2013-14 NCAA Hockey Preview: NCHC

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Welcome back to Top Shelf Prospects. Today we start previewing the NCAA, looking for our next National College Hockey Champion.  Today we take a look at the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) as this new, and powerful conference enters its first year in existence.  As always, you can check out the previous Top Shelf Prospects articles here.

TopShelfProspects“Realignment” has been the buzzword of NCAA Hockey this year.  With the newly formed Big 10 hockey conference coming into existence it put all the other conferences into a state of flux.  No conference is more evident of this state of flux than the brand-spanking-new NCHC. Created by a merger of some of the most powerful teams in the now defunct CCHA, and the now weakened WCHA, the NCHC is looking to create a powerhouse conference in college hockey.

Top Contenders

University of North Dakota: Despite losing Hobey Baker nominees like Danny Kristo and Corban Knight, UND doesn’t rebuild, they merely re-load.  Despite losing their entire first line, the team will again feature a powerful offence.  Led by Rocco Grimaldi (Fla) who scored 36 points in 40 games as a redshirt freshman last season, and Mark MacMillan (MTL), a sophomore who had 13 goals last season, they should be able to assemble a strong first line, if played together; or be catalysts to two separate lines in the top 6.  The question mark is around the secondary offence.  Will Brendan O’Donnell (TAM), Michael Parks (PHI), and Adam Tambellini (NYR) be able to generate enough secondary scoring to support them.  Defensively the team should be sound with Dillon Simpson (EDM) and Jordan Schmaltz (StL) leading the blueline and the tandem of Clarke Saunders and  Zane Gothberg (BOS) providing reliable goaltending.

Miami (Ohio) University RedHawks: The RedHawks will have a dynamic offence led by Austin Czarnik, who will be a highly sought after NCAA free agent when he does turn pro. Aiding Czarnik will be Riley Barber (WSH), and Sean Kuraly (SJS).  In goal Ryan McKay and Jay Williams were a reliable duo for the RedHawks last season, and should provide more of the same.  They will need the strong goaltending as the defence is a bit of question mark for Miami.  With Steven Spinell, Joe Hartman and Garrett Kennedy all graduating, the RedHawks will have to hope that Matthew Caito, Ben Paulides, and Taylor Richart can lead a very young group.

St. Cloud State Huskies: The Huskies return much of the team that went to the Frozen Four last year and can not be overlooked.  The losses of Ben Hanowski and Drew Leblanc will hit the team hard upfront, but Nic Dowd (LAK), Jonny Brodzinski (LAK), Joey Benik, and Kalle Kossila shouldn’t have too many issues putting the puck in the net.  On defence Kevin Gravel (LAK), Andrew Prochno, and freshman Ben Storm (COL) will be tasked with leading the team. Ryan Faragher was a stud for the Huskies in goal last year and he returns this season.


Players to Watch

Alex Krushelnyski, Colorado College Tigers: The son of former NHLer Mike Krushelnyski, Alex is a chip off the old block. He is a hard working, grinding winger, who gets his nose dirty, wins board battles and is not afraid of physical play. He is a good two way player, who understands his defensive responsibilities and takes them to heart. With 43 points in 42 games for Colorado College last year, he’s also shown off his offensive skill set in what has been a breakthrough campaign fro Krushelnyski. He doesn’t score the prettiest of goals, but gets his points from going to the front of the net, and persistent hard work. One thing I will say about Krushelnyski is that he seems to be improving all the time, playing better on each subsequent viewing I had of him. He’s especially strong on the penalty kill.  He’ll be a highly sought after NCAA free agent when he does leave school.

Josiah Didier, Defence, Denver Pioneers: A fourth round draft pick of the Montreal Canadiens in the 2011 NHL Draft, Didier has developed into one of the best defensive defenders in the WCHA last year, his sophomore season.  He has great size at 6’2″ and 215 lbs, and plays a very physical style of game, hitting hard and clearing the Pioneer crease.  He is a very good skater, with good speed and acceleration in both directions.  He has good edgework, and solid pivots, giving him excellent mobility and the ability to cover a lot of ice.  While Didier will likely never put up a lot of points, he does have a decent first pass and gets the transition game going.  One of the more unheralded Habs prospects, he is a right hand shot and plays the type of physical defence first game that could fill a major need in the team’s prospect system when he’s done with the Pioneers.

