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, pre-season tournaments, or in 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 Central Collegiate Hockey Association. This is the last year for the CCHA as we know it. Conference re-alignment will change the landscape of NCAA hockey next season as Michigan, Ohio State, and Michigan State will join the Big 10 Hockey Conference. Meanwhile Notre Dame heads to Hockey East, while Miami (Ohio) and Western Michigan will join a number of WCHA clubs in creating the brand new National Collegiate Hockey Conference. Alaska-Fairbanks, Ferris State, Lake Superior State, Northern Michigan and Bowling Green will jump ship to the WCHA.
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 CCHA.
Michigan Wolverines: The Wolverines are returning a strong group from last year and are buoyed by one of the top freshman classes in all of college hockey. Up front sophomores Alex Guptil and Phil DiGiuseppe look to build on strong freshman campaigns and are joined by new recruit and New York Ranger 2nd Rounder, Cristoval “Boo” Nieves. A.J. Treais is a senior who put up 15 goals last year and will be asked to provide leadership to the younger scorers. The Blue line is led by puckmovers John Merrill and Mac Bennett, while the big defensive minutes going to Lee Moffie. Star recruit Jacob Trouba adds to the defensive prowess of the top 4. The biggest question mark is in goal as starter Shawn Hunwick has graduated. Michigan will turn to Jared Rutledge, a recruit out of the US NTDP, as their number one. Time will tell if the freshman goalie is up to the job.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish: The Irish come into the season with big expectations thanks to the one-two punch of Anders Lee, and T.J. Tynan on the team’s first line. The forwards were Notre Dame’s two leading scorers last season. A trio of incoming freshmen are expected to add offensive punch. They are Thomas DiPauli, Steven Fogarty and prize recruit Mario Lucia. Unfortunately, Lucia broke his leg this summer and is expected to miss the first two months of the season, but should give the Irish a boost in December. The Irish are set in goal where junior Steven Summerhays is expected to take the job and run with it. Sam Calabrese and Robbie Russo are expected to lead a veteran defensive core in front of him, and should make Summerhays transition to full time starter an easy one.
Western Michigan Broncos: The strength of this club is at the back end where CCHA Tournament MVP Frank Slubowski again returns to the crease. He should be among the top goalies in the conference and will keep the Broncos in a lot of games. All last year rumors were that star defenceman Dan DeKeyser was highly coveted by NHL teams. There certainly were plenty of offers available to him once the college season ended, but Western Michigan fans are thrilled that he is back for one more year and leading a strong blue line. The Broncos top three scorers, and number 1 line of Chase Balisy, Shane Berschbach and Dane Walter are also all returning this year. Montreal Canadiens prospect Mike Cichy will join the Broncos after sitting out last season due to his transfer from North Dakota. He is expected to add a spark of secondary scoring to the club.
While these three teams may be your best bets, the CCHA is wide open this year. Don’t be surprised if a team like the Ferris State Bulldogs or Miami Redhawks jumps up and finishes in the top 3 spots at the end of the year. Or as we have seen many times in the CCHA playoffs, if a team at the bottom of the regular season standings pulls a first round upset in the conference tournament. There is a lot of parity in this conference and it could happen again, especially in the 2 out of 3 first round, or 1 game Semi -Final and Finals Scenarios.
Players to Watch:
Jacob Trouba, Defence, Michigan Wolverines: An incoming Freshman, Trouba played for the US NTDP last season, and was the 9th overall pick in this year’s NHL Draft, selected by the Winnipeg Jets. He is yet another in a long line of good young American defence prospects. At 6’2″ 194 lbs and still growing, Trouba possesses very good size and has shown himself to be willing to use it as an effective hitter who separates incoming forwards from the puck. Trouba has excellent defensive instincts and is solid in his own end. He was one of the better defencemen for Team USA in last years World Junior Championships despite playing in the tournament when he was only 17 years old. Trouba is a willing shot-blocker, and has excellent hockey IQ. He makes a good first pass in his own zone, and is very calm and poised with the puck on his stick. He’s a polished defender who rarely makes a mistake. Offensively Trouba has a great point shot and should grow into a Powerplay role for Michigan. He is the prize recruit in the conference.
Mac Bennett, Defence, Michigan Wolverines: Don’t let his size fool you, Mac Bennett is one of the top defencemen in the CCHA. He is a strong skater, and moves the puck very quickly for the Wolverines. He possesses a good first pass as well as the ability to stickhandle and skate the puck up the ice. On the powerplay Bennett’s good vision and passing skills make him dangerous from the point. Bennett is also a solid defender, as his strong skating and excellent positioning allow him to keep most dangerous forwards at bay. Last season Bennett teamed with Greg Pateryn on the number one shutdown unit for the Wolverines. This season Pateryn is graduated and playing for the Hamilton Bulldogs in the AHL. Watch to see if a Bennett – Moffie, or Bennett – Trouba pairing is deployed for the Wolverines in key situations this season.
Phil DiGiuseppe, Left Wing, Michigan Wolverines: DiGiuseppe is more a playmaker than a goal scorer at this point in his career. He has extremely good hockey sense, excellent vision, and the ability to make difficult passes, threading the needle through opponents sticks and skates to give a teammate a great scoring chance. He is very good in board battles and in working the cycle in the offensive zone. DiGiuseppe is gritty as he is not afraid to go to the dirty areas of the ice and makes key plays in traffic. He is a tireless worker who is always forechecking hard, battling for loose pucks, and trying to create scoring chances out of nothing. While he is more a playmaker than scorer, Di Giuseppe does possess a good wrist shot and release. Di Giuseppe could use some work on his top end speed and his acceleration as they are merely average. He will also need to work on his defensive game. Still expect the Carolina Hurricanes 2nd round pick to be a key cog in the Wolverine offence.
