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NHL Prospect Watch: Boston University vs. Minnesota State

2018 NHL Draft - Portraits Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Last weekend’s series between Minnesota State and Boston University was a contrast in styles and philosophies. BU is a younger team that relies on big name prospects with high-end skill. They dressed 11 NHL Draft picks in the two-game series, four of which were selected in the first round. 11 of their players started their college careers as 18-year-old true freshman, including seven alumni of the US NTDP program.

By contrast, Minnesota State is a much older team by necessity. The last time most of their team was draft eligible was for the Vietnam War. The only player associated with the Mavericks to have been selected by an NHL team, fittingly, is celebrating his 20th birthday today while still playing in the USHL this year. But the Mavericks are a good team, and as a result, have become a hot spot for NHL free agent targets. Minnesota State has produced arguably the top NHL free agent available in college hockey in two of the last three years, with defensemen Casey Nelson and Daniel Brickley. So there was a lot of intrigue for the many scouts that made the trip down to Mankato last weekend.

Starting with the Terriers, goalie Jake Oettinger(Dallas Stars) is one of the rare goalies selected in the first round of the NHL Draft after Dallas selected him in 2017. But last season was a bit of a disappointment, even if he was still extremely young by college hockey goaltending standards. He finished strong with a late run that helped BU get into the NCAA Tournament, but still finished with just a .915 save percentage, ranking 26th nationally. So this is a big year for Oettinger. It’s not quite make-or-break time, but there likely needs to be some sort of forward progress showing he can turn some of big potential with his size and athleticism into tangible results on the ice.

His numbers on the weekend weren’t great. He gave up four goals in both games and finished with a .877 save percentage, but I’m not sure that gives the true picture of how he played. Oettinger made some really big saves in both games. He was brilliant in shutting down Minnesota State’s power play. The Mavericks went 1-for-12 on the PP with the lone goal being a shot from the point that snuck through heavy traffic, and it wasn’t for a lack of execution. It wasn’t that Oettinger wasn’t making high quality saves; his team was just asking him to do it way too often. Oettinger had one terrible mistake—the game-winning goal in Friday’s loss came after he misplayed a puck at the side of his own net and Minnesota State was able to score an easy wraparound goal into a vacated net—but other than that, all of Minnesota State’s goals came from tips/traffic or high-percentage shots that came with BU defensemen out of position and trailing the play. Give a good team great chances and they’re going to score goals, regardless of who is in net.

Which is to say, I wasn’t particularly impressed with Boston University defensively. There is obviously a lot of talent there. They have a first round draft pick and three third round NHL draft picks playing in their top four(second round NHL pick Chad Krys didn’t play for BU last weekend). But there were a couple issues. First is that they were still pretty thin overall. BU had a tough time playing their two third-pairing guys often, and I think that lack of depth really took a toll. The difference in both games was that Minnesota State was able to win the third period in a tight game, and some tired legs had something to with it. The other issue is that those high draft picks were largely high draft picks because of the offensive upside they possess, but there aren’t necessarily as developed on the defensive side of the puck. BU’s top four was very aggressive offensively, and they set up their fair share of goals, but it came at a pretty big cost on the defensive end.

Individually, first round pick Dante Fabbro(Nashville Predators) is a junior now, and while I thought he had two very solid games, he didn’t quite take over the game like one would hope given that he’s entering his draft+3 year. I like his poise with the puck, he scored a pretty goal on a perfect shot from the point, and he was strong defending 1-on-1 against the rush. But he had the tendency to get a little lost in defensive zone coverage at times, leading to too many goals against.

Fabbro’s D partner David Farrance(Nashville Predators), like a few of his teammates, was in a unique position of basically getting a tryout in front of US World Juniors head coach Mike Hastings, who was behind the Minnesota State bench. Farrance is the most high-variance player of BU’s blue line. He finished the weekend with four assists, three at even strength, because he’s a terrific skater that can jump into the play and provide an extra attacker. But despite those points, he still finished with a negative +/- on both nights because for every rush up the ice that was successful offensively, he was giving up one or two defensively.

Kasper Kotkansalo(Detroit Red Wings) and Cam Crotty(Arizona Coyotes) were both a little quieter and less dynamic than the top pairing, but got caught making some of the same mistakes against Minnesota State’s fast attack.

