The 2011-12 NCAA season featured many excellent forwards, a number of whom have already begun their professional careers. The 10 players listed below are among them and have yet to sign pro contacts. Most, if not all, will likely return to their respective collegiate teams this fall.
It is important to note here that while some of these players have played both wing and center (either this season or in their collegiate careers thus far), they are listed at the position that they played at for much of this season.
1) Nick Bjugstad, C
Sophomore, University of Minnesota
NHL rights: Florida Panthers
Drafted: 1st round, 19th overall, 2010
The player that both the University of Minnesota and the Florida Panthers had hoped to see in Nick Bjugstad this season came to fruition. And he's just getting started.
The Blaine, Minnesota native was a dominating force in the WCHA this season. He led the Golden Gophers with 25 goals and finished third on the team with 42 points in 40 games. Bjugstad's sensational sophomore campaign also earned him selections to the All-WCHA First team and All-America West Second team.
One unmistakable area in Bjugstad's development this season was the roughly 20 pounds that he added to his strapping 6-5 frame, making him literally a man among boys. The added size and strength also had a huge impact on his game as well. It greatly enhanced his ability to protect the puck, drive to the net and fend off opposing defenders. The excellent shot that Bjugstad possesses also had noticeably more velocity on it, as well.
Another area that helped make Bjugstad so successful this season was his consistency, an area that he struggled with last season. Of the 40 games he played in, Bjugstad was held pointless in only 13 of them. In the 27 games where he did post points, nearly half (13) were multi-point games. Bjugstad enjoyed his best month in November, when he posted nine goals, including his first career hat trick.
There has been some speculation that Bjugstad may forego his final two years of eligibility to sign with the Florida Panthers. Whether it happens remains to be seen. But one thing is clear – Bjugstad will be a force to be reckoned with regardless of where he ends up playing next season.
2) Johnny Gaudreau, LW
Freshman, Boston College
NHL rights: Calgary Flames
Drafted: 4th round, 104th overall, 2011
Johnny Gaudreau came into college hockey this season as a highly touted incoming freshmen and he didn't disappoint. The Carneys Point, New Jersey native finished the season as the nation's top scoring rookie with 44 points (21 goals, 23 assists) in 44 games. Gaudreau was involved in the hotly contested post-season national rookie-scoring race with Minnesota's Kyle Rau (FLA) that came down to the final game of the NCAA season. He edged out Rau by just one point. Gaudreau was arguably the steadiest freshman this season, not only in his offensive production but in his development as well.
Throughout the season, particularly in the second half, Gaudreau was able to consistently elevate his play in big games. Nowhere was that more evident than in the Hockey East Tournament Championship game versus Maine on March 17th, where he posted two goals, including the game-winner and added an assist in the Eagles' 4-1 win.
Gaudreau's combination of great vision, smooth hands and quick feet showcased his superb ability to create plays and use open spaces effectively. His ability to adjust and adapt to the collegiate game was almost immediate and he simply kept getting better. And it is these attributes that make him one of the most promising NHL prospects with the greatest potential currently playing in the collegiate ranks.
While Gaudreau has the skill set, he'll need to continue to add size and strength to his 5'7 frame to be successful at the pro level down the road.
3) Erik Haula, C
Sophomore, University of Minnesota
NHL rights: Minnesota Wild
Drafted: 7th round, 182nd overall, 2009
If his development and performance this season at Minnesota are any indication, Erik Haula could turn out to be one of the best late-round selections in recent drafts. Although he didn't garner as much attention as some of his teammates, Haula proved to be a key cog in the Golden Gophers' successful run to the Frozen Four. The Pori, Finland native led Minnesota with 49 points (20 goals, 29 assists) while playing in all 43 games. What makes his numbers so remarkable is the fact that he did it as a secondary scorer. Haula centered arguably the nation's best second line that included senior Jake Hansen (CBJ) and for much of the season, freshman Sam Warning. Haula recently announced that he would return to the University of Minnesota this fall.
Since arriving in the Twin Cities, Haula established himself as an excellent playmaker blessed with really soft hands. This season, however, he demonstrated that he could also be quite the goal-scorer, as well. His increased confidence, consistent involvement in plays, and improved positioning around the net are factors that have contributed to his increase in goals. Haula also developed a knack for scoring timely goals, too, as evidenced by his eight power play goals and four game-winners. Even more impressive is the fact that his increased goal scoring hasn't come at the expense of his top-notch playmaking.
Two areas where Haula has begun to make strides is on the defensive side and adding some physicality to his game. If he can continue to develop those areas, it will go a long way to aid in his success at the pro level.
