Matheson, Skjei lead strong crop of drafted NCAA defensemen

By DJ Powers
Michael Matheson - Boston College

Photo: Boston College defenseman and Florida Panthers prospect Michael Matheson is the captain for the 10th-ranked Eagles in 2014-15 (courtesy of Richard T. Gagnon/Getty Images

 

For the 2014-15 season, there are 75 NHL-drafted defensemen playing in the NCAA. The 10 drafted defensemen ranked in this article represent six NHL teams, with the Florida Panthers and the St. Louis Blues each having two prospects ranked. The 10 players also represent eight NCAA programs playing in four of the six conferences.

The rankings are based on overall developmental progress, season performance and NHL potential. Unless otherwise noted, all stats are current as of Feb. 10th.

1. Michael Matheson, Junior, Boston College (Hockey East)
Drafted: First round (23rd overall) in 2012 by the Florida Panthers

Michael Matheson tops this year’s ranking, having developed into a well-rounded collegiate defenseman with few weaknesses who is probably the most pro-ready. Simply put, Matheson is the complete package as collegiate defensemen go.

The Pointe-Claire, QC native had the opportunity to sign with Florida this past summer but opted to return to Boston College for his junior campaign, a decision has greatly benefited the very young Eagles team. Matheson, who serves as team captain, provides strong leadership and stability that have been vital to Boston College’s success. He currently is tied for the lead on the Eagles with 15 assists and is his team’s top offensive defensemen with 17 points in 28 games to date.

Matheson possesses all the necessary tools and desirable frame (6’2”, 194 lbs.) to be successful at the NHL level. And over the course of his collegiate career he has refined those attributes, making him one of the most difficult defensemen to go up against. One notable area where Matheson has developed quite well is his ability to move the puck without breaking stride. This has allowed him to create plays more effectively and has quickened his transition game, as well.

2. Brady Skjei, Junior, University of Minnesota (Big Ten)
Drafted: First round (28th overall) in 2012 by the New York Rangers

Brady Skjei has developed into the top defenseman coming out of the Big Ten as well as among the nation’s very best. He is more well-rounded and has made the greatest progress among Minnesota’s NHL prospect-laden blueline, putting him squarely into this year’s top 10.

To date, the Lakeville, MN native has posted eight points (one goal, seven assists) in 20 games this season. His lone goal on the season so far came in the Golden Gophers 5-3 win over Bemidji State back on Oct. 25th. Skjei missed time earlier in the season due to two separate injuries. While the injuries limited his playing time, it hasn’t hindered his overall performance and effectiveness.

Skjei’s time at the New York Rangers development camp this past summer went a long way in helping him at Minnesota this season. One notable area where Skjei has made great strides has been in his ability to utilize his superb skating and passing skills to make plays. This is evident in how creative he has become in moving with the puck as well as setting up plays. Skjei also possesses a pro-style shot and uses it advantageously. This season, his shot selections are vastly better and of higher quality.

3. Jordan Schmaltz, Junior, University of North Dakota (NCHC)
Drafted: First round (25th overall) in 2012 by the St. Louis Blues

Jordan Schmaltz is arguably one of the nation’s best skating defensemen. What sets him apart from many collegiate rearguards is how he combines his superb skating and elite-level puck skills to create opportunities. These attributes, along with his vast potential make him one of the top defensive prospects playing in the NCAA.

The Verona, WI native currently leads all North Dakota defensemen with 21 points (three goals, 18 assists) in 27 games. Schmaltz quarterbacks the team’s power play and, not surprisingly, it’s where all of his goals have come so far. He also is tied for fourth on North Dakota’s roster with a +9 rating.

One of the things that Schmaltz does exceedingly well is how he utilizes his puck skills to push the pace and open up the ice. Another area that has progressed quite nicely is his puck movement. He manages the puck well and can move it quickly. Furthermore, he can make passes with good precision, too. Schmaltz’s excellent transition game has benefited not only his offensive game, but his defensive game as well. He does a great job of taking away space and can beat opposing forwards to loose pucks.

