Johns, Matheson lead good crop of drafted NCAA defensemen

By DJ Powers

Stephen Johns - University of Notre Dame

Photo: Notre Dame defenseman and Chicago Blackhawks prospect Stephen Johns will cap off his college career with his most productive offensive season for the Fighting Irish (courtesy of Zumapress/Icon SMI)

This season, the NCAA features an array of outstanding NHL-drafted defensemen and many of them, particularly underclassmen, have been left off this year’s list. The ten defensemen ranked here are all having excellent seasons with their respective teams and have made tremendous strides in their development.

The three criteria used in determining this year’s list are overall developmental progress, season performance and NHL potential. Unless otherwise noted, all stats are current as of March 3rd.

1. Stephen Johns, Senior, University of Notre Dame (Hockey East)
Drafted: Second round (6th overall) in 2010 by the Chicago Blackhawks

Stephen Johns might be the most pro-ready defenseman currently playing in the NCAA. This, along with the significant strides in his overall development and an excellent senior campaign at Notre Dame, puts him atop this year’s list of NHL-drafted NCAA defenders.

The Wampum, PA native currently co-leads the Fighting Irish in defensive scoring with 15 points (five goals, 10 assists) in 34 games to date. His 15 points has already eclipsed his career-high of 14 from last season. Johns averages roughly 25 minutes per game and plays in all situations, but has seen a steady increase in power-play time. His five goals include both a power-play and a short-handed tally. Johns has been able to establish a nice balance between his punishing defensive side and his blossoming offensive side. Not surprisingly, Johns also ranks among Notre Dame’s top shot blockers (52) and most penalized players with 61 penalty minutes.

The most notable aspect of Johns’ development, particularly in the last two years, has been his skating. His strides are smoother and his feet are much quicker. Johns has also developed a quicker first step and has been more consistent in keeping his feet moving. His vastly improved skating has strengthened his transition game which has allowed him to be more active in offensive plays.

The Chicago Blackhawks will most likely sign Johns at season’s end. While he may begin his pro career in the AHL, it will only be matter of time before Johns makes his NHL debut.

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

Michael Matheson is a part of arguably the nation’s best defensive corps this season at Boston College. The Pointe-Claire, QC native has continued to build on his successful rookie campaign of last season, growing into one of the NCAA’s most dominant young defensemen.

Matheson currently co-leads Boston College in defensive scoring with 16 points (three goals, 14 assists) in 32 games. He could potentially match or eclipse his 25 points from last year this season. He also co-leads the Eagles with 45 penalty minutes. Matheson logs upwards of 20-25 minutes per game and plays in all situations. He recently missed two games due to injury.

Matheson possesses great tools and has begun to put them altogether, gradually developing into a complete defenseman at Boston College. He uses his strengthened 6’2” frame more effectively in all three zones and has added more physicality to his game. One notable area where Matheson has made great strides has been in decisions both with and without puck. He is smarter in when to join the rush and does a very good job of taking away time and space.

Matheson has all the tools and make-up of a future NHL defenseman and will be a terrific addition to the Florida Panthers organization down the road. The looming question however isn’t if he’ll play in the NHL, but when.

3. Jake McCabe, Junior, University of Wisconsin (Big Ten)
Drafted: Second round (44th overall) in 2012 by the Buffalo Sabres

Since arriving in Madison in the fall of 2011, Jake McCabe has grown into one of the NCAA’s most complete defensemen. His excellent two-way play has been an invaluable key to Wisconsin’s success. This season, McCabe has taken more of a leadership role as one of Wisconsin’s assistant captains.

The Eau Claire, WI native currently leads the Badgers in defensive scoring with 22 points (seven goals, 15 assists) in 30 games to date. His 22 points are a new career-high, while his seven goals are more than double what he posted last season. This is the second consecutive season that McCabe has led the Badgers in defensive scoring. He also leads Wisconsin with 51 penalty minutes.

McCabe can play in any situation and in all three zones quite effectively. He is equally strong both offensively and defensively and his transition game is excellent. One notable aspect of McCabe’s development has been his ability to balance his aggressive style with discipline. While physicality is very much a part of McCabe’s game, he is also smarter about taking the body without taking himself out of plays.

In recent years, Wisconsin has seen a number of their defensemen make successful jumps to the NHL. McCabe could be the next one to do so with the Buffalo Sabres.

