So here we are, at the end of our list. There's likely not too many surprises at the top. The top three choices were obvious enough that there was almost no discussion on them. What stands out is what a young list this is. Six players are freshmen, and three of those freshmen could still be in high school this season. That's not a big surprise; lists like this tend to skew younger but ultra-talented players don't stay in the NCAA for long. But what makes this year special is just how many good young players there are this year. It's been a long time since a potential top draft pick accelerated to play college hockey. To have three this year has made this a pretty special group.
Before we get started, I also just wanted to give one more thanks to our staff here in helping make this list what it was. Special thanks goes out to our photographers Matt Christians and Matt Dewkett, who are two of the best in the business, along with the others that shared photos for this list, for helping to make these stories look as beautiful as they did.
If you missed a previous installment of this list, all nine entries are here.
Without further ado, your ten best NHL prospects in college hockey this season:
The leading scorer in the country has taken the NCAA by storm in his draft year. It is nearly a forgone conclusion that the North Chelmsford, Mass. native will be selected No. 2 in the 2015 NHL Draft behind Connor McDavid of the Erie Otters. 32 of Eichel's knack for being involved in clutch goals has been uncanny. 55 points have come in the third period or overtime. Eichel, who skates with a long stride, has that extra gear to make up speed and an explosive burst. He's got a long reach that allows him to stickhandle around opposing players and get pucks that many other players can't. He's got a pro release and patience and creativity with the puck that allows him to wait to draw defenders his way before sending a pass to an open teammate.
In any ordinary college hockey season, Hanifin would draw a ton of attention nationally, but he's been lost in the shadow of Eichel for the most part. However, the Norwood, Mass. native, has had a special freshman season. He's also a mere lock to go No. 3 overall in the upcoming NHL Draft. He's a franchise-changing defenseman who can be a cornerstone for the future. He's so good with the puck. He can move the puck up ice, both by skating it up and passing. He's got a good sense of what's going on around him. His defensive game is what has improved the most since October. He's got a good stick and plays skates backwards real well.
Larkin is currently the highest-drafted player in the NCAA, at least until next June. He really established himself as the third overall player on this list starting with a fantastic World Juniors Tournament, where he was the only US player that generated consistent offense. He carried that offensive production back to Michigan, scoring 24 points in 13 games since returning from the World Juniors. Larkin has always been known as a big, responsible, two-way center. But the scoring ability he's added to his game this season has really increased his value as a prospect.
The Baldwinsville, NY native has the ability to take over games and use his size, strength and power to change the tone of the game. His ability to drive the net and be a force in the slot is very impressive for a freshman playing against some older plays in Hockey East. He has 14 goals and 14 assists in 33 games, but really impressed at the World Junior Championship. If he stays a few years at the Heights he could be a legit force, but with the level of play he's shown this year, his stay might not be that long.
A first round pick by the Blues in the 2012 NHL Draft, Schmaltz returned to North Dakota for his junior season in part to play with his younger brother Nick who is a freshman at North Dakota this season. Schmaltz has the ability to take over games with his skating ability when he needs to, but more often stays within his team's system and plays solid, reliable defense. Schmaltz's excellent backwards skating and near-perfect gap control make it impossible to beat him one-on-one. He's also a strong puckhandler, and a good passer, which has helped him rack up a lot of assists this season.
Matheson's skill and physical tools are almost unmatched in college hockey, but he sometimes has appeared bored with the competition level. As good as he is, he needs to limit mistakes, but when he is on, he's really good. He wins just about every one-on-one battle he's involved in and keeps opposing forwards to the perimeter. He's got a good stick, skates well and gets shots on net. He's smooth and fluid out there, making his elite plays look easy.
Werenski has been an impact player for the Wolverines despite being the youngest player in college hockey. He's stepped in immediately and shown he can be offensive force, helping run the Michigan power play. His defensive game still needs a bit of work, which is no surprise given his age. But there's little doubt that Werenski has all the physical tools to be an outstanding pro defenseman.
The junior forward has really come on in his third season playing for Ted Donato's Crimson. Vesey, whose father was a former pro and the all-time leading scorer at Merrimack and whose younger brother is property of the Toronto Maple Leafs, has registered a point in 27 of 29 games. He began the season with a 20-game point streak. The North Reading, Mass. resident has 22 goals and 22 assists in 29 games. He's really known for going into the nitty gritty areas and for his elite shot, but he's also quite a passer. What's improved the most since his sophomore campaign is his skating. He's improved his speed and strength in his lower body. When he's got speed and moving around the offensive zone, he's an imposing power forward.
Like most of his Minnesota team, Reilly went through a lull in his play through the middle part of the season. But when Reilly is being assertive, and playing at his best, he has the ability to take over a game in a way that no other defenseman in college hockey can. His smooth skating and vision makes him an elite puck-mover, and he runs Minnesota's power play smoothly and efficiently, making him the leading scorer among defensemen in the NCAA.
A first round draft choice of the Blackhawks last summer, Schmaltz has smooth hands and excellent vision which has made him a reliable playmaker in his first season. He hasn't had as much success putting the puck in the net, but that should improve as he matures physically. His defensive play is still a work in progress, but has shown positive progression this year. Schmaltz has the talent to be a scorer at the pro level, but still needs time to reach that potential.