College hockey preview: Top NHL prospects, Frozen Four picks and more

Dakota Joshua and the Ohio State Buckeyes are primed for another Frozen Four run. Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It's pretty tough to beat early October in the hockey world, though it gets even better this weekend as most men's college hockey teams will be starting their seasons. The official opening of the 2018-19 men's season was last weekend, with multiple exhibition games and nine nonconference matchups, highlighted by defending national champion Minnesota Duluth raising its banner as part of an early weekend series with rival Minnesota. But this coming weekend features the first loaded slate of the season.

It has been an interesting five years in college hockey filled with expansion, realignment and reshaping of traditions, but there have been a few constants in unrivaled parity, unpredictability and a steady flow of elite NHL prospects performing at a high level around the country. This season could be especially star-studded, with 13 first-round NHL draft picks dotting rosters across the country. According to College Hockey Inc., a record 15 All-Americans are returning to their respective teams for 2018-19.

Here's a look at some of the top teams to watch, our way-too-early Frozen Four picks and the best NHL prospects to track throughout the season.

Note: Rankings are from the USCHO's October 8 poll.

Teams to watch

No. 3 Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs

The defending national champs are in the driver's seat with starting goaltender Hunter Shepard and six defensemen from last year's squad all returning. The Bulldogs were supposed to be rebuilding last season, but decided to go win the thing with a relatively inexperienced blue line. Winnipeg Jets prospect Dylan Samberg and recent St. Louis Blues draftee Scott Perunovich, the nation's Rookie of the Year last season, are the anchors on the back end. They can log big minutes, and while Samberg is one of the better defenders, Perunovich is offensively dynamic.

UMD has some key offense pieces to replace with Karson Kuhlman and Joey Anderson gone, but it should expect big things out of junior winger and Dallas Stars first-round pick Riley Tufte who took a big step forward last season. Philadelphia Flyers prospect and incoming freshman Noah Cates, along with brother Jackson, might also add secondary scoring for Scott Sandelin's squad.

No. 1 Ohio State Buckeyes

The Buckeyes are coming off an incredible season that saw them reach the Frozen Four for just the second time in school history. They're returning almost their entire core from last season with the exception of Matthew Weis who graduated in the spring. Flyers prospect Tanner Laczynski was one of college hockey's best players last season and could be even better this year as a gifted two-way center. College free agent candidate Mason Jobst brings a dynamic element to the lineup as the team's leading goal scorer in 2017-18, and Toronto Maple Leafs draftee Dakota Joshua provides secondary scoring and size. Those three have the potential to be dominant players in the Big Ten.

Ohio State is a team that can play within its structure remarkably well, making it tough on opposing teams to get to the net. And even when they do, goalie Sean Romeo has been more than equal to the task. He had a .927 save percentage last season. That experience of getting to the national semifinal should only help the Buckeyes take the necessary steps forward this season.

No. 4 Providence Friars

Featuring one of the better recruiting classes in the country, Providence might have already adequately replaced key losses from last season like Brian Pinho and Erik Foley, who each signed NHL deals. First-round pick Jay O'Brien (Flyers) headlines the class that also includes NHL draft picks Jack Dugan (Vegas Golden Knights) and Michael Callahan (Arizona Coyotes). That adds to a solid core of returning players led by senior goaltender Hayden Hawkey who has played almost every minute for the Friars over the previous two seasons.

With a veteran blue line anchored by junior Jacob Bryson (Buffalo Sabres) and senior Vincent Desharnais (Edmonton Oilers), Providence is going to be a tough team to score against. And coach Nate Leaman very well could be the next NCAA bench boss to attract significant NHL interest. This is a talented team top to bottom.

No. 9 Michigan Wolverines

Comparing the way the Wolverines started last season to where they finished was night and day. Making it all the way to the Frozen Four before a last-second goal by Notre Dame sent them home was not the result you would have seen coming if you saw the team in mid-November. First-year head coach Mel Pearson got things turned around with the help of a motivated freshman standout in Quinn Hughes, much better goaltending from Hayden Lavigne and a dominant top line.

