NCAA 2004 draft preview

By DJ Powers

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Last year was a banner year at the NHL Entry Draft for the
NCAA. Seven of the 30 players selected in the first round of the 2003 Entry
Draft were current NCAA players. In addition, two incoming freshmen for the
2003-04 season were also taken in the first round, bringing the total number of
all NCAA players taken in the opening round to nine. This year won’t likely be
the banner year that 2003 was on the first day of the draft if the scouting
rankings are any indication.

 

Last summer over 70 NCAA and NCAA-bound players total were
selected
. The number of high-end collegiate players that the 2003
draft class had amongst its ranks won’t likely be as numerous in 2004. When the
NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau (CSB) released its final rankings in May, over
125 NCAA and NCAA-bound players were included. Not all will be drafted, but a
few players who do not appear on the final rankings will be taken instead.

 

The NHL Entry Draft can be difficult to follow without a
program and a rule book, and to follow only the NCAA selections is even harder.
To complicate matters further, the NCAA has decided to temporarily suspend its
“Opt In” rule for this year’s Entry Draft. The “Opt In” rule which states that
any currently enrolled Men’s Ice Hockey student-athlete not yet 19 years of age
by the September 15th cutoff date of that draft year cannot make
himself eligible (or ‘opt-in’) to that year’s NHL Entry Draft without losing
his college eligibility. This year’s rule suspension affects approximately a
dozen players (not including incoming freshmen).

 

Among the highly touted draft eligible players who decided
not to opt into the NHL Entry Draft this year despite the suspension of the
rule are University of Michigan forward T.
J. Hensick
and Bowling Green State University defenseman style='mso-bidi-font-weight:normal'>Jonathan Sigalet. Yet even without
these players, this year’s crop of draft eligible players from the NCAA will
yield some excellent prospects along with a few that could surprise some
people.

 

The top ranked North American goaltender comes from the
University of Michigan. While he got off to a slow start early this past
season, sophomore Al Montoya saw his
stock skyrocket after his stellar performance at the World Junior Championships
(WJC) in Finland, where he led Team USA to their first ever gold medal.
Montoya’s outstanding play didn’t stop there. He would continue to perform at
the top of his game in the second half of the season leading the Michigan
Wolverines to their eighth CCHA regular season title as well as to the East
Regional Final of the Frozen Four Tournament.

 

The University of North Dakota has two top ranked skaters,
one current and one incoming. While players such as Zach Parise (NJ), Brandon
Bochenski (OTT) and Brady Murray (LA) had the attention of many both in and out
of the college hockey community, Drew
Stafford
had the attention of all the scouts. Stafford didn’t put up the
kind of numbers (11 goals, 21 assists for 32 points) that his aforementioned
teammates did this past season, but he did showcase his exceptional and
versatile talent along with his great hockey sense. Stafford, a member of Team
USA’s gold medal winning squad at the WJC earlier this year is a player with
huge potential, whose abilities will continue to develop with age and
experience. Incoming freshman forward Travis
Zajac
is the highest ranked North American skater from the junior/prep
leagues. Zajac played for the BCHL’s Salmon Arm Silverbacks this past season
where he led the league in scoring with 135 points (53 goals, 82 assists).

 

WCHA

 

North Dakota is among the many WCHA schools that are always
well represented in the rankings. One school that has numerous outstanding
players ranked this year is current national champion University of Denver.
While the Pioneers have no returning players ranked, they have an impressive
group of incoming freshmen. Forwards Geoff
Paukovich
and Tom May are ranked
among the top 100 North American skaters and could hear their names called
during the draft weekend. Highly touted and ranked incoming forward style='mso-bidi-font-weight:normal'>Paul Stastny chose not to opt into this
year’s draft.

 

No WCHA school has as many returning players ranked than the
University of Wisconsin. The Badgers just completed an outstanding 2003-04
Season led by arguably the best freshman class in the nation. WJC Team USA
players, Forward Jake Dowell and
defenseman Jeff Likens along with
WCHA All-Rookie Team selection, forward Robbie
Earl
, all appear on the rankings. One of the least talked about players
appearing on the rankings from the NCAA who can surprise a few people comes out
of St. Cloud State. Potentially, sophomore-to-be defenseman style='mso-bidi-font-weight:normal'>Casey Borer could be a high draft
selection after an outstanding rookie campaign for the Huskies. Borer’s good
size along with his confidence with the puck and good vision could make him an
attractive selection. He could be selected sooner rather than later in the
draft.