4. Shayne Gostisbehere, Junior, Union College (ECAC)
Drafted: Third round (78th overall) in 2012 by the Philadelphia Flyers

After an All-American sophomore campaign last season, Shayne Gostisbehere has continued to build on that this season. And as good as he was last year, he’s been even better this year. He currently serves as one of the Dutchmen’s assistant captains.

Gostisbehere co-leads all NHL-drafted defensemen with 26 points (eight goals, 18 assists) and is one of only three players to play in all of Union College’s 34 games. His 26 points matches his career-high from last season. Of Gostisbehere’s eight goals, half have come on the power-play. In addition, he posted his first career shorthanded goal in Union College’s 2-1 loss to RPI on Jan. 25th.

While Gostisbehere is noted for his superb offensive play, it’s been his defensive side that has been one of the areas where he has made some of the greatest strides in his development. His defensive zone awareness and positioning have greatly improved and he’s become smarter about when to join offensive rushes. He also uses his stick exceedingly well both in taking away space and stripping pucks. Although the Margate, FL native has added size and strength to his 5’10” frame, it hasn’t diminished his speed.

The Philadelphia Flyers could potentially offer Gostisbehere a contract at season’s end, but there’s no guarantee that he will turn pro this coming off-season. Gostisbehere has stated that he intends to finish out his collegiate career.

5. Kevin Gravel, Senior, St. Cloud State University (NCHC)
Drafted: Fifth round (148th overall) in 2010 by the Los Angeles Kings

After a stellar junior campaign where he helped guide the Huskies to their first Frozen Four appearance last season, Kevin Gravel has continued to build on that success this season. The Kingsford, MI native currently serves as a co-captain for St. Cloud State.

Gravel has played in all 32 games to date, posting 18 points (six goals, 12 assists). His 18 points are a new career-high. He also currently leads the Huskies in blocked shots (61). Gravel logs upwards of 20-25 minutes per game and plays in all situations. He is also one of the least penalized players in the NCAA this season, having been assessed just one minor penalty so far.

The area where Gravel has made the greatest strides in his development has been on the offensive side. His improved mobility and quicker first step allows him to jump up into plays more frequently. His shots to the net are more accurate and his greater poise with the puck is noticeable in his increased shot totals. What makes all of this even more impressive is the fact that none of it has come at the expense of his stellar defensive play.

With the steady developmental progress that he has made during his collegiate career, the Los Angeles Kings could potentially offer Gravel a contract after the season. And if what he’s shown at St. Cloud State is any indication, Gravel may not have a very long wait to make his NHL debut.

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

Few, if any sophomore defensemen have made greater progress in their development this season than Ben Hutton. After an excellent rookie campaign last season, Hutton has followed it up with an even better sophomore year, and he’s just getting started.

The Prescott, ON native currently leads the nation in defensive goal-scoring with 13 and co-leads all NHL-drafted defensemen with 26 points in all of Maine’s 32 games to date. His 13 goals also co-lead the Black Bears. In addition, Hutton’s 13 goals ties a school record for most goals by a defenseman in a single season. Barring a significant injury or scoring slump, he will set a new school record by season’s end. Hutton has been especially good quarterbacking Maine’s power-play. Of his 13 goals, eight have come with the man-advantage, which also leads the nation among defensemen.

Hutton’s ability to move the puck smarter and more quickly have greatly contributed to his stellar offensive numbers this season. On the defensive side, his noticeably stronger 6’3” frame has allowed him to be more effective in separating the puck from opposing players. Futhermore, Hutton is playing with added grit and both his gap control and one-on-one play have improved, as well.

What Hutton has shown at Maine so far is only the beginning. And with his vast potential and upside, the Vancouver Canucks could come calling sooner rather than later.

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

Since arriving at the University of Minnesota in the fall of 2011, Mike Reilly has been an impact player for the Golden Gophers. In only his sophomore year, the Chanhassen, MN native has blossomed into one of the best defensemen in not only the Big Ten but in the NCAA, as well.

Reilly currently leads Minnesota in defensive scoring with 24 points (eight goals, 16 assists) in 32 games. His 24 points is a new career-high and he is on pace to potentially eclipse the 30-point plateau this season. Reilly’s +22 leads all Big Ten defensemen while his 24 points co-leads all Big Ten rearguards. Where Reilly has been particularly good this season has been on the Golden Gophers power-play. Of his 24 points, 14 (three goals, 11 assists) have come with the man advantage.