Michigan might not be as good as it was last year, especially after losing that top line and standout Cooper Marody. There's going to be a much larger focus on sophomore center Josh Norris, who was part of Ottawa's return in the Erik Karlsson trade, and highly skilled junior forward Will Lockwood (Vancouver Canucks), who missed much of his first two collegiate seasons with injuries. There is a huge expectation on Hughes to be a major producer, especially since he finished last season so strongly and ended up being selected seventh overall by the Canucks in June.

No. 14 Princeton Tigers

The Tigers will come into the season with higher expectations having won the ECAC playoff title and securing their first NCAA tournament berth since 2008. They had the second-most productive offense in the country and set a school record with 131 goals.

That offense was led primarily by Max Veronneau and Ryan Kuffner, two undrafted UFAs who will have scouts watching closely. They could also both be in the hunt for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award. Veronneau finished second in the nation with 55 points last season, while Kuffner finished second in the NCAA with 29 goals. The Tigers will also be returning senior captain and left-shot defenseman Josh Teves, who also should draw significant NHL interest in the spring. Teves had 33 points in 31 games last season.

So can Princeton make another run this year? They certainly have the offensive weapons to give it a shot.

Top NHL prospects returning to NCAA

Quinn Hughes, So., D, Michigan
Vancouver Canucks

Selected seventh overall in 2018, Hughes opted to return to school for what he has termed as "unfinished business." An extra year of development and a chance to get Michigan back to the Frozen Four brought the talented offensive defenseman back to Ann Arbor, and the team is much better for it. The Wolverines are losing some of their top offensive producers from a season ago, but Hughes showed late in the season that he can flat out dominate at the NCAA level. Expect more points and more highlights from Hughes in his second season after a summer of training.

Cale Makar, So., D, UMass
Colorado Avalanche

Makar made a pretty mature decision to return to UMass for an additional season even though he came to the Minutemen as the No. 4 overall pick from the 2017 NHL draft. The Avalanche are eagerly awaiting the super-skilled defenseman's arrival, possibly as early as this spring, but he needed the extra time to hone his game and continue building strength. Makar had a solid season, with 21 points in 34 games, but there should be higher expectations as a sophomore. UMass is starting to gain some momentum as a program, and a big season from Makar would provide a vital push to keep the Minutemen competitive.

Adam Fox, Jr., D, Harvard
Carolina Hurricanes

Fox was far more than a throw-in in the trade that also sent Dougie Hamilton to Carolina. The Canes have an embarrassment of riches on the blue line, which means they can let Fox stick at Harvard for two more years if he so chooses and see where things are after that. Harvard surely would like to hold on to him as long as it can. With 69 points in 65 games over his first two collegiate seasons, Fox has shown tremendous progress from when he was a third-round Calgary Flames pick in 2016. He's going to have fewer offensive weapons to get the puck to this season, especially with the departure of Ryan Donato, but Fox should be relied on pretty heavily by the Crimson all season and is an extremely fun player to watch.

Ryan Poehling, Jr., C, St. Cloud State
Montreal Canadiens

Before the Habs drafted Jesperi Kotkaniemi in June and traded for Nick Suzuki in the Max Pacioretty deal, Poehling was the extent of Montreal's future at center. Now the Canadiens have a really strong trio of youngsters who can play down the middle. Poehling is a solid two-way pivot with excellent distribution skills. He became a much bigger part of St. Cloud's offensive attack last season and should be the focal point of it this year.

Dante Fabbro, Jr., D, Boston University
Nashville Predators

Despite key losses, the Terriers remain one of the NCAA's most loaded teams when it comes to high-profile NHL prospects. Fabbro is one of four first-round draft picks on BU's roster, so he'll be the stand-in for all of them here as the upperclassman of the group. He's also the team's captain this season after opting to return to school despite some temptation to turn pro. The Preds have a knack for drafting defensemen, and Fabbro looks like another quality prospect. He's not flashy, but has excellent hockey sense and can make plays at both ends of the ice. He had 29 points last season and should be poised for a more explosive campaign, which could be his last in the college ranks.

Incoming freshmen to watch

Oliver Wahlstrom, RW, Boston College
New York Islanders

The No. 11 pick in the 2018 draft, Wahlstrom should provide a major shot in the arm for the Eagles. A natural scorer with a stunning release, Wahlstrom can score from just about anywhere. He had 48 goals and 94 points in 62 games with the U.S. National Under-18 team last season, so there's little doubt he'll be an instant impact player for BC.

