NCAA Top 20 prospects

By DJ Powers

There are over 200 prospects drafted by NHL teams currently playing in the NCAA, representing 40 schools in all six conferences. This list of the top 20 prospects currently playing in the NCAA was compiled based upon collegiate development and progress as well as NHL potential. It is important to note that this list does not necessarily reflect the top 20 based upon current statistics. Unless otherwise noted, all statistical information provided is current as of January 31, 2005.

1. Patrick Eaves, RW (Junior, Boston College)
Drafted in 2003 by the Ottawa Senators. First Round, 29th Overall

When Patrick Eaves was scouted for the NHL Draft in his freshman season at Boston College, many of the reports about his likelihood of reaching the NHL were less than enthusiastic. Two years later, the question is not if, but when will he be in the NHL. Eaves has become one of the best players in the nation, and what makes him such a great player is the fact that he combines exceptional skills, a tremendous understanding of the game, an intense competitive nature and the consistent willingness to do whatever it takes for the betterment of his team. Nowhere is that willingness more evident than the rigors that he puts his body through game in and game out. It is because of that willingness that he is susceptible to injuries, and while they may have slowed Eaves down throughout his collegiate career, it has never impeded his determination and drive to be the best player possible.

Eaves, who serves as one of Boston College’s assistant captains, is also a top candidate for this year’s Hobey Baker award. He leads the Eagles in virtually all statistical categories, including goals (14), assists (21), points (35) and plus/minus (+21).

2. Alvaro Montoya, G (Junior, University of Michigan)
Drafted in 2004 by the New York Rangers. First Round, 6th Overall

Despite his disappointing performance at the 2005 World Junior Championship (WJC) in North Dakota and what some consider as a “below average” season, Al Montoya is still one of the most highly regarded goaltenders with some of the best skills in the league. His outstanding puck handling ability coupled with his confidence and superb athleticism makes Montoya an extremely difficult goaltender to play against and a potential future NHLer. As he demonstrated at the 2004 WJC, Montoya has the ability to rise to the occasion and be clutch when called upon. At times this season, he has shown those same qualities. With continued development and maturity, he’s likely to show those outstanding qualities more often in the future at the professional level.

Montoya is one of two goaltenders in the NCAA who serve as one of their team’s assistant captains. He currently has a 19-6-1 record that includes two shutouts. His .750 winning percentage currently ranks tied for sixth in the nation. This season, Montoya is on pace to tie (and possibly break) Marty Turco’s Michigan school record of 15 career shutouts. He currently has 12.

3. Drew Stafford, RW (Sophomore, University of North Dakota)
Drafted in 2004 by the Buffalo Sabres. First Round, 13th Overall

Prior to the 2004 Draft, Drew Stafford had many scouts taking serious notice of him and for good reason. His size coupled with his reliability and hard-nosed style of play made him an attractive player to many teams NHL teams on draft day. After enjoying a stellar rookie season at the University of North Dakota last year, Stafford has continued to make significant progress this season. With the loss of Zach Parise and Brandon Bochenski coupled with Brady Murray’s knee injury earlier in the season, Stafford has seen his role expanded significantly, particularly where offensive production is concerned. Stafford currently ranks second on the Fighting Sioux roster in scoring with 23 points (8 goals, 15 assists). He also leads the team in plus/minus (+9) as well.

Stafford is a player who works hard and thrives in tight situations such as play in the corners and along the boards. While he is not known for putting up a lot of goals, he does possess scoring capabilities. Stafford has shown a willingness to drive the net and doing whatever it takes to create scoring opportunities. He is also a very solid defensive player who sees a lot of time in penalty-killing situations. With his size and abilities, Drew Stafford has the potential to become one of the best two-way forwards to come out of the collegiate ranks.

4. Mark Stuart, D (Junior, Colorado College)
Drafted in 2003 by the Boston Bruins. First Round, 21st Overall

Mark Stuart is considered by many to be the defenseman playing in the NCAA with the best chance of making it to the NHL. Stuart possesses many of the qualities that NHL teams look for: size, strength, aggressive yet sound defensive style, ability to deliver punishing hits and is hard working. Stuart is the prototypical stay-at-home defenseman. He’s a player who leads by example and despite lacking offensive prowess, can chip in a goal once in a while.