One notable aspect of Reilly’s development has been in his footwork. His starts and stops are quicker, which is evident in his faster transition game. He is noticeably stronger and beginning to use his 6’1” frame more effectively in one-on-one situations and controlling gaps in the defensive zone. The strength he has added to his legs hasn’t taken away from his great speed, but has simply enhanced his overall skating.

While there are still areas, most notably on the defensive side, that Reilly will need to continue to improve, he shows a lot of promise as a future member of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

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

Although Matt Grzelcyk’s numbers may be underwhelming this season, the tremendous strides in his overall development and vast potential as a future Boston Bruin warranted his inclusion to this year’s list. Grzelyck, like his Boston University team, has had his share of struggles this season. But Grzelcyk took his play to a whole new level with Team USA at the recent World Junior Championship in Sweden.

During the tournament, the Charlestown, MA native led the Americans in defensive scoring with six points (two goals, four assists) in five games. Sadly, Grzelcyk’s return to the Terriers lineup was short-lived after suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in practice on January 9th. He finishes his abbreviated sophomore campaign with 11 points (three goals, eight assists) in 19 games.

Part of what was so impressive about Grzelcyk’s performance at the World Juniors was his ability to play in all three zones effectively. While he is known more for his offensive prowess, it is his defensive game that has been equally, if not more, impressive this season. His defensive zone awareness has vastly improved and he uses his superb skating and stickwork to take away time and space. What Grzelcyk lacks in size, he more than makes up for with his great vision and smart decisions both with and without the puck.

Grzelcyk will, in all likelihood, return to Boston University next season. If what he has shown so far in his development and maturity is any indication, it’ll be only a matter of time before Grzelcyk makes the jump to the next level with the Boston Bruins organization.

9. Steve Santini, Freshman, Boston College (Hockey East)
Drafted: Second round (42nd overall) in 2013 by the New Jersey Devils

Steve Santini is the only freshman defenseman to make this year’s list. The Mahopac, NY native has more than lived up to expectations this season. Santini has also been able to build on the experience of playing with Team USA at the recent World Junior Championship, which has, and continues to greatly benefit his Boston College team.

Santini has played in 29 of Boston College’s games to date, posting 10 points (two goals, eight assists). He currently leads all NCAA defensemen in plus/minus (+27). Santini posted his first collegiate goal on Oct. 13th versus RPI and collected his first career assist a few days later on Oct. 18th versus Wisconsin. His 53 blocked shots currently lead the Eagles, while his 44 penalty minutes rank third on the team.

Santini’s hard-hitting, shutdown style combined with his strength, excellent skating and puck-moving skills makes him difficult to play against. While his physicality is one of his greatest assets, Santini needs to be able to establish a balance between that and smarter, more disciplined play. That will come with development and maturity.

While the New Jersey Devils have been impressed with Santini’s developmental progress at Boston College this season, they’re also excited about what he can bring to the organization in the future.

10. Eric Knodel, Senior, University of New Hampshire (Hockey East)
Drafted: Fifth round (128th overall) in 2009 by the Toronto Maple Leafs

Eric Knodel is one that seems to have flown under the radar a bit when talking about the NCAA’s NHL-drafted defensemen. After a breakout year last season, Knodel is in the midst of his best season at New Hampshire and has made considerable strides in his development.

Knodel, who serves as team captain this season, currently leads the Wildcats in defensive scoring with 26 points (seven goals, 19 assists) in 36 games to date. He also co-leads all New Hampshire defensemen with a +13. The towering West Chester, PA native’s 26 points are a new career best. Knodel has been especially good on the Wildcats power-play this season. Of his seven goals, five have come with the man advantage.

At 6’6”, Knodel is one of the NCAA’s tallest players. Over the course of his collegiate career he has learned to use his enormous frame and long reach advantageously at both ends of the ice. The most notable area of his development, however, has been his skating. His smoother strides and quicker feet allow him to jump into plays and transition more easily. He maintains better balance and agility on his skates, as well.

With his collegiate career wrapping up, it is unclear whether the Toronto Maple Leafs will sign Knodel once he leaves New Hampshire.

Just missing the cut

Ian McCoshen (FLA) – Freshman, Boston College (Hockey East)
Michael Paliotta (CHI) – Junior, University of Vermont (Hockey East)
Jordan Schmaltz (STL) – Sophomore, University of North Dakota (NCHC)
Dillon Simpson (EDM) – Senior, University of North Dakota (NCHC)
Andy Welinski (ANA) – Sophomore, University of Minnesota-Duluth (NCHC)

Follow DJ Powers on Twitter via @DJPowersHF