This got lost in the shuffle with a short holiday week last week, but as one last bit of business from the St. Cloud State-North Daktoa series two weekends ago, I thought I'd share some notes I had on the many NHL prospects playing for the Fighting Hawks this season.
I already discussed in-depth North Dakota's two first round NHL Draft picks Brock Boeser(Vancouver Canucks) and Nick Schmaltz(Chicago Blackhawks). But with ten other NHL Draft picks on the roster and a few top free agent targets, there was a lot to watch an evaluate.
It's pretty easy to figure out that Boeser and Schmaltz are great prospects with a bright future ahead of themselves. The more difficult and interesting question is with the third player on North Dakota's dominating top line: Drake Caggiula(Free Agent). Caggiula is a tremendous college hockey player, but far from a sure bet at the pro level. He is a smaller player, but gets by with hustle and grit. How will that translate to the pros? His upside is probably as a fringe AHL/NHL player. He'll have to prove himself in the minor leagues before he gets a serious look at the NHL level, but might be worth an NHL free agent contract when this season is over.
For as impressive as North Dakota's first line was, lines two through four were just as unimpressive. Best among a rather disappointing group was probably second line center Luke Johnson(Chicago Blackhawks). I've always liked the hard edge that Johnson plays with, and he's cleaned up some of the dumb penalties he was known to take in previous years. He's not much of an offensive threat though, which limits his pro upside.
Chris Wilkie(Florida Panthers) played hard all weekend, but ended up with not much to show for it. If he maintains that effort level and gets a little stronger and a litlte smarter in terms of using leverage, he could develop into a nice player. Austin Poganski(St. Louis Blues) had a quiet weekend playing in his hometown. He's not much more than a big grinder at this point in his career. Shane Gersich(Washington Capitals) was unnoticeable in Friday's game and ended up a healthy scratch in Saturday's game.
North Dakota's blue lline in tremendous; arguably the best in all of college hockey. Ironically, the best pro prospect of the group might be the only player in their top six that isn't drafted. I wrote a long piece last year on what a great free agent target Troy Stecher would make, and ranked him highly on our Top 100 NHL Prospects list. He ended up returning to North Dakota, and what I wrote last year still stands. His skating and ability to jump into the play is just exceptional. Two or three times a night, you will see him make a play that no other defenseman in college hockey is capable of making. His defense is good, not great, but you'd gladly take that trade-off on the defensive end for what he can do going the other way.
His defensive partner Gage Ausmus(San Jose Sharks) has developed into a legitimate top pairing defenseman for North Dakota, which is no small thing. He didn't play two of his better games in St. Cloud though. But in general, he's a very strong, versatile defenseman that has come a long way over the course of his career at North Dakota.
Paul LaDue(Los Angeles Kings) turned down a very serious contract offer for the Kings this past summer to return to North Dakota. The thing is, LaDue kind of is what he is at this point. That's not really a knock him. He's an incredibly solid defensive defenseman and moves the puck well enough and plays a very mature, pro-style game. I just don't see him having significantly more to gain from playing at the college level.
I really liked the game of freshman Christian Wolanin(Ottawa Senators). Wolanin had been splitting time with fellow freshman Hayden Shaw as the sixth defenseman in the pecking order, but earned both games this past weekend with a really solid game on Friday, and seems to have solidified himself as a line-up regular due to his play. Wolanin does a little bit of everything. He's not Troy Stecher, but he can push the play on offense at times, and he's smart and reliable defensively. Wolanin was a bit of a late-bloomer, but is doing everything asked of him now and really looks like a player on the rise.
Tucker Poolman(Winnipeg Jets) is back on the blue line after spending some time at forward last season due to a very crowded North Dakota blue line. Poolman is a physical specimen with a lot of upside. He's still a work in progress though. He threaded the needle with a beautiful pass through the neutral to send a teamamte in on a breakaway early on Friday, so there's some skill there, but there were also way too many examples of glass-and-out punts of the puck when facing pressure. Offensively, North Dakota utilizes him on the power play to take advantage of his huge slap shot, but he had a tough time getting his shot through to the net. If he can become a little more confident with the puck, he could be a really nice player though.
Keaton Thompson(Anaheim Ducks)-Thompson is a big, reliable defensive presence, but hasn't even quite ever developed his puck-handling abilities enough to be a really dangerous player. It looks like Wolanin's ascension to line-up regular will move Thompson down to that 6th/7th bubble spot with Shaw.