Now that we’ve moved beyond the halfway point of the season, it’s time to take a quick look at some of the top teams and top prospects in both the NCAA ranks and the Western Hockey League.
The college hockey season has certainly had its share of surprises this year. But one thing that has gone according to plan has been the play of the Denver Pioneers. Leading the way are seniors Rhett Rakhshani (NYI) and Tyler Ruegsegger (TOR).
The talented pair of forwards are closing out their careers on a very good note. Rakhshani has been scoring at a point-per-game pace, picking up key goals and delivering a solid, consistent effort. I’ve always had some questions about his upside and whether or not he had all the tools to make it at the next level. But he’s made steady progress over the years and has worked hard to make himself a better player. It would not surprise me to see him as a second line forward in the NHL.
Ruegsegger meanwhile has also improved his overall game over the past few seasons. He has a good skill level and works hard. I also like his hockey sense and his ability to work with different linemates. A lack of size will be a problem for him as he tries to transition to the pro game.
Forward Joe Colborne (BOS) has the ability to be a real force up front. His physical game is not at the level it should be, but he’s showing signs of being able to put the pieces together. He’s still a work in progress. One long-time college scout recently told me that he still believes Colborne would have been better served by staying in the junior ranks where a different style of play may have allowed him to develop quicker. I may not completely agree, but there is some truth to it. Players develop at their own pace and I think it’s just a matter of time for Colborne.
Speaking of player development, every time I see Patrick Wiercioch (OTT), I can’t believe how quickly his offensive game has come around. He moves the puck crisply and with confidence and he shows very good offensive instincts. There’s some work to do on his overall game, but I like what I’ve seen so far.
Freshman forward Drew Shore (FLA) has had a solid year and is getting a fair amount of ice time. Big defenseman William Wrenn (SJ) is also having a strong first year and is coming along nicely. Both players still have a few years to go, but so far it’s been a positive year of development for them.
Junior goalie Marc Cheverie (FLA) has been among the top two or three goalies in the country. He’s solid fundamentally, has good size, makes the first save and he doesn’t get rattled. He is an absolute workhorse in net who seems to get better when he faces more shots. The question right now is not unusual: is Cheverie making Denver look good, or is his team making him look good? I think it’s a little bit of both.
Helping make the Miami RedHawks a contender for the national championship has been winger Tommy Wingels (SJ). The junior forward has been remarkably consistent over his first three years. He has an above average scoring touch, good hockey sense and the ability to capitalize on opportunities. He’s beginning to play more physically and that can only enhance his chances at the next level.
Undersized forward Carter Camper is a highly skilled scorer who is always around the puck. He’s one of those players that you like to cheer for, but his game may not translate well in the pro ranks. After a somewhat disappointing campaign last year, Miami winger Jarod Palmer has rebounded with a solid season so far. He’s a reliable, consistent player and he’s now back on the prospect radar.
Wisconsin defenseman Brendan Smith (DET) is making a strong case for defenseman of the year. He can carry the puck out of his zone, make a clean outlet pass and he has a nice shot from the point. When he’s on his game, he’s a real force on the power play. He still has some breakdowns in the defensive zone, but I’m not too concerned. Smith has been getting a lot of ice time in all game situations, and this will only make him a better player long term. He’s not far from the NHL.
Forward Derek Stepan (NYR) is a terrific playmaker and a developing team leader for the Badgers. I like his skill level and his intensity. He can play physical and still display the finesse skills. He has an NHL style.
One of the more underrated players in the game is forward Michael Davies. He may not be a top pro prospect, but you really appreciate what he brings to the team. He has played an integral part in Wisconsin’s play over the last year or two and is the type of player that all quality teams seem to have.
Depth is always one of the keys to a team’s success. North Dakota has had a very strong season so far thanks in part to two very solid forward lines and good balance on defense.
Leading scorer Jason Gregoire (NYI) is a talented forward who can find the open man, doesn’t shy away from contact and can anticipate the play. Chris Vande Velde (EDM) has been solid albeit unspectacular. His numbers and overall play have been fine, but a lot of observers were hoping to see more from him. He can play a power game and he has a decent skill level. Freshman Danny Kristo (MTL) has had a very strong first season. The former Development team member really benefited from an additional year of junior hockey last season. He has speed, quickness and acceleration. Kristo is especially dangerous cutting toward the net.
Elsewhere in the college ranks, Corey Tropp’s newfound scoring prowess has taken a lot of scouts by surprise, myself included. The Michigan State winger has really stepped up his game this year, showing a lot more scoring potential than previously given credit for. After last year’s rather unforgettable season, the Sabres prospect definitely needed to bounce back in strong fashion. One scout commented to me that he’s been watching Tropp closely for four years and never thought he would be putting up this many goals.
