Putting Calgary Flames prospect Aydar Suniev’s freshman year into context

Photo credit:courtesy Penticton Vees
Ryan Pike
27 days ago
On Friday, the University of Massachusetts were eliminated from the Hockey East conference playoff tournament by the powerhouse Boston College squad. Now, UMass may qualify for the NCAA’s national championship tournament as an at-large team, but as we wait to learn their fate it’s a good time to evaluate the freshman season of Calgary Flames prospect Aydar Suniev.
Suniev was the Flames’ third-round selection in the 2023 NHL Draft, selected with the pick the club acquired from New Jersey in the Tyler Toffoli trade. Oddly enough, the pick the Flames acquired was originally their own, moving to Seattle and Columbus before the Devils.
Originally from Kazan, Russia, Suniev moved to North America in 2019 – prior to his 15th birthday – to play prep school hockey. He was a big piece of a powerhouse Penticton Vees team in his draft year, posting 45 goals and 90 points in 50 games. In 35 games as a freshman with UMass, Suniev had 12 goals and 25 points.
Let’s put Suniev’s performance into context, comparing him with other recent Flames draft choices that played in college as “true freshmen,” meaning they were 18 when their freshman season began.
Matt Coronato2021-22Harvard3418361.059
Emilio Pettersen2018-19Denver404300.750
Aydar Suniev2023-24UMass3512250.714
Demetrios Koumontzis2018-19Arizona State354200.571
Josh Nodler2019-20Michigan State36380.222
Coronato entered his freshman season as a player who was well-attuned to the college style of game from his time with the USHL’s Chicago Steel. As a result, he was pretty ready to jump into offensive situations as part of a really deep Harvard team with national championship aspirations.
Despite being less experienced in elite-level North American hockey than Coronato was at the same age, Suniev also performed quite well offensively. Following the conference playoffs, Suniev was tied for the UMass team lead in goals and was tied for fourth in points. The players with more points than Suniev were all older: 2003-born freshman forward Jack Musa, 2003-born junior blueliner Ryan Ufko and 2002-born junior blueliner Scott Morrow.
Over at Postmedia, Wes Gilbertson wrote a great feature on Suniev back in February. Among the quotes from UMass head coach Greg Carvel, this one popped out:
“It’s just that he’s never really had to check before, and it takes a while to learn how to do that. But the size and willingness and the ability to read the game, that’s what it takes, and he’s got all that. He needs repetition. He needs games. He just needs time. He’s where he should be on his development path.”
There are stylistic differences between junior-A leagues like the BCHL and the NCAA. Heck, there are stylistic differences between different college conferences. Hockey East is considered one of the tougher conferences in college this season, home to three of the top six teams in the national pairwise rankings (Boston College, Boston University and Maine). Given this, it’s natural that Suniev would face a bit of a learning curve during his first college season, and his movement up the UMass line chart – from being sheltered on the third line to being a top-six fixture – is a sign of his progression as a go-to guy for the Minutemen.
If Suniev’s season is indeed over, his offensive performance and overall progression in his game have to be seen as positives. Outside of a few elite players every year, few college prospects are one-and-down and it seems likely that Suniev will spent a few seasons in the NCAA before he’s ready to go pro. His performance during the 2023-24 campaign has to be seen as a really promising first step in his journey towards the NHL.
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