When looking at the rosters for the 2012 NCAA hockey tournament, it does not take long to see that the Panthers have been paying close attention to young hockey players choosing the NCAA route instead of junior hockey. No fewer than nine Panthers prospects played in the opening weekend of the tournament. Six of those players rank among Florida’s top twenty prospects, highlighted by three first-line centers for Minnesota, Denver and North Dakota.
In addition to some top talent playing college hockey, the Panthers also have some intriguing prospects playing in Europe, including Finnish national player Joonas Donskoi and Russian national player Yaroslav Kosov.
Nick Bjugstad, C, Minnesota Gophers (WCHA)
Drafted 1st round, 19th overall, 2010
The phrase "sophomore slump" does not exist in Bjugstad’s lexicon of hockey terminology. The big centerman followed his solid freshman debut with a tremendous season in which he scored a team-best 25 goals. His 42 points in 39 games is impressive, but the most significant improvement for Bjugstad has been his skating. Some of the comments regarding Bjugstad prior to the season suggested that he had the size, shot, skills and smarts to be an NHL player, but that the biggest hole in his game was speed and mobility. From the beginning of the year, Bjugstad put those criticisms to rest with an improved stride, better lateral quickness, and higher top-end speed. He appears to be ready for the professional game should choose to leave school early.
Drew Shore, C, Denver Pioneers (WCHA)
Drafted 2nd round, 44th overall, 2009
Next up in the Florida cavalcade of collegiate centers is the 6’2, 195-pound, junior co-captain of the Denver Pioneers. Shore finished fourth in the nation in scoring with 52 points in 41 games, and holds a lengthy list of achievements for the season. He tied for first in the nation for powerplay goals (11), received All-WCHA honors, was the team leader in plus/minus at plus-21, scored the game-winning goal in more than a quarter of Denver’s victories, and he was twice-named WCHA Offensive Player of the Week. Upon Denver’s elimination in the NCAA tournament, Shore signed an entry-level contract with Florida.
Corban Knight, C, North Dakota Fighting Sioux (WCHA)
Drafted 5th round, 135th overall, 2009
Knight finished the regular season third overall in team scoring for the Fighting Sioux, but it was his on-ice awareness and hockey intelligence that really stood out when watching North Dakota play. Linemates Brock Nelson (NYI) and Danny Kristo (MON) may have been the team’s top goal scorers, but Knight was the key player on that line most shifts, working hard at both ends of the ice to win faceoffs, generate turnovers, and create time and space for the two shooters. Still, Knight can put the puck in the net, and is willing to get into the tight, physical spots to make things happen. Knight could be named captain for North Dakota if he stays for his senior year.
Sam Brittain, G, Denver Pioneers (WCHA)
Drafted 4th round, 92nd overall, 2010
Brittain returned from lengthy knee surgery rehabilitation just in time to play several games before the team headed off to the WCHA Final Five. In 12 games and 735 minutes, Brittain allowed just 29 goals blocked 93 percent of the shots he faced, including a team record 67 saves in the double-overtime WCHA semifinal game against Minnesota-Duluth. Since his return, Brittain has shared time with freshman netminder Juho Olkinuora, but looked sharp on the nights he was given an opportunity.
Kyle Rau, C/RW, Minnesota Gophers (WCHA)
Drafted 3rd round, 91st overall, 2011
Rau became a freshman sensation right from the start of the year by scoring just 56 seconds into his first game, and then ripping off 13 points in an eight-game point streak in October and November. The hard-skating winger played most games on a line with Nick Bjugstad and Zach Budish (NAS), but never seemed out of place with the more experienced (and much larger) forwards. Rau has a knack for finding the puck and the back of the net. He finished the regular season with 18 goals and 25 assists. Rau was named to the All-WCHA Rookie team, named the NCAA Rookie of the Month twice, and awarded the WCHA Rookie of the Week honor three times. He also skated for Team USA in the World Junior Championships, and tallied five points in six games.
Rocco Grimaldi, C/W, North Dakota Fighting Sioux (WCHA)
Drafted 2nd round, 33rd overall, 2011
Grimaldi had a disappointing 2011-12 season, playing in just four games for North Dakota before shutting down for the season to have surgery on a knee that he injured in training camp. Grimaldi did manage a goal and an assist in those four games, and got a small taste of what NCAA hockey at a major program is all about. The offensive dynamo will have to wait until next fall to show what he can do for the Fighting Sioux.
Zachary Hyman, RW, Michigan Wolverines (CCHA)
Drafted 5th round, 123rd overall, 2010
Hyman’s freshman year at the University of Michigan was primarily an adjustment period for the young winger. Coming off of a stellar season in Canadian Junior A hockey, the main question was whether or not Hyman could carry his same level of offensive ability up a couple of steps to a much higher level of competition. Hyman played a mostly defensive role with fourth-line minutes, so his offensive results were relatively weak. However, his skating and defensive awareness were obvious in his play, and he seemed to adjust smoothly to the speed and size of his NCAA opponents and linemates. Although he did look tentative on offense at times, he still showed soft hands and good puck-handling and puck protection skills. The jury is still out, but Hyman has plenty of time to prove that he can play in the NCAA and beyond.
