(Eye on the Future is WCH's new feature in which we break down an individual game by an NHL prospect in-depth, while also looking at what that prospect's long-term future is.)
Player: Nic Dowd, Junior, St. Cloud State
Nic Dowd is a 6-2 196 lbs. center, currently in his junior year with the St. Cloud State Huskies. He was a 7th round draft pick of the Los Angeles Kings in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, which was his second year of draft eligibility. After a year of seasoning in the USHL, he put up a 5-13-18 scoring line as a freshman at St. Cloud, while playing on the wing. As a sophomore, he moved to center for the Huskies and improved his scoring mark to 11-13-24. This year, as a junior, he looks poised to blow past those sophomore numbers, with four goals and six assists after his team's first six games.
On this Saturday night, Dowd was centering St. Cloud's second line, flanked by diminutive but feisty freshman Jimmy Murray, and big, grinding sophomore Joey Holka. Saturday was significant for the Huskies because the team's top forward, Ben Hanowski was knocked out of Friday's game with an injury, and did not on dress on Saturday, leaving a big hole in St. Cloud's scoring attack.
Dowd's line got the start, matched up against Minnesota State's top scoring line, and Dowd got an early start on an eventful evening. On the first shift, Holka fired a puck on net, and Dowd crashed the net hard looking for a rebound. Williams eventually covered the puck, and there was some serious pushing and shoving in front of the net after the scramble for the loose puck. Dowd ended up being assessed a coincidental four-minute penalty on the play, with two minutes for roughing and two for high-sticking.
As a center, Dowd was excellent in the face-off circle all night. Dowd went 15-8 on face-offs on the night, while the rest of his team had only 18 wins against 30 face-off losses. Not only was he winning a lot of face-offs, he won a lot of key face-offs as well, including two clean wins back to his defense in the offensive zone late in the first period.
The other aspect of Dowd's game that really stood out on Saturday night was that he was just ferocious along the boards all night, winning seemingly every 50/50 battle for the puck. In the second period, Dowd created a scoring chance by out-muscling a Minnesota State player along the boards in the neutral zone, gaining possession of the puck and starting a 3-on-2 rush for his team. Later that period, he took the puck deep into the MSU zone, and was knocked over behind the net, but still had the strength and instinct to drop a pass back to a teammate cycling behind him once he was on the ice, maintaining possession that eventually turned into another scoring chance for the Huskies.
Dowd played on the top power play unit for the Huskies. On the power play, St. Cloud likes to set up with a forward down low near the goal line on both sides of the net, a forward in the mid-slot, and a defenseman on each point. Dowd played on the goal line on the left side of the ice, which is a pretty key position in the St. Cloud power play scheme. The Huskies like to set up with the puck on the right side of the ice, before working the puck over to the weak side defenseman for a shot, or getting the puck on net and allowing that weak side forward to crash the net and jam home a rebound. That spot on the power play has been manned in the past by players like Andreas Nodl, who put up back-to-back 40+ point seasons before moving on to the NHL, and Ryan Lasch, who became St. Cloud's all-time leading scorer, largely as a result of tapping in loose pucks from that spot on the power play.
In the third period on Saturday night, Dowd played that position to perfection. on St. Cloud's first power play of the period, the puck was moved from the right point over to the defender on the left point, who fired a high one-timer. Minnesota State's goalie knocked the puck down, but didn't secure the rebound, and Dowd was right on the doorstep to poke it in. On St. Cloud's next power play, Dowd took a pass from the left point, and one-timed a pass directly to the player in the mid-slot, who fired the puck for a goal. I wouldn't call him a great passer, but he did make a couple nice reads to look off a defender that took away his first option, and find an open teammate. He didn't get much opportunity to display his shot. His best of the night was probably a one-timer on the power play, where the pass was in his skates, so he didn't get much on the shot, but at least got it on net.
Overall, this was a pretty brilliant performance by Dowd. He finished the night with one goal, one assist, an even +/- rating, three shots on goal--all in the third period-- a blocked shot, and the aforementioned 15-8 record on faceoffs. If you went beyond those stats and counted scoring chances created, and battles won, he would have been off the charts.
Dowd is the perfect example of why drafting NCAA-bound players with late round draft picks is a wise move for NHL teams. As a player born in 1990, he would have aged out of the CHL, and the team that drafted him would have had to make a decision on whether to sign him two years ago. Two years ago, as a freshman, Dowd was a decent player that appeared to have some upside. He's an almost completely different player now, having developed into one of the better players in the WCHA, and a very serious pro hockey prospect.
If he continues to play at the level he's shown so far this season, Dowd looks like he would be ready to take the next step to pro hockey next year, although any decisions are likely pending how the NHL is shaped if/when the lockout ends. Under the old collective bargaining agreement, Dowd could be eligible for free agency after this season using the same rule used by Blake Wheeler and, more recently, Justin Schultz, if he withdrew from school and didn't come to terms with the Kings. Though it seems unlikely that that rule would exist in any future agreement. He would likely need a year or two of time spent in the minor leagues to acclimate to the level and the grind of professional hockey, but after that, has a very serious shot of playing in the NHL, which is pretty remarkable for a player drafted in the seventh round of the NHL Draft.