Stuart captains a Colorado College team that has become one of the favorites to win the National Championship this season. He is the only defenseman on the Tigers roster to have played in all 28 games thus far this season. Stuart has 11 points (three goals, five assists). Two of his three goals have come on the power play. He also leads the team in penalty minutes with 48.

5. Hugh Jessiman, RW (Junior, Dartmouth College)
Drafted in 2003 by the New York Rangers. First Round, 12th Overall

After stellar freshman and sophomore seasons, Hugh Jessiman was looking forward to an outstanding junior year at Dartmouth this season. On November 6th versus Princeton in only his fourth game of the season, that all changed. In that game, Jessiman suffered a severe ankle injury that will keep him out of the Big Green lineup for the regular season and possibly longer. Despite the loss of Jessiman, Dartmouth has been able to remain very much in the hotly contested ECACHL race.

The unmistakable characteristic about Jessiman is his imposing size. He uses his 6’5/220 lbs. frame quite well, particularly when delivering bone-jarring checks on opposing players. For a player his size, he is an outstanding skater with powerful yet fluid strides. Jessiman’s best assets however, are his great hands. He shoots whenever the opportunity presents itself. If he isn’t shooting the puck, he is showing his superb passing abilities. The weakest part of Jessiman’s game is the defensive side. While he has shown that he can be defensively responsible, it’s an area of his game that lacks both consistency and confidence. If he can improve his weaknesses and continue to develop his skills, it will be just a matter of time before Hugh Jessiman is headed to New York.

6. Jim Slater, C (Senior, Michigan State University)
Drafted in 2002 by the Atlanta Thrashers. First Round, 30th Overall

This has been interesting season to say the least at Michigan State, as the team is underperforming. As the CCHA race begins to heat up, Jim Slater will be one player that the Spartans will need to lead the offensive attack. The good news for MSU is that Slater has been on a roll lately. In the Spartans last 12 games he has racked up 14 points (six goals, eight assists) and become MSU’s main go-to guy. Slater is a player who combines offensive ability with excellent speed and toughness. Those characteristics coupled with solid defensive play, great hockey sense and the ability to step up his game when called upon makes Slater one of the best centerman in the NCAA.

Slater, who serves as the Spartans captain, is second on the team in scoring with 28 points (11 goals, 17 assists) behind fellow Thrashers prospect Colton Fretter. His 17 assists lead the team as well. This season, Slater is poised to break into Michigan State’s Top 30 career points list. He currently has 152 career points and needs just six more points to reach the Top 30.

7. Jim Howard, G (Junior, University of Maine)
Drafted in 2003 by the Detroit Red Wings. Second Round, 64th Overall

After spending the last two seasons splitting time with Frank Doyle in the Black Bears net, Jim Howard finally became Maine’s top goaltender this season. When the year began, Howard was among the league’s walking wounded, battling a series of injuries and mononucleosis. Not surprisingly, his play suffered too. Now in the second half of the season, Howard is healthy and is heating up at the perfect time. His tremendous resilience and the ability to remain cool under pressure are two of his greatest assets. Howard is a player who plays with high focus. In addition, he possesses arguably the best glove in the league along with outstanding athleticism. It is all of these qualities, along with the ability to rise to the occasion that gives Jim Howard such high potential.

Howard, whose name has already been mentioned as a candidate for the Hobey Baker award, currently has a 13-8-6 record that includes a co-NCAA leading five shutouts. He also leads the nation in minutes played with 1570:27. His 1.99 goals against average currently ranks him tied for ninth in the nation.

8. Kris Chucko, C/LW (Freshman, University of Minnesota)
Drafted in 2004 by the Calgary Flames. First Round, 24th Overall

At the very beginning of his collegiate career, Kris Chucko looked just like any other freshman, overwhelmed, and adjusting to the collegiate level of play was certainly a challenge. However, as the season progressed he acclimated himself to the collegiate game and the real Kris Chucko began to emerge. At 6’2/198, he has good size and uses it quite effectively. He is a player who thrives in the physical game and has shown that he can take the hits as well as dish them out. He is very good at both ends of the ice. One of Chucko’s greatest assets is his immense work ethic. He has shown a willingness to do whatever it takes for the good of the team and doesn’t seem to mind paying a price to do so.

