Los Angeles Kings NCAA seniors look to finish careers in style

By Jason Lewis
Michael Mersch - Wisconsin Badgers

Photo: Senior Michael Mersch, who led Wisconsin with 22 goals during the 2013-14 regular season, scored both Badger goals in their semifinal win over Penn State in the Big Ten tournament (courtesy of Dan Sanger/Icon SMI)

 
In recent years, the Los Angeles Kings have grown into one of the better organizations at scouting and recruiting in the NCAA. Despite losing highly regarded forward Hudson Fasching to the Buffalo Sabres via trade, they still boast an incredibly deep and talented group of NCAA prospects.

That group includes a power forward from Wisconsin, a freshman for UND, and a trio of St. Cloud State Huskies coming off a division title. They have also dabbled into the European market for the first time in a while in selecting the mercurial talent Nikolai Prokhorkin.

Even more impressive is the fact that the organization has selected these players in the fourth round and beyond, leaving them in the category of low risk but high reward. The strategy has yielded results in the past, and is looking like a score in the present. Several of their mid and late-round NCAA selections are seniors coming off tremendous careers and look ready for an impact at the next level.

NCAA

Kevin Gravel, D, St. Cloud State Huskies (NCHC)
Drafted 5th round, 148th overall in 2010

St. Cloud State was a force yet again this year, and it granted them the first ever NCHC title. The new division seemed to be no problem for the Huskies, and they were led by a trio of LA Kings prospects. First and foremost, the anchor on the St. Cloud State blue line for another year was big Kevin Gravel. Over the course of his collegiate career, Gravel has slowly but surely made a name for himself as perhaps the best shutdown defenseman currently playing at the NCAA level. This year was no different, as the senior was a stalwart in his own end. However, he took a step forward on the offensive side of the puck setting career highs in both goals and points. His unprecedented 10 goals leads the team's defensemen on the season.

There is no doubting the defensive and physical prowess of Gravel at this point, as he is the team’s primary shutdown defenseman and penalty killer. His defensive game and discipline have been staples of his style for many years now, but that is not stopping him from continuing to develop in other areas. He is still growing and evolving his game and the offensive numbers reflect that. At 6’4, Gravel can certainly put a lot of juice into his point shots, and that confidence to rip them on net has yielded dividends for the former fifth round selection. He was highlighted as the best King defensemen currently in the system in our spring Top 20, and his stock has never been higher. With the final year of his NCAA career coming to a close, hopefully Gravel and his teammates can lead the Huskies to another deep Frozen Four run. The Huskies were upset by Miami in the opening round of the NCHC tournament, but could still receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Jonny Brodzinski, RW, St. Cloud State Huskies (NCHC)
Drafted 5th round, 148th overall in 2013

The young forward was drafted in the same exact spot by the Kings as Kevin Gravel, only three years later, and he is building a similar reputation as perhaps another late round steal. In his first season as a King prospect he has certainly created a hype around himself with his standout play. The Minnesota native was marvelous in his freshman year, scoring 22 goals and 33 points in 42 games. This season, Brodzinski crossed the point-per-game line, and has 20 goals and 39 points in just 36 games. Those 39 points were good enough to tie Nic Dowd for lead on the Huskies in scoring, not bad for a sophomore. It also seems that the consistency issues that have plagued him in the past have all but deteriorated, as he was one of the most consistent contributors for the squad on a nightly basis. Brodzinski’s offensive skills have been showcased more frequently this season and it is apparent that like current King prospect Tyler Toffoli, he loves to shoot. The 20-year-old has easily been the team’s most dynamic offensive forward this season and is a threat whenever he gets the puck in his stick in the offensive zone. He will need to continue to be that kind of a threat if they want to drive deep into the NCAA tournament again.

Nic Dowd, C, St. Cloud State Huskies (NCHC)
Drafted 7th round, 198th overall in 2009

Dowd is often overlooked amongst the pool of prospects playing in the NCAA, but he has been a significant contributor up the middle of the ice for St. Cloud in the last two seasons. His steps forward from freshman year to senior year have been outstanding. Dowd plays with a high energy and edge to his game that has helped him notch a team-high 10 power play goals, as well as two shorthanded goals this season. As the number one all-situations centerman for the Huskies, Dowd has been challenged all season to maintain a high level of play. The final push of the season was particularly impressive, as Dowd finished off with 20 points in the team’s last 15 games. He was named to the NCHC First All-Star team for his efforts this season.

His game has many facets to it, as he can play an agitating high-energy style but also possesses the hands and awareness to be an offensive threat. Do not sleep on him defensively either as his penalty kill contribution was strong as well this season. He is a complete player, and this sort of variety has made Dowd’s stock rise in the last two years.

Paul LaDue, D, University of North Dakota (NCHC)
Drafted 6th round, 181st overall in 2012

North Dakota was looking at a potentially difficult year as only four seniors and eight juniors were slated to be on the squad. They would also be missing the key contributions of graduates Corban Knight (CGY), Danny Kristo (NYR), Derek Forbort (LAK), and Joe Gleason. However, the young blood has come to the forefront for UND and Paul LaDue is one of the many talents that stepped up this season. Overall, the team finished second in the NCHC and survived their first round series against Colorado College to start the playoffs.

