NHL scouts attend every game in Hockey East looking to find hidden talent, a late bloomer, in addition to keeping an eye on drafted prospects and draft eligible players.
College free agent prospects have become so important to NHL organizations that some have hired scouts with the sole purpose of scouring the NCAA ranks for them. Former Brown associate head coach Mark White took such a position with the Winnipeg Jets this past summer.
Last week, we took a look at the top undrafted seniors from Hockey East. This week, we'll take a look at five sophomores and juniors that NHL organizations will be keeping a close eye on this winter. There are obviously some other players that deserve a look, and certainly will get attention, but these are the top five after two weeks of the season, based on this year and the past.
Hampus Gustafsson, Jr., Center, Merrimack - The Swedish import is a big-bodied center who can play a physical, grind-it-out game below the circles. He is excellent on the cycle and can drive the net hard. He uses his powerful lower body and size as leverage to fend off opposing defenders from the puck. He has a hard shot and can score goals in the dirty area. He's not skilled enough that he can make the NHL as a top six defender so this observer would like to see him get a little better in his own zone, but the potential is definitely there.
Dan Renouf, Jr., Left Defense, Maine - The Pickering, Ontario native made huge strides last season as a sophomore and he seems to have picked up right where he left off. A Hill Academy product, the six-foot-two blue liner has good mobility. He has a good pivot and is responsible in his own zone. He has a good stick and can be physical, but most importantly, he doesn't get beaten often. He keeps it simple and generally is mistake-free.
Jordan Gross, Soph., Right Defense, Notre Dame - Some NHL scouts might question his lack of size, but he's an extremely efficient defender. He's a terrific skater who can move the puck up ice, but also is responsible in his own end. He's smart and makes good decisions with and without the puck. The Maple Grove, Minn. native quietly put up an incredibly productive freshman campaign in South Bend.
Zach Aston-Reese, Jr., Left Wing, Northeastern - The Staten Island, NY native has quietly been a pretty good player for Jim Madigan's program the last two years. He's versatile, a player that can play all three forward positions if pressed into it. He's a little streaky, but he put up 13 goals last season. He's another player that will have to make it at the pro level by being good in all three zones. He's a bottom six guy for sure, but he's someone to keep an eye on with his size and ability to impact all 200 feet of the ice surface.
Mario Puskarich, Jr., Right Wing, Vermont - He's a late bloomer, who's definitely undersized, but there is some intrigue. He wouldn't be the first former Catamount forward doubted for his size to make it in the NHL if he ever does. Marty St. Louis' story is well-chronicled. Puskarich, the 2013-14 Hockey East Rookie of the Year, is a gifted offensive player. He does a great job setting up on the half wall and creating offense. The puck goes through him, especially on the UVM power play.
Jeff Cox covers college, junior, high school and prep hockey, NCAA recruiting and NHL Draft prospects. Follow him on Twitter @JeffCoxSports.