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Top NCAA NHL Free Agent Prospects for 2016-2017

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UMD’s Neal Pionk
Matt Christians

Now that the calendar has flipped over to 2017, it is the time of year when NHL teams really start focusing in on what NCAA agents they will pursue when their college season ends in March/April.

This year’s class of NCAA free agents looks to be another average one. There are some good players available, as always, but not the type of players that will make a major impact immediately, and likely not another Chris Kunitz or Dan Boyle in the group that will go on to a long, great career. But it takes more than superstars to make a good hockey team, and uncovering the right gem for free in college free agency could be the boost that helps take an NHL team to the next level.

When it comes to college free agents, much of the beauty is in the eye of the beholder. As the great Bob McKenzie wrote last year, one team’s top target is another team’s ‘are you kidding me?’

With that said, here is our list of who we feel will be some of the top NCAA free agents available to be signed this coming spring.

  1. Zach Aston-Reese, Left Wing, Northeastern

Zach Aston-Reese’s head coach Jim Madigan summed it up nicely: ““If he’s not the best college free agent, I haven’t seen who’s better than him.”

Aston-Reese is an absolute beast working along the boards and in heavy traffic situations. He’s continued to develop his two-way play, and put in a lot of work on his shot to become a more effective scorer.

You can read more about why Aston-Reese is the best NCAA free agent available in this feature piece, with some more great quotes from his coach.

2. Daniel Brickley, Defenseman, Minnesota State

Last year, Minnesota State’s Casey Nelson was one of the top free agent defensemen available out of the NCAA, eventually signing with the Buffalo Sabres and jumping right into their lineup. Brickley is an extremely similar, if not slightly more polished, prospect.

Brickley isn’t a lightning-fast skater, and is still developing on the defensive end, but his combination of size—listed at 6-2 205 lbs.—and tremendous offensive abilities give him a tantalizing amount of upside. He missed time this year with a fractured wrist, but his time out only increased his value as Minnesota State’s power play struggled without him running things from the point.

What he lacks in straight-line speed, he makes up for with a shiftiness laterally which is really impressive for a big defender that allows him to create his own passing and shooting lanes. He’s aggressive in looking for his shot which helps generate a lot of offense. He’s still a bit of a project, but could develop into a second pairing defenseman that is very good on the power play at the NHL level.

3. Mike Vecchione, Center, Union

Vecchione has had opportunities to sign NHL contracts before. He was an integral part of the Union team that won a national championship with the likes of Shayne Gostisbehere and Daniel Carr, and followed that up with a 50-point sophomore season that earned him offers to turn pro.

It looked like the decision to pass up that opportunity was a mistake when his point total dipped to 29 points as a junior, but Vecchione returned for his senior season and has been dominant at the NCAA level. He’s second nationally in scoring with an 18-21-39 scoring in 21 games and is among the favorites to win the Hobey Baker.

Vecchione is a complete, 200-foot player. His skating is good enough to make plays in open ice, and he can win battles along the wall. He’s also capable of playing center and being a go-to guy in the face-off circle, which makes him more intriguing as a pro.

4. Neal Pionk, Defenseman, Minnesota Duluth

In his sophomore season, the Duluth-area native has developed into the top defenseman for the Bulldogs, who have spent much of the season as one of the top teams in the country.

Pionk is a very good two-way defenseman thanks to his excellent skating ability and agility. He moves the puck up the ice reliably thanks to an ability to spin his way out of traffic and is an excellent outlet passer. His quickness also gives him the confidence to hold the line in the offensive zone, rather than giving up ice to give himself more cushion defensively.

He’s just an okay defender one-on-one against the rush, but has an above average amount of toughness and physicality for a guy that will classify as a smaller defenseman at the next level.

5. Blake Winiecki, Center, St. Cloud State

Winiecki is a big centerman—always a valuable commodity at the NHL level—that has started to contribute more offensively now that he is playing a bigger role and seeing more ice time in his junior season with St. Cloud State. Winiecki is solid on face-offs, plays good defense, and has the size to provide a net-front presence, while still having the skill to not be a drain on possession when he gets the puck.

