The 50 NCAA players you need to know this season

Ryan Kennedy
Vancouver pick Thatcher Demko (Photo by Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images)

It’s gonna be a great year for college hockey. Not only will the usual array of prospects be on display as they build up their games at school, but there is a special bonus: The Fab Five Frosh.

A mixture of late birthdays, incredible skill and tantalizing opportunities have coalesced to produce a class of first-time draft eligible players rarely ever seen before. Who are these incredible teens? Check out the list below.

Along with the Fab Five, you will also find the most intriguing players for this year. My choices are largely based on NHL upside, so you won’t find a ton of upperclassmen, nor free agents. It was tough getting the roster down to 50, but here we go:

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The best Russian goalie prospect in years is finally here

Ryan Kennedy
Tampa Bay's Andrey Vasilevskiy (Photo by Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)

Once a team drafts a hot name in the prospect world, it only stands to reason that fans would want to see that player as soon as possible, even if it’s not with the NHL club right away. For Tampa Bay Lightning boosters, the wait was a little longer with netminder Andrey Vasilevskiy, but he’s finally here.

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Hockey Canada’s elite under-17 program no longer ‘mass participation’

Ken Campbell
Team Ontario, 2008  (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

One of the stories that kind of flew under the radar this summer was Hockey Canada’s new development model when it comes to picking its teams for the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge. The players who are picked for that tournament from now on will be judged solely on their hockey talents, not their hometown.

Prior to this year’s tournament, which will be held in late December and early January in Sarnia, Hockey Canada submitted five regional teams from Atlantic Canada, Quebec, Ontario, Western Canada and British Columbia. Those rosters included total of 110 16-year-old players from coast-to-coast, but it didn’t encompass the best 110 16-year-old players in Canada. And the problem with that is all Canada’s opponents in the tournament – USA, Russia, Finland, Sweden and Germany – were sending the top 22 players from their countries.

“When you’re from Russia or Finland or Sweden, you don’t know anything about Atlantic Canada,” said Hockey Canada’s senior director of hockey operations Scott Salmond. “All they see is a Canadian sweater and it’s a big thrill to beat that team. In our organization, we want to have a culture of winning and the sooner we start that, the better.”

After seeing its regional teams win five of the tournaments in a row, a Canadian team has won just one of its past four tournaments and wasn’t even on the podium last year. It might be a stretch to suggest that lack of success at the Under-17s has trickled up to Canada’s struggles at the World Junior Championship, but it’s all about cultivating the best talent so that by the time the players are playing in the WJC, they’re more familiar with one another.

So instead of having five regional teams, Hockey Canada instead had a camp this past summer with the 108 best 16-year-olds, regardless of geography. From that, three rosters of 22 players each will be chosen for the Under-17 World Hockey Challenge, so French speaking players from Quebec will be playing with Anglophones from British Columbia, Maritimers with players from Ontario. That way, as Salmond pointed out, the third-best goaltender in Ontario might get a chance to play in the tournament, “because he might also be the third-best goalie in all of Canada. We needed to get this quota system out of it and have the absolute best players together more often.”

The team will be selected by Hockey Canada head scout Ryan Jankowski and his regional scouts and while the three coaches – Jean-Francois Houle, Sheldon Keefe and Dan Lambert – will have some input, they will for the most part be handed their roster and told to coach the players they have been given.

This, of course, has raised the dander of those who think Hockey Canada is further catering to only elite players. By decreasing the player pool at the under-17 level by 44 players and possibly eliminating the chance for unknown players from small towns to be exposed to a high level of competition, is Hockey Canada guilty of identify and catering to only the best of the best at too young an age? Salmond says Hockey Canada’s tracking over the last decade indicates that the best players in any age group tend to move on to the elite teams anyway. Just because the 10th best player in Newfoundland gets a chance to play in the under-17s doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to elevate his game in the following years and be part of the top group of players.

“And this is not mass participation,” Salmond said. “It is a Program of Excellence and we’re not going to apologize for that.”

Ottawa Senators prospect Nick Paul is busting out

Nick Paul helped drive North Bay to greatness this past season (Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

There was a lot of buzz on Tuesday afternoon surrounding the shootout goals scored by Jordan Subban and Josh Ho-Sang at the BioSteel Sports camp in Toronto, and deservedly so. But one of the other finalists in the informal skills competition was center Nick Paul and he had some pretty nasty moves as well – the difference was, Paul did it at a hulking 6-foot-3 and 198 pounds. Check out all the highlights below, starting at the 1:30 mark:

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Aaron Ekblad hurt in exhibition game, but why was he even playing?

Aaron-Ekblad-draft

The chance to play for Team Canada in an international event is one of the bigger dreams of most hockey players, no matter how good they are. In fact, I can tell you exactly what it means to every single player I’ve asked, because they all have the same response: “Any time you get to put on that jersey, it’s a great honor.”