4) T.J. Tynan, C
Sophomore, University of Notre Dame
NHL rights: Columbus Blue Jackets
Drafted: 3rd round, 66th overall, 2011
The attributes that made T.J. Tynan so successful last season have carried over to this season, and with them has come some notable strides in his development. The Orland Park, Illinois native led the Fighting Irish with 41 points (13 goals, 28 assists) in 39 games and earned a selection to the All-CCHA First team. While Tynan's numbers were slightly down from last season, his overall performance wasn't. Throughout this season, Tynan consistently showed that he could make things happen whenever he's on the ice. His impressive showing at the World Junior Championship earlier in the year had a great impact on his play at Notre Dame in the second half of the season.
One area where Tynan really made strides was in utilizing his game-breaking speed. While he continues to use it effectively in creating offense, this season Tynan has been applying it to his improved defensive play as well. The result has made him particularly dangerous in the transition game.
Tynan may not have the pro-style build, but his tremendous hockey sense, speed and work ethic are attributes that have served he and his Notre Dame team exceedingly well, and should continue to do so in the future at the pro level.
5) Danny Kristo, RW
Junior, University of North Dakota
NHL rights: Montreal Canadiens
Drafted: 2nd round, 56th overall, 2008
Junior Danny Kristo was part of one of the nation's most prolific top lines this season that included fellow junior Corban Knight (FLA) and sophomore Brock Nelson (NYI). The trio accounted for 38 percent of North Dakota's scoring. Kristo also established himself as a top-flight playmaker; of the 45 points in 42 games that he amassed this season, 26 were assists, which also led the team. Another area where Kristo really made his mark was on North Dakota's special teams. Eighteen of his 45 points and eight of his 19 goals came on special teams.
Part of what has made Kristo so successful this season was his ability to effectively utilize his excellent speed in virtually every type of situation. And along with his added grit and improved defensive play, it made Kristo a threat at both ends of the ice.
Another area where Kristo made great strides was in his shots on goal. Throughout the season, he displayed more patience with the puck, with the number of quality shots that he was taking significantly increasing.
Kristo recently announced that he was returning to North Dakota for his senior season. While it will greatly benefit North Dakota next season, it could also greatly benefit the Montreal Canadiens down the road as well. The extra year will allow Kristo to continue to improve his overall game, as well as better prepare him for the demands that lie ahead at the pro level.
6) Kyle Rau, LW
Freshman, University of Minnesota
NHL rights: Florida Panthers
Drafted: 3rd round, 91st overall, 2011
The University of Minnesota made a successful run to the Frozen Four this season due in large part to the contributions of their underclassmen. And among the Golden Gophers that stood out this season was freshman Kyle Rau. The Eden Prairie, Minnesota native made quite a splash in his rookie season, leading all Minnesota freshmen with 43 points (18 goals, 25 assists) in 40 games. Rau's outstanding freshman season earned him numerous honors, including a selection to the WCHA All-Rookie team.
Rau's dazzling offensive display and infectious energy made him one of the most exciting players to watch in college hockey this season. The tenacity with which he plays the game also made him difficult to play against. Rau demonstrated throughout the season that he is equally adept at setting up and finishing plays. He also showed a knack for scoring timely goals. His six game-winners led the Golden Gophers.
One of the things that made Rau so successful this season was his ability to effectively hold his own against bigger players. Although he'll need to continue to add size and strength to his 5-8 frame, Rau already possesses remarkably strong legs. And this was particularly evident in his play along the boards and ability to protect the puck.
While Rau has the offensive tools, he will need to continue to work on the defensive side of the game to be successful at the pro level.
7) Bill Arnold, C
Sophomore, Boston College
NHL rights: Calgary Flames
Drafted: 4th round, 108th overall, 2010
One of the NHL teams that got great mileage out of their collegiate prospects this season was the Calgary Flames. The Flames had just four prospects playing in the NCAA this season, including Boston College sophomore Bill Arnold. The Needham, Massachusetts native posted 36 points (17 goals, 19 assists) in 42 games, centering one of the nation's most dynamic lines that also featured senior Barry Almeida (WSH) and junior Steven Whitney.
Arnold got off to a strong start in his sophomore campaign, posting 12 points (six goals, six assists) in eight games en route to earning the Hockey East Player of the Month honor for October. But where Arnold really began to elevate his play was during the World Junior Championship. He posted six points (three goals, three assists) with Team USA. Arnold's strong play carried over to Boston College's second half, where he demonstrated the ability to step up in big games. And nowhere was this more noticeable than on his game-winner in the Beanpot Championship game on February 13th versus archrival Boston University.