Chucko currently leads all University of Minnesota rookies in scoring with 16 points (eight goals, eight assists). His first collegiate goal came on October 29th versus Minnesota State-Mankato.

9. Matt Greene, D (Junior, University of North Dakota)
Drafted in 2002 by the Edmonton Oilers. Second Round, 44th Overall

Matt Greene has become one of the nation’s most punishing defensemen with a mean streak to match. His intimidating style coupled with his solid defensive play, ultra competitive nature and hockey smarts make him an outstanding candidate for the NHL down the road. While Greene will never be noted for his offensive prowess, he does possess very good passing skills, a hard shot and is able to chip in a goal once in awhile. If the opportunity presents itself, he won’t shy away from shooting the puck. If there is a weakness to Greene’s game, it is in the area of controlling his emotions. His fiery intensity can sometimes get the better of him, usually resulting in unnecessary penalties at inopportune times for his team.

Greene, who serves as the Fighting Sioux’s team captain, has six points on the season (all assists). Not surprisingly, he also leads the team in penalty minutes with 78.

10. Eric Nystrom, LW (Senior, University of Michigan)
Drafted in 2002 by the Calgary Flames. First Round, 10th Overall

When Dwight Helminen left Michigan early for the pros at the end of last season, many were left wondering who would fill the void. Enter Eric Nystrom. Nystrom has done an excellent job of filling the defensive forward role. As a result, it has paid big dividends for Michigan this season. Nystrom is an excellent two-way player. While his offensive production may be less than stellar, it is the defensive side of his game that has earned Nystrom much praise. His versatility allows him to play in any type of situation. Two of Nystrom’s greatest assets are his immense work ethic and his great hockey sense.

Nystrom, who currently serves as the Wolverines team captain, has 18 points (6 goals, 12 assists) in 24 games played. Nystrom is just one of three Wolverines players to have notched a short-handed goal this season.

11. Travis Zajac, C (Freshman, University of North Dakota)
Drafted in 2004 by the New Jersey Devils. First Round, 20th Overall

Travis Zajac came to North Dakota after a stellar 2003-04 season with Salmon Arm of the BCHL that saw him amass 112 points. For UND, his timing was perfect. Since the loss of Zach Parise and Brandon Bochenski, the Fighting Sioux have seen their team offensive production plummet. Zajac has thus far been able to hold up his share of the offensive load. He currently ranks second on the team in scoring with 24 points (12 goals, 12 assists). His 12 goals also lead the team. Zajac notched his first collegiate point, a power play goal, back on October 15th versus Minnesota State-Mankato.

While his offensive production had scouts raving about him prior to his arrival at North Dakota, it is other facets of his game that have been earning him praise at the collegiate level. Zajac is a player who excels at both ends of the ice. His commitment to defense, while still in the developmental stage, has been nothing short of impressive thus far. He is also a player who sees the ice remarkably well. One aspect about Zajac’s game that stands out is his exceptional passing ability. With continued growth and progress, Travis Zajac could carry on the New Jersey Devils’ recent tradition of developing outstanding NHLers taken from the collegiate ranks.

12. Jeff Tambellini, LW (Junior, University of Michigan)
Drafted in 2003 by the Los Angeles Kings. First Round, 27th Overall

Jeff Tambellini possesses two distinct qualities: scoring ability and blazing speed. This season, Tambellini has shown another facet of his game: defensive ability. It is perhaps his greatest area of marked improvement. His commitments to defense and improving his overall production may not always be blatantly obvious, but it is a very good sign of what is possible. What has been equally impressive is the fact that his commitments are having a positive effect on virtually every area of his game. After a bit of a slip in offensive production last season, Tambellini looks to be returning to form this season. He currently ranks second on the team in scoring with 32 points (13 goals, 19 assists). He also leads the team in plus/minus (+21) and shots (135).

Last month Tambellini reached several milestones in his collegiate career. Back on January 7th versus Western Michigan he collected his 50th career goal. One week later on January 14th versus Alaska-Fairbanks he notched his 100th career point. On January 22nd versus Ohio State he collected his 50th career assist.