Dan DeKeyser, Defence, Western Michigan Broncos: DeKeyser was the most sought after defenceman among undrafted college free agents last season. He drew multiple NHL scouts and GMs to Western Michigan to watch him play and there were rumors of a number of Entry Level Contracts on the table following the end of last season. DeKeyser ultimately decided to return for at least one more year with the Broncos but he should again be highly sought after next season. He is an extremely good skater with good stickhandling skills and the ability to lead the rush offensively. On the powerplay he has a powerful slaps shot and one timer. It is extremely accurate and he keeps his shots low leading to rebounds and deflections for his teammates. DeKeyser is also a top defencemen in his own end where he uses strong positioning and a long, active stick to break up plays. He is also strong enough to win board battles, and to keep the front of the net clear. DeKeyser is will be asked to play big minutes for the Broncos and will be used in all situations by the team.
Anders Lee, Centre, Nortre Dame Fighting Irish: Lee is the thunder in his thunder and lightning combination with T.J. Tynan. A big and strong forward, Lee plays the prototypical power forward game, protecting the puck well, having great balance on his skates, and using his speed and acceleration to drive the net hard. He is an excellent forechecker who opposing defenders always have to be aware of, or they can find themselves on the wrong end of a thunderous body check. Lee is a natural goal scorer who has soft hands in tight and a powerful shot with an excellent release. Now entering his junior season, the new Irish captain, and Islanders prospect might be playing his last year in the NCAA before going pro. He could be in the running for both the CCHA MVP award and the Hobey Baker trophy this season.
T.J. Tynan, Right Wing, Notre Dame Fighting Irish: Tynan is a very different player from Lee, but as the lightning end of the combination they compliment each other perfectly. At just 5’9″ tall, Tynan is undersized, but he makes up for it with his great speed and playmaking ability. He is one of the rare forwards with the ability to control the puck at top speed and this makes him very dangerous off the rush. He has great hockey sense, fantastic vision, and is one of the best passers in college hockey. He can thread the puck through the eye of a needle at times, and can be deadly accurate with a saucer pass. Tynan should be the setup man for Lee this season, and if he can bulk up a little the Columbus Prospect could see himself playing pro hockey at this time next year.
Austin Czarnik, Centre, Miami (Ohio) RedHawks: An undersized playmaker, Czarnik proved his value by leading all CCHA rookies in points last season. Czarnik is an excellent stickhandler who controls the puck and the play, while maintaining great poise. He uses his vision and pin point passing skills to set up scoring chances for teammates and is especially lethal with extra time and space on the powerplay. He’ll be a key returning player for the RedHawks and will need to play an even bigger role than he did last season. Defensively responsible, don’t be surprised if the RedHawks match Czarnik’s line against the best players in the CCHA.
Matthew Kirzinger, Centre, Ferris State Bulldogs: The Saskatchewan Native is another undersized forward at just 5’10” tall. He is an absolute speedster though, and may be one of the fastest players in the conference. He combines that speed with excelletn stickhandling ability which makes him a big time threat off the rush. He plays a much grittier game that you would think he’d be capable of at his size, as Kerzinger is not afraid to mix it up in the corners or in front of the net. Kerzinger put up 34 points in 42 games for the National Runner-Up Bulldogs last season, and he will be asked to lead the Bulldogs offence this season as they attempt to avenge the loss to Boston College. A senior, Kerzinger will also be looking to impress scouts as he looks for a pro contract after this season.
Willie Yankeff, Goalie, Michigan State Spartans: Yankeff lead the conference with a 0.927 save percentage as a freshman and followed it up with a solid 0.922 save percentage last season. The junior goalie keeps the young Spartans in games, even when they are outmatched talent wise. Yankeff is another tall butterfly goalie who uses his big frame, and quick legs to take away the shooters options, especially down low. He also has an excellent glove hand which covers the top of the net. If Yankeff can work on his rebound control he will surely find himself with pro contract offers.
Chris Crane, Right Wing, Ohio State Buckeyes: Crane was the Buckeyes top scorer last season tallying 14 goals for the club. The San Jose Sahrks prospect is a force in board battles and loves to hang out in front of the net where he bangs in rebounds and looks for deflections. He is extremely strong on his skates and very difficult to knock off the puck when he plays the cycle game. He will need to work on his speed and acceleration before he thinks about making the jump to the next level.
Kyle Follmer, Defence, Northern Michigan Wildcats: Follmer is an extremely physical defenceman who has developed on offensive game for the Wildcats. Always a threat to throw a big hit in his own end, and very good at clearing the front of the net, Follmer has recently developed more poise at the offensive end. He is now comfortable with the puck on his stick and has become the Wildcats primary quarterback on the powerplay. With some work on his acceleration, Follmer could find a pro contract waiting for him at the end of his senior year.
Andrew Hammond, Goalie, Bowling Green Falcons: Amazingly Hammond started all 44 games for Bowling Green last season. The young goalie showed no ill effects, as he was at his best in the CCHA playoffs where he stood on his head leading the Falcons to an upset win over Ferris State in the first round, and forcing Michigan to a double overtime thriller in the Conference Semis. Hammond is a solid butterfly goalie who has the ability to steal games for the young Falcons team. He returns for his senior season after attending a Chicago Blackhawks development camp this summer. Another great season could net him pro offers next year.
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