Just like their professional and junior counterparts, the college hockey season is underway. With each passing year, the NCAA’s influence on the world of hockey grows. The NHL boasts more than a few top rookies fresh out of the college ranks this season and those still in school in 2018-19 will soon join them. This year’s crop of talent is sticking with the trend, with several players in need of watching:
The Recent Draft Picks
D Quinn Hughes, Michigan (VAN): Hughes very nearly signed his first pro contract with the Vancouver Canucks this summer before deciding to return to Michigan. The seventh overall pick back in June, Hughes was the second defenseman off the board behind top pick Rasmus Dahlin, and many even saw No. 7 as being a steal for Vancouver. An electric skater who can’t help but draw the eyes of spectators as he moves effortlessly around the ice, Hughes pairs his skating ability with the vision and positioning that makes him a threat in all three zones. Hughes also has an NCAA season under his belt already and should be even more prepared to dominate opponents this season. Hughes is a complete two-way defenseman and the centerpiece of a Wolverines team that was a Frozen Four finalist last year. Hughes himself could be eyeing the Hobey Baker Award this season. Michigan almost had Hughes’ younger brother and presumptive top 2019 pick Jack Hughes joining them this season, before he decided to stick with the U.S. National Development Program for another year before almost certainly turning pro.
F Oliver Wahlstrom, Boston College (NYI): Perhaps the most gifted goal scorer of the 2018 draft class, Wahlstrom was a late addition to BC’s freshman class, changing his commitment from Harvard, and the Eagles could not be happier. Wahlstrom is a rare combination of both high-end skill and hard-nosed play who dominated with the U.S. National Development Program last year. The right winger has had the attention of scouts for his puck-handling ability since he was nine years old, but as he’s grown up he has also filled out his frame and added a menacing physical element to his game. Wahlstrom can skate and possess the puck as well as anyone, but is even more of a threat as the go-to shooter, which he will be skating with a roster of play-makers up front for BC. Wahlstrom could be the next big NHL power forward and may very well be one-and-done in the NCAA if he continues to score at a torrid pace this year and force the hand of the rebuilding New York Islanders, who selected him with the eleventh pick this past year.
F Joel Farabee, Boston Univ. (PHI): Wahlstrom’s teammate with the U.S. National Development program last season, Farabee was the one feeding Wahlstrom most of the time with 43 assists to his linemate’s 48 goals. Farabee is now a cross-town rival of Wahlstrom’s as he joins the uber-talented BU Terriers. Farabee is a threatening presence in the offensive zone, but is even more dangerous due to his two-way ability. An extremely intelligent winger who is beyond his years in terms of decision-making and positioning, Farabee is as responsible a freshman forward as you can find in the NCAA. He may not light up the score sheet right away this year, but will no doubt make a difference for the title-chasing Terriers. Farabee’s style bodes well for an NHL career in Philadelphia, after the Flyers used the No. 14 pick on him in June.
F Jay O’Brien, Providence (PHI): Some considered it a reach when the Flyers used their second first-round pick on O’Brien, another college-bound forward and one who was coming from the prep school ranks with Thayer Academy. However, the 19th overall pick more than earned his draft slot after scoring 80 points in 30 games while also displaying an impressive two-way game. O’Brien now bring his talents to Providence, a program that lost their top two scorers from last season and are looking for their next star forward. O’Brien could emerge as both the top scoring threat and dependable defensive forward for the Friars in his first collegiate season. O’Brien is also ready to take on Hockey East competition with a gritty games that all Philly and Providence fans will appreciate.
The Soon-To-Be NHLers
D Cale Makar, UMass (COL): Few will argue that Makar isn’t the best prospect in the NCAA, if not the best drafted player not playing in the NHL. The smooth-skating defenseman was the fourth overall pick in 2017 by the Colorado and would be skating on the Avs’ top pair right now if he had not committed himself to Amherst and to entering the pros as well-rounded as possible. Makar possesses elite puck-handling skills and vision and can out-skate almost anyone in the college ranks. Makar should improve upon his 21 points in an up-and-down freshman campaign and could flirt with point-per-game production from the blue line. The newly-named UMass captain, along with talented fellow defenseman Mario Ferraro (SJS) and top forward John Leonard (SJ) have the Minutemen thinking NCAA Tournament for the first time in years, while Makar could easily be a Hobey Baker candidate.