He’ll be a grinder at the next level, but the type of player that plays a valuable role for a team.

6. John Stevens, Center, Northeastern

John Stevens is the son of an NHL coach, and that really shows in his game. He’s not the most physically-gifted athlete, but he makes up for that with incredibly high hockey IQ. He’s a smart, two-way centerman that plays a very complete game. He doesn’t have tremendous upside, but lots of potential to be a reliable defensive centerman at the NHL level.

7. Peyton Jones, Goalie, Penn State

Jones has a prototypical NHL-size frame for a goalie, and like most bigger prospects, it took him a little longer to develop. After a shaky first year in the USHL, Jones was very solid in his second year with the Lincoln Stars, but it wasn’t quite enough of a track record to get him drafted in his final year of draft eligibility. Now at Penn State, Jones is proving last year wasn’t a fluke. He quickly took command of the starting job for the Nittany Lions and is helping to lead them to their best performance in school history. Jones’ has the size and athleticism to compete for a job in the NHL.

8. Mitch Hults, Center, Lake Superior State

Late in his recruitment, Hults passed on the opportunity to play as a near-walk-on at Minnesota in order to take a bigger scholarship offer at Lake Superior State. That move has really paid off because Hults receives a ton of ice time—top line center, point on the top power play unit, top PK unit—and has ample opportunity to show off his skills. Hults is listed at 6-2 205 lbs., which gives him the size to use long reach and protect the puck effectively, but what separates him and makes him an NHL prospect is that he has extremely light feet and is a very fast skater.

Discipline is the biggest concern with Hults, but he has all the physical traits to be an effective winger at the NHL level.

9. CJ Smith, Left Wing, UMass Lowell

CJ Smith’s combination of first step speed and puck-handling ability makes him a dangerous offensive threat, especially when working off the wall in the offensive zone. Smith is a bit of a tweener, because he definitely plays more of an offensive-minded skill game, but isn’t likely to make it as a top-six forward in the NHL.

10. Adam Johnson, Center/Right Wing, Minnesota Duluth

Johnson was a prospect that drew serious attention from NHL Central Scouting in his first year of NHL Draft eligibility, way back in 2012, due in large part to his explosive skating ability. But ultimately teams backed off because of a lack of physical maturity and a lack of toughness he showed playing against weak high school competition.

Five years later, two years of junior hockey and two years in college hockey has really matured Johnson’s game. He has filled out his frame a bit and plays a much heavier game while still maintaining that explosive quickness. He has the tools to be a very effective winger at the NHL level.

11. Dominik Shine, Right Wing, Northern Michigan

Shine is a bit off the radar because he plays at Northern Michigan, which is currently struggling through one of the worst seasons in school history. But despite that, Shine has managed to remain effective, scoring 12-4-16 in 18 games with minimal help. Shine has an excellent combination of speed and toughness, which makes him difficult to defend. He missed the first six games of his team’s season for an unspecified violation of team rules, which may be a minor red flag, but could be a great find for a team willing to look off the beaten path.

12. Tyler Kelleher, Right Wing, New Hampshire

Kelleher is definitely a boom-or-bust type of prospect. He’s the NCAA’s leading scorer with 40 points in 20 games—no NCAA player has come close to 2.00 points/game since Johnny Gaudreau—and has incredible offensive talent. But it’s questionable whether the small forward will be able to translate his high-skill game to the NHL level. He’ll be worth a shot for some NHL team, but with very little expectation attached.

Honorable Mention

Justin Kloos, Forward, Minnesota

Gavin Bayreuther, Defenseman, St. Lawrence

Sebastian Vidmar, Forward, Union

Joe Gambardella, Forward, UMass Lowell

Griffen Molino, Forward, Western Michigan

Chris Nell, Goalie, Bowling Green

Gerald Mayhew, Forward, Ferris State

Jimmy Schuldt, Defenseman, St. Cloud State