I had the good fortune of having a very productive talk with Max Giese, formerly of McKeen's who is now a Red Line Report scout and covers the USHL and U.S. colleges and even some Canadian juniors. Giese is extremely astute and knows a great deal about the players featured on this particular watch list. He has kindly given his permission for me to quote him extensively on his preseason opinions of the top players projected to come out of the collegiate and junior circuit this year, and like me, Giese is ready for the season to get underway.
The USHL has a trio of very talented players with a lot of size and skill-- two wingers and a defenseman-- in Seth Ambroz, Tyler Biggs and Scott Mayfield, plus the normal contingent of U.S. NTDP prospects who are always in the draft mix in the first few rounds and beyond. Ambroz is the big name, but Mayfield may be the best of anyone coming out of the 'U' this year and has a decision to make as to whether he goes the NCAA route with Denver University, or goes to the OHL with the Kitchener Rangers.
As far as U.S. collegians go, Boston University's Adam Clendening is top dog on this list, but one notable omission is skilled two-way North Dakota defenseman Dillon Simpson (son of former NHL sniper and Bruin killer Craig Simpson) is actually ranked higher on some lists I've seen (notably Red Line Report, who had Simpson 19th in August). But because I have yet to see Simpson and have not been able to find anyone who actually has seen him, I don't have him in the top-10 even though he probably very much should be based on some of the preliminary rankings go. As soon as I or someone I know gets eyes on Simpson, I'll post a scouting report on him.
In eight days, I'll be in Boston checking out the B's prospects vs. the young Islanders, and then the rest of the Bruins vets when they report for the first weekend of main camp. Before we know it, the NHL season will be in full swing, and we can look forward to tracking the progress of those 1st and 2nd-round picks Toronto and Minnesota owe Boston.
But first, here's the last of our unfinished summer business...enjoy!
1. Seth Ambroz, RW Omaha Lancers (USHL)-- At 6-3, 205 pounds, Ambroz is a man among boys and has been the same physical presence now for about three years. A formidable power forward in the making, Ambroz is very strong and has the kind of wicked shot and physical game that should be highly appealing to NHL clubs. Now entering his third season for Omaha in the USHL, he should put up some gaudy numbers provided he stays healthy as a primer for the University of Minnesota next year. Ambroz is not without some faults, however. He's got a pretty slow first step and lacks the kind of balance and agility you want in a pro winger. According to some, he tends to take the summers off, and hasn't really addressed the lack of quickness on his skates. Not only is he a notoriously slow starter when it comes to breaking out from a standstill, but that also applies to his play at the start of the season as well, so scouts will be watching early.
"His biggest issue is that he really lacks quickness out of the gate," Giese told B2011DW. "It's an issue that most expected him to work on, and in the three years I've been watching him, I haven't really seen a lot of improvement in, so I think it will be something scouts focus on. He's one of those guys the game comes pretty easy for and he plays effectively at both ends of the rink. He's more of a shooter than a playmaker at this stage of his development."
Even with the initial burst concerns, Ambroz still is a prime candidate to go in the top-half of the opening round in his home state next June, and if he has the kind of big production that is expected of him, you might see him crack the top-10.
2. Scott Mayfield, D Youngstown Phantoms (USHL)-- The St. Louis native's stock shot up a bit with NHL scouts last month when he went to Toronto to participate in the inaugural Research and Development Camp and formed a formidable pairing with Mike McKee. He's got a lot of mass to pack onto his 6-4 frame, but he moves extremely well and shows some nice polish at both ends of the ice. Although committed to Denver, you could see Mayfield instead go to the OHL to join powerhouse Kitchener in the 11-12 campaign, so that will be an interesting development to watch.
"Mayfield's had a mountain of improvement," Giese said of having seen Mayfield from the beginning of his USHL career a year ago. "Everytime you see him, you notice that he's a really good skater and has nice offensive skills. I like that he's assertive with the puck; he came into Youngstown and was running their power play from the get-go and playing about 30 minutes a night for them in all situations."
Mayfield's size and mobility are of obvious interest to NHL teams, but the fact that he can play both defense and generate offense is going to see him off the board early in June if he continues to progress. "I think he's the best USHL defenseman since John Carlson," said Giese. "He's more advanced defensively than Carlson was (in his draft year), but not quite as skilled offensively."
