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NHL Prospect Watch: Minnesota Duluth

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

Last Friday, I made the trek up to Duluth to see the University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs take on Maine in a non-conference series. The game, an 8-2 UMD thrashing, was mostly a bust, with the greatest intrigue being whether or not Maine’s shots on goal total would match UMD’s goal total(It eventually did, thanks to late-third period score effects).

But since I never wrote one of these after watching the Bulldogs twice in their season-opening series against Minnesota, I figured now would be a good time for some early thoughts on the NHL prospects playing for Minnesota Duluth this year.

The most intriguing prospect for the Bulldogs remains under-sized defenseman Scott Perunovich(St. Louis Blues). I proudly wear my badge as Guy Who Would Have Drafted Perunovich in 2016, but even I was a little surprised that St. Louis used a second round pick to draft him, particularly after I thought some of his defensive deficiencies were exposed at the World Juniors last year.

There’s no doubt he’s dominating at the college level though. A six-point weekend against Maine last weekend gives him a 1-9-10 scoring line in six games this year, which is currently tied for the national lead in points. It’s early in the season, but Perunovich is showing signs of taking his game to another level after an already great freshman season. He’s always been a quick player—he possesses one of the best first steps in the game which allows him to explode past opponents to create space for himself at the blue line. But with an added year of strength training, he’s also becoming faster in the open ice which allows him to be more aggressive in joining the rush. It’s still going to take some fine tuning in terms of when to use that ability, but it’s an added element to his game that could make him more effective at the next level.

If there’s been a downside, he has five penalties in six games, some of them pretty undisciplined, but that’s a minor thing to clean up. Having aged out of the World Juniors, I’m not sure there’s going to be a way to assuage any concerns about defending against skilled offensive players, but he’s going to be one of the top players in college hockey this year, likely a definite Hobey Baker candidate.

Minnesota Duluth’s other star defenseman, Dylan Samberg(Winnipeg Jets), might be in the running for college hockey’s Most Valuable Player award. The one game he missed this season, against Minnesota after a hard knock on the knee the night prior, is the one game Minnesota Duluth has lost this year. Not only did they lose, they gave up seven goals in that game and the defensive unit looked like a disaster. Samberg isn’t as flashy as Perunovich, but he’s a rock-solid presence out on the ice. His combination of size and skating ability makes him super tough to beat on the defensive end, and he moves the puck effectively up the ice. His ceiling might not be as high as Perunovich, but the odds of him being a solid NHLer are much higher.

UMD’s embarrassment of riches on the blue line continues with another sophomore in Mikey Anderson(Los Angeles Kings). Anderson is a tough, physical defender that is slowly becoming more assertive on the offensive end. Anderson’s offensive totals last year were pretty good—he finished with 23 points in 38 games—but he was mostly picking up a lot of assists. This year he is being more aggressive in looking for his shot to create offense. He’s tied for second on the team with 19 shots on goal, and on pace to surpass his SOG total from last season by the middle of the season.

One final name to keep an eye out for on the UMD blue line is junior Nick Wolff(Free Agent). Wolff is the big defensive defenseman UMD uses to anchor the backline, allowing Perunovich to go gallivanting around the ice as he pleases. He’s very steady and good defensively, but a lack of foot speed has mostly kept him off the NHL radar up to this point. But he continues to play well, and had an offensive explosion last Friday with a 1-3-4 game against Maine. The goal was a heady play to sneak down towards the net and pick up a weak-side rebound, and on one of the assists, he made a smart play recognizing there was a delayed penalty and getting to the front of the net, where he cleared out space for a shot that went in. No one will confuse him with Scott Perunovich, but he is holding his own offensively. I would suspect some teams will be interested in him.

Forward isn’t quite so rosy from an NHL standpoint. First round draft pick Riley Tufte(Dallas Stars) continues to be fine, but isn’t a huge impact player like you’d expect a first round draft pick now in his draft+3 year to be. He has three goals and an assist through six games, though they’ve all come via the power play. Tufte might still contribute at the NHL level some day, but it’s looking unlikely that it will be the capacity hoped for when he was drafted.

Nick Swaney(Minnesota Wild) got bumped up to the first line this year because of his offensive skill. It’s been a slow start with 0-3-3 through his first six games. If he stays on that top line with Tufte and center Peter Krieger, he’s probably going to have to be more a set-up guy because he is the most equipped of that group.

Noah Cates(Philadelphia Flyers) has been kind of up-and-down as a freshman, but is showing signs of being a reliable secondary scoring threat. He was sort of a long-term project pick by the Flyers, so it makes sense to wait and see with him. Similar for Cole Koepke(Tampa Bay Lightning), who will be a player that plays three or four years of college hockey before Tampa really starts looking to sign him.

I don’t think they have any big free agent targets at forward but I really like Parker Mackay. He’s a smart, veteran player that plays the typical-UMD style of being hard on pucks and out-battling the opposition. He’s probably more of an organizational depth guy at the pro level, but could potentially fill a lower-line role at the NHL level. I’ve been similarly impressed with freshman Tanner Laderoute. Laderoute came in as an older freshman and looked good right away. He’s a pretty good skater and uses his body well to protect the puck. It will be worth watching to see how he develops.

Finally, goalie Hunter Shepard generated some NHL interest after last year’s post-season run, attending multiple NHL prospect camps. His current .891 save percentage looks ugly, but he’s still bouncing back from the 8-2 loss to Minnesota in which he gave up six goals on 17 shots. Throw out that outlier and he’s at a very respectable .928. Shepard is listed at 6-1 and his height probably works against him in terms of being an NHL goalie. But he’s playing well enough at the college level that someone will likely give him a contract to try and prove himself at the next level.