Connor Brickley, LW/C, Vermont Catamounts (Hockey East)
Drafted 2nd round, 50th overall, 2010
Vermont suffered through a dismal year during the 2011-12 season and finished with a record of 6-27-1. Brickley suffered right along with them. Brickley’s season started out with high hopes and a two-goal game in an upset win over Minnesota. Brickley went on to score eight goals in the first 14 games of the season, and became the first Vermont player in 20 years to be named to Team USA’s World Junior squad. Unfortunately, Brickley’s calf muscle was cut with a skate blade during the tournament which forced him to miss a month of action. After returning to the Vermont lineup, Brickley was never quite able to get his game back on track and he scored only a single goal throughout the final two months of the season.
Joe Basaraba, Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs (WCHA)
Drafted 3rd round, 69th overall, 2010
Playing in the shadow of Minnesota-Duluth’s offensively gifted forwards such as J.T. Brown and Jack Connolly, Basaraba was used mainly in a defensive-minded, two-way role for the Bulldogs and asked to use his speed and size to disrupt the flow of the game for his opponents and create offense in transition. As such, Basaraba’s numbers do not look nearly as gaudy as his teammates, but 16 points in 40 games, including three game-winning goals, are respectable results. He is a physical 6’2, 195 pounds, has good sense around the puck and away from it, and skates well. Basaraba will never become an offensive threat in the professional game, but his improvement this year may lead to a solid AHL career with bottom-line NHL minutes as a potential upside.
Benjamin Gallacher, D, Ohio State Buckeyes (CCHA)
Drafted 4th round, 93rd overall, 2010
Gallacher played a steady, strong freshman season for the Ohio State Buckeyes, and picked up a goal and eleven assists on a team that struggled to score. Ohio State is a young team (there were only nine upperclassmen on this year’s roster), and Gallacher will be an integral part of the growing squad over the next couple of years.
John Lee, D, Denver Pioneers (WCHA)
Drafted 5th round, 131st overall, 2007
Lee is a staple on the Pioneer blue line. The senior defenseman plays a no-nonsense, stay-at-home style of game, and has been a calming presence on a team that has struggled with injuries all season. Lee was one of only a handful of Denver players to see all 42 regular season games, and he finished among the team leaders in several categories, including plus/minus, penalty minutes, hits and blocked shots. Lee’s NCAA eligibility expires at the end of the season, and the Panthers will have until summer to sign him or let him become an unrestricted free agent.
Wade Megan, C, Boston University Terriers (Hockey East)
Drafted 5th round, 138th overall, 2009
Boston University found themselves at a crossroads this winter. Charlie Coyle (MIN) left to play in the World Juniors and never came back, opting instead to play more games in junior hockey. Their top scorer was dismissed from the team. The team needed players to step into the void and provide firepower to a suddenly depleted offense, and that is exactly what Wade Megan did. Taking advantage of extra ice time and offensive responsibilities, Megan began scoring goals, finishing his junior year regular season with 20 goals in 39 games (more than doubling his output from his sophomore year) and helped lead his team to the Frozen Four. His improvement and his leadership during a turbulent season has helped propel his career forward. If he can keep improving, he may earn himself a professional contract at the end of his senior year.
Joonas Donskoi, RW, Oulun Karpat (SM-Liiga)
Drafted 4th round, 99th overall, 2010
Donskoi played well for Karpat in the SM-Liiga, even if his counting statistics do not show it. He scored just eight goals in 52 games, half of his previous year’s total. He did, however, increase his assist production, and managed 25 points and finished sixth on the team in scoring. Donskoi also played for Finland at the World Juniors, and provided the team with five points in seven games, and was a steady contributor at both ends of the ice. He recently signed on for another year for Karpat.
Yaroslav Kosov, LW, Metallurg Magnitogorsk (KHL)
Drafted 5th round, 124th overall, 2011
Kosov made his KHL debut this season for his hometown Metallurg team. Kosov was the youngest member of a club that included players such as future Hall of Famer Sergei Federov and Oleg Tverdovsky. Playing limited minutes, Kosov managed four goals and five assists in 27 games. Like Donskoi, Kosov also played for his country at the World Juniors, and although tasked with a more defensive role on a powerhouse offensive team, he still scored a couple of goals and assists and picked up a silver medal. Kosov has the size and skill to eventually be a good NHL player if he decides to give it a try.
Sergei Gayduchenko, G, CSKA Moscow (KHL)
Drafted 7th round, 202nd overall, 2007
Gayduchenko had a respectable season as backup for CSKA Moscow in the KHL. He played in 13 games, stopping 90.4 percent of the shots he faced, and allowed 2.89 goals per game.
Iiro Pakarinen, RW, KalPa (SM-Liiga)
Drafted 7th round, 184th overall, 2011
The 2011-12 campaign was a disappointment for the young Finnish winger. Through 54 games, he managed only 10 goals and three assists, and struggled to get ice time on a veteran team. Pakarinen has a good amount of skill to go with his good size and skating ability. Time will tell whether he will become a player suitable for the NHL.