Welcome to today’s edition of “Top Shelf Prospects”. Previously I reviewed the prospects of all thirty NHL teams, and previewed the CHL season. If you missed any of my previous articles you can find a complete listing of my them here.
Over this past weekend many NCAA teams started their pre-conference schedules with various exhibition games against Canadian Universities, or with pre-season tournaments, or other showcase games against teams from other NCAA conferences. With that in mind we turn our attention to previewing the NCAA season, and looking at conference play.
We start with the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. This is the last year for the WCHA as we know it. Conference re-alignment will change the landscape of NCAA hockey next season as Minnesota and Wisconsin will join the Big 10 Hockey Conference. Meanwhile Colorado College, Denver, Minnesota-Duluth, North Dakota, Nebraska-Omaha, and St. Cloud State will join CCHA clubs Miami (Ohio) and Western Michigan in creating the brand new National Collegiate Hockey Conference.
That leaves only Alaska-Anchorage, Bemidji State, Michigan Tech and Minnesota State-Mankato as the 4 remaining WCHA teams after this season. The conference will add CCHA clubs Alaska-Fairbanks, Ferris State, Lake Superior State and Northern Michigan to continue as an 8 team conference as the CCHA will be no more (with their teams going to the Big 10 and NCHC as well, and Notre Dame joining Hockey East).
That said, the big changes are a year away, so lets take a look at the teams and players to watch this year in the WCHA.
Minnesota Golden Gophers – The Gophers finished in first place in the conference last season. However the annual conference playoffs did not go as well as the Gophers blew a 3 goal lead in the semi-final of the WCHA Frozen Five and lost to rivals North Dakota. The Golden Gophers would get their revenge in the NCAA tournament, eliminating North Dakota in the Regional Finals and advancing to the NCAA Frozen Four. Unfortunately they would go on to lose in the National Semifinal to eventual National Champion Boston College. This season the Gophers are back and looking for more as they have a very strong club. Nick Bjustad, Kyle Rau, Zach Budish and Erik Haula all return to the club, ensuring that Minnesota will have an extremely dangerous offence this season. Brady Skjei and Mike Reilly are highly touted recruits on the Gopher Blueline and will add to a team that returns most of last year’s defence core The question mark for the Gophers is in goal where the team must replace last year’s starter Kent Patterson who has graduated. Michael Shibrowski is a junior who has only played 1 game so far in his career. There are also three incoming freshmen goalies in Ryan Coyne, Matt LaPrade and Adam Wilcox. If one of these four can emerge as a solid starter, then the Gophers can contend for a National Championship. If they cannot find a goalie, it could break the team especially in one of the many one game elimination scenarios the team will face in the WCHA and NCAA playoffs.
Fighting Sioux: After a long battle with the NCAA the University of North Dakota has dropped the “Fighting Sioux” nickname and logo, and will simply be known as North Dakota this season, as the team looks for a new nickname and logo. The squad has won the conference tournament three years in a row, and looks to do damage on the national stage this year. Brock Nelson and Ben Blood are key losses for the team, but a number of returnees should make North Dakota strong. Up front Danny Kristo, Corbin Knight, Carter Rowney, and Mark MacMillan return to lead the offence, while the team will add Rocco Grimaldi who was hurt all last season. On defense, Jordan Schmaltz is a highly touted recruit and will join a blueline featuring the returning Nick Mattson, Andrew MacWilliam, and Dillon Simpson. Like their rivals from Minnesota, the former Fighting Sioux face questions in the crease as both of last year’s goalies are gone and Tate Maris, Clarke Saunders, and Zane Gothberg will battle for the job. North Dakota must get their dressing room in order though, as a team party that involved underage drinking has resulted in suspensions to MacWilliam, Knight, Kristo and Rowney to start the season.
Denver Pioneers: Most analysts have the WCHA as a two horse race, but I’m going to go against the grain here and say that the Denver Pioneers are a strong contender to make this a 3 way battle. The biggest advantage the Pioneers have is a strong and reliable goaltender, something neither Minnesota nor North Dakota can claim to have right now. Sam Brittain should be the best goalie in the conference, and you can never discount the value of that, especially with the way the Conference Playoffs work. The team lost Drew Shore and Jason Zucker up front and this is a big blow to the offence. However Nick Shore, is back and is joined by the youngest shore brother Quinton on offence. The Pioneers also feature Joey LaLeggia who will contribute points from the blue line, and be among the team’s leading scorers. While the offence may not be as powerful as last year, it should still be enough to contend, and the defence will be improved with Brittain and most of the defenders returning and one year older.
Players to Watch
Nick Bjustad, Centre, Minnesota Golden Gophers: A Florida Panthers draft pick, the huge centre is listed at 6’5 and 212 lbs, and certainly looks the part as he towers over competitors on the ice. Bjustad skates very well for a man his size, and with great balance and a powerful stride that helps him drive to the net. He protects the puck well, controlling the play on his stick, and buying time for teammates to find an opening. When they do, he has the vision and playmaking skill to find them. However Bjustad’s biggest asset is his NHL ready wrist shot. He is a pure sniper with a heavy, accurate shot and a deceptively quick release. Bjustad is also a good two way centre who is as efficient in the defensive end as he is in the offensive end of the ice. The only criticism of Bjustad is that he could be more physical given his size. He’s a legitimate Hobey Baker contender going into the season, and should be a dominant presence for the Gophers.