Joel Farabee, LW, Boston University
Philadelphia Flyers

After losing their head coach and key players Brady Tkachuk and Jordan Greenway from last year's team, the Terriers are simply reloading with their newest recruiting class. The blue-chipper is Farabee, who was selected 14th overall by Philadelphia in 2018. He can do it all with good offensive skills, speed and a tremendous motor. Farabee's desire to go to the hard areas combined with his high-end hockey sense makes him a force in all zones. He had 73 points in 62 games last year with the U.S. National Under-18 team.

Jacob Bernard-Docker, D, North Dakota
Ottawa Senators

North Dakota did not reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002 last season and loses Christian Wolanin and Shane Gersich to the NHL. Bernard-Docker comes in with an opportunity to play a high-profile role immediately. He had 20 goals from the blue line in the AJHL last season and plays a mature, steady game. The Fighting Hawks will need scoring support from their blue line. Bernard-Docker and fellow freshman Jonny Tychonick, also a Senators prospect, will be key in that regard.

Ruslan Iskhakov, RW, UConn
New York Islanders

One of the more intriguing freshman additions in the country is Iskhakov, a surprise commit late last spring. It is extremely rare for a Russian to make the leap directly from Russia's top junior league, the KHL-affiliated MHL, to college hockey, especially one who is a relatively high-profile prospect. UConn has been friendly to import players with six Europeans on the roster this season. The Russian stands at just 5-foot-7 but darts around the ice with dynamic elements in his game. He had 30 points in just 33 games for Krasnaya Armiya Moskva. His 0.91 points per game was the second-best scoring rate among U18 players in the league.

Jack Dugan, LW, Providence
Vegas Golden Knights

Dugan was one of the better players I saw in the USHL last season, showing good skills and hockey sense with a great motor and a bit of a mean streak. He produced 1.22 points per game, which was second best among USHL regulars. He was a fifth-round choice by the Golden Knights in their first draft.

Sampo Ranta, LW, Minnesota
Colorado Avalanche

The speedy Finn was slated to go to Wisconsin after last season, but a reported admissions hang-up forced Ranta to change plans. Unfortunately for the Badgers, it was into the waiting arms of their biggest rival. In his first two collegiate games last weekend, Ranta scored in each contest. He was a standout performer in the USHL last season with 23 goals and is a good candidate to make Finland's team for the World Junior Championships in December. Ranta should fit right into new Minnesota coach Bob Motzko's up-tempo style of play.

Hobey Baker watch

Max Veronneau, Sr., C/W Princeton

Veronneau has matured into one of the nation's best setup men, with high-end vision and solid offensive sense. Another campaign like his breakout 55-point junior season all but guarantees Veronneau further NHL interest and a shot at college hockey's top individual prize.

Ryan Kuffner, Sr., LW, Princeton

It can be tough for teammates to compete for the Hobey, but both Dylan Sikura and eventual winner Adam Gaudette both made a good run at it last season. Kuffner finished just one goal behind Gaudette for the national lead last season with 29.

Cale Morris, Jr., G, Notre Dame

Last year's Goalie of the Year seemingly came out of nowhere having barely played as a freshman the season before. Morris was dominant with a .944 save percentage, 1.94 goals-against average and 27-8-1 record. He took Notre Dame all the way to the national final, but the Irish fell just short. With that added year of experience and the confidence of such a dominant run, Morris would at least have a chance to be the first goalie to capture the Hobey since Ryan Miller in 2001.

Tanner Laczynski, Jr., C, Ohio State
Philadelphia Flyers

One of the most complete players in the college game, Laczynski put up 47 points in 41 games last season as a sophomore and should be leaned on even more heavily this season by Ohio State. This could be a special year in Columbus, and Laczynski will be leading the way.

Jimmy Schuldt, Sr., D, St. Cloud State

One of the top returning offensive defensemen in the country, Schuldt is a key piece for another solid St. Cloud squad. The All-American had 38 points in 40 games for the Huskies last season. Having lost defenseman Will Borgen to the pros, Schuldt's importance to St. Cloud's blue line only increases. Schuldt certainly had suitors last season among NHL teams, but he opted to return to school for one more year -- that won't go unnoticed by the Hobey committee.