13. Noah Welch, D (Senior, Harvard University)
Drafted in 2001 by the Pittsburgh Penguins. Second Round, 54th Overall

Much has been written about Noah Welch’s size and offensive side, yet the Brighton, MA native is far more than that. He has become one of the nation’s best all-around defensemen. What makes Welch such a great yet difficult player to play against is the fact that he combines a very physical, often stifling defensive style with tremendous offensive capabilities. He makes great use of his 6’4/212 lbs. frame, particularly in one-on-one situations. His superb skating ability and confidence with the puck makes Welch an excellent player to lead the offensive attack. He already possesses many of the tools that can make him a bonafide future NHLer. However, with the limited schedule that Ivy League teams play during the course of a season, Welch may need some time down in the minor leagues to adjust to the more demanding and rigorous schedule of the pros.

Welch, who currently serves as the Crimson’s team captain, co-leads all Harvard defensemen in scoring with 12 points (five goals, seven assists). All five of Welch’s goals have come on the power play. He also leads the team in penalty minutes with 54.

14. Cory Schneider, G (Freshman, Boston College)
Drafted in 2004 by the Vancouver Canucks. First Round, 26th Overall

The less than stellar showing at the recent World Junior Championship may have been a bump in the road of Cory Schneider’s young career, but it hasn’t caused him to miss a step at Boston College this season. The Marblehead, MA native currently splits time with senior Matti Kaltiainen (BOS) in the Eagles net. In the 11 games he has played thus far, Schneider has been nearly perfect posting a record of 8-0-3 that includes one shutout. His first collegiate win came back on October 19th versus UMass-Lowell. Schneider possesses the nation’s second best winning percentage at .864 as well as the nation’s fourth best save percentage at .921.

At 6’2/195, Schneider has good size and covers a lot of net. He possesses excellent reflexes and is outstanding in the area of staying square to the shooters he faces. However, Schneider’s greatest assets are his instincts and intelligence. He is also a great student of the game, showing a desire to continually improve his game. His most glaring weakness is rebound control. With continued growth of his game and the improvement of his weaknesses, Schneider could become one of the best and brightest goaltenders to emerge from the collegiate ranks.

15. Andrew Alberts, D (Senior, Boston College)
Drafted in 2001 by the Boston Bruins. Sixth Round, 179th Overall

Andrew Alberts has become one of the nation’s best and most reliable stay-at-home defensemen. This season, he has become a significant part of Boston College’s stingy defensive corps. What Alberts lacks in offensive abilities, he more than makes up for with his imposing size, strength and punishing defensive style. While Alberts may not score many goals, he will shoot the puck when the opportunity presents itself and it’s hard to miss his cannon-like shot. What is remarkable about Alberts has been his ability to stay healthy during most of his collegiate career thus far, particularly considering his very physical style of play. He played in all 119 games during his first three years. It wasn’t until Boston College’s season opener versus Denver back on October 15th that Alberts suffered an injury that would force him to miss games. He suffered a knee injury that kept him out of the Eagles lineup for five games.

Alberts, who currently serves as one of Boston College’s assistant captains, has seven points (one goal, six assists) in 19 games. His lone goal, scored on the power play, came back on January 24th versus New Hampshire.

16. A. J. Thelen, D (Sophomore, Michigan State University)
Drafted in 2004 by the Minnesota Wild. First Round, 12th Overall

If the term “sophomore slump” can describe one player’s performance right now, it would be A. J. Thelen. His second season at Michigan State has been a struggle to say the least. Nevertheless, the imposing young defenseman is still a player who possesses loads of potential and could return to last year’s form again. He has shown some superb offensive abilities along with some solid physical play and making good use of his large frame. While Thelen has yet to score a goal this season he has 11 assists, which currently rank him fourth on the team in that category.

The NCAA’s enforcement of cracking down on obstructions has had a definite impact on Thelen’s game. However, it is his decision making, particularly when it relates to the taking of unnecessary penalties that is perhaps the bigger issue with Thelen this season. With development in areas such as the defensive side of his game and maturation, Thelen could easily become one of the best and most feared defensemen to come out of the collegiate ranks.