Austin Czarnik, Centre, Miami RedHawks: With 37 points in 40 games as a Freshman, and 38 points in 40 games as a Sophomore, all while playing for Miami in the competitive CCHA conference, there is little doubt that Czarnik has offensive skills. However, generously listed at 5’9″ and 160 lbs, size has always been a concern for him, and is the main reason he has gone undrafted, as his offensive skills were apparent with both the US National Team Development Program, and the the Green Bay Gamblers in the USHL during his junior career. Czarnik has the skating ability, the hands, and the shooting ability to put up points. However what really sets him apart is his outstanding playmaking ability and vision. Another player who will be highly sought after when he leaves school.

Tony Cameranesi, Centre, University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs: A fifth round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2011, Cameranesi is coming off an impressive freshman season that saw him tie for the Bulldogs team lead with 34 points in 38 games.  At just 5’9″ and 165 lbs, he is a dramatically undersized centre, but couples that with tremendous speed and offensive ability.  Cameranesi has very good vision and the ability to make his teammates better with his seeing eye passes and strong playmaking abilities.  He will need to bulk up if he hopes to succeed in the NHL with his current frame.  Some more upper body mass would also help him to add some power to his shot, something he needs to do.

Ryan Walters, Left Wing, University of Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks:  With 22 goals and 52 points in 39 games last season, Walters was one of the leading scorers in the NCAA.  Heading into his senior season he’ll again be tasked with leading the Mavericks offence and is a contender for the Hobey Baker award. He has good hands, a quick shot and an excellent release.  He grinds on the boards and is a smart playmaker who is able to cycle the puck and then thread the needle to set up teammates.  However its not just his offensive skill that makes him one to watch, Walters is also an agitator who gets under his opponents skin and plays the game on the edge.  Many expected that he would sign a pro contract last year, however expect that this year he will again attract plenty of attention as an NCAA free agent after the season.

Rocco Grimaldi, Centre/Right Wing, North Dakota: Grimaldi was drafted by the Florida Panthers in the 2nd round of the the 2011 Draft.  After an injury in his freshman year, he was redshirted.  Last year as a redshirt freshman he put up 36 points in 40 games. He is known as a pint-sized (5’6″) speedster.  Grimaldi has outstanding top end speed, and excellent acceleration.  He couples this with great hands and is an excellent stickhandler who can be deadly off the rush.  He is a good playmaker, but is best known for his goal scorer’s touch, including an excellent wrist shot and quick release.

Kevin Gravel, Defence, St. Cloud State Huskies: A 5th round pick by the Los Angeles Kings in 2010, Gravel enters his senior season as the clear leader of the Huskies defence this year.  He has great size at 6’4″ and is an excellent defensive defender.  He has good mobility with strong skating including good edgework and pivots.  This allows him to almost always be in the right position and use his frame to block shots and cut down on passing lanes.  He also has some decent passing skills and a good shot which he has used to increase his offence in recent years.  While he’ll never put up huge points he becomes more and more of a two-way defenceman every year.

Frank Slubowski, Goaltender, Western Michigan Broncos:  The Broncos are a rebuilding club who likely won’t win a lot of games this year, but will be competitive in many due to the outstanding play of Slubowski, who might just be the best goalie in the conference.  He is a workhorse who played in every game for Western Michigan last year, an impressive feat considering the number of back-to-backs that are inevitable in the college schedule.  At just 5’11” his lack of size seems to be the clear reason he didn’t attract much interest in the NHL draft.  However after showing off his great athleticism, outstanding reflexes, and great mental composure over his time with Western Michigan, there may be some more interest when he is done school and an NCAA free agent.


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