Next up in the regular season recap just in time for the NCAA tourney is a review of the top collegiate players eligible for the NHL draft. We'll also take a look at a couple of overagers and even close out with a few potential free agent signings.
1. Jamie Oleksiak, D Northeastern (HE)- We covered the mammoth (6-7, 244) defenseman for the Huskies in pretty good detail earlier this month after seeing him in Boston, so we won't rehash here other than to say he's a big riser in draft discussions. Admittedly, B2011DW is not as sold on his high-end upside, though we have no doubt that he will be an NHL player at some point simply because his size and mobility will earn him a job in the big show as a shutdown defender if nothing else. His coordination and footwork are so good for an 18-year-old player with his height and long limbs (read: call him "Condorman" with that gigantic wingspan of his and long stick)- usually, kids as young as he is are gangly and struggle with their movements into they grow into their bodies. Not so with Oleksiak, which is what makes him so intriguing. That said, his overall instincts and vision are questionable, and while he's got a bomb of a shot, he's going to need to refine his mechanics and release in order to make it work at the next level. Better yet, change it up and use the wrist shot and snap shot to bury pucks when he's short on time and space to get the howitzer off. But other than that, he's a legitimate 1st-round prospect and the best NCAA player in this class by a pretty wide margin. Oleksiak finished his freshman season with four goals and 13 points in 38 NCAA games, while adding 57 minutes in the box. Time will tell whether he lives up to the promise some scouts are talking about seeing with him, but when taking chances on players with high draft picks, it's all about the projection, and he has some of the most intriguing raw upside of any prospect in 2011.
Check out Northeastern coach Greg Cronin's comments about Oleksiak's winning goal at 2:32 of this video. Uh-huh. What we've been saying.
2. Matt Nieto, LW Boston University (HE)- Another second-half riser. We were pretty unimpressed with Nieto early on, when it looked like the SoCal native was overmatched in the bigger, faster, more physical Hockey East. But to his credit, he really picked it up and late season viewings were night and day compared to what we saw in the fall and early winter. Nieto's wheels and hands are elite; he can put defenses on their heels at whim and he's doing a lot more to drive the net and use his creativity to generate scoring chances.The 5-11, 185-pound forward finished his freshman season with10 goals and 23 points in 39 games, but much of his production came from January-March. We see him as a late 1st-round darkhorse who could break into the top-30 picks because a strong team drafting late believes in his skills and upside, but also realizes the time and patience it will take to develop Nieto. If he drops into the second, he won't last very long- his game-breaking element is simply too attractive to pass on.
Here's a great shortside snipe by Nieto which not only shows you his impressive breakaway speed but his hands as he fires the puck past John Muse
3. Adam Clendening, D Boston University (HE)- Once seen as a solid 1st-rounder in some circles, the Western New Yorker is a polarizing figure for scouts this season. Most acknowledge and respect his vision and soft hands for moving the puck and distributing very well in the offensive zone and while on the power play. On the downside, he's under 6-feet and doesn't have the kind of explosive jump and top-end speed NHL teams want in smaller defenders. He's not a bad skater at all, but without the separation speed and short distance acceleration, scouts are wondering where he projects at the NHL level. He's a quality player and competitor- this is the kind of guy who you can easily envision a team with multiple early picks spending a second-round choice on because he is one of the better PMDs in this draft class. At the same time, because he carries risk because of the lack of size and dynamic skating, a player like Clendening could fall to the third round. Although we like him a lot, B2011DW doesn't see a first-round future for the Terrier who scored 5 goals and 26 points in 39 games as a freshman. He is a winner, though- having won a pair of Under-18 gold medals in '09 and '10 and just missing the cut for the 2011 WJC (Under-20) this past winter. He's no stiff, but the dreaded "'tweener" word has been used by a couple of NHL guys with him, so we'll have to see. For what its worth- Red Line Report has him ranked 38th overall in their March listing.
Here's a local feature from Buffalo on Clendening last summer while he was trying to make the U.S. WJC team.
