanifin (Boston College), Blake Wheeler (Minnesota), Connor Hellebuyck (UMass-Lowell) and Brock Boeser (North Dakota). Meanwhile, Jonathan Quick will be participating in his third All-Star Game, while Johnny Gaudreau (Boston College) will be playing in his fourth All-Star Game in his fourth full NHL season.
McPhee’s Golden Knights
The best story in the NHL this season has been the expansion Vegas Golden Knights. They’re definitely off to the best start by any expansion team in NHL history, but it’s getting to the point now where the case could be made for the Golden Knights being the best expansion team in the history of pro sports.
The architect of this incredible team is 1982 Hobey Baker Award winner and Golden Knights general manager George McPhee. The former Bowling Green State Falcon had an incredible four-year career, registering 267 points in 153 NCAA games. While his NHL career as a player didn’t quite go as he’d hoped, McPhee has had a pretty strong career as an executive.
McPhee has been in the front office every season but one since 1992-93, including a 17-year run as the GM of the Washington Capitals. However, having had to build a team from scratch, primarily through an expansion draft and trades, this season could end up being McPhee’s crowning achievement. Nobody, and I mean nobody, saw this coming.
The Golden Knights have a 29-11-3 record as of Jan. 16, which gives them a seven-point lead in the Pacific Division and the second best record in the NHL overall. Barring a massive collapse, they’re going to make the playoffs in Year 1. Just stunning stuff.