3. Tyler Biggs, RW U.S. NTDP Under-18 (USHL)-- You may not have heard much about this power winger in the making, but if Biggs can live up to the tantalizing potential he flashed last season, he could end up going in the top half of the NHL draft next summer. At 6-2, 205, he'll add more muscle to his frame, but has the size and strength to be a horse along the boards. Skill-wise, he's a solid stickhandler and has an NHL-caliber shot already, with a quick release and a lot of power on it. He's very physical and uses his size and strength to intimidate opponents. The biggest drawback for him, and likely the reason that there hasn't been more buzz on him thus far is the fact that he's been pretty inconsistent and doesn't always bring his best to every situation.
"He can flat-out dominate with his skills and physical play," Giese said. "The problem is-- he turns it on and off. When the switch goes on, he's often the best player on the ice. When the switch is off, you don't notice him."
Biggs has the hockey bloodlines, too; he's the son of former NHL journeyman and AHL/IHL Cincinnati Cyclones scoring ace Don Biggs, and although born in Binghamton, N.Y. was raised in southern Ohio.
"When he's on his game, he's really strong," said Giese. "I've seen him hurt older kids; he knocked out (Anaheim Ducks prospect) Kevin Lind in a fight last year. He's almost underappreciated in the NTDP because they don't fight there all that much."
Interestingly enough, one of Biggs's three fights last season (in addition to Lind) came against Mayfield. With the snarl and the skill, if Biggs can be a consistent force this season, then the buzz on him will be palpable as he rides that wave into the first round.
4. J.T. Miller, C U.S. NTDP Under-18 (USHL)-- Talented center from Eastern Ohio and the Pittsburgh Hornets developmental organization is highly-ranked, but a lot is riding for him in his draft year. If Ambroz and Biggs are the hulking, physical power forward types, Miller is a more cerebral, skill player with a well-rounded game, but who does not project as a huge point getter in the pros. At 6-1, 190 pounds he has nice size with room to fill out and is a good skater. He comes from the same region of the country that fellow 2011 prospect Brandon Saad does, and the two competed against one another as youths.
"With me it's all about preferences," Giese said when asked about Miller. "He's in the group with Biggs, but he's more of a finesse two-way guy and not a physical or dominant shutdown center. He's a skilled two-way forward and there's some upside there."
5. Mike Paliotta, D U.S. NTDP Under-18 (USHL)-- The Westport, Conn. native and former Choate Rosemary Hall standout left home for Ann Arbor and the national program last year and it's paying off for him, as he's done well against the bigger, stronger, more skilled competition in the USHL not found in New England prep ranks these days. At 6-3, he's still filling out, but skates real well and is fluid, with a long stride and very good balance, agility and the footwork. He had a tough transition early on, but progressed well on the Under-17 team last year and looks like a solid first-round pick in the second half if he continues to develop. He's probably not going to be a big point getter at the next level, but his skills will see him drafted early. Paliotta will return to New England next year, when he joins Kevin Sneddon's Vermont Catamounts program in the Hockey East.
"I saw him in late February and he was by far the best defenseman on the ice," Giese said, noting the major improvement from the start of the year. "He's big, is a rangy skater and has a good stick; he can make that first pass. He doesn't have the tantalizing upside that Derek Forbort did, but I think that once the top defenders go in the draft, NHL teams picking later in the first round will identify this guy as someone who can help."
6. Adam Clendening, D Boston University (HE)-- The first NCAA entry on this list (and again-- note the Dillon Simpson caveat above) is a skilled defender who, if he were a few inches taller, would likely carry a better draft projection. Listed at 5-11 and 190-pounds, the size won't be an issue for him in the NCAA this year and he should complement David Warsofsky nicely as far as bringing offense from the blue line goes. The New York native is a solid skater who may not possess elite speed, but can move and turn well. His best attributes are his passing and puck skills; he can put the biscuit anywhere it needs to go and sees the ice extremely well. A polished player who did well for USA at the Under-18 championship last spring, winning a gold medal in the process, you should probably see an immediate impact from him on the Terrier blue line. I brought up 2010 second-round pick and fellow NTDP grad Justin Faulk asked for a comparison with Clendening to Giese and he had this interesting insight on the two:
"Clendening can't pound it like Faulk can," he said referring to the diminutive Minnesotan's rocket shot. "But he can hit seams and thread the needle creatively. Clendening isn't as physical as Faulk and is more of a player who will be in proper position and use his stick. I expect immediate success for him at BU."