 

CCHA

 

The CCHA will also be well represented but will be missing
two of its finest rookies from this past season due to opting out, Hensick and
Sigalet. Two big CCHA defensemen, Michigan State’s A. J. Thelen and Notre Dame’s Wes
O’Neill,
garnered a lot of interest from scouts this past season and ranked
quite high with Central Scouting. Thelen became one of the best all-around
defensemen in the nation last season and put up superb numbers to back it up.
He finished the season among the nation’s top scoring defensemen with 29 points
(11 goals, 18 assists). His size, consistency and immense skill level earned
him much praise by scouts and the college hockey community. Notre Dame
defenseman Wes O’Neill is a very
young, skilled and mobile defenseman who has struggled with consistency this
season. He’s likely to go high in the draft due to the outstanding skills that
he possesses, his vast potential and his sheer size. If he could somehow put
all the pieces together and do it on a consistent basis, he could become one of
the best selections to come out of this year’s draft. In addition to Thelen,
Michigan State has another player ranked among the top thirty North American
skaters in forward David Booth.
Booth, a member of the gold medal winning USA squad at the WJC, will be a
junior this fall. One area that has been a concern about Booth thus far has
been his average skating ability. Improved skating coupled with the great
skills that he possesses, could make Booth one of the best defensive forwards
coming out of this year’s draft.

 

The top two ranked returning goaltenders both come out of
the CCHA. While Michigan’s Al Montoya
is almost a shoe-in to go early in the first round, Notre Dame’s style='mso-bidi-font-weight:normal'>David Brown could also go relatively
early in the draft. Brown’s season was somewhat the opposite of that of
Montoya’s. Brown had an outstanding first half of the 2003-04 season but cooled
considerably in the second half. One of his best late season performances came
in the heartbreaking 6-5 overtime loss to Ohio State in the CCHA Super Six
where he made 43 saves for the Fighting Irish.

 

Hockey East

 

Hockey East, like the WCHA and CCHA always has top quality
players in the rankings and this year is no different. Like the CCHA, Hockey
East also has diminished representation due to some formidable players not
opting into the draft, namely defensemen Steve
Birnstill
(Northeastern) and Jeff
Caron
(Merrimack). Forward Adam
Pineault
is the highest ranked Hockey East player, but back in late April
had announced that he was leaving Boston College. He saw spot duty in the
Eagles lineup this past season and posted very low numbers (only eight points
in 30 games). As a result, his stock appears to have taken a hit. In his defense,
however, he was battling for ice time on a well-stocked and tremendously deep
Boston College roster. Pineault appears to be headed to the Canadian Major
Junior League this fall. 2004 National Championship runner-up, University of
Maine, has an outstanding defenseman ranked relatively high in sophomore-to-be style='mso-bidi-font-weight:normal'>Mike Lundin. Lundin was impressive in
his freshman campaign. His tremendous athleticism and puck skills made him a
valuable commodity on the Black Bears blueline this past season and this
upcoming season could be even better.

 

The Hockey East incoming freshman that has gotten all the
scouts as well as the hockey community in and around the city of Boston buzzing
is goaltending phenom Cory Schneider
(Boston College). Like Montoya, Schneider made quite a name for himself on the
international stage. He led Team USA’s U-18 team to a gold medal at the U-18
Challenge in Slovakia last summer and to a silver medal at the IIHF U-18 World
Championships in Belarus back in April. His stellar performances earned him USA
Hockey’s Dave Peterson Award for Goaltender of the Year. At the prestigious
Phillips-Andover Academy, Schneider excelled not only on the ice but in the
classroom as well. His excellence in both areas earned him the Boston Bruins’
John Carlton Award, which recognizes the Massachusetts high school senior who
exemplifies both exceptional hockey talent as well as academic excellence.
Various scouting reports are predicting that Schneider, who will be attending
Boston College this fall, will go very high in the draft. Don’t be too
surprised if his name is called before the first round is over. Among other
notable incoming freshmen to Hockey East schools that could hear their names
called during the draft weekend include defenseman Craig Switzer (University of New Hampshire) and forward style='mso-bidi-font-weight:normal'>Chris Bourque (Boston University), who
is the son of the legendary Boston Bruins and Colorado Avalanche defenseman Ray
Bourque.

 

ECAC

 

While some may not consider the ECAC as an “elite”
conference like that of the CCHA, Hockey East and WCHA, it is hard to argue
with the top notch talent that the conference has attracted, particularly in
recent years. Some of the most highly touted 2004-05 freshmen appearing on the
CSB rankings are bound for ECAC schools. It is a testament to not only better
recruiting but also the continuing growth and development of some superb (even
if lesser known) programs. One example is Yale University. The Bulldogs have
three incoming players who are ranked among the top 100 North American skaters
in forwards Blair Yaworski and style='mso-bidi-font-weight:normal'>Will Engasser and defenseman style='mso-bidi-font-weight:normal'>Rob Page. In addition, returning
sophomore-to-be defenseman Shawn Mole
also appears on the CSB rankings. Yale will be one of the youngest teams in the
nation this upcoming season with the departure of some key players. The
Bulldogs will be looking to these talented aforementioned players to help lead
the team in the fall.

