For decades, the prominent youth hockey talents of the world have gravitated to the Canadian Hockey League to groom their talents before moving on to the NHL. However, recently the CHL is now getting some stiff competition from their North American neighbors as many talented skaters are now choosing a different route and opting rather to play hockey at the NCAA level while attending college in the United States.
Although the CHL should still be considered the premier outlet for high level hockey talents, the perks of playing hockey at the collegiate level have piqued the interests of young skaters looking to polish their gift. While playing college hockey, players have a much more relaxed travel schedule and play far fewer games than they would in the CHL. This access to much more downtime has become a big selling point of the NCAA as it gives players more opportunities to spend time in the gym building muscle and conditioning themselves for the hardships of the NHL.
With this influx of top-tier talent to collegiate hockey, the Florida Panthers have begun to craft and follow a blue-print for drafting NCAA talents as they have accumulated 14 prospects who are currently competing at the NCAA level, the most out of any NHL team.
Only time will tell if this new way of thinking pays off for the Panthers and the players involved, but until then lets take a closer look at the current group of Panthers’ prospect who are competing at the collegiate level as the 2013-14 season begins to heat up.
Rocco Grimaldi (Junior)
College: University of North Dakota
Analysis: Taken in the 2nd round (33rd overall) in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, forward Rocco Grimaldi is currently in his sophomore year at the University of North Dakota. Standing at only 5’6, Grimaldi is a prime example that good things really do come in small packages. With NHL caliber speed and acceleration, Grimaldi excels at getting the puck into the offensive zone as well as using his speed bursts to set up breakaway opportunities.
Last year, Grimaldi had a nationally televised coming out party as he netted the game winning goal for Team USA during the gold medal game of the 2013 World Junior Championships. Playing alongside fellow Panthers’ prospect Vincent Trocheck, Grimaldi battled through adversity and even a benching in the early rounds of the tournament only to end up as the gold medal game’s MVP.
“It was an up and down tournament for myself. It really was a test of my character and who I am as a person,” Grimaldi said of his World Junior Championship experience. “It was good for us (Trocheck and I) to battle through adversity and pull through when our team needed us and win the gold. It was a special moment for both of us”
Donning a gold medal around his neck, Grimaldi entered this season under increased scrutiny as a potential Hobey Baker candidate and although he will most likely fall short of that illustrious award, he is still currently in the midst of a very successful season. Through 23 games this season, Grimaldi currently leads all North Dakota skaters in scoring with 21 points (9-12-21) and has earned the NCHC’s “goal of the week” honor on multiple occasions.
With players like Martin St. Louis and Theo Fleury having already paved the way, Grimaldi hopes to be the next great skater to dispel the notion that small can’t come up big in the NHL.
Mike Matheson (Sophomore)
College: Boston College
Analysis: Taken in the 1st round (24th overall) in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, defenseman Mike Matheson is currently playing in his sophomore season for perennial hockey power, Boston College. Prior to the 2012 draft, Matheson caught the Panthers attention with his exceptional creativity with the puck as well as his scoring abilities and hockey IQ from the blue line. This season at Boston College, Matheson has been focusing on improving his defensive game, decision making, and physical play.
“My defense obviously still needs work, but just simplifying and making sure my decisions are getting better and better,” Matheson said prior to the start of his sophomore season. “At the next level there is less and less time to make those decisions so they have to be automatic.”
Through the first 25 games of this season, Matheson has compiled 13 points (3-10-13) while also leading all Boston College skaters with 45 blocked shots.
Considered one to two years away from being NHL ready, Matheson will have plenty of time to hone his skills while at one of college hockey’s most prestigious institutions.
“Definitely in the next year or two I’d to try and make this team. I don’t think that I will stay at BC all 4 years,” Matheson said of his future with Boston College. “Does that mean I only stay 2? 3? I’m not sure. That’s up to them (the Panthers), but then of course up to me and how I develop and how much I work on my game.”
Kyle Rau (Junior)
College: University of Minnesota
Analysis: Taken in the 3rd round (91st overall) in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, forward Kyle Rau is currently in his junior year at the University of Minnesota. At only 5’8, Rau compensates for his lack of size by using his impressive speed and hockey IQ to create plays for himself and those around him.
Playing on the number one ranked NCAA hockey team in the country, Rau and his Minnesota teammates have their minds set on making this year’s Frozen Four in Philadelphia. Although his production has dipped slightly since the departure of his former line-mate and current Panthers center Nick Bjugstad at the end of last season, Rau has still managed to accumulate 23 points (6-17-23) in just 23 games played so far this season.
