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NHL Prospect Watch: St. Cloud State vs. Minnesota State

Charlie Lindgren is perfect on the year through three starts
Charlie Lindgren is perfect on the year through three starts
Matt Christians

For the second straight weekend, I hit both games of a single weekend series, this time in St. Cloud for St. Cloud State vs. Minnesota State. We covered Minnesota State in this feature last week and they haven't scored a goal since then, so that's not much to say about them. Dylan Margonari's leg is one week closer to not being broken, and that's pretty much the most positive thing you can say.

That leaves St. Cloud State to talk about. The Huskies have traditionally leaned more towards smaller, faster players that are effective at the college level rather than big bodies that are viewed as long-term pro prospects. They've had a lot of success with that method, and that's more or less an accurate description for their team this year. There are some intriguing pro prospects on their team this year, however.

The player I was most interested in seeing for the Huskies was freshman defenseman Will Borgen(Buffalo Sabres). Flash back to just 12 months ago and Borgen was not even on the NHL Central Scouting Preliminary Players to Watch List, which is, as a rule, extremely liberal with their definition of "draft prospect"(The old joke is that they could save NHL teams some printer paper by sending out a Players Not to Watch list). He had committed to the Huskies earlier in the fall, but there was the heavy expectation that he would be playing one, if not two years for the Omaha Lancers in the USHL before coming to St. Cloud State.

But a very strong end to last season with the Omaha Lancers after his high school season ended made him a legitimate NHL Draft candidate. Borgen ended up being selected 92nd overall by the Buffalo Sabres early in the fourth round of the Draft. St. Cloud State decided to bring him in to school this season, making him the first freshman to play for the Huskies straight out of Minnesota high school hockey since Ben Hanowski in 2010.

That brings us to this weekend. It looks like Borgen will have no problem adjusting to the pace and physicality of college hockey. Borgen is playing on St. Cloud State's second defensive pairing, in part because SCSU's top D, senior Ethan Prow is also a RH shot. He's seeing time on the second power play and penalty kill units as well. They're certainly not sheltering him with his minutes at all.

Borgen was solid on the defensive end all weekend, as you might expect from a team that didn't get scored on in either game. St. Cloud State played with the lead the large majority of the weekend so they played a fairly conservative, team defensive style, which didn't stress their back line as much. Borgen did have a few nice shot blocks.

What was most exciting was what he showed on the offensive end. Borgen hasn't picked up a point yet through four games, but is moving the puck around the ice well and creating offense. It feels like the points are going to come. He showed above average speed and quickness to gain zone entry a number of times on the weekend. His best opportunity of the weekend came in the first period on Friday when he gained the offensive zone with the puck, took a shot from the high slot, then beat the defense to a rebound for a quality second chance opportunity. He came very close to his first college assist on Saturday night when he made a nice fake like he was making a D-to-D pass at his own blue line to draw the F1 forechecker too low, creating an open passing lane for a cross ice pass that sent a teammate in with a clear shot on goal. That willingness to make a skill play rather than the simple play shows some impressive confidence for a player that young. It will be interesting to follow his year, but the early returns were excellent.

The other fascinating prospect for St. Cloud State is fourth-liner Ben Storm(Colorado Avalanche). Storm is another interesting story. The 6-7 monster was originally committed to play college football for his hometown Michigan Tech, but decided to take a run at playing Division I hockey rather than Division II hockey. Colorado took a chance on drafting him based almost solely on the fact that he was a 6-7 defenseman. After a year and a half of not seeing the ice consistently because he just didn't have the footwork to play defense at the college level, the Avalanche suggested that he make the switch to forward just to get him on the ice a little more. Since then, Storm has been a fixture on St. Cloud State's fourth line and has been reasonably effective. Last year, he showed some impressive one-on-one stickhandling skills at times, but just wasn't using his big frame effectively enough. This past weekend, I thought he was much more effective in the corners. He won a lot of pucks, including a nice puck retrieval that led to St. Cloud State's second goal on Friday night. He needs to become a better passer on the cycle once he wins pucks deep, but if he can develop that, he could create a nice little niche for himself at the next level. It's also worth noting that St. Cloud State still uses him at the top of the umbrella on their second power play unit, where obviously he has a bomb for a shot when he really leans into it.

The other drafted player on St. Cloud State's roster is sophomore forward Judd Peterson(Buffalo Sabres). My early impressions of Peterson were much the same as last year, in that he has really good shifts where he looks fast and strong on the puck like a next-level player, but those shifts still come too few and far between, and there are long stretches where he's not noticeable.

There are some good free agent prospects on the Huskies as well. Charlie Lindgren skated at the Minnesota Wild development camp this past summer. Lindgren has the size and athleticism to play at the pro level, and so far that is translating into results. He has yet to give up a goal in three starts this year. If he stays consistent and eliminates some of the soft goals he gave up last year, he's going to put up outstanding statistics this year and should be a top free agent target this coming off-season.

Danish second-year forward Patrick Russell is another free agent target worth watching. Russell is a bigger forward, listed at 6-1 205 lbs. He's not a terrific skater and doesn't play with the puck on his stick as often as you'd like, but is a dangerous offensive threat. One asset is that he has an extremely heavy, low wrist shot that is tough for goalies to stop and almost impossible for them to control. The other, more subtle thing he does well is that he is tremendous about moving when he doesn't have the puck to find himself space to work offensively. He excels at moving into the high slot at just the right moment to set himself up for a open shot, or getting to the front of the net just as the puck gets there, rather than getting there too early and drawing extra defensive attention. Defensively, he uses his big wingspan to be effective on the forecheck by taking away time and space for the opposition.

Finally, I wouldn't have considered freshman defenseman Jimmy Schuldt much of a pro prospect prior to this weekend, but he played top pairing minutes all weekend and was extremely solid. If he does that consistently, he'll definitely start drawing more attention.

In Other Prospect News

-Winnipeg Jets first round Kyle Connor made his debut with Michigan last weekend, scoring three goals and an assist in a weekend sweep of Mercyhurst. Connor scored on a short-handed semi-breakaway and added an empty-netter on Friday, then scored the game-winning goal on Sunday. It was a very strong start to his collegiate career.

-UMass forward Dennis Kravchenko is the early national scoring leader with eight points in three games. Kravchenko is small and attitude questions have plagued him through his career, but always been unbelievably talented.

-New Jersey draft pick Miles Wood--perhaps best known for making the US WJC team last year as a high schooler--is off to a solid start with Boston College, scoring three goals in three games. BC Interruption called him "the straw that stirs the drink" for Boston College right now.