Every year, we publish our list of the Top 100 NHL Prospects in the NCAA. Once we publish the list in late-February/early-March, it is frozen for all eternity. But the process of putting it together is a constantly moving and changing organism. Because of that, I've decided to start putting together a weekly-ish recap of my scouting notes to give some sense of how that list is coming together.
This past weekend, I was in Mankato both Friday and Saturday for both games of the Minnesota State/Nebraska-Omaha series.
Omaha defenseman Luc Snuggerud(Chicago Blackhawks) came in fairly high on last year's list at #30 as a freshman. But such a lofty ranking can sometimes be difficult for a young player to keep because so much of it is based on projecting future potential. Snuggerud appears to be continuing to develop though. I had high praise for him after Friday's game:
On Saturday, Omaha shut things down about midway through the first period, so Snuggerud really didn't get much opportunity to shine. The extremely conservative defensive style plays against his greatest strengths. He ended the game with three penalties, in part because he still needs to develop a little more muscle and was having trouble keeping up physically in a more grinding style of game. He's so much better when he's moving up and down the ice rather than having to play zone to zone.
Another player that appears to have made a big jump from freshman to sophomore season is Minnesota State's CJ Franklin(Winnipeg Jets). Like the rest of the Mavericks, Franklin was a bit snakebit this weekend, but you have to be excited about the number of scoring chances he was creating, even if the conversion rate was pitifully low. Again, from Friday's recap:
CJ Franklin was the best player on the ice for Minnesota State. He got a long overdue goal in the third period, but was good all night. He banged a cross bar in the first period, caught a tough pass in stride in the second period that sent him in a decent chance, and made a beautiful 1-on-1 move to generate a scoring chance in the third period. He was also tough in the corners and along the boards all night with a very strong stick. Franklin showed a lot of potential last season and looks like he could make a big jump this season.
Franklin came to college as an older player, so if he was going to make the jump to being an elite player, it would happen sooner rather than later, and it appears it could happen this year.
This was an interesting series for Pittsburgh Penguins fans. The Penguins prospect pool is very thin at forward, and their two top center prospects were playing top line center in this series in Jake Guentzel for Omaha and Teddy Blueger for Minnesota State. Guentzel was a difference maker on Friday night, scoring a big goal on a beautifully orchestrated 3-on-2 play, and making a huge defensive play to eliminate a tap-in goal in the third period. His size isn't ideal for the pro level, and he's not the fastest guy, but the kid just understands how to play the game. He's smart enough that he could be a useful NHL player.
There was a lot of expectation placed on Blueger heading into this season. For his three years, he was used in more of a secondary scoring role as the Mavericks behind Matt Leitner. This year, Blueger is going to have to be the guy that sets up the offense for Minnesota State. So Blueger's weekend was a microcosm of Minnesota State's weekend as a whole. On one hand, two goals for the weekend isn't good enough to win hockey games. On the other hand, Blueger did set up some high-quality chances, and odds are the Mavericks don't have a 3% shooting percentage for the entirety of the year. In short, there were some promising signs, but not enough in the way of results.
The first weekend of college hockey for Frederik Olofsson(Chicago Blackhawks) was a solid one. He wasn't a standout, but there's a lot to be intrigued about with a guy that is 6'2" and has the skill to handle and move the puck effectively on the first line with a bunch of little speedsters. Check back towards the end of the year, but he looks promising.
As far as free agent prospects, the top free agent target available, Dylan Margonari, was in the stands on crutches. Omaha's Austin Ortega will be an interesting player to follow. Listed at 5-8 174 lbs., he's not a traditional pro prospect, but it's hard to argue his effectiveness at the NCAA level. His best asset is his speed. An under-appreciated way that speed manifests itself is the way the opposition has to soften their gap on him one-on-one out of respect to that speed. That creates so much more room for both him and his teammates in the offensive zone. But the question will always be if he can handle the transition to the pro game. My gut feeling would be no, just because he's not overly strong for a tiny guy. He was consistently bad working with the puck along the boards and taken off the puck too easily.
One player that is quietly impressive every time I see Omaha is sophomore defenseman Joel Messner. He's never exciting, but he's a rock solid 6-2 216 lbs. and Omaha plays him a lot. They lean on him heavily in defensive situations, and he's a big part of the reason Omaha has been able to play as boring a defensive style as they do. He may top out at the college level in terms of skating ability, and the NHL is generally looking for more multi-faceted guys, but as a guy that's going to block a shot and get you to the next shift, he's fantastic.
Elsewhere Around the Country
Max Letunov(Arizona Coyotes) had a blazing start to his college career last weekend. He scored a hat trick in his first game for UConn and added an assist in his second game. Letunov was committed to Boston University before some admissions troubles forced him to switch to UConn, but that may end up being a blessing for him to go somewhere where he can be the focal point of the offense, rather than just another high draft pick that gets lost in the shuffle at a major program.
All baggage aside, Providence senior Mark Jankowski(Calgary Flames) started his year off well, notching a goal and four assists last weekend at Miami. Jankowski was the victim of some unfair expectations when he was drafted, but now that he's had some time to mature as a player, he could still end up as a useful prospect.
Looking towards the 2016 NHL Draft, both Wisconsin's Luke Kunin and Boston University's Charlie McAvoy scored a goal in their first collegiate weekend. Both are drawing buzz as potential first round NHL Draft picks. I'm not sure I see that yet, but it's certainly going to help their cause if they're playing a big role and producing for their respective teams.