7. Nick Shore, C Denver University (WCHA)-- The younger brother of '09 Florida second-rounder Drew Shore, Nick is a different player from his older brother in that he doesn't have the size or quite the pure hockey skills, but is more of a mature and intelligent player at this stage of his development. A hard-working and productive graduate of the NTDP, he's ready to take on the college hockey challenge there in his native state of Colorado and could make a splash right away because of his advanced approach and hockey intellect.
"He has really good hands and hockey sense," Giese said of the younger Shore. "Because of his intelligence and poise with the puck, I could see him moving into the first round if he has the kind of season I think he's capable of at DU."
8. Robbie Russo, D U.S. NTDP Under-18 (USHL)-- Cut from the Clendening mold, this smallish but skilled defenseman sees the ice well and is an adept passer. He doesn't have great size (6-0, 180), nor is he a blazing skater, but because he's strong on his skates and possesses the right instincts for the game, he's able to move the puck and play a solid two-way game. He'll quarterback the Under-18 team's power play this year, but according to Giese is more of a gap and stick defender as opposed to a physical, hitting one. Russo could be a second- or third-round pick in June, and will have to make his money on the international scene this year to raise his profile.
9. Matt Nieto, LW Boston University (HE)-- Small but skilled offensive dynamo will infuse some excitement into a Terriers team that is just two seasons removed from a national championship. Another NTDP product and member of that gold medal Under-18 team last spring, Nieto has explosive speed and production potential, but doesn't always bring it on every shift. He'll have to prove his consistency and is in a pretty good situation to do just that.
10. John Gibson, G U.S. NTDP Under-18 (USHL)-- A tall, athletic goalie (6-3) who has reportedly improved his technique considerably over the last several seasons, Gibson is in position to move rapidly up the draft boards if he can consistently demonstrate his prowess between the pipes given that Jack Campbell is now in the OHL. He has a compact butterfly and moves well laterally, staying square to the shooter and remaining patient. He's going to have to earn the playing time and then perform to get himself into the first round, but he has the physical and mental chops to do it.
"He has ice in his veins," Giese said. "You can't teach a goalie to be composed in big games or make huge saves when his team needs him the most, so he's got that going for him in addition to the skill."
Others of note:
Dillon Simpson, D University of North Dakota (WCHA)-- We'll post more on him as the season progresses, but with the skill and blood lines, this kid could turn some heads for the draft.
Zac Larraza LW U.S. NTDP Under-18 (USHL)-- Big, lanky kid came to Ann Arbor from Arizona with high expectations and hasn't quite met them yet. Described by one scout as "all arms and legs," he has a lot of physical maturing to do, but skates well and brings a good skill level to the table. If he can put it all together this year and produce, you could see him make a run up the draft boards.
Jamie Oleksiak, D Northeastern University (HE)-- The Huskies are mining the Toronto area (see: McKee, Mike) for some gems, and this 6-7, 220-pounder who comes by way of Sioux Falls of the USHL is raw, but has some intriguing potential. The wingspan is gi-normous as one would expect for someone of Hal Gill's height, but he also moves pretty well for such a big man (less speed, but effective edgework). He's got a little puck skills, but is a work in progress who needs to improve speed of decisions and bring a more consistent physical presence.
Mike Mersch, LW University of Wisconsin (WCHA)-- Sound all-around winger isn't going to dazzle, but has good hands and a knack for making plays. He needs to get stronger, and that will come in time, but thinks the game well and how his draft goes will be largely dependent on how Mike Eaves uses him as a freshman.
Frankie Simonelli, D University of Wisconsin (WCHA)-- Another small, skilled defender who is a good four-way skater and can move the puck well. The Illinois native gets lost in the shuffle a bit, but is a strong two-way defender and has some interesting upside.
Cason Hohmann, RW Cedar Rapids (USHL)-- Tiny but highly skilled energy forward had a fine Ivan Hlinka tourney for Team USA, but may get passed over in draft because of concerns about size, lack of explosive jump. He's instinctive, feisty, has terrific hands and can really finish, but will need to put up huge points this year to hear his name called. Boston University recruit will be in Beantown for the 11-12 season.
Rocco Grimaldi, C U.S. NTDP Under-18 (USHL)-- Another extremely small, skilled forward, Grimaldi is the latest in the wave of NHL prospects from Southern California. He's dangerous and productive, but is also an outstanding skater. That gives him an edge when determining whether an NHL team will spend a draft pick on a player who is so undersized.