 

Two players who garnered a lot of attention as well as a lot
of accolades in the ECAC this past season came out of Ivy League schools.
Dartmouth College defenseman Grant Lewis
and Brown University forward Brian
Ihnacak
both had outstanding seasons for their respective teams and were
recognized with selections to both the ECAC and Ivy League All-Rookie teams.
Lewis became the second highest scoring rookie in Dartmouth history. He led the
team’s defensemen and rookies in scoring with 25 points (3 goals, 22 assists).
If goaltender Yann Danis (MON) became the defensive story for the Brown Bears
this past season then Brian Ihnacak became the offensive story for them. The
offensively gifted Ihnacak led all ECAC rookies in scoring with 30 points (10
goals, 20 assists).

 

Among the other returning ECAC players that people will be
keeping an eye on during the draft weekend include forwards style='mso-bidi-font-weight:normal'>Kyle Wilson (Colgate), style='mso-bidi-font-weight:normal'>Ryan Maki (Harvard) and style='mso-bidi-font-weight:normal'>Olivier Bouchard (Union College). Among
the outstanding incoming ECAC freshmen that many eyes will be on include highly
ranked forwards Shawn Weller
(Clarkson) and Raymond Sawanda
(Cornell).

 

 

THE INCOMING FRESHMEN

 

One area that will be deep among this year’s draft eligibles
as far as NCAA players are concerned is among the incoming freshman class. The
majority of players appearing on the CSB rankings are players coming into the
NCAA system this fall from the various junior leagues, high schools and prep
schools in North America. A few of these players such as Breck High School (in
Minnesota) forward Blake Wheeler
won’t even be college-bound until 2005. Wheeler has verbally committed to the
University of Minnesota. Wheeler, North Dakota-bound forward style='mso-bidi-font-weight:normal'>Travis Zajac and Boston College-bound
goaltender Cory Schneider are all
expected to go quite early in the draft. Among other players that many will be
keeping an eye on to go relatively early include forward Kris Chucko (University of Minnesota) and defenseman style='mso-bidi-font-weight:normal'>Paul Baier (Brown).

 

style='font-size:10.0pt;font-family:Arial;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"'>OFF
THE BOARD AND POSSIBLE HIDDEN GEMS?

style='font-size:10.0pt;font-family:Arial;mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"'> 

Every year at the NHL Entry Draft there seems to always be
a few surprise selections, some of whom end up exceeding expectations.
Selections from the NCAA ranks are no different. Among the players who could be
“hidden gems” are Boston University defenseman Kevin Schaeffer and RPI forward Oren Eizenman. While both players rank relatively low, they have
tremendous upsides and made great rookie-season impressions with their
respective teams. Furthermore, these are two players who could be major forces
to be reckoned with in the upcoming season. This past season, Schaeffer spent
time playing alongside the recently departed Ryan Whitney (PIT) on the Terriers
blueline. One of the highlights in Schaeffer’s rookie season came back on
November 30th in the game versus Yale where he and Whitney each
bagged a hat trick in leading BU to a 7-2 victory. Eizenman saw playing time on
the Engineers top two lines this past season and led all rookies in scoring
with 18 points (6 goals, 12 assists). His outstanding skills (especially on
faceoffs) earned him much praise, including selection to the ECAC All-Rookie
Team.

 

In recent years some NHL teams have gone “off the board”
and selected players from the NCAA who did not appear on Central Scouting’s
Final Rankings. The trend may continue. Among the players who could be taken
late in the draft that do not appear on the CSB final rankings (provided that
those who had to opt into this year’s draft did so) include forwards style='mso-bidi-font-weight:normal'>Bryan McGregor (Minnesota-Duluth) and style='mso-bidi-font-weight:normal'>Ryan Smyth (Colgate), defenseman style='mso-bidi-font-weight:normal'>Tom Zabkowicz (Maine) and goaltender style='mso-bidi-font-weight:normal'>Dominic Vicari (Michigan State).

 

 

IT’S ALL RELATIVE

 

The NCAA has many current players who are relatives of
current or former NHL players as well as other NHL connected personnel. Draft
eligible ranked returning players with ties to the NHL include North Dakota
forward Drew Stafford (who is the
nephew of Edmonton Oilers Equipment Manager Barrie Stafford), University of New
Hampshire forward Mark Kolanos (the
younger brother of current Phoenix Coyotes forward Krys Kolanos), UMass-Lowell
forward Ben Walter, (who is the son
of the longtime former Montreal Canadiens forward Ryan Walter) and Brown
University forward Brian Ihnacak,
(who is the son and nephew of two former Toronto Maple Leafs forwards: Peter
and Miroslav Ihnacak). Among ranked incoming freshmen whose fathers are former
NHL players include Providence College-bound forward Vince Goulet (who is the son of former Quebec Nordiques and Chicago
Blackhawks forward Michel Goulet) and defenseman Trevor Ludwig (who is the son of former Dallas Stars and Montreal
Canadiens defenseman Craig Ludwig). The list also includes Boston
University-bound forward Chris Bourque
and University of Denver-bound forward Paul
Stastny
, who is the second son of legendary former NHLer Peter Stastny to
play in the NCAA.

 

Dan Linn contributed to this article.

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