4. Michael Mersch, LW Wisconsin (WCHA)- This two-way center is one of the draft's true stealth fighters. At 6-1, 195, he has nice size, is a good skater and plays an honest, hard-working game in all zones. Mersch's numbers aren't much to get excited about- 8 goals, 19 points with the Badgers this season in 41 games. But, to focus on the stats is not to see the longer-term potential in this kid's game. He's lacking in lower body drive and physical mass. When he gets stronger, he's going to generate more power in his skating stride and be stronger on the puck. Scouts we talked to said that he was on the wrong side of many physical matchups this season, but it wasn't for a lack of trying. When he gets more mature and experienced, we could see Mersch becoming a solid scorer at this level and looks like he'll eventually be a steady 3rd-line guy in the NHL with enough skill to possibly break into a team's top-six at some point.
5. Nick Shore, C Denver University (WCHA)- This skilled, speedy center had to contend with injuries and a slow start, but if the second half is any indication for the Colorado native (and brother of Florida Panthers prospect Drew Shore), he'll go within the top-60 picks of the June draft. Shore is a fine skater with a fluid stride and some gitty-up in his step. He can handle the puck well at speed and sees the ice well/ is a deft passer and setup man. He's a versatile, hard-working guy who can be used in all situations. He's not all that big at 6-0, 185, but comes from a family of good athletes and will add enough strength to his frame that it should not be an issue for him. Factor in that he's in a very good pro-style program at Denver, and he's a pretty well-rounded prospect with some promise. Solid 2nd-rounder in our view after scoring 7 goals and 18 points in 37 games this season and showing flashes of first-round talent.
6. Patrick Koudys, D RPI (ECAC)- At 6-4 and 210 pounds, this freshman Engineer is quite mobile and intriguing, but he didn't play much of an offensive role for his team this year, worked into the mix slowly. He had just 1 goal and 3 points in 30 games, but still has the physical tools to be an intriguing player worth a mid-round developmental pick. He came from the OJHL where he had 5 goals and 33 points, so there is some potential to play more of a two-way game as he gains experience and his ice time increases, but right now, the Smithville, Ontario native is flying under the radar a bit. Think of him as a poor man's Jamie Oleksiak- not quite as big and lacking in the pure upside, but precisely the kind of player NHL teams will roll the dice on.
7. Dillon Simpson, D University of North Dakota (WCHA)- A bit of a disappointing season for a player scouts had some real high hopes for coming in. The son of former NHL forward and HNIC analyst Craig Simpson (and nephew of television reporter Christine Simpson) has decent size at 6-1, 195. He scored 2 goals and 10 points in 30 games as a freshman and wasn't overly involved in the offensive scheme/didn't get a lot of ice time. He's a work in progress who has some soft hands and hockey sense, but isn't a great skater. He's slow out of the blocks and needs to work on his stride to get the most out of his movement. Scouts see intriguing elements of his game, but after 12 goals and 41 points last year with Spruce Grove of the AJHL, more of an impact was expected from him- he did not deliver. This is not to say Simpson isn't a legitimate NHL prospect- he is. He grew up around the game and has the natural athleticism to be a player, but this season showed that it is going to take time and he'd require a leap of faith for a team to draft him in the first two rounds.
8. Frankie Simonelli, D Wisconsin (WCHA)- Another undersized defender who has some real good wheels, Simonelli is a U.S. NTDP product like Nieto, Clendening, Mersch and Shore (are we sensing a trend here?) However, scouts we've talked to don't have great things to say about his instincts and vision. Despite his mobility and good puck skills, he didn't produce much in the NTDP and had 2 goals 11 points in 39 games this year as a freshman. Said to have a tendency to force things that aren't there, he makes too many mistakes and is a draft wildcard- might not get picked at all. He'll be a serviceable NCAA player in the next couple of years, though.
Overagers in draft
Not a comprehensive list, but here are three guys passed over in 2010 who could get the nod the second time around.
T.J. Tynan,C Notre Dame University (CCHA)- Tiny (5-8, 160) but dynamic playmaker racked up 55 assists in 60 USHL games with Des Moines last season and was highly regarded for his speed, hands, creativity and willingness to go into traffic. Yet, no team called his name. Well, after 22 goals and 52 points as a freshman with the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame last season, look for him to get a call even if it comes in the latter rounds. The Feb. 1992 BD is the kind of small guy you roll the dice on, because he's a proven producer and shows the attributes you look for in terms of a player who keeps his feet moving, is always involved in each shift, and displays the kind of creativity and high-end hockey sense that's worth taking a chance on.
