For freshmen first entering the collegiate game, the adjustment is often quite challenging. It is especially difficult for players coming from the high school ranks.
But there are those that make the adjustment rather easily, and one is Minnesota State-Mankato freshman Tyler Pitlick.
"I think Tyler has handled the transition extremely well," noted Minnesota State-Mankato head coach Troy Jutting. "His progress has been terrific. Most kids his age are playing in junior hockey somewhere or are still in high school playing hockey."
Pitlick, the nephew of former NHLer Lance Pitlick, came to Minnesota State-Mankato from Centennial High School where he served as team captain and led both the Cougars as well as the Northwest Suburban Conference in scoring with 64 points (31 goals, 33 assists) in 25 games last season. The Centerville, MN native was also named a finalist for the 2009 Mr. Hockey Award. Pitlick was a member of 2007 and 2008 U.S. Under-18 teams as well.
St. Cloud State and the University of Minnesota also recruited Pitlick. As the freshman center explained, the Mavericks style of play was one reason he chose to attend Minnesota State-Mankato.
"My uncle helped me to make the decision to go to Mankato," he said. "I decided to come to here because I like the coaching staff and I like the team’s style of play. I feel like I fit into it really well. I also already knew some of the guys on the team that I had played with on previous teams."
Pitlick currently leads all Mavericks rookies in scoring with 12 points (seven goals, five assists) in 27 games. Though his natural position is center, he has play predominantly on wing this season. As Jutting explained, one reason he has Pitlick playing wing is due to the great defensive responsibility that he requires of his centermen.
"There are two reasons why we have Tyler playing wing – one is that he’s a goal scorer and I think he has more opportunities to score more goals as a winger, and two is that we place a lot of defensive responsibilities on our centers," he said. "For Tyler as an 18-year-old trying to defend against 24-year-olds, there is an adjustment period. He may move back to the middle this year, but he’ll definitely play at center next year."
What’s garnered Pitlick so much attention are his size and tremendous offensive skill set. He has great hands and sees the ice quite well. Pitlick could perhaps best be described as a pure goal scorer. He possesses excellent playmaking and finishing capabilities. Two characteristics that he demonstrated particularly well while at Centennial are his ability to change the dynamic of a game and make those around him better. As his hockey career progresses at Minnesota State-Mankato and beyond, those characteristics will become more pronounced.
One attribute that may be a bit underrated is his outstanding hockey sense. Pitlick understands the game very well and has the ability to make smart decisions. It is also what caught the attention of Jutting and his staff during the recruiting process.
"Obviously there are a lot of skilled players out there, but I think the things that separate players like Tyler from others are their understanding of the game and their ability to read the game," he said. "Tyler understands the game extremely well and he is able to read the game faster than most other players. I think that allows him the opportunities to put himself in positions to be successful."
One of Pitlick’s best attributes is his skating. He possesses good speed and fluid strides. Pitlick’s turns and edges are also quite good. His nice blend of skating and puck skills allows him to make excellent plays in transition.
The most impressive improvement that Pitlick has made going from the high school to collegiate level has been on the physical side. He has added more grit to his game and that has opened up great opportunities both for him and his teammates. He has shown that he can deliver solid checks that will only get better with added size and strength.
"I’ve been really pleased with the way Tyler has handled the game physically, considering that he’s playing against men who are 24 years old and he’s still growing into his body," said Jutting. "Tyler will need to continue to work hard. He’s a fairly big kid at 6’2 who is just starting to fill out. As he continues to fill out and work on his body off of the ice, he will just get better and better."
In addition to filling out his frame, two areas where Pitlick will need to continue to improve and develop in are on the defensive side and bringing consistent intensity to each and every game. While Pitlick is very competitive, he’ll need to be able to bring that high level of intensity that the college game, especially the WCHA, demands more consistently in order to be successful.
Pitlick is pretty self aware of his strengths and weaknesses.
"I think I’m a big, skilled forward that’s not afraid to go down low in the corners to get the puck out of there," he said. "I think I’m getting better at that. I’d say that my greatest strength is my offensive ability to make plays and score goals. I think my weakness is probably my defensive game. I’m learning how to be better down low and to try and stick with opposing guys."
Pitlick lists Washington Capitals superstar Alexander Ovechkin as his favorite NHL player to watch, but it is a fellow American that he patterns his style of play after.
"I try to pattern the style of game after Peter Mueller," he said. "We’re both big guys. I think we both kind of play a similar style and have similar skill sets."
For now though, he’s enjoying his time at Mankato.
"I enjoy playing for Coach Jutting," Pitlick said. "He’s a very good coach. He and the other coaches work with me on things like my defensive game during practice. They make sure that I get the most out of my practices every day. They’ve also worked with me individually to help me adjust to the college game. I had to learn how to move the puck faster. The guys here are a lot faster and bigger. You have to be able to handle yourself in the corners. I think the guys are a lot tougher and you have to be able to stay with them. So they have helped me with all of that."
Pitlick is ranked 21st on Central Scouting’s Midterm Rankings and could potentially be one of two current collegians taken in the first round in the upcoming NHL Draft in Los Angeles.