On offense, it was the collegiate debut of 2018 first round draft pick Joel Farabee(Philadelphia Flyers). I was a big fan of Farabee in his draft year, and thought he had a solid start here. I thought he showed good offensive instincts to get himself open for a couple scoring opportunities, including a breakaway in Friday’s game. On Saturday, he nearly turned the entire game around by scoring on a short-handed breakaway and drawing a penalty in the process with his team down 3-0 in the second period. I still think there’s another level for Farabee to get to. He’s a little more effective when he can play in a more complementary role like he did with the NTDP, and it didn’t seem like he had developed that chemistry with anybody yet. But he’s going to be a very effective player for BU in the future.

BU’s other first round draft pick is Shane Bowers(Colorado Avalanche). Bowers had a solid, fairly quiet weekend. As advertised, he’s a very smart, two-way centerman. He’s good in the neutral and defensive zones. The big drawback is that he’s not a huge creator with the puck offensively. He scored a goal on Saturday with a really crafty play to wait for the play to develop and then skate to the back door at the exact right moment to tip in a pass before the defender, who was in good position, could engage him.

Logan Cockerill(New York Islanders) showed nice speed this weekend. USA Hockey is hopefully moving away from stocking their bottom lines at the World Juniors with low-scoring NTDP veterans, but Cockerill wouldn’t be the worst choice to fill that role this year, just for the energy he brings.

Patrick Harper(Nashville Predators) picked up a couple secondary assists on Saturday, but otherwise was fairly quiet. Jake Wise(Chicago Blackhawks) had a pretty quiet start to his college career.

The other with Boston University, one that I think is going to plague them throughout this season, is that beyond the high-profile drafted guys, there isn’t much backing them up. It looks similar to the problem Michigan had towards the end of the Red Berenson era, in that there are some really good players, but everyone else is just kind of there. Nobody really jumps out at you as a potential NHL free agent type of player, except maybe Bobo Carpenter, who is a hard-working center that made some nice plays with his skating ability.

As for Minnesota State, as mentioned above, they don’t have any NHL draft picks on their roster, but have a lot of really good players that are almost certainly going to draw some NHL attention. I’m not sure I see another Daniel Brickley or Casey Nelson in the group that will get dozens of offers, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a player or two ends up with an NHL contract.

There was a strong assumption in hockey circles before last season that this year would probably be Connor Mackey’s last season in Mankato before he started getting free agent offers after he tore up the USHL in his final season. But his development as a freshman was maybe a little slower than expected. He was a regular fixture in the line-up, but only scored 12 points in 40 games. He’ll play a larger year with Brickley moving on to pro hockey. I like the offensive side of his game a lot. If he can tighten things up on the defensive end—which looked rough at times this past weekend— he probably has the most pro upside of anyone in the group.

The other defenseman to watch for Minnesota State is Ian Scheid. Scheid was somehow held without a point on the weekend, but put up a team-best seven shots on goal between working the top of the umbrella on the top power play unit, and his ability to join the rush. Points are going to come for Scheid because of his ability to jump into the play offensively, and defensemen that can score are very much in favor in the modern NHL. Again, the big question is if he can show that he can handle things on the defensive end of the ice, which has really been a struggle for him in his first two years.

At forward, Parker Tuomie was probably the best player on the ice last weekend. He’s a smart, skilled player that has improved his skating to be good enough, and has the strength to make up for whatever he lacks in speed. Tuomie turns 23 later this month, so any discussion of him as a pro prospect has to take into consideration that the book is already being closed on a lot of the guys from his first NHL Draft year. But I think he’s going to put up big numbers this year and will almost certainly draw NHL consideration.

Marc Michaelis and Jake Jaremko are two other players that could end up on some NHL team’s radar. Both are terrific playmakers that are likely to put up the requisite scoring numbers as well. Skating ability and age probably makes both more of a tweener as a pro prospect, which limits their ceiling, but somebody may take the chance.

Finally, Dallas Gerads scored a pair of greasy goals on Friday night, tipping in a shot from the point in front of the net, and then out-hustling a BU defender to pick up the loose puck Oettinger misplayed on the game-winner. He’s not flashy, but he plays a fast, strong game and is a Grade-A pest for the opposition. He’s a player that could carve out a niche for himself in the pro game.