A few weeks ago I ranked the drafted prospects playing overseas. This week, leading up to the NCAA hockey tournament, I will rank the top drafted college hockey prospects. I will consider for this list players like Jaden Schwartz who ended the college season with his team but not Minnesota Wild top prospect Charlie Coyle who left midyear.
These rankings are based on notes gathered from my own observations of the players and the many conversations I've had with scouts and front office executives. But the rankings are purely my own. It is also worth noting that beyond the 10th spot the differences were very minimal between prospects.
1. Justin Schultz, D, Anaheim Ducks (Wisconsin-WCHA)
There's a reason there's a lot of hype surrounding the possibility of Schultz going to free agency. If he doesn't sign with Anaheim, he would be the best college free agent to hit the market that I could remember. Schultz is a high-end thinker with a great overall skill set and can dominate at both ends. When I asked a scout if he physically was ready for the pro game, he praised his off-ice work. "He has very, very good stamina," the scout said. Schultz is NHL-ready and has top pairing potential.
2. Jaden Schwartz, LW, St. Louis Blues (St. Louis-NHL)
Schwartz scored in his first NHL game after two tremendous years for Colorado College. He has elite level puck skills and is a very creative passer, as well. The small man is pretty agile with his skating, but scouts note his speed is a bit of a concern.
3. Nick Bjugstad, C, Florida Panthers (Minnesota-WCHA)
This season Bjugstad really started to fulfill some of that promising upside scouts saw from him two years ago in high school. He's a huge man with great puck skills, who has improved as a playmaker and become a better skater.
4. Chris Kreider, LW, New York Rangers (Boston College-Hockey East)
When Kreider came out of high school his hockey sense was his main knock, but three years later it isn't as big a concern. While he won't show scouts high-end vision or anything, when you add in his truly elite skating, high-end physical game and finishing ability he's quite a prospect who is NHL-ready.
5. Brian Dumoulin, D, Carolina Hurricanes (Boston College-Hockey East)
Years ago most scouts would have called Dumoulin an offensive defenseman but this year he won his second straight "Best Defensive Defenseman" award for his conference and is a finalist for the Hobey Baker award for best college player in the country. He's a big man who is unusually skilled for his size but scouts say his physical game is a little inconsistent. However other NHL sources I've talked to tag him as a "top four defenseman who is ready for the pro level."
6. Jon Merrill, D, New Jersey Devils (Michigan-CCHA)
Depending which scouting source I talk to, some will agree 100 percent with this ranking and the rest will hate it. Jon Merrill has tremendous potential as he's a big man with great skill and high-end hockey sense, but has been plagued with off-ice trouble including a lengthy suspension this year for an undisclosed incident. It's a problem, but not enough to drop him any lower considering his potential.
7. Rocco Grimaldi, C, Florida Panthers (North Dakota-WCHA)
Grimaldi missed most of the year due to injuries, but I'm still very optimistic about his future. Like Merrill, he's another player with a lot of divide in the industry. Between his high-end skating, skill, toughness and sense some scouts see first-line upside, while others think his smallish size (5-foot-6, 160 pounds) is a factor that will be very hard to overcome.
8. Brock Nelson, C, New York Islanders (North Dakota-WCHA)
Nelson took huge leaps forward in his development this year from playing at a higher pace and showing more creativity. His physical development has scouts calling him a man-child. He's a very smart and dependable two-way player with a decent all-around skill set between his playmaking and finishing ability.
9. Corban Knight, RW, Florida Panthers (North Dakota-WCHA)
Knight is a very gifted playmaker who regularly displays plus vision with good puck skills and has a really desirable upside. He's listed as 6-2 by the school, but he looks smaller on the ice.
10. T.J. Tynan, C, Columbus Blue Jackets (Notre Dame-CCHA)
When I asked one NHL exec about Tynan's potential, he called it "pretty darn similar to Cam Atkinson" a fellow Blue Jackets prospect who is tearing up the AHL. "Atkinson is a better skater, whereas Tynan is a better playmaker," the exec said.
11. John Gaudreau, LW, Calgary Flames (Boston College-Hockey East)
During Gaudreau's draft season, a head scout I talked to described the winger as one of the only players he saw all year who brought him out of his seat due to Gaudreau's tremendous puck skills and vision. The small winger entered college hockey with a bang and should be one of the nation's top scorers very soon.
12. Drew Shore, C, Florida Panthers (Denver-WCHA)
Shore is a gifted all-around player who can skate, handle the puck and finish, but I'm not sure if his upside is high enough to be a true top prospect, despite his production this year.
13. Kyle Rau, RW, Florida Panthers (Minnesota-WCHA)
I remember one of the first games of this season, Rau was lining up on Minnesota's top line and PP unit and playing a regular PK shift, which describes his tremendous first college season in a nutshell. He won Minnesota's Mr. Hockey last year for best high school player in the state due to his great skill, high-end hockey sense and off-the-charts work ethic.
14. Reilly Smith, RW, Dallas Stars (Miami-CCHA)
Reilly Smith followed up a great sophomore campaign with a season that made him a finalist for the Hobey Baker. He's a smart, hard working two-way forward who sets up his teammates well, and has good finishing touch around the net.
15. Adam Clendening, D, Chicago Blackhawks (Boston University-Hockey East)
Clendening is a really polarizing prospect as he will make scouts fall in love with him some games when he shows elite puck moving upside, and then on many other nights he will cause those same scouts to cringe with brain cramp after brain cramp.
16. Matt Nieto, LW, San Jose Sharks (Boston University-Hockey East)
Nieto had a great sophomore season as he tried to alleviate concerns over up-and-down play. Nieto is a plus skater with good puck skills and solid strength for a player his size.
17. Austin Smith, RW, Dallas Stars (Colgate-ECAC)
Austin Smith was the top scoring player this season among drafted forwards and is also a finalist for the Hobey Baker. He's a smart forward with good puck skills and a desirable on-ice work ethic. I'm not sure though if he has enough upside to be a legit scorer in the NHL considering his size.
18. Anders Lee, LW, New York Islanders (Notre Dame-CCHA)
Lee is a huge forward with good puck skills and fine hockey sense whom scouts praise for "his ability to score from long range and be a goal machine in the slot." But he needs to work on his skating.
19. Jason Zucker, RW, Minnesota Wild (Denver-WCHA)
Zucker has played for the U.S. World Junior team three straight years. He's a great skater who plays with a lot of energy and has a great shot. While he does have offensive skill, I think he's more of a third liner in the NHL.
20. Riley Sheahan, C, Detroit Red Wings (Notre Dame-CCHA)
Sheahan is a very frustrating prospect as he will wow you at times with his skill and vision but his numbers never reflect it.
Honorable Mentions: Danny Kristo-Montreal Canadiens, Derek Forbort-Los Angeles Kings, Scott Mayfield-New York Islanders, Erik Haula-Minnesota Wild, Beau Bennett-Pittsburgh Penguins, Scott Wilson-Pittsburgh Penguins
As always, if you want an elaboration on a player mentioned or you want to ask a question about a player not profiled, feel free to leave a comment.
Corey Pronman covers hockey for ESPN Insider. He has been a writer at Hockey Prospectus since 2009, with a focus on the NHL draft, scouting and NHL prospects. You can find his ESPN archives here and follow him on Twitter here.