On a team that is in desperate need of both speed and scoring, the Panthers hope that Rau will be able continue to polish his game and play beyond his size in what could potentially be his final season in college. Although he may need additional seasoning in the AHL when his collegiate career is over, Panthers fans can hope that a potential reunion between Rau and Bjugstad could be as productive in the NHL as it once was in college.
Zach Hyman (Junior)
College: University of Michigan
Analysis: Taken in the 5th round (123rd overall) in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, forward Zach Hyman is currently in his junior year at the University of Michigan. Hyman is an above average skater and his 6’2, 195 lbs. frame is already suited for NHL play. Though he still hasn’t been able to establish a formidable identity on the ice, Hyman’s frame means he will most likely be given more chances to succeed.
This season, Hyman has played well in spurts while aided by others on a talented Michigan squad. Though he has only managed to accumulate 4 points (1-2-3) through 20 games this season, Hyman has continued to be a reliable contributor in physical areas that don’t show up on score sheets. Expect Hyman’s offensives numbers to grow as he continues to develop and receive more ice time as he enters his senior season next year.
As of right now, Hyman is far from a can’t miss prospect and will have to work hard and improve his game during his upcoming final year at Michigan. Interestingly, if Hyman’s NHL dreams do not come to fruition, the 21-year-old forward may turn to his second passion – writing children’s books. However, even though he has a knack for the pen and pad, Hyman hopes that the next chapter of his life revolves around professional hockey.
“I’d give up writing books in a second to play in the NHL,” Hyman said. “That’s a hobby, this is my career.”
Ian McCoshen (Freshman)
College: Boston College
Analysis: Drafted in the 2nd round (31st overall) of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, defenseman Ian McCoshen is just getting his feet wet in the world of college hockey as he plays through his freshman season at Boston College. After opting to draft forward Aleksander Barkov with their first round pick, the Panthers tagged McCoshen quickly in the second round as a player that could help them establish a formidable blue-line in the future.
Standing 6’3, 207 lbs, McCoshen has the ideal size that any NHL team would love to have in a two-way defenseman, but still needs to round out his game for a few years at the collegiate level. Through 23 games this season, McCoshen has earned 11 points (4-7-11) and is second on the team in both blocked shots (36) and short-handed goals (1).
As an added benefit to playing at Boston College, McCoshen will have the opportunity to get a head start on building good chemistry with fellow Panther prospect and part-time defensive partner, Mike Matheson.
“We’ve got that camaraderie going right now with development camp here,” McCoshen said of his blossoming relationship with Matheson at the Panthers’ annual development camp this past summer. “Just getting to know him more and hopefully play with him would be pivotal for both of us.”
In addition to his NCAA workload this season, McCoshen was also chosen to represent the United States at the 2014 World Junior Championships. Although he did not earn a point or medal, experts praised his overall defensive game during the tournament.
Michael Downing (Freshman)
College: University of Michigan
Selected in the 4th round (97th overall) of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, defenseman Michael Downing is currently getting his first taste of NCAA as he plays through his freshman season at the University of Michigan. Standing at 6’3, Downing has the look of an NHL defenseman, but still needs to learn how to put his size to use on the ice.
Not the most gifted scorer, Downing has still managed to earn 6 points (1-5-6) in 20 games played so far this season for Michigan.
Prior to his first collegiate season, Downing competed for the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the rapidly growing USHL. In his final season with Dubuque, Downing scored 23 points (3-20-23) in 52 games played.
Though he doesn’t currently project to be an everyday NHL defenseman, the next several years at Michigan could give him the time he needs for his skills to catch up to his frame.
Ed Wittchow (Sophomore)
College: University of Wisconsin
Analysis: Taken in the 6th round (154th overall) in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, defenseman Ed Wittchow is currently playing in his sophomore season for the University of Wisconsin. Standing at 6’3, Wittchow has the size that you would like to see in an NHL defender, but will need to fill out and add muscle during his tenure at Wisconsin.
This season, Wittchow has seen an increase in both his offensive output and playing time, earning 5 points (1-4-5) through 22 games played this season. Like some of the other Panthers’ underclassmen, expect Wittchow’s numbers and impact to grow during each year of his collegiate career.
During the remainder of his time at Wisconsin, Wittchow will need to learn how to perfect his already physical style of play and continue to establish his growing offensive presence. With a hard work ethic and coachable issues, Wittchow could graduate in a few years as an NHL-caliber prospect.
Joe Basaraba (Senior)
College: University of Minnesota-Duluth
Analysis: Taken in the 3rd round (69th overall) of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, forward Joe Basaraba is currently playing in his senior season for the University of Minnesota-Duluth. More of a body thrower than goal scorer, Basaraba has honed his talents a two-way forward and penalty killer throughout his career as a UMD Bulldog.
