By Milton Posner and Christian Skroce
On Wednesday afternoon, the Anaheim Ducks nabbed Sam Colangelo with the 36th pick in the NHL Entry Draft, making him the highest Northeastern selection since Jamie Oleksiak in 2011. He was also the first Hockey East player selected this year and the first college player off the board in the second round.
It was, he says, the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. But Anaheim can wait for now. Colangelo, who grew up about 25 minutes from Matthews Arena, has some local hockey left to play first.
Sam Colangelo’s ties to Northeastern don’t end with his nearby upbringing in Stoneham, MA. They don’t end with his reunion with high school teammate Neil Shea, or with high school and USHL teammate Gunnarwolfe Fontaine, or with summer skating partner Aidan McDonough. The roots run even deeper; he’s skated with Jayden Struble, Jordan Harris, and Riley Hughes since they were all five or six years old.
He had an actual relationship with Northeastern early on, too. It was the first college he visited, back at the age of 14.
“I was still in middle school and I didn’t even know where I was going to high school yet, so it was pretty crazy,” Colangelo told WRBB. “I love being in a city. Obviously Northeastern is a great school as well. So it was kind of a no-brainer for me. I kind of fell in love with the school right away.”
Northeastern Associate Head Coach Jerry Keefe, who spearheads the team’s recruiting, told us the feeling was mutual.
“I’ve known Sam since he was about 11 years old . . . and he was just a little guy back then,” Keefe recalls. “When he was a 14, 15-year-old he started to pop hard. He was always a good skater, but then all of a sudden, the pop in his legs came. He started to become a more powerful skater. He was always really smart, and then he started to play the game faster.”
“Coach Keefe was straightforward with me on what I needed to work on,” Colangelo remembers. “He believed in me from the start and I always trusted him from the start. He’s a great guy and a great offensive style coach, and that’s my game . . . I just thought [the coaches] knew my game better than anyone else.”
Colangelo was also attracted by the experiences of former Huskies — including Adam Gaudette and Dylan Sikura — who the Huskies developed into NHL-quality talents. But there was yet another draw for the local kid: a little hockey tournament in early February, one he attended every year growing up.
“When you’re a young kid and you commit to a Beanpot school, everyone talks about ‘Oh, you’re gonna play in the Beanpot!’” Colangelo says with a grin. “That was when I was 15; I’m almost 19 now, and realizing I’m going to be playing in TD Garden hopefully pretty soon is a cool thing to think about. Going to it every year growing up, I was always dreaming about playing in it.”
After sharing a line with Neil Shea at Lawrence Academy, Colangelo and Gunnarwolfe Fontaine hopped to the Chicago Steel of the USHL. Colangelo tied for third in the league in points and goals, and the team was on pace to break numerous league records en route to a championship. But COVID-19 didn’t care, and the season shut down in mid-March, leaving Colangelo to shift his focus to the NHL draft earlier than he’d anticipated.
“I was able to meet with some teams in person, but I was supposed to go to the NHL combine when you do all the interviews with the GMs and stuff like that, which would have been a cool experience,” he tells us. “I ended up having to do it basically the same way I’m doing this right now: sitting in front of my computer.”
But even if Zoom calls dulled the pre-draft experience, it couldn’t dull the emotion when the moment finally came.
“I’m an only child,” he says. “And [my parents] invested so much in me and I’m excited to see how happy they are. I definitely wouldn’t be here without them.”
Sam Colangelo is one of the most promising players Northeastern has seen in years. Though he’ll likely still be 18 years old when the season kicks off, the 6’2”, 208-pound forward will be one of the strongest players in Hockey East.
“He’s a big, powerful guy with skill,” Keefe observes. “So he’ll end up being a power forward with a great stick that has great vision.” Keefe also noted his goal scoring and all-around offensive game, saying “we’re expecting big things from him right away.”
Colangelo cited his hockey IQ and shot as strengths, and mentioned that he’s worked hard to boost his speed over the last few years. But his biggest strength might be his elite vision and playmaking; he excels at being in the right place at the right time, and consistently creates offensive opportunities for teammates. But he acknowledged that he’d like to improve his first three steps and, though he’s a stronger defender now, he wants to be the sort of player his coaches can trust in all three zones.
“I’m definitely a hockey junkie,” he says. “I love the game and I’ll do whatever it takes to get to the next level.”
Keefe cited Colangelo’s down-low game as a key area to improve, noting its importance for NHL-caliber forwards. But he’s already psyched about the offensive possibilities Colangelo can help the Huskies unlock.
“We want to work hard to get the puck back, but when we do get it back, we want to go to work offensively,” he explains. “Any time we can get someone with really good hockey sense and hockey IQ offensively, it really does fit into the style we want to play. And he skates really well for a big guy. We want to play fast in transition and he fits that mold.”
When asked about his favorite current NHL player comparisons, Colangelo mentioned several offensive power forwards, including Charlie Coyle, Kasperi Kapanen, and Mark Scheifele, but noted that the list doesn’t stop there: “I could probably sit here and name 10 to 15 guys that I’ve watched all their shifts from the season. In Chicago, we’ve watched film every single day. And there are a lot of guys I like to just take bits and pieces from their games and keep that in mind.”
Colangelo sees himself as a true all-around player, which has often been echoed in profiles from NHL experts and draft analysts. One cited Colangelo’s “bulldozing strength and near pathological need to shoot the puck” with accurate, powerful snapshots and wristers. Another lauded his strength, which gives him not only scoring range and accuracy, but makes him powerful enough to hold off defenders, throw checks, snag loose pucks, and muscle into corners, the slot, and the crease. They acknowledged, as does he, that his speed and acceleration are improving but remain a work in progress, especially given his professional potential. He also excels at clogging passing lanes, creating zone exits, stifling opponents on the penalty kill, distributing to teammates, picking corners from distance and bad angles, and securing the puck while handling.
For a Huskies team that lost leading scorer Tyler Madden to the pros this offseason — plus two of their top point men to graduation — the offensive boost is a must-have.
For the next few days, Colangelo and teammate Jayden Struble will be in Michigan for the US National Junior Team Evaluation Camp, which is used to gauge players for next year’s National Junior Team. If Colangelo can make it, he’ll follow in the footsteps of his friend Jordan Harris, as well as former Huskies Tyler Madden and Cayden Primeau.
“My birthday is December 26, and that’s when the World Juniors start every year,” he says. “Since I was a little kid, I’d always wake up the day after Christmas, it would be my birthday, and I got to watch World Juniors. That was my favorite tournament to watch growing up.
“If I have a chance to make that team, I’m gonna go there and work my hardest and hopefully have a chance. To go with Jayden is awesome as well. I know we both worked hard for this. And we’re both super excited to get there.”
But for now, Colangelo is, in many respects, just like any other Northeastern freshman, taking classes online and limiting in-person socializing due to COVID-19 safety protocols. Though his first puck drop at Matthews Arena likely won’t arrive until late November, his eyes are trained on the prizes already.
“We have the same three goals every year,” he states bluntly. “Beanpot, Hockey East, national championship. If you don’t win all three of those there’s definitely some stuff left on the table.”
And as for moving from the USHL to Hockey East, where he’ll face players up to six years older than him?
“I’m a pretty confident kid and I think my game will adjust well,” he offers. “I’m not really the type of kid who gets nervous. I get excited and let the adrenaline take over.”