One attribute that made Arnold so successful this season was his strength on the puck. His ability to use his sturdy, 6-0, 210-pound frame was quite evident in protecting the puck effectively and on his relentless drives to the net. Arnold also made great strides in reading and reacting to plays as well. This was particularly noticeable in his offensive zone positioning, which enabled him to find and utilize open spaces more effectively in creating and finishing plays.
If what Arnold has shown thus far in his two seasons at Boston College is any indication, he could potentially blossom into a very reliable, multi-dimensional center for the Flames down the road.
8] Ben Hanowski, LW
Junior, St. Cloud State University
NHL rights: Pittsburgh Penguins
Drafted: 3rd round, 63rd overall, 2009
The 2011-12 season proved to be Ben Hanowski's breakout season, emerging as one of the WCHA's top snipers. The Little Falls, Minnesota native nearly doubled his offensive output from a season ago, leading the Huskies with 43 points (23 goals, 20 assists) in 39 games. Hanowski also posted multiple-points in ten of those 39 games. While Hanowski saw time at center this season, he played primarily at left wing.
While Hanowski's excellent offensive numbers are well documented, his strong leadership and development in other areas of his game were equally, if not more, notable this season. His leadership and ability to step up his offensive game became more evident after the season-ending leg injury to senior Drew Leblanc in November and the departure of sophomore Cam Reid (NSH) in January.
Hanowski made great strides in his development, becoming a more well-rounded player. His improved stick work and shot blocking have made him more effective in defensive situations and a better penalty killer without coming at the expense of his offensive prowess. Hanowski's added physical strength has made him more difficult to move off of the puck and has added both power and speed to his skating, as well. While Hanowski works and competes hard, he could stand to add some more physicality to his game.
If Hanowski can continue to build on what he has accomplished thus far, it will not only benefit his St. Cloud State team next season, but the Penguins organization down the road as well.
9) Chase Balisy, C
Sophomore, Western Michigan University
NHL rights: Nashville Predators
Drafted: 6th round, 170th overall, 2011
Two seasons ago under then-head coach Jeff Blashill, the culture of Western Michigan hockey changed dramatically, resulting in great success. A big part of that success could also be attributed to the play of sophomore Chase Balisy.
This season, the Fullerton, California native led the Broncos with 37 points (13 goals, 24 assists) in 41 games. Balisy's five game-winners, which led the team, also showed that he could score in key situations. Balisy centers one of the CCHA's best lines that include fellow sophomore Shane Berschbach and junior Dane Walters.
One notable area where Balisy has made great strides this season is in his defensive game. And it has been especially evident in his improved ability to take away passing and shooting lanes. Balisy is excellent in reading and anticipating plays, but being able to do it at both ends of the ice makes him increasingly effective in virtually all types of situations.
An attribute that Balisy has consistently shown in his collegiate career is his ability to make others better. His excellent vision and accuracy with the puck have greatly benefitted his teammates. While Balisy's decisions with the puck are quite good, his ability to make quicker decisions with it will be a key to his future success at the pro level. And it's an area that should continue to improve as his collegiate career progresses.
10) Corban Knight, C
Junior, University of North Dakota
NHL rights: Florida Panthers
Drafted: 5th round, 135th overall, 2009
Plagued by injuries to key players, the University of North Dakota looked to many of their veterans to step up their game and pick up the slack this season, including junior Corban Knight. The High River, Alberta native centered one of the WCHA's best top lines that included sophomore Brock Nelson (NYI) and fellow junior Danny Kristo (MON). Knight played in 39 games for North Dakota, posting 40 points (16 goals, 24 assists). While his numbers this season were slightly down from last season (44 points), Knight's game and development weren't. One area where he was consistently good was on face-offs, winning nearly 59 percent of his draws.
Knight's most notable improvement has been his stronger presence around the net. Throughout the season, he was driving harder to the net with greater frequency and his positioning was better. That, combined with the added grit in his game, has resulted in Knight being able to finish plays more often. It also highlighted the terrific hands that he possesses.
Another area where Knight continues to make strides is in his reads. His ability to anticipate and react to plays has been smarter, both offensively and defensively. That, in turn, made Knight especially dangerous in the transition game.
Knight is expected to return to North Dakota this fall to finish out his collegiate career. If Knight can continue to build on what he has accomplished thus far, it will go a long way to establishing how successful he could potentially be with the Panthers organization in the future.