In 2013-14, the Ohio State men's hockey team made a run all the way to overtime of the Big Ten tournament championship game. Christian Frey was putting up unreal numbers. Ryan Dzingel and Max McCormick were about to take the team to heights it'd rarely seen. But then Wisconsin scored in overtime. Then Dzingel and McCormick left for the Ottawa Senators. The 2014-15 edition looked to reach those same heights but go where the previous iteration couldn't. They tried but couldn't.
Tanner Fritz couldn't fill the stats sheets left empty by Dzingel and McCormick. Anthony Greco stepped up and led the team with 15 goals, but could only register 23 total points in his junior season even on a line with Fritz. So how did the Buckeyes make Minnesota sweat in the conference tournament and look stronger as the season went on before falling short in the Big Ten tournament?
The answers are the freshmen and the resurgence and return of Christian Frey.
Matt Weis, a relatively unheralded freshman, came in and finished tied for third on the team in points with 22. Christian Lampasso, a walk on, registered 14 points despite his smaller stature and early season inability to stay on the puck. Luke Stork added 10 points. Nick Jones played stronger than his six points indicate and the freshmen on the backend ,Victor Bjorkung and Janik Moser, weren't liabilities on a veteran blueline.
And Frey turned back from 2014-15 Christian Frey into Superman Big Ten tournament savior Christian Frey. He didn't have a save percentage challenging for the nation lead as he did in 2014 nor did he come anywhere close to Michigan State's Jake Hildebrand in terms of overall season performance, but after a tough start (60 save game versus Miami aside), he ended the season with a .909 save percentage, .033 higher than his challenger, Matt Tomkins.
If the freshmen and Frey can continue to grow and improve while becoming more consistent, there's hope yet for the Buckeyes to finish above fourth in the Big Ten this season. Few impactful seniors left. Captain Tanner Fritz graduated and graduating the team also were defensemen Justin DaSilva, Clark Cristofoli and Al McLean along with forwards Darik Angeli, Matt Johnson, Chad Niddery and Nick Oddo. Sam Jardine had one year of eligibility left but opted to forego his senior season to sign with the Chicago Blackhawks, the team that drafted him in 2011.
Fritz, the leading scorer, is a big loss, as was the core of the blueline, but with a more highly regarded recruiting class coming in, those holes could easily be filled.
Three members of this Ohio State recruiting class were members of the 2014 NHL Draft class. Tyler Nanne (drafted by the New York Rangers), Dakota Joshua (drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs) and Miguel Fidler (drafted by the Florida Panthers) headline the incoming class.
Nanne comes from Minnesota hockey royalty, with his grandfather being one Lou Nanne, and will come in with that pressure and level of expectation on his back. He had his first full season in the USHL last season after playing for Edina High until 2013-14 and put up 16 points in 43 games. He improved throughout the season, as he registered 13 points in 29 games for Madison after only putting up 3 points in 14 games for Sioux Falls.
Joshua looks like the one with the best chance to help the Buckeyes right away. Standing at 6'2 and 185, with 82 points combined over his last two seasons' 107 games in the USHL, Joshua looks like he could step right in and potentially fill Fritz's spot next to Anthony Greco.
Fidler, after playing for Edina High of the USHS until 2013-14, split last season in the USHL between the Lincoln Stars and Madison Capitols, combining for 7 goals and 27 points in 61 games. Far from a huge season, Fidler has to hope he can rediscover his scoring touch that got him drafted in the first place.
Joining those three more heralded recruits will be 7 more newly minted Buckeyes: Freddy Gerard, Mason Jobst, Sasha Larocque, Tommy Parran, Brendon Kearney, Mike Gillespie and John Wiitala.
It's no secret that Greco and Nick Schilkey are going to be the leaders both on the team as co-captains (along with defenseman Craig Dalrymple) and as the offensive engine. Greco led the team in goals last year with 15 playing next to Fritz and still only shot at 9.6%. If that reverts to something more normal, he could easily score more goals provided he keeps his shot rate similar. Schilkey is the offensive star in the making, however. He's the more well rounded of the two, putting up 10 goals and 12 assists while only shooting 10.5%. If he plays with Greco, both of those totals could easily shoot up as he'll have an improved winger who will give him more space to operate and shoot himself.
Christian Lampasso is my forward to watch for the upcoming season. Coming in as just a walk on last year, he looked weak on the puck to start the season, but gradually improved to the point of becoming one of the team's best forwards by the postseason. He only shot 4.8% last season, so that should at least double and give him 4 goals. If it triples, which is possible but unlikely, he could be pushing 20 points this season.
David Gust was the hero of the conference tournament for the Buckeyes. He came out of nowhere after only playing in 25 games total and scoring 8 points while shooting 6.2%. But in the tournament, he was the Bucks' best forward by far and was flying all over the ice, making play after play. If he can keep that up with top 6 minutes, we're talking NHL level play here.
Craig Dalrymple is the stalwart back there with so many old faces moving onto greener pastures. He's the third co-captain and the lone senior on the backend. Drew Brevig returns as well, despite his poor performances getting him benched at the end of last season. Josh Healey is the third returnee and looks to continue his solid if unspectacular play.
After them it gets dicey. Moser and Bjorkung only played in 40 games combined last season and couldn't stay in the lineup consistently despite the failings of Brevig and lack of offensive punch from the blueline. Nanne looks like he could be the offensive answer, but you never really know until you put him out on the ice. Larocque is over 200 pounds already, so he could fill Jardine and DaSilva's physical presence, while Parran, billed at 5'11, will have to contribute offensively to stay in the lineup.
Anyone who read my game recaps last season knows where I stand on the perceived battle between Christian Frey and Matt Tomkins. Frey has consistently put up better save percentages and eventually completely wrestled away the starting job two seasons in a row. Tomkins has the pedigree as a draftee but only put up a comically low .876 save percentage last season. That'll get you to Wisconsin two conference win levels of awful.
Frey's almost taken this team to a conference championship. Matt Tomkins has been mediocre at best. Frey has shown he can be one of the better goalies in the country at his absolute peak. Matt Tomkins has shown you the bottom. Please play Frey, Coach Rohlik. For all of our sakes.
I can't in good faith pick anything more than finishing fourth in the conference and losing to either Michigan or Minnesota in the final four of the conference tournament. If Jake Hildebrand comes back down to earth and Penn State reverts to what they reasonably should've been, there's a chance for third. But it's not too likely.