So I’m not surprised that Florida Panthers prospect Aaron Ekblad wanted to play at Canada’s world junior exhibition camp in Quebec. But why would the Panthers allow the No. 1 overall pick to play in the mini-tournament against the Czechs and Russians?

In speaking with execs from other teams (attempts to reach the Panthers were unsuccessful), they always like having their top prospects put in situations where they can develop, so it’s not crazy that Florida would want their most prominent draft pick to take on a leadership role in the summer and get some reps as he prepares for his first NHL training camp. Unfortunately, injuries are an unpredictable part of the game.

And after seeing their prized prospect get hurt Tuesday night on a hit from Czech defenseman Lukas Klok, the Panthers must be feeling like they rolled snake eyes:

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Oilers prospect Darnell Nurse aims for Team Canada spot

Darnell-Nurse-WJC

When the cuts were made to the 2013 Canadian world junior team, a howl went up in some corners when Darnell Nurse was left off the roster. The seventh overall pick in the 2013 draft, Nurse had size, mobility and a growing offensive repertoire – all great traits for a best-on-best tournament. But the Canuck braintrust went a different way and though it’s unfair to claim in hindsight that Nurse would have contributed to a better constructed blueline, the Edmonton Oilers prospect is back in camp and on a mission to learn from the past.

“You have to be on all the time, whether it’s a practice or a game,” Nurse said. “It’s a real fun camp to be a part of. You’ve got 40 guys all competing.”

Nurse is at the 2014 camp now in Montreal, where he’s hoping to make a good impression on the Hockey Canada decision-makers and show off his best attributes.

“I’ve always had the ability to cover the ice with my skating,” he said. “My strength is knocking guys off the puck.”

At 6-foot-4 and 189 pounds, Nurse is a big blueliner with a nasty streak. I wondered last summer if that aggressiveness would hurt him in an international tournament where bodychecks often become penalties based on how loud the crowd cheers. To that end, it’s worth noting that Nurse saw his PIM total drop season over season and he said that a lot of his focus has gone into improving on the minor details on defense, such as staying between the dots in his zone and letting the play come to him.

To me, Nurse could be an excellent shutdown option with offensive upside at the tourney, much in the same way Russia’s Nikita Zadorov (Buffalo) took away half the defensive zone every time he was on the ice in Malmo.

After another successful campaign with the Ontario League’s Soo Greyhounds, Nurse even got a chance to see the pro game when he hooked up with Oklahoma City in the American League. He played seven games with the Barons, split between the regular season and the playoffs, where he gained even more confidence in his physical abilities.

While there is a possibility that Nurse sticks with Edmonton this fall and begins his NHL career, he would otherwise have to return to the OHL, since he doesn’t turn 20 until February. So the world juniors would be a great tournament for his development.

With Aaron Ekblad and possibly Josh Morrissey NHL-bound this fall, the Canadians would only have one returning D-man from the previous world juniors in Owen Sound’s Chris Bigras. Even then, the Colorado prospect was effectively the seventh man on the unit (thus absolving himself of any blame in what was a bit of a debacle).

One interesting aspect of this year’s candidates is how once again, the field is dominated by left-hand shots. Canada’s Olympic team was split right down the middle and had great success, but the world junior squad had just two righties in Ekblad and Matt Dumba. Assuming Ekblad is with the Florida Panthers, that leaves only Washington pick Madison Bowey and Kings prospect Roland McKeown available this time around. Of course, Nurse is willing to play his off-side if it means a red and white jersey come December.

“Last year I played both sides,” he said. “Even in the AHL. It’s nothing I’m not comfortable with.”

Now it’s time to start proving his worth, no matter which side of the ice he’s on. The Canadians play four games in a row this week in Quebec, with Russia and the Czech Republic providing the competition. That’s where Nurse can begin to lay the foundation for what he hopes is a berth on a national team that will be under a lot of pressure to win when the WJC medal round hits Toronto after New Year’s.

Tom Renney faces huge challenges at Hockey Canada

Tom Renney

When Bob Nicholson took over as president and CEO of Hockey Canada in 1998, few people outside the hockey industry knew who he was. Over the next 16 years, Nicholson went on to create a corporate monolith that generated millions of dollars in revenues and won countless gold medals on the international stage.

That will be an enormously difficult act to follow. That the board of Hockey Canada has reportedly handpicked Tom Renney to do it is, well, a little curious. Renney is a man of enormous integrity and has a coaching resume – particularly in the international game – that would rival that of anyone in the world. But this is the thing. Hockey Canada is not a hockey team. For the purposes of the president and CEO, Hockey Canada is far more a business than it is a hockey organization. Read more