G Jake Oettinger, Boston Univ. (DAL): Oettinger nearly turned pro this off-season, but returns to BU with his sights set on backstopping the team to a national championship. A first-round pick at No. 26 in 2017, Oettinger was selected by the Dallas Stars with the expectations that he would be the heir apparent in net. Even with the emergence of Colton Point, the Dallas job is still there for the taking. The team’s veteran duo of Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin won’t be around forever and Oettinger could conceivably compete for starts as early as 2020. Expect the big goaltender to put up stellar numbers behind a deep Terrier defense this season before joining the pro ranks next year.
F Ryan Poehling, St. Cloud (MTL): Poehling was drafted for his intelligent, professional, two-way style and Montreal hoped he would develop into a capable bottom-six center. However, they have to be pleased with the improvement in his offense, after he registered 31 points in 36 games for a St. Cloud team that was top seed in the NCAA Tournament. Poehling lacks the high-end skill of other first-round prospects, but the 2017 No. 25 pick makes up for his skating and hands with positioning and composure. Poehling should again improve this season while maintaining his elite defensive play and could be in the running for the Hobey Baker Award, especially if the Huskies are dominant yet again. The Canadiens prospect should then compete for a roster spot right away next season.
The Trade Return
F Josh Norris, Michigan (OTT): The recent centerpiece prospect of the Erik Karlsson trade, a lot of eyes in Ottawa will be on the performance of Norris this season. The entire top line of the Michigan Wolverines’ Final Four roster has moved on to the pros, leaving Norris as the team’s top center. The No. 19 pick in 2017 by the San Jose Sharks, Norris is a freak athlete who can hold his own against anyone in the NCAA. The Senators’ new addition also has a deceptively quick release on his shot and is deadly accurate with both passing and shooting. Norris simply needs to embrace his role for Michigan, both carrying the puck and shooting more often. Some more experience, specifically as the team’s top scoring option, should go a long way for the promising center’s development.
F Shane Bowers, Boston Univ. (COL): Of course, who can forget the top center prospect that Ottawa recently traded away themselves. Bowers, part of the regrettable package that the Senators sent to the Colorado Avalanche for Matt Duchene, is set to be the go-to guy up front for BU this season. Bowers’ 32 points in 40 games last season ranked third last season for the Terriers, but with Jordan Greenway and Brady Tkachuk now gone, Bowers should be the top option and could be a dark horse Hobey Baker candidate on a talented BU team that should provide plenty of scoring chances. Bowers is quick-thinking and quick-skating offensive presence who is especially dangerous on the power play and works the puck down low perhaps better than anyone in the college ranks. A breakout campaign for Bowers should give the 2017 No. 28 pick an opportunity to compete for a spot among the Avs’ young forward corps next year.
D Adam Fox, Harvard (CAR): Fox, entering his junior year with the Harvard Crimson, has already seen his NHL rights traded. Fox had allegedly expressed a resistance to signing with the Calgary Flames, but so far no such sentiment has been associated with his new team, the Carolina Hurricanes. Fox is a mature, intelligent defender who has been a point-per-game player in college and especially excels as a power play quarterback. However, Fox is more than capable on the back end as well. Assuming he is yet again producing a Hobey Baker campaign for Harvard this year, Fox seems like a prime candidate for a late-season contract and brief tryout with the Hurricanes. Carolina’s depth on defense may block him from being a full time NHLer for a few years, but when Fox finally does land that job, he has the complete game to be a dangerous presence on any blue line.
The Top Prospect
D Ben Brinkman, Minnesota: If there is one thing that the 2018-19 NCAA class lacks, it is many standout draft-eligible prospects. Brinkman alone is a candidate for early selection next June, but the Minnesota native is a surefire first-rounder. The Gophers have rarely given a true freshman defenseman the role and minutes expected of Brinkman this season, but the teen blue liner is a special talent. A smooth skater who excels with the puck on his stick, it will be no surprise to see Brinkman frequently carry the puck up and start the rush for Minnesota and he should see ample power play time as well. Brinkman is no slouch in his own zone either, as he plays a competent game that allowed him to shut down high school competition. The adjustment to the college level will come with some lumps for the young defenseman, but Brinkman should emerge from this season as a bona fide NHL prospect.