4. Ian McCoshen, Sophomore, Boston College (Hockey East)
Drafted: Second round (31st overall) in 2013 by the Florida Panthers

Ian McCoshen continues to develop into one of college hockey’s steadiest and most reliable rearguards, having already made some notable strides in several areas.

The Faribault, MN native has played in 25 games this season, posting 10 points (two goals, eight assists). He is on pace to potentially eclipse his 13 points of last season. Furthermore, he currently ranks second on the Eagles roster with a +14 rating. For much of the season, McCoshen has been paired with freshman sensation Noah Hanifin, who was also his defensive partner with Team USA at the recent World Junior Championship.

McCoshen plays a simple yet effective game, and it’s where he excels. His noticeably stronger 6’3” frame has made him a more dominant force patrolling Boston College’s blueline. McCoshen doesn’t shy away from playing the body and he’s learned to do that without taking himself out of plays. His reads and reactions to developing plays have also improved, which in turn has also improved his positioning. One area where McCoshen has progressed quite nicely has been on the offensive side; he’s able to get more quality shots on goals and has some added velocity to his shots, as well.

5. Michael Paliotta, Senior, University of Vermont (Hockey East)
Drafted: Third round (70th overall) in 2012 by the Chicago Blackhawks

Few collegiate prospects have made greater strides in their overall development this season than Michael Paliotta. The Westport, CT native has become one of the best defensemen coming out of Hockey East, and he’s made notable progress in a number of areas.

Paliotta currently co-leads Vermont with 27 points (eight goals, 19 assists) in 28 games. He has tied his career-best 27 points of last season. Furthermore, he is currently first on the team with a +8 rating.

Paliotta’s statistical numbers are an example of how far his offensive side has come along. He shoots with greater frequency and his shots are of better quality. In addition, Paliotta can be seen jumping into plays more often without coming at the expense of his defensive duties. As the Catamounts captain, he also provides great leadership. But perhaps the greatest area where Paliotta has improved has been in his reliability at both ends of the ice. He balances a sound defensive game with a vastly improved offensive game that has greatly benefited 17th-ranked Vermont this season.

6. Mike Reilly, Junior, University of Minnesota (Big Ten)
Drafted: Fourth round (98th overall) in 2011 by the Columbus Blue Jackets

Mike Reilly has developed into one of, if not the best offensive defenseman currently playing in the NCAA. While he is known for his excellent offensive side, his steady development in other areas is what is noteworthy here.

The Chanhassen, MN native currently leads Minnesota with 28 points (four goals, 24 assists) in 26 games. His point total currently ranks second nationally among all defensemen. The Golden Gophers power play is where Reilly has made his mark, with 16 of his 28 points coming with the man advantage.

One of the most notable aspects about Reilly this season is his stronger 6’1” frame which he uses quite well both offensively and defensively. The latter is evident in his improved ability to separate the puck from opposing players. While Reilly isn’t overly physical, he has demonstrated that he is willing to play the body when necessary. His added size and strength has enhanced his dynamic skating, as well.

Reilly’s puck-moving ability is one of his greatest assets and it’s an area that has been fine-tuned. His passes are crisper with more precision. He can also move the puck very quickly, but at times can be a little too quick in moving it.

7. Jaccob Slavin, Sophomore, Colorado College (NCHC)
Drafted: Fourth round (120th overall) in 2012 by the Carolina Hurricanes

Jaccob Slavin has been able to build on last year’s success this season, improving in a number of areas. Although he is still another year or two away from being pro-ready, there is a lot to like about Slavin.

The Erie, CO native currently leads all Tigers defensemen with 12 points (three goals, nine assists) in 25 games. All three of his goals have come on the power play, which co-leads Colorado College. While Slavin’s point total is down slightly from last season, he is on pace to eclipse his five total goals of 2013-14. An interesting stat of Slavin’s is the fact that he has yet to take a penalty this season.

