Mar 252011

No, I’m not talking about the one that features Mike Krzyzewski’s helmet hair or Kansas’ Morris twins. I’m talking about the hockey tournament, in which 16 of the NCAA’s top Division I programs vie for the national championship. I’ve been a long-time fan of college hockey and it’s one of the best tournaments in the world, but it just doesn’t get nearly enough attention. But anyway, here are the players to watch.

The Hurricanes may have given up on Jack Johnson too early after he refused to leave Michigan early, but the organization has two new blue-chippers in Boston College’s Brian Dumoulin and Minnesota-Duluth’s Justin Faulk. Following in the footsteps of John Carlson, Jack Johnson, and Erik Johnson, Dumoulin and Faulk are both considered offense-first players. Both players were taken in the second round, with Dumoulin going a year earlier in 2009 and entering his sophomore season with the Eagles. In the long run, Dumoulin’s superior size (6’3″) may give him an edge over Faulk (6′), even if Faulk is the more willing of the two to make the physical play.

Another player to watch is another Boston College Eagle Jimmy Hayes. The 6’5″ power winger’s goal totals has increased every year in three seasons, from 8 to 13 to 20 this year. The Leafs under Brian Burke have done very well with NCAA players, with Tyler Bozak (Denver) already playing a significant role, Christian Hanson (Notre Dame) getting a few call-ups, and Jerry D’Amigo (RPI), who has made the transition from college hockey to the OHL to the AHL in a span of just two years. That means the kid can play, even though he’s now a Blackhawk.

Cam Atkinson

While Dumoulin patrols the blueline for the Eagles, Columbus prospect Cam Atkinson leads the offensive charge. At just 5’8″, it was one of the biggest reasons Atkinson fell to 157th overall, but with his second consecutive 30-goal season he’s starting to get people’s attention. His willingness to get into the dirty areas is a big reason for his success, which is why he’s often compared to another former Eagle, Brian Gionta, who topped 30 goals in three of his four years. The Jackets aren’t averse to small players (Matt Calvert) or enigmatic ones (Nikita Filatov), which means they’re more than willing to at least give Atkinson a shot at a roster spot down the road.

If there was any organization that really takes its times when developing prospects, it’s the Red Wings. Some teams like CHL players more because they progress faster, by virtue of their heavy workload and long season, but 2010 first round pick Riley Sheahan isn’t in a rush to get anywhere. The offensive production from the Notre Dame pivot has been underwhelming, but he possesses good size (6’2″, 200 lbs.) and his work ethic suggests that he could be an effective checking line centre down the road. The Wings may have to look elsewhere for high-end offensive talent, but Sheahan has the ability to make an impact on the team the way Kris Draper and Darren McCarty had.

Drew Shore may be the only stamp from Randy Sexton’s unfairly short one-year tenure as the Panthers’ GM. Sexton’s got a real eye for talent (he also drafted Dmitry Kulikov and Scott Timmins, both NHLers now, and Corban Knight, one of North Dakota’s best forwards) and is currently the Penguins’ head of amateur scouting. Shore, who had only 5 goals in his freshmen year, has become DU’s most dangerous offensive weapon, leading the team in scoring with 45 points in 38 games. Drew is the older and much bigger of the two Shore brothers – Nick is draft eligible this year and is a potential first round pick.

North Dakota’s Derek Forbort may be the most physically imposing defender of the group. At 6’5″ and still filling out, Forbort plays a strong two-way game and projects to be a top four defenseman in the NHL. I think Forbort, taken in last year’s draft at 15th overall, made parting with Colten Teubert easier, who was sent packing to Edmonton in exchange for Dustin Penner. Forbort enters the tournament without ever having scored a goal at the NCAA level, but he does have 15 assists. His offensive game won’t turn any heads but it’s not a liability, and in all likelihood Forbort will be making his name at the NHL level with his size.

Jason Zucker

The Wild haven’t had a lot of luck drafting high-end talent (Benoit Pouliot, James Sheppard, Colton Gillies) and even those who have panned out don’t stay at the top very long (PM Bouchard), but Jason Zucker may buck that trend. The Vegas-born winger is one of the many weapons the Denver Pioneers employ and uses his speed to his advantage, having netted 21 goals this year as a freshmen, an outstanding total. He’s not afraid to get involved physically either, which will benefit him when in the Western Conference. He was an absolute steal as the 59th pick in the 2010 draft.