LaDue, a former standout defenseman with the Lincoln Stars of the USHL, had to earn his ice time this freshman season. He was battling it out with NHL prospects Gage Ausmus (SJS), Keaton Thompson (ANH), and Troy Stecher. Amongst the four, Stecher and LaDue picked up the majority of the game action.

LaDue played in every game except for one this season, currently ranking fourth in team scoring amongst defenseman. He was also utilized on the team’s second power play unit and potted two power play goals on the year. The question around the defenseman entering the season was whether he would be able to translate the up-tempo offensive game he had in the USHL to the NCAA. There were definitely flashes of it throughout the year. He was named to the NCHC All-Rookie team for his efforts this year, and he will be a very intriguing talent to keep an eye on moving forward in his NCAA career. With a little more shine to his defensive game LaDue could develop into a solid all-around defenseman with an offensive edge.

Michael Mersch, LW, University of Wisconsin Badgers (Big Ten)
Drafted 4th round, 110th overall in 2011

The senior power forward had another strong outing with the Badgers in 2013-14, recording his second straight 20-goal season. Wisconsin finished second in the Big Ten and Mersch was a key contributor as usual. The Badgers will play for the Big Ten tournament championship and will be looking at Mersch to be a leader yet again. A fine senior year by the 21-year-old Mersch is another one in a long list of accomplishments, and is a great jumping off point for him as he approaches the professional level. He will likely be signed by Manchester and taste AHL hockey for the first time after the Badgers complete their playoff run. His strong net front presence and silky smooth hands have seen him cap out as a 20-goal scorer in the NCAA and it will be interesting to see how that translates onwards and upwards. He was an outstanding power play specialist for the Badgers this season with 10 extra man goals, and even chipped in with a shorthanded goal. All these things bode well for the senior, and he is one step closer to moving into a bigger pond.

Joel Lowry, LW, Cornell Big Red (ECAC)
Drafted 5th round, 140th overall in 2011

If Lowry has been one thing in his career at the NCAA it is consistent. The junior finished up another season with the Cornell Big Red, and again had a point total in the low 20’s. His 24 points is tied for second on the team this year and his 17 assists tie for the team lead. He was a useful forward for coach Mike Schafer, playing every situation throughout the year. Lowry was an integral part to the Big Red finishing up fourth in the conference, and currently getting ready to take on Clarkson in the quarterfinals of the ECAC tournament. From a developmental standpoint it would be nice to see Lowry take a bigger step forward in his offensive game as he nears the end of his college career, but he has not taken steps back either which is good.

The 2011 draft pick is a microcosm of the Big Red system in a way. He is not flashy offensively, but tends to get work done in his own end in order to make up for the lack of goal scoring. With his big 6’2 frame and a solid defensive acumen, Lowry is an intriguing prospect from an organizational standpoint. His defense-first game and already NHL size plays right into the scheme that the Kings tend to run. After a down year in 2012-13, it is good to see Lowry and the Big Red making the ECAC semi-finals before falling to top-ranked Union.

Europe

Nikolai Prokhorkin, LW, CSKA Moscow (KHL)
Drafted 4th round, 121st overall in 2012

The young Russian put all doubters to rest in terms of his hockey ability with an outstanding regular season in the KHL with CSKA Moscow in 2013-14. On a team with former NHL players like Viktor Kozlov, Alexei Morozov, Jan Mursak, and Alexander Radulov, it was the 20-year old Prokhorkin who led the team in scoring, with 37 points and 19 goals in 52 games. Prokhorkin was amongst the league’s youngest players playing a significant amount of time this season, and he was also selected to the KHL All-Star game. In fact, he was the youngest player participating in the event. Unfortunately for Prokhorkin and CSKA, they were swept out of the first round of the playoffs by second-seeded SKA St. Petersburg. Prokhorkin tallied a goal and an assist in the series while going a minus-one.

The nice thing about the former fourth round selection is that he is not shy about playing a North American style. It quickly becomes apparent when you see him that can play a North American game despite his play in the very different world of the KHL. He is physical, will hit, absorbs hits, and is not against moving to the corners or the front of the net. It is also part of the reason why he has had such a successful season with CSKA. The hope here is that Prokhorkin can build on this successful season and continue to play a strong physical game for another two years when he is available to head to North America.

Tomas Hyka, RW, Farjestad (SHL)
Drafted 6th round, 171st overall in 2012

Czech forward Thomas Hyka has had a bit of a difficult transition year going from the QMJHL to the professional levels of Sweden. 2013-14 marked his first of a two-year stint with top level Swedish Hockey League club Farjestad. While the club itself did well enough to qualify for the post-season, it will be without young Hyka in the lineup. After a season of 40 games and nine points for the skilled winger, he was loaned to Vasteras of the Allsvenskan (Swedish second tier) in February. Hyka, was playing incredibly limited minutes with Farjestad and the club felt the 20-year-old would be better served in a situation with more playing time. He had one goal in three appearances with the club.

Hyka is still an intriguing player with plenty of skill, and this year has been one of significant transition. Having seen him struggle in the SHL, next season will be a gigantic one in terms of statement for his NHL future. Perhaps he can settle into the professional realm a bit better in his sophomore season but at this point he seems like he is on the outside looking in.

Follow Jason Lewis on Twitter via @SirJDL

 

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