One of Slavin’s best attributes is his puck-moving ability, an area in which he has taken crucial steps in developing this season. This is particularly evident in his decisions with the puck – Slavin’s outlet passes have greatly improved, and he is smarter and more selective in where he shoots the puck coming into the offensive zone. Slavin’s noticeably better footwork and quicker first step has greatly enhanced his transition game, another area where he has made great strides.

8. Ben Hutton, Junior, University of Maine (Hockey East)
Drafted: Fifth round (147th overall) in 2012 by the Vancouver Canucks

After a stellar sophomore campaign that culminated with being named an All-American, Ben Hutton has struggled somewhat in building on that success this season. Nevertheless, his development in other areas and his great potential continues to make him one of the nation’s top drafted defensemen.

The Prescott, ON native currently leads all Black Bears rearguards with 15 points (five goals, 10 assists) in 30 games. While Hutton is off the torrid pace he set last season, he is still among the best and most dangerous offensive defensemen in the nation.

What Hutton lacks in points this season, he’s made up for with his continually improving defensive play. Where this is particularly evident is in his more simplified game. He uses his 6’3”, 200-pound frame and long reach with greater efficiency in controlling gaps and separating pucks from opposing players. His noticeably stronger legs allow him to protect the puck better and win more of the battles along the boards and in front of the net. Furthermore, it has also enhanced his lateral movement without taking away any of his speed. While Hutton can often be found jumping into plays, he’s now making better decisions when to do so.

9. Matt Grzelcyk, Junior, Boston University (Hockey East)
Drafted: Third round (85th overall) in 2012 by the Boston Bruins

After a shoulder injury limited his sophomore campaign last season, Matt Grzelcyk returned to Boston University’s lineup this season better than ever. He has continued to make significant progress in his development, especially on the defensive side.

The Charlestown, MA native currently leads all Terriers defensemen with 18 points (one goal, 17 assists) and a +18 rating in 26 games. Grzelcyk posted his lone goal of the season (a power play tally) in Boston University’s 9-5 win over UMass on Jan. 30th. As team captain, his leadership has been invaluable in the success of the NCAA’s youngest team this season.

While Grzelcyk isn’t big in stature, he has proven that he can play much bigger than his 5’10” and 176-pound frame. Grzelcyk’s defensive development is evident in his vastly improved positioning. He uses his outstanding skating and stick to take away time and space. Grzelcyk has also added a bit more grit to his game. While he isn’t overly physical, Grzelcyk has shown a willingness to play the body when necessary. Because he is able to play a more complete game in all three zones, Grzelcyk has become even more of a threat whenever he’s on the ice.

10. Colton Parayko, Junior, University of Alaska (WCHA)
Drafted: Third round (86th overall) in 2012 by the St. Louis Blues

Although he’s been drafted by the St. Louis Blues, Colton Parayko is a prospect that is relatively unknown. But his steady developmental progress at Alaska could potentially change all that, as Parayko has made strides in a number of areas that vaults him into this year’s top 10.

The St. Albert, AB native currently leads the Nanooks’ defensemen in scoring with 20 points (four goals, 16 assists) in 28 games. All four of his goals have come on the power play, which leads the team. Parayko also leads Alaska with 49 shot blocks.

At 6’5” and 224 pounds, it’s hard to miss Parayko on the ice. Over the course of his collegiate career, Parayko has learned to use his reach and enormous frame advantageously, particularly along the walls. An area where Parayko’s maturity is evident is the balance that he’s established between his aggressive style and being more disciplined. His 12 penalty minutes this season is among the fewest of all NHL prospects. Furthermore, he also provides strong leadership as Alaska’s captain. Parayko skates remarkably well for a big man. He has improved his footwork and now has a quicker first step, too.

Just missing the cut

Will Butcher (COL), Sophomore, University of Denver
Joey LaLeggia (EDM), Senior, University of Denver
Brett Pesce (CAR), Junior, University of New Hampshire
Steve Santini (NJD), Sophomore, Boston College
Andy Welinski (ANA), Junior, University of Minnesota-Duluth

Follow DJ Powers on Twitter via @DJPowersHF