Danny Kristo, Right Wing, North Dakota: The suspension for being an assistant captain and holding a team party, was followed by Kristo getting an additional 1 game suspension for breaking another team rule in a seperate incident. It is a difficult start for Kristo who was also disciplined for his own underage drinking as a freshman, and who lost games as a sophomore in a strange frostbite related incident. Kristo is an excellent skater, he has great speed, acceleration and agility. He also has a very good wrist shot and an excellent release. Last year on a line with Brock Nelson, Kristo showed that he can also be a playmaker showing his good vision, and passing skills. He plays a gritty two-way game, willing to get involved along the boards in both the offensive and defensive zone. Kristo is slightly undersized though and could stand to put some more muscle on his frame. As a senior he should be one of the top forwards in the conference, and could put together a run at the Hobey Baker if he can stay on the ice. He had the opportunity to sign an Entry Level Contract with the Montreal Canadiens this summer, but decided to return for his senior season, saying that his dream is to win an NCAA title at North Dakota.
Caleb Herbert, Centre, University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs: The Washington Capitals prospect scored 33 points in 41 games as a freshman for the Bulldogs last season. He’s an absolute speedster who creates plays simply by being the fastest player on the ice. He’s also got good hockey sense and when you combine that with his skating he seems to be buzzing all over the ice in the offensive zone. Herbert is a little undersized however and this can hurt him in board battles, and the defensive end. He’ll need to get stronger before looking to move on with the Caps and/or the Hershey Bears in the AHL.
Mark Zengerle, Centre, Wisconsin Badgers: Zengerle had 13 goals, 37 assists and 50 points in 37 games as a sophomore for the Badgers last season. With an assist per game last year its easy to see what Zengerle’s main strength is. He’s a playmaker with great vision and the the ability to thread the puck through tight spaces. He’s a good stickhandler, and protects the puck well extending plays in the offensive zone. Zengerle’s wrist shot has good velocity and accuracy, but his release needs work and this is the primary reason why he’s a playmaker and not a goal scorer. Zengerle is a little undersized, but makes up for that with excellent skating. Another big season could see him getting NHL offers this spring.
Sam Brittain, Goalie, Denver Pioneers: At 6’3″ Brittain is part of the new wave of goalies with great size. A fourth round pick of the Florida Panthers, Brittain might be the best goalie in the WCHA this season, and given how much Denver will rely on him, might end up as the WCHA MVP. He’s a classic butterfly goaltender with good technique, and plays his angles well, maximizing the amount of net his big frame takes up. Brittain has excellent rebound control and a very good glove hand. The key to the pioneers season rests on his shoulders.
Ben Hanowski, Left Wing, St. Cloud State Huskies: A third round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009 Hanowski broke out in his junior season with St. Cloud State scoring 23 goal and 43 points in 39 games. Hanowski is a natural goal scorer with a greatshot and outstanding release. He uses good hockey sense to find openings in the oppositions zone and set up for a deadly one-timer. Hanowski must continue his growth this season before turning pro and heading to Wilkes-Barre.
Rylan Schwartz, Centre/Wing, Colorado College Tigers: The older brother of St. Louis Blues prospect Jared Schwartz, played with him last year. Rylan put up 23 goals and 40 points in 35 games for the Tigers. Rylan has an excellent wrist shot and release. Rylan has good speed and very good acceleration. He could use some work on his defensive game. If he puts up another good season he will attract interest from NHL clubs as an unsigned college free agent next spring. He really doesn’t have the vision or playmaking to play centre at the next level though, and if he has a pro future its likely at wing.
Jujhar Khaira, Centre, Michigan Tech Huskies: A third round pick for the Edmonton Oilers in the 2012 Entry Draft, Khaira is an incoming freshman at Michigan Tech. I haven’t had a chance to see him play yet but based on reports I’m certainly intrigued to do so. At 6’3 and 200lbs, reports describe Khaira as a prototypical power forward. He is said to be a hard worker, who skates very well and is quick to throw his weight around on the forecheck. He’s also said to have some touch around the net.
Matt White, Centre, University of Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks: Matt White had 17 goals and 40 points as a Sophomore for the University of Nebraska-Omaha last season. He’s a bit on the smallish side, but has great offensive skills including a good shot and release, excellent hands and puckhandling ability and good passing and vision. White will look to build on last season, and get himself some NHL offers as an undrafted free agent. He attended the Winnipeg Jets development camp this summer, but is returning to UNO
Teddy Blueger, Centre/Left Wing, Minnesota State – Mankato Mavericks: Blueger is an incoming freshman who was drafted in the 2nd Round of the 2012 Draft by the Pittsburgh Penguins. He put up incredible states at Shattuck St. Mary’s famous hockey prep school, but the level of competition he faced should be questioned when looking at the 88 points in 51 games he put up. Blueger is said to be an offensive minded player with great vision and passing ability in the middle of the ice or off the wing. He represents Latvia in international competition.
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