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Hockey East: NHL Prospect Report

Maine's Blaine Byron screens Providence goaltender Jon Gillies in the 2014 Hockey East Tournament.
Maine's Blaine Byron screens Providence goaltender Jon Gillies in the 2014 Hockey East Tournament.
Matt Dewkett

With the first semester in the books and the second half of the Hockey East season about to get going in earnest, it's a good time to check in on how some of the league's NHL prospects are faring.

Editor's Note: This will be a weekly installment in the second half of the season.

Boston College

Ryan Fitzgerald, a fourth round selection of the Boston Bruins in the 2013 NHL Draft, has had an up and down sophomore campaign for the Eagles. On Friday this observer saw Fitzgerald light the lamp once and dish out two assists. Nine of his 12 points have come in four games. He's been held off the score sheet in 12 of 19 games.

When he's on, Fitgzgerald exhibits very good hockey IQ and sees the sheet well especially in the offensive zone. He's a prospect who's continuing to work on playing a complete 200-feet game. He certainly has to work on his consistency and be a force more often than not for Jerry York's team.

In Friday's 4-1 win over Brown, the Eagles were undermanned with Noah Hanifin, Ian McCoshen, Alex Tuch and Thatcher Demko away at the 2015 World Junior Championship and Steve Santini behind the bench in street clothes. Florida Panthers prospect Michael Matheson logged a ton of ice time due to the limited bench. He only had one shot on goal and didn't have a hand in any of the Eagle goals, but he showed off why he's such a hot commodity. He's as good one-on-one as any defenseman in college hockey. He's just so strong and reliable in his own zone. His talent is off the charts, but he's just got to maintain focus.

My last in person viewing of Hanifin came in a USA jersey at Walter Brown Arena on Dec. 19. He's projected as the third overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, only behind Connor McDavid and BU's Jack Eichel. The more I see of Hanifin, the easier it is to see why. His skating ability and stick skills are undeniable, but he's getting better defensively. He's just so poised and has immense vision. He's a player who grows on you the more you watch.

Boston University

I tweeted out during BU's game against Harvard on Nov. 25 how much improvement Doyle Somerby has made since his freshman campaign, but it's worth noting again. The New York Islanders prospect and Kimball Union Academy alum is a big-bodied defenseman who can lay some mean hits on his typically much smaller opposition. That's something that has always been there, but his skating ability and movement on the ice has improved drastically. His composure on the ice is also getting better and he's picking and choosing his spots to go for that big hit. He's got to be particularly careful in NCAA with referees often whistle-happy to call any big hit an infraction.

Eichel didn't have the best of tournaments at the World Juniors and was a healthy scratch on Saturday against defending NCAA Champion Union, the decision of a coaching staff that thought rest and preparedness for a second half was more important than rushing him right back into action after the quick sprint in Montreal.

A lot of people look at A.J. Greer's stat line and write him off as another overhyped prospect, but as ESPN's Lee Corso would say, not so fast. Let's take a step back and remember that the Joliette, Quebec native should really be a senior at KUA, playing prep hockey. The just-turned 18 year old scored on Saturday against the Dutchmen and has a point in each of his last two games. He's been up and down as is to be expected for most young freshmen not named Eichel. When he's on his game he's using his size and strength to win battles and leverage opposing defenders from the puck.

Connecticut

It's been an up and down sophomore season for Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick Ryan Segalla as he and his teammates transition to the grueling grind of Hockey East. He's played some forward and has shown off his physical abilities and knack for throwing his weight around.

A college free agent to keep an eye on is senior Patrick Kirtland. He's certainly not a prospect for making any professional team's top six, but he's a player who might find a role as a depth guy and a penalty killing grinder. He's a very complete player and does everything well.

Maine

There wasn't much to brag about for the Black Bears in the first half of the year. To put it bluntly, Red Gendron's team was not good. While NHL prospects like Devin Shore (Dallas Stars) and Ben Hutton (Vancouver Canucks) underperformed, Blaine Byron has taken a huge jump from his freshman season. The Pittsburgh Penguins 2013 pick has already surpassed his rookie season goal total. Over the weekend against Canisius he tallied his ninth of the season after only finding the back of the net eight times last year.

Speaking of Shore, while it has been a disappointing season statistically, it should be noted that opposing teams are really gunning for the Ajax, Ontario native. He's been given very little room to move and has been the object of opposing teams' game plans. There might be light at the end of the tunnel for the junior captain who has seven points in his current four-game point streak after being held scoreless in four straight games prior.

While his brother Jimmy is becoming one of the hottest prospects to talk about down at Harvard, Nolan Vesey is starting to find his game in Orono. The freshman had just three points in his first 13 collegiate games. He's picked up at least a point in five of six and scored a goal in four of five. He had three points over the weekend against Canisius.

Massachusetts

Anaheim Ducks prospect Brandon Montour is finally eligible in Amherst. The 2013-14 USHL Player of the Year had to go back to Waterloo for the first semester as he awaited passing through the NCAA Clearinghouse. After being held scoreless in his collegiate debut against Northeastern, the Ohsweken, Ontario native has at least a point in his last three. He picked up assists against Providence and Air Force at the Catamount Cup and scored a goal and an assist in a loss to UConn Friday night.