Louis Leblanc is now Montreal’s most prized prospect, but before he came along there was Danny Kristo. The Habs simply love plucking players from the NCAA, having chosen New Hampshire’s Max Pacioretty and Wisconsin’s Ryan McDonagh. The North Dakota forward is your typical Habs prospect: a NCAA product, undersized but with plenty of skating ability, grit, and may score some goals now and then. Drafting these types of players have served the Habs well and Kristo will be a serviceable NHLer, but he’s not a high-end prospect. His sophomore season hasn’t been as good as his freshmen year, but the kid’s a winner, having won World Jr. gold and a national title.

A lot of people complained about how much the Devils gave up for Ilya Kovalchuk, but Patrice Cormier and Nicklas Bergfors may turn out to be two of the weaker prospects in their system. I honestly think Jacob Josefsen and Mattias Tedenby have much higher upside, but the true gem in that organization is Jon Merrill, Michigan’s top defender. A fluid skater with excellent puck-moving ability, he may be the answer to the Devils’ horrendous transition game and lack of a true PP quarterback, even if he is a couple years down the road. Matt Taormina may hold down the fort but that Devils blueline is Merrill’s to patrol for years to come.

Other than Brian Boyle, the Rangers may be lacking some size up front but worry not, Chris Kreider is coming. The big power forward has a NHL-body already, standing at 6’2″ and weighing in at a hefty 215 lbs. Originally thought of as a long-term project, Kreider’s is enjoying a good sophomore year at Boston College, having been named the MVP of the Beanpot Classic this year. He’s a big performer at the world stage, and with 10 goals under his belt at the WJC he’s now tied for third all-time with John LeClair and Mike Modano, trailing Jeremy Roenick (11) and Brian Gionta (13). Not a bad company.

Pittsburgh’s never-ending search for a winger to play alongside Sidney Crosby may have been solved by acquiring James Neal but Denver’s Beau Bennett is the more likely long-term solution. A goal-scoring winger (complete with an awesome name – ‘Beau’ is short for ‘Beauregard’), Bennett is yet another one of the new wave of California kids with high-end skill (Emerson Etem and Jon Blum are two others). After playing in the BCHL and drafted in the WHL, Bennett decided to go the college route and has 9 goals in his freshmen year.

Jaden Schwartz

If there’s one specific high-end prospect that you should keep an eye out for, it’s St. Louis’ Jaden Schwartz, playing out of Colorado College. By far Canada’s best forward at the WJC before suffering a tournament-ending injury, I think Schwartz may be the Blues’ best offensive prospect. That’s saying a lot considering that this is the same organization that has David Perron, Patrik Berglund, and TJ Oshie. A graduate of the famed Saskatchewan-based  Notre Dame Hounds hockey program, the same school that produced Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards, Schwartz turned down Tri-City’s offer to join the WHL and elected to join older brother Rylan at Colorado College. Schwartz has some of the best puck skills I’ve seen in recent years and as a freshmen he’s absolutely tearing it up with 42 points in just 28 games. The Tigers’ leading scorer, Stephen Schultz, has just one more point than Schwartz but has also dressed in 13 more games.

Like any tournament, a team with a good goalie has the potential to go deep, and the Canucks’ sixth round gem Joe Cannata could very well do just that. Playing out of North Andover’s Merrimack College in the very tough Hockey East conference, Cannata has been sensational for the Warriors, who have found themselves back in the tournament for the first time since 1988. With 25 wins, a 2.44 GAA, and a save percentage north of .910, Cannata is easily Merrimack’s MVP, despite them having the highly sought after Stephane Da Costa. Like Steve Nash during his days at Santa Clara, Cannata’s achievements have been overlooked this year, although he did make the ballot for the Hobey Baker Award. Like Cory Schneider, Cannata is a Massachusetts native and while he may not come with the same pedigree, the Canucks seem to be very good when it comes to New England goalies.

For the full list of players in the tournament that have already been drafted by NHL teams, click here.

  One Response to “Who to Watch: NCAA Tournament”

  1. […] 9. St. Louis – a pivotal season for a young team 10. Columbus – dark horse, glad to see Cam Atkinson make the squad 11. Edmonton – scores a lot, will also get scored on a lot 12. Minnesota […]

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