BUFFALO -- There was no shortage of hype surrounding Jack Eichel and his appearance in the USA Hockey/CCM All-American Prospects Game on Thursday night at the First Niagara Center. And for right reason, the Boston University freshman was named the Player of the Game as he helped lead Team Grier to a 6-3 victory.
Eichel is in a constant battle with Canadian prospect and Erie Otters forward Connor McDavid for who should be the top selection in the 2015 NHL Draft in Miami, but what really makes a draft class is the depth of talent. The crop of American talent on display Thursday night in Buffalo is deep, and possibly the best class ever from south of the border.
Several players rated as "B" prospects in NHL Central Scouting's Preliminary Rankings had notably strong performances on Thursday night. Here's a look at six of them and what made them stand out.
Joe Cecconi was the local favorite on Thursday night. The only player on the ice whose hockey development truly happened in and around Buffalo, the Muskegon Lumberjack showed scouts that there are few players as dominant and solid defensively in this draft. He doesn't have the skating ability or the offensive upside like Noah Hanifin or Zach Werenski, but in his own zone, there are few better. He knows when to step up and cut down opposing forwards and he does a terrific job with gap control. He'll have less chances to showcase his talents playing in the USHL compared to others in the NTDP and college game, but this observer is betting on his stock rising as the year goes along in the best junior league in North America.
Jeremy Bracco has had two golden opportunities this month to show NHL scouts that despite his small frame he can compete with the best players in his age group. He dazzled at the USHL Atlantic Challenge and was flashy once again on Thursday night. His hands and foot work are second to no one in this draft class among American prospects. What really stands out is his ability to manipulate the puck, especially down low and in tight at the goalmouth. His size will always be questioned and this observer would be shocked if he went higher than late second round, but he could be a Nathan Gerbe or Johnny Gaudreau type, players who have or are looking to establish a niche in the NHL for themselves.
Erik Foley knows he's not the most skilled player among draft eligibles, but his compete level, strength and energy are traits that will separate him from other prospects in his realm. The two plays he made that really stood out to this observer were very similar. He beat defenders to the puck as he crashed in on the forecheck and sent out pretty passes right on the tape to his linemates out in front of the net. Make no mistake, the former Tabor Academy star now playing for Cedar Rapids in the USHL has a heavy shot and is a good skater, but his most important attribute will always be his strength and power along the boards. Look for Mark Carlson to shape the Providence recruit into a better defensive forward as the year progresses.
Christian Fischer doesn't always get the attention of some his counterparts on the NTDP roster, but the Notre Dame recruit is legitimate power forward whose coach singled him out as a top performer following the game. The Wayne, Ill. native was held scoreless, but he registered six shots on goal. Similarly to when this observer saw him a few weeks ago at the USHL Atlantic Challenge, Fischer just makes noise each and every shift. He's strong and physical and makes plays with and without the puck.
Karch Bachman had a nice game, getting off six shots on goal. The Miami recruit probably wishes he had a few of those back so he could have shown his finishing ability better to NHL scouts. He has good separation ability, which was highlighted on Thursday night.
Alec Baer had a nice night, picking up a goal and adding an assist. The second-year player for the Vancouver Giants in the WHL didn't have the best rookie season offensively so Thursday night showed scouts that he has the offensive instincts needed to make it as a top six forward. He did a nice job of scooting around the offensive zone and being in the right place at the right time.
Jeff Cox covers college, junior and high school hockey, NCAA recruiting and NHL Draft prospects. Follow him on Twitter @JeffCoxSports.