UMass Lowell

As Norm Bazin's team made a third straight NCAA Tournament appearance, Edmonton Oilers pick Evan Campbell sort of floated under the radar as a freshman last season. This year is a different story with the River Hawks in need of some new blood stepping up. Campbell has answered the bell, and did so this weekend as his team captured the Mariucci Classic, its second holiday tournament title in as many weekends. He had a goal and two assists Friday against RIT and scored again in the championship game win over Merrimack. He's been solid in all three zones and has certainly made a nice jump from his rookie year.

Merrimack

The Warriors have been one of the more intriguing teams in Division I. A year after finishing dead last in Hockey East, Mark Dennehy's team has caught the country by surprise. Friday night the Warriors shocked Minnesota, 3-2, in the Mariucci Classic. Puck possession numbers and increased team speed have been keys to the turnaround.

Big 2013 Ottawa pick Chris LeBlanc is back from last season's knee injury and is showing signs of why the Senators took him on as a project. He's got good speed for a guy his size and when he unleashes his shot, anyone in its path need watch out.

In a down year when it comes to NCAA free agents in Hockey East land, sophomore Hampus Gustafsson might be a name to watch for as a future NHL signing. He's got size, he's good on face-offs, he can grind, cycle and he can make strong moves to the net as evidenced by his goal Friday against the Gophers.

A second year draft eligible, Brett Seney is undersized, but he can absolutely fly. He's one of the fastest players in the country and has some incredible mitts. The team's leader in goals, points, and plus/minus, Seney is likely to get overlooked once again, but it wouldn't surprise to see a team take a flyer on him in the last round. The game has changed a lot over the past decade and there is more openness to guys south of six-feet.

New Hampshire

Hot 2014 NHL Draft picks Warren Foegele and Shane Eiserman have shown some signs of promise, but have been brought into the college game slowly by the old fashioned Dick Umile. Eiserman has a point in three of the last four games. Big guys like him take a while to acclimate themselves to this level. Once he realizes how to use his physicality and strength to his advantage, watch out.

2013 Carolina Hurricanes pick Brett Pesce returned to the lineup after missing five games with a lower body injury. The Tarrytown, NY native had a goal and was +2 in UNH's 6-2 win over Omaha.

Northeastern

Kevin Roy didn't play for the first time all season Friday and the Huskies went 0-for-7 on the man advantage. He returned to the lineup Saturday and the team connected twice on the power play and was a pipe away from a third score. As head coach Jim Madigan so eloquently said after the game, Roy is "highly skilled. He's smart, he can shoot it, and he can pass it." The Anaheim Ducks prospect does a great job of creating space for himself as well as his teammates. The knock against him is his work ethic in his own zone, but there are few players in Hockey East with his hands and offensive ability.

Matt Benning is a Boston Bruins draft pick who many have mocked for his skating ability or lack thereof. However, he's made a nice jump this season, his second in NCAA. He's gotten more reliable in his own zone and does a good job maintaining opposing forwards. He wins a lot of battles and logs a lot of key minutes for Madigan's team.

Notre Dame

He didn't play in his team's last game against Lake Superior in the Florida College Classic, but Washington Capitals prospect Thomas DiPauli has had a breakout junior campaign. He had 15 points in the first 17 games before going scoreless in the next two and sitting the last one. Why is that so remarkable? The Italian native had just 17 points in his first two seasons combined.

Minnesota Wild prospect Mario Lucia, who has one of the most pro ready shots in the college game, is often criticized for his inconsistency and propensity to stay along the perimeter. He hasn't done much to change that this season. He's been very streaky. He has 11 goals which sounds good, but was held scoreless in six of seven games prior to his current four-game scoring streak.

Providence

Freshman Brian Pinho, a Washington Capitals pick in 2013, has come in and been given some key minutes. He had two goals in the first weekend of the year including the game winning goal in overtime in just his second collegiate game against Ohio State. Then his offensive production saw a little bit of a lull, but the North Andover, Mass. native has seen his numbers back up over the past few games. He's got a five-game point streak currently, including three points this weekend against Colorado College. He's +7 during this stretch of five games.

Junior Mark Jankowski has made significant improvement since coming in as a young freshman, but he's still a frustrating player to watch in terms of his tenacity and willingness to go to the net. He's got some undeniable skill, but he plays too soft of a game and sticks to the perimeter too often. When he brings it and goes to to the net and camps out in the slot he can be really fun to watch.

Fellow 2012 Calgary pick John Gilmour had the game-winning goal against Colorado College on Sunday. His absolute cannon from the blue line that went bar down gave the Friars the 4-3 lead late in the game. The third Flames pick from the 2012 draft, Jon Gillies, had the night off due to a bout with the flu bug.

Vermont

How important is Chicago Blackhawks prospect Michael Paliotta to the success of the Catamounts? Kevin Sneddon's team is 10-0-0 when the Westport, Conn. native scores a point. When he doesn't UVM is 4-5-1. The big puck-moving defenseman skates sort of like a freight train. He's not fast or quick, but he's got a powerful stride. He has real good vision and does a good job breaking the puck out of his own zone as well as quarterbacking the power play. Paliotta was held scoreless and was -3 over the last two games, losses to Providence and Yale.

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Jeff Cox covers college, junior and high school hockey, NCAA recruiting and NHL Draft prospects. Follow him on Twitter @JeffCoxSports.