College players to watch on the road to the NCAA's Frozen Four
The road to The Frozen Four began today with the 16 top teams in college hockey vying for a trip to Boston and the chance to be crowned national champions.
All eyes will be on Jack Eichel, the Hobey Baker Award favorite and presumptive second pick in this year’s NHL draft. The 18-year-old Boston University center leads the nation in scoring and is clearly the best player in the college game today.
“There's a lot of Ryan Getzlaf in his game,” a scout told SI.com. “He has the ability to take control of a game with skill or power or sheer will. He should dominate this tournament.”
But Eichel is just one of dozens of young stars who are looking to power their teams to the title and make a name for themselves on the national stage. Here are 10 worth watching:
• Matt O'Connor, goalie, Boston University
O’Connor's game took a sizable step forward during his first season as a starter at BU. The 23-year-old junior won 22 games and became one of the spring’s most highly sought-after college free agents. “He's got good size (6' 5”, 210 pounds), a nice skill set and a great work ethic,” a scout said. “He really started to put it all together this year. He has a future.” Another scout was less committed. “He takes up a lot of net, but is his ceiling that high? I don't know.” Either way, O’Connor has a solid chance to win a championship before he takes his pick of pro suitors.
• Danton Heinen, forward, Denver University
Heinen’s stunning rise to prominence might be one of the best stories in college hockey this season. Passed over in the 2013 NHL draft and overlooked in 2014 until the Bruins took a chance on him in the fourth round, he’s gone from being regarded as a marginal prospect to A-level in a matter of months. “Let's just say we were caught off guard by his development,” a scout told SI.com. “It’s all come together for him in Denver. He’s grown, for sure, but the game seems to come easier for him at this level. That’s what you like to see, a player who responds to the challenge.”
A savvy playmaker who loves to muck it up in the greasy areas, Heinen tallied 14 goals and 42 points in 34 games for Denver and finished second only to Eichel among freshman scorers.
• Noah Hanifin, defenseman, Boston College
Despite being the second-youngest player in the NCAA, the 18-year-old Hanifin is the definition of a polished, two-way defender. A lock to be selected in the top five of this year’s NHL draft—possibly as high as third—he’s a brilliant skater who can lead the rush and get back in time to break up the counterattack. He brings a solid physical game and can match up to anyone in terms of hockey sense.
• Jim Vesey, forward, Harvard University
The player who beat out Eichel for the Walter Brown Award as the best player in New England led the nation with 31 goals this season. “He's a dominant scorer,” one scout said. “He can beat you so many ways. He’s a strong skater so he can create off the rush, but he’s also someone who can cash in down low.” Another scout’s opinion: “Great shot, quick release and has that knack for getting to the soft areas. He's a gamebreaker.” He plays a pro-style game that has the Predators, who selected him in the third round in 2012, hoping he’ll leave school after the tournament and join them for the Stanley Cup playoffs.
• Zane McIntyre, goalie, University of North Dakota
If the Boston Bruins trade away top prospect Malcolm Subban over the summer, it will be because of the faith they have in McIntyre. Arguably the best goalie in the country this season, the 22-year-old junior is a finalist for both the Mike Richter Award and the Hobey Baker after posting a 27-9-3 record with a 2.05 GAA and .929 save percentage. “He needs to refine his technique [but] he’s a tremendous competitor,” a scout told SI.com. “Good side-to-side movement, reads the play well and never gives up on a puck.”
• Mike Reilly, defenseman, University of Minnesota
Reilly will be one of the most heavily scrutinized players in the tournament. The 22-year-old junior was the nation’s leading scorer among blueliners (6-36-42 in 38 games) and has the ability to dictate the pace of a game and bend it to his will every time he’s on the ice. He has elusive speed and an uncanny knack for hitting the seams and finding the open man. Interest in Reilly extends beyond this tournament. A 2011 draftee of the Blue Jackets, he has the option to become a free agent and shop his services if he decides to go pro after this season. If he does, he can expect to hear from 29 teams that are willing to bring him on board.
• Tanner Kero, forward, Michigan Tech
The WCHA scoring champion (13-21-34) plays an intense, high-energy game that earned him recognition as a Hobey Baker finalist. “He’s a kid who doesn’t mind getting his nose dirty,” said one scout. “His motor’s always revving high,” said another. “Great speed, strong two-way player, can play in all situations.” An undrafted senior, Kero will be highly sought after when his season concludes.
• Jonny Brodzinski, forward, St. Cloud State
A natural goal scorer, Brodzinski has scored at least 20 goals in each of his three seasons of college hockey, including 20 in 38 games this season. “He has one of the hardest shots in the nation,” a scout said. “He ended (North Dakota forward) Mark MacMillan’s season [with one] a couple weeks back. Just a heavy, heavy shot and a great one-timer.” There’s some thought that the 21-year-old junior could leave school after this season to sign with the Kings.
• Joey LaLeggia, defenseman, Denver University
“If he’s going good, watch out for Denver,” a scout said of the senior backliner. “He’s a dynamic player with high-end offensive instincts.” LaLeggia swept the National Collegiate Hockey Conference postseason awards—Player of the Year, Defenseman of the Year, Offensive Defenseman of the Year—and is a finalist for the Hobey Baker after scoring 13 goals and 38 points in 35 games with the Pioneers. A 2012 fifth-round selection of the Oilers, LaLeggia will turn pro after this season.
• Sam Anas, forward, Quinnipiac
This undrafted 21-year-old might be the tournament’s ultimate wild card. Sidelined by a knee injury two weeks ago, Anas was expected to be lost for the tournament. Surprising, then, to learn that he practiced with the Bobcats on Thursday in Fargo. Fast healer or a coaching ruse? We’ll see when Quinnipiac plays its tournament opener against North Dakota but if he’s in, even in limited duty, the NCAA’s 2014 Rookie of the Year can be a game changer. Anas has an amazing set of hands and would give a huge boost to their power play.
FIRST ROUNDFriday, March 27No. 3 Boston U. vs. Yale (2 p.m. ET)Michigan Tech vs. St. Cloud St. (4:30 p.m.; ESPN 3)Minnesota-Duluth vs. Minnesota (5:30 p.m.)No. 2 North Dakota vs. Quinnipiac (8 p.m.)
Saturday, March 28Denver vs. Boston College (3 p.m.; ESPN 2)No. 1 MSU-Mankato vs. Rochester Inst. (4 p.m.)No. 4 Miami (Ohio) vs. Providence (6:30 p.m.)Omaha vs. Harvard (7:30 p.m., ESPN 3)
QUARTERFINALSMarch 28: 5:30 and 9 p.m.March 29: 5 and 7 p.m.
SEMIFINALSApril 9, Boston, ESPN 2
CHAMPIONSHIPApril 11, Boston, 7:30 p.m., ESPN