While in East Lansing, I can’t help but notice Jeff Petry (EDM). The big blueliner is rapidly developing into a very solid two-way contributor. His puck movement and decision-making has really improved and he’s added stability in his own zone.
Glancing through a list of the top scorers in the country, you can’t help but notice a lot of talent. But unfortunately there’s not a lot of size. Massachusetts forward James Marcou has great hands and above average hockey sense, but he’s just too small to make it to the next level. He may not be doing it on a big stage, but Canisius winger Cory Conacher is a highly skilled player who can make plays at top speed. He’s on the small side, but he competes hard, has a very good shot and isn’t afraid of traffic. You can be sure there are some bigger schools that regret passing on him a few years ago.
Turning from college to the WHL, there are still as many six or seven teams that are challenging for the top spot. Saskatoon has been there from day one, and they have to be considered a leading contender.
Veteran forwards Derek Hulak and Walker Wintoneak have been terrific. They are what teams have in mind when they build around overage players. Hulak is a productive scorer and a big-game player. He thrives under pressure. Wintoneak meanwhile is a big, strong forward who wins the one-on-one battles and is tough to move from in front of the net. Calgary prospect Gaelan Patterson is an above average playmaker, a skilled player who may have an NHL future ahead of him. Mid-season acquisition Marek Viedensky (SJ) is a talented kid with a good passing touch and good size and he’s starting to draw more attention from the scouts. It’s important for him to maintain his consistency level.
On the blueline, Stefan Elliott (COL) has done a great job of leading the attack. He moves up on the play very effectively, showing a real knack of knowing when and where to step up. He also has nice vision from the point and he can fire the puck. The play in his own zone has been improving steadily, but his real strength is his offensive instinct. He remains a very good NHL prospect.
While the Tri City Americans may rank near the top of the league standings, they have not assembled a great crop of future NHLers. While they may be getting great results at the junior level, many of their top guys simply don’t project as top prospects. Forward Brendan Shinnimin emerged this year to carry a big part of the offense, but his lack of size is a problem. But he have good hands and puck skills and he is deceptively strong. Veteran Johnny Lazo has a similar description —- skilled but small.
In net, the Americans have relied on Drew Owsley. An undersized, acrobatic goalie, Owsley has come up big when called upon. Once again, he may not be NHL material, but at the junior level, he’s been terrific.
Medicine Hat has begun to emerge from the pack thanks to impressive forward depth and an underrated defense. Center Wacey Hamilton isn’t blessed with great size, but he’s solidly built, he gets involved and he has good playmaking ability. He logs a lot of ice time and he’s stepped into his role as one of the team’s leaders. Bretton Cameron is another veteran who has impressed me. He’s having a career year relying on quickness, a nice release and the ability to find the openings on the ice. LA Kings prospect Linden Vey is playing well, but his progress has been slow. I won’t characterize it as disappointing, but I know some observers were hoping he would have elevated his game a bit further by now.
Rookie Emerson Etem is a real diamond in the rough. He is exciting player who has a burst of speed and a good scoring touch. His physical game needs to develop and he has some defensive breakdowns, but improvement in these areas should come with time. Etem has to be considered one of the more intriguing players for the upcoming 2010 draft.
The Brandon Wheat Kings have set themselves up for what may be a long playoff run. Their forward balance and depth ranks among the best in the league, led by Matt Calvert (CBJ), Aaron Lewadniuk, Jay Fehr, Brayden Schenn (LA), Scott Glennie (DAL) and Toni Rajala (EDM). On the blueline Colby Robak (FLA) has become quite an offensive threat, although his lack of physical play is still an issue. But his positioning and puck skills are awfully impressive.
And once Travis Hamonic (NYI) is able to integrate himself into the lineup, the defense will get even stronger. Hamonic had been having a great season, and catches one off guard with his puck skills and two-way game. He has emerged as a very solid prospect who is beginning to realize how good he can be.
One player who seems to be a hot topic among scouts is Edmonton Oil Kings defenseman Mark Pysyk. He seems to have quite a polarizing effect on scouts. The draft-eligible blueliner has his share of both detractors and supporters. Some feel he is a smart, skilled defenseman with the tools to be a potential top-pairing guy. Others think he simply hasn’t lived up to the lofty expectations and is a product of hype. I happen to think he is a well above average prospect who deserves a spot in the top 15 in June’s draft.