Who to watch in the 2014 All-American Prospects Game
If you're making time to catch tonight's CCM/All-American Prospects Game in Buffalo (7 pm, NHL Network) odds are you're making that time to watch Jack Eichel. The Boston University center might be America's Next One, the country's most promising talent since Patrick Kane and the only player who is capable of challenging Canada's Connor McDavid for the honor of being the first player selected in the 2015 NHL draft.
But as thrilling as Eichel is, this game is more than a one-man show. In fact, the 42 players who will take part might comprise the deepest pool of talent ever to play in the event. Nine of the participants earned A-ratings from NHL Central Scouting, symbolic of their first-round potential, setting up what could be the greatest American draft class in history.
"I'm comfortable saying there's potential for us to have five of the first 10 picks in the NHL draft this year," Jim Johannson, USA Hockey's assistant executive director of hockey operations, told NHL.com. "That would be groundbreaking for the USA."
And you can get your first look at that class tonight. Here are seven players to watch when you're not watching Eichel. The teams are named after their respective coaches, former NHLers Mike Grier (roster) and Eddie Olczyk (roster).
Kyle Connor, center, Team Grier: A slick, playmaking pivot blessed with explosive speed and tremendous vision. His high-end offensive instincts and decent size (6'-1", 182 pounds) have him on track to be a solid second-liner in the NHL. Connor projects as a mid-first round pick. He committed to the University of Michigan in 2015-16 and his junior rights are owned by the Saginaw Spirit.
Paul Bittner, left wing, Team Olczyk: Regarded as a potential late first rounder, Bittner is 6'-5", 201 and growing. He's built for a rugged physical game and does his best work along the boards and in front of the net. He needs to show more finish in his third WHL season after netting 22 goals last season for the Portland Winterhawks.
Zach Werenski, defense, Team Grier: The 6'-1", 201-pound blueliner is playing this season for Red Berenson at Michigan as a 17-year-old, which says a lot about the maturity and consistency of his game. He has a solid offensive upside with a heavy shot and great vision, but the tenacity with which he attacks his defensive responsibilities makes him really special. His junior rights are owned by the London Knights.
Jeremy Bracco, right wing, Team Grier: Next to Eichel, Bracco might be the most dangerous offensive weapon who is taking part in the game. He's a player with the ability to make something special happen every time the puck is on his stick. Quick and creative, he was given an A-rating by Central Scouting despite being just 5'-9", 154. He's committed to Boston College next season, guaranteeing that he'll be subjected to years of Johnny Gaudreau comparisons. His junior rights are owned by Kitchener Rangers.
Noah Hanifin, defense, Team Olczyk: If this were any other year, he'd be a solid bet with the top pick. One scout called Hanifin “the best player I've seen come out of New England prep in a generation.” He oozes skill in every element of the game and has the size (6'-2", 201) and drive to be one of the great ones. Plays a complete 200-foot game that had another scout comparing his potential to that of Drew Doughty. Hanifin will play at Boston College this season. His junior rights are owned by the Quebec Remparts.
Colin White, center, Team Olczyk: You'll have to watch White carefully because he doesn't play the sort of game that necessarily stands out in an all-star showcase like this. He has the physical tools you'd want from a first rounder, but his smarts are what really set him apart. If you've got an eye for the little things that help a team win, this is the kid to follow. He'll play for the USNTDP in 2014-15 and has committed to Boston College the following season. His junior rights are owned by the Quebec Remparts.
Jordan Greenway, left wing, Team Grier: You won't have any problem spotting the 6'-5", 223-pound Greenway on the ice. His size has always appealed to scouts, especially since he moves like a smaller man (much like Detroit Red Wings prospect Anthony Mantha). He has kitten soft hands and knows how to finish. There have been questions in the past about his hockey sense, so this contest could give a good snapshot of how quickly he's thinking the game against his peer group. He committed to Boston University for 2015-16. His junior rights are owned by Plymouth Whalers.