Although the benefits of his large 6’2 frame are more often used to harass opponents rather than score, Basaraba has still managed to score 11 points (6-5-11) through 22 games played this season. While these numbers may not jump off the score sheet, what Basaraba lacks in offensive output he makes up for in leadership and toughness. It is this unique aspect of his game that led to him being named the Bulldog’s team captain prior to the start of the 2013-14 season.
Though he will most likely have to earn play his way up through the ranks of the ECHL and AHL after graduation, there is a chance that Basaraba’s penalty killing abilities could earn him a shot at the NHL someday.
Sam Brittain (Senior)
College: University of Denver
Analysis: A 4th round pick (92nd overall) in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, goaltender Sam Brittain has been playing the best hockey of his career in his final season for the Denver Pioneers. Although the collegiate season is far from over, Brittain is currently on pace to shatter several of his career-best numbers, including goals-against average and save percentage.
Through 25 games this season, Brittain battled his way to a 13-7-5 record while sporting a 1.96 goals-against average and .936 save percentage. In addition to his stellar GAA and SV%, Brittain has also recorded four shutouts this season – the 2nd most in the NCAA. Basically, if your team has a weekend match-up with Brittain and the Pioneers, it might be best to stay home.
For his efforts, Brittain has been recognized as the goaltender of the week in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference on six separate occasions – the most of any NCHC netminder this season.
At the conclusion of his senior season, Brittain will most certainly make the jump to either the AHL or ECHL and could potentially be fighting for a job with the San Antonio Rampage this upcoming offseason.
Evan Cowley (Freshman)
College: University of Denver
Analysis: Drafted in the 4th round (92nd overall) of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, goaltender Evan Cowley is currently seeing limited playtime during his freshman season at the University of Denver. Although the stellar play of fellow Panther prospect Sam Brittain has kept Cowley off of the ice for a majority of the 2013-14 season, a full year as a backup behind a quality starter may be just what the young netminder needed.
In his lone start this season, Cowley made 33 saves in a 3-2 overtime loss to Alaska Anchorage.
Prior to enrolling at Denver, Cowley was the top rookie goalie in the North American Hockey League while playing for the Wichita Falls Wildcats. In 54 games that year, Cowley earned a 22-24-4 record with a 2.90 goals-against average and became the only player from the NAHL selected to participate in CCM’s inaugural All-American Prospects Game.
Standing at 6’4, Cowley has the height that NHL team’s now covet in their goaltenders and will mainly need to focus on his technique while in college. While he should still be considered a very raw and unproven talent, Cowley will have every opportunity to grow and excel at the University of Denver following Brittain’s graduation this upcoming offseason.
R.J. Boyd (Junior)
College: Michigan State
Analysis: Selected in the 7th round (183rd overall) in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, defenseman R.J. Boyd is currently competing in his junior season at Michigan State. An above average skater whose not afraid to join the rush, Boyd has managed to score 6 points (1-5-6) in 23 games played this season. Though there are no guarantees that he will ever don Panther red, Boyd’s all-around game could make him a nice defenseman for a team to carry on a minor league roster.
Interestingly, Boyd, a Sarasota native, is the first ever Floridian to be drafted by the Panthers.
“I loved this team growing up. I liked Tampa, too, and was pumped when they won the [Stanley] Cup. … I’m still progressing and it’s going to take me awhile. I’ll just take it one day at a time and give 100 percent every time,” Boyd told the Sun Sentinel in an interview during the Panthers’ annual development camp this past summer.
Lacking the raw talent of an NHL-caliber defenseman, Boyd will have to rely on his exceptional work ethic as he continues to develop during his final season at Michigan State next year.
Matt Buckles (Freshman)
Analysis: Taken in the 4th round (98th overall) of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, forward Matt Buckles is currently getting an Ivy League education in both hockey and life while playing for Cornell University. Standing at 6’1, 205 lbs, Buckles already has NHL-ready size at just 18-years-old.
Receiving limited ice-time as a freshman, Buckles has managed to only score one goal so far this season in 16 games played. An all-around player who is not limited to any area of the game, Buckles will have plenty of time to earn more minutes as he continues to develop throughout his collegiate career.
In the mean time, Panthers’ fans can take solace in knowing that one of their prospects goes by the handle, “Buck Nasty”.
Not Shown: LW Connor Brickley (University of Vermont) & D Ben Gallacher (UMass)
Thank you to College Hockey News and their exceptional database and coverage of NCAA hockey.
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