It's a decent, but not great, draft year for NCAA freshmen if you go by the standards of the last couple of seasons. But on the bright side, the NCAA kids most likely to land in the first three rounds of this year's draft appear to be getting stronger as the season progresses.
As a group, their play is getting better reviews at this point in the season than it received back in November. That's to be expected, since it's a big step up for late birthdays to jump from the U.S. National Team Development Program (USNTDP) or the USHL to the NCAA, where they're playing against men. Coaches will also tend to protect them somewhat -- not throwing them in the deep end from the beginning.
Here is a stock watch for some of the country's most talented collegiate hockey players:
Jamieson Oleksiak, D, Northeastern University:
Oleksiak is the one collegiate player who should land in the first round this June. This blog had a pretty thorough write-up on him a few weeks back, so we'll keep this one short and to the point.
Stockwatch: High, naturally
Matt Nieto, LW, Boston University:
The knock on Nieto is that he's on the small side and less than willing to go into the dirty areas of the ice. The assets he brings are skill and speed, both of which served him well in the USNTDP. According to those who have seen him since mid-January, Nieto still may not going to the net on every trip but is getting better at identifying opportunities. "He picks his spots and he's getting results," one scout said. You're right more often than you're wrong if you're drafting speed on the wing, and Nieto is almost certainly one of the 10 best skaters in this draft.
Stockwatch: On the uptick
Adam Clendening, D, Boston University:
Last summer Clendening looked like a top-15 prospect, maybe even top-10 player. He had been great for the USNTDP and dynamic as an underager in the world U18s. But he took off a little slowly this fall, and his stock slipped a little bit. Now in March he appears to be back on the upswing. "It looks like he's figuring it out," one scout said. "It's a different level of play, and he found out that he couldn't play the same game that he had in the USNTDP."
He was put in a fairly difficult situation. Rather than breaking in with an upperclassman as a blue-line partner, Clendening's first trip through Hockey East has often been beside a fellow freshman. Clendening was playing really well the past couple of seasons, and his rough start to the Terriers' campaign (and failure to make the U.S. team for the World Junior Championships) had to be very disappointing. It seems as if he has it back on the rails, not enough that he's looking at the first 20 picks like we thought he could have, but there may be a slot for him in the next 20.
Stockwatch: Recovering early losses
Nieto and Clendening put their transition into their own words on this video from a recent postgame press conference.
Nick Shore, C, University of Denver:
At some level he looks a lot like his brother, Drew, a second-round draft choice of the Florida Panthers in 2009. Both have good hockey sense and get a lot of the little things right, but neither has great breakaway speed or gets any style points. The one significant difference: At 6-foot-3, Drew is more than three inches taller than his little brother. Still, Drew has raised his game as sophomore -- five goals in his freshman year, 21 through 32 games so far in his second. Nick is ahead of his older brother in production at the same stage, which is particularly notable since he's more than a year-and-a-half younger. Like Drew, he knows where to go and frequently gets there -- he just doesn't look smooth or explosive doing it.
Stockwatch: Optimism founded on pedigree and history
Michael Mersch, F, University of Wisconsin:
He's the counterpoint to Nieto, a pro-sized winger who parks in front of the net like an 18-wheeler pulling into a loading dock. And Mersch is just as hard to move. Some scouts love that aspect of his game, and there just isn't enough of it to go around in this year's draft class. It's especially impressive, given that he's competing against players three and four years older. Mersch gets huge marks for his work ethic and for his hockey sense, but -- you knew there was a but attached -- his skating will keep him out of the first round and maybe the second. Even the scouts who like the best of his game have trouble getting over that single, deep flaw. If an organization thinks he has a chance to improve his skating, he could get a call in the second round.
Stockwatch: Definitely not for everyone, but someone is going to like him