17. Chris Bourque, C (Freshman, Boston University)
Drafted in 2004 by the Washington Capitals. Second Round, 33rd Overall

Ever since Chris Bourque showed up on the scouting radar prior to the 2004 NHL Draft, he’s been dogged by two things: the seemingly endless questions in relation to his famous father and his size. Now in his rookie season at Boston University, Bourque is proving to just about everyone who is watching him that he can stand on his own merits and can play much bigger than his 5’7 frame. Bourque is an excellent playmaker blessed with great hands and superb passing skills. He is also a player who possesses a great mind for the game. But if there are two qualities that are immediately evident when watching Bourque play, it is his ultra competitive nature and sheer drive. While his small stature will be a concern, Bourque’s outstanding skills coupled with his energy and intensity makes him a player with high potential who could well play in the NHL down the road.

Bourque was selected to represent the United States in the recent World Junior Championship in North Dakota. Unfortunately he went down with a knee injury that forced him to miss crucial games not only with Team USA but with Boston University as well. He has 14 points (five goals, nine assists) in 20 games this season. Bourque’s first collegiate goal came back on November 5th versus New Hampshire.

18. Lee Stempniak, RW (Senior, Dartmouth College)
Drafted in 2003 by the St. Louis Blues. Fifth Round, 148th Overall

Modesty describes Lee Stempniak. He has quietly become one of the nation’s best and most dependable players, one who leads by example both on and off the ice. Stempniak’s strong leadership qualities as well as a great attitude and work ethic have earned him much praise. He is creative offensively and has no trouble finding the net. While his skating is quite good, it lacks some quickness. With improvement on his weaknesses and continued development of his immense skill level, Stempniak could turn out to be, as Dartmouth head coach Bob Gaudet stated in an interview with Hockey’s Future last spring, “a steal for the St. Louis Blues.”

Stempniak, a potential candidate for this year’s Hobey Baker award, currently serves as Dartmouth’s team captain. He leads the team in scoring with 22 points (8 goals, 14 assists). In his collegiate career thus far, Stempniak has never missed a game. In both his sophomore and junior seasons, he led Dartmouth in scoring as well. In addition to excelling on the ice, Stempniak also excels in the classroom, having earned numerous all-academic team honors throughout his collegiate career.

19. Matt Carle, D (Sophomore, University of Denver)
Drafted in 2003 by the San Jose Sharks. Second Round, 47th Overall

Along with junior Brett Skinner, Matt Carle is part of arguably the best and most offensively explosive blueline tandem in the nation. Carle played a significant role in helping the Pioneers win the National Championship last season. This season, his contributions to the University of Denver have been immeasurable. Carle and his defensive partner Skinner both lead the nation’s defensemen in scoring with 26 points each as well as points per game (1.04). Carle’s 10 goals lead the Pioneers defensemen and ranks second in the nation among defensemen.

Carle is an offensive-minded defenseman who is also very solid in his own end. His smooth skating style and offensive capabilities have drawn comparisons to current Shark and former Colorado College Tigers defenseman Tom Preissing. One area where Carle has shown significant improvement in this season is the physical side of his game. He is delivering quality checks with more frequency and playing with more of an edge to his game. In recent years, the San Jose Sharks have been successful in drawing out some excellent players from the collegiate ranks into their system, and with continued growth and development Carle could continue that trend.

20. Alex Goligoski, D (Freshman, University of Minnesota)
Drafted in 2004 by the Pittsburgh Penguins. Second Round, 61st Overall

Alex Goligoski has drawn comparisons to former Golden Gopher Paul Martin, who is now with the New Jersey Devils. If you’ve ever seen both of them play, it’s not hard to see why. Goligoski possesses many of the same qualities that made Martin such a successful collegiate player at the University of Minnesota namely his ability to jump up into plays quickly, confidence with the puck and his smooth skating style. Goligoski wasted no time in making an impact. He notched his first collegiate point (an assist) in the season opener versus Denver in the U. S. Hockey Hall of Fame Game back on October 9th. His first collegiate goal came one week later on October 16th versus Alaska-Anchorage in the Nye Frontier Classic Tournament. Goligoski has become a mainstay on the Golden Gophers power play and as the season has progressed, so has his overall performance and confidence. The biggest concern about Goligoski is his 5’11 frame. While offensive abilities have dominated much of the discussions about Goligoski, the areas that aren’t mention as frequently are his great on-ice vision and the immense pro potential that he has despite his lack of size.

Goligoski’s skills weren’t lost on the USA Hockey World Junior Championship selection committee as he was selected to represent the United States at the tournament. At the University of Minnesota, Goligoski has 13 points (three goals, ten assists) in 20 games played thus far.

Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.