Chase Balisy, F Western Michigan University (CCHA)- Average-sized, but highly skilled forward had a nice impact as a freshman, scoring 12 goals and 30 points in 41 games, good for second on his team. He's good quick feet and is a very good stickhandler. He may just have done enough as Feb. '92 to get drafted, but you never know.
Sahir Gill, F Boston University- Undersized forward (5-10, 180) from British Columbia brings a good mix of speed and skill to the mix. Got off to a quick start for the Terriers, but tailed off in production toward the end, finishing with 6 goals and 25 points in 39 games. Kind of went the opposite direction of Nieto, impressing early, but fading as the grind of the college season wore on. He's got some jump and creativity, and just might be a guy an NHL team will call in the 6th or 7th round.
This is not a comprehensive list, but a few names who could be signed this week, or whenever their NCAA teams get eliminated from the national championship tournament (or go the distance). It's heavy on the Hockey East because that's where we have our most access, but this will give you an idea of a couple of intriguing guys out there.
Stephane Da Costa, C Merrimack (HE)- The straw that stirred Merrimack's drink- this native of France will be in high demand by NHL clubs lining up to sign this creative, game-breaking scorer. With 14 goals and 44 points in 32 games this season, the former USHL standout with Sioux City has 30 goals and 89 points in two seasons in the Hockey East. An elite puckhandler, he doesn't have explosive speed, but weaves in and out of defenses effortlessly and uses his superior hands, vision and instincts to get things going. He's gotten stronger and worked on his overall game. Although only 5-11, 180- the 21-year-old has the makings of a very good pro. Although just a sophomore, its time for him to move on.
Paul Thompson, LW UNH (HE)- This short, but stock and strong power winger is one of the better pure goal scorers in the college free agent market. The former Pinkerton Astro from Derry, N.H. is the rare superstar at UNH who actually hails from the Granite State. He doesn't have a great first few steps, but is effective when he gets up to speed and is adept at ripping shots home off the rush. He bulls his way to the net and is strong, powerful despite only being about 6-feet. He has a knack for finding loose pucks in front of the net and burying them. Good character guy who will boost an organization, even if may require seasoning to reach the NHL level. Scored 28 goals and 54 points in 37 games for the Wildcats this season, giving him 47 in 78 games over the last two years.
Andy Miele, C Miami (CCHA)- Small, heady offensive playmaker who is a terrific passer and thinks the game better than most. He's not a blazer, but gets where he needs to go. Instinctive, opportunistic scorer who plays with a lot of energy and hustle- outworks opponents and stays tenacious on the puck. Solid all-around guy who is limited only by his 5-8 frame and lack of strength- classic overachiever who is more than the sum of his parts. The Michigander has racked up 39 goals and 115 points in his last two seasons, totaling 81 games.
Chace Polacek, C RPI (ECAC)- Another small (5-8) but heady, nasty scoring player. Has a wicked shot and has been a proven scorer over the past two seasons, accounting for 47 tallies and 100 points in 76 games for the Engineers in two seasons (21 goals, 48 points in 37 games this year). From Edina, Minnesota, he's another pure scorer who just knows how to find the back of the net and has worked hard to overcome his size deficiencies.
Tyler Elbrecht, D Minnesota- Mankato (WCHA)- Big (6-4, 210) meat-and-potatoes defender from Illinois doesn't have a lot of flash, but has great strength, reach and uses his positioning to play effectively in his own end. Not much offensive upside here, and his skating is only OK, but he has the natural size and toughness to be an NHL depth guy down the road.
John Muse, G Boston College (HE)- We have liked this guy since seeing him compete like a madman at Nobles (where his teammates included current New Jersey Devils rookie D Mark Fayne). Muse has won a pair of national championships and could win a third, which would be an amazing feat. He's small, and that's the problem as far as NHL teams are concerned, and why he's never been drafted. Small goalies pretty much have to force themselves into the picture these days, but with his quickness, technique and winning pedigree, he just might get a shot to make it somewhere. It will take a lot of work and time on his part, but he's one of the more athletic and dynamic little goalies to come around in a long time.
We know there are more free agents out there, but we'll wrap up this post for now and possibly revisit later.