NCAA: 2020-21 NCHC Season Preview
Oliver Francies, Kelsey Sagvold | Sep. 15, 2020 | [hupso]
NASHVILLE (The Draft Analyst) — The National Collegiate Hockey Conference, which boasts the last four Division I national champions, is the highest-scoring major circuit in college hockey. But with the start of the 2020-21 season delayed (like everything else), that excitement is going to have to wait at least another month or two. Nonetheless, the time is right for an in-depth preview one of the top prospect leagues in the United States. Whether it’s the anticipation surrounding an incoming freshman class; a collection of promising soon-to-be free agents, or even a matchup that features a half-dozen drafted blue chippers, the NCHC has always been a prospect maven’s playground, even in the offseason. Below you’ll find some preseason predictions, team outlooks, and brief profiles on just a fraction of the NCHC’s impressive talent pool that has supplied NHL teams with weaponry for decades.
Preseason Ranking & Team Previews
1. North Dakota (2019-20 record: 26-5-4)
The Fighting Hawks are the preseason favorites to win the conference, and deservedly so. The roster is loaded with top-tier prospects and there is depth at every position. In net, both Adam Scheel (1999) and Peter Thome (CBJ 6th/2016) are expected to share the goaltending duties; although Scheel should remain the No. 1 after he posted a 19-4-2 record a season ago. On defense, an already productive group led by Jacob Bernard-Docker (OTT 1st/2018) should welcome the addition of lefty Jake Sanderson, who is expected to be a top-10 pick in the 2020 NHL draft, as well as menacing left-handed blueliner Tyler Kleven. Kleven, like Sanderson, played for the under-18 National Team Development Program and is potentially a first-round draft pick in October. Both blueliners should have prominent roles following the loss of left defenseman Jonny Tychonik, who transferred to Nebraska-Omaha. The forward ranks are led by a trio of seniors in NCHC Forward-of-the-Year Jordan Kawaguchi (1997), center Collin Adams (NYI 6th/2016), and left wing Grant Mishmash (NAS 2nd/2017). The Hawks also have a pair of productive underclassmen in sophomore center Shane Pinto (OTT 2nd/2019), — the NCHC Rookie of the Year — and improved junior pivot Jasper Weatherby (SJS 4th/2018). This kind of quality depth allows North Dakota to control the possession game and dictate how much time and space their opponents will be afforded. On paper, the Hawks obviously boast an impressive lineup loaded with notable prospects who should make them must-see television this coming season.
UDFA to Watch
LHD Matt Kiersted (4/14/98 | 6’0, 181)
A mobile defender who led all Hawks’ blueliners in scoring with 29 points in 33 games, Kiersted is a focal point on defense and also serves as an alternate captain. Therefore, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Minnesota native has already been offered a contract from several NHL teams; all of which were declined for one last chance at a national title. Defensively, Kiersted is one of the best in the conference at playing both poised and responsibly in big situations and minimizing high-danger chances against. On the puck, Kiersted produced his best collegiate season to date despite taking only 54 shots compared to 88 the season prior. Still, the senior defenseman registered 12 more assists and saw significant time on the power play. Kiersted easily is one of the top senior defensemen in the country and should be leaned on for all critical situations.
NHL Prospect to Watch
C Jasper Weatherby (SJS)
Weatherby may not be the most heralded prospect on North Dakota’s roster, but his progression since his freshman year has been impressive to say the least. He uses every inch of his 6-foot-3 frame to frustrate netminders and crowd the low slot, especially on the power play. By doing so, Weatherby puts himself in the perfect position to use his soft hands and quick reflexes for tip-in attempts. Of his 18 points (10 goals, 8 assists), seven came with the man advantage (4 goals, 3 assists). Additionally, Weatherby last season became one the Hawks’ most reliable centers at the faceoff dot, where he won 59 percent of his 275 attempts. North Dakota’s incoming freshman class is average from a forward perspective, so expect Weatherbee to vie for a top-six role and expanded minutes.
2. Minnesota-Duluth (2019-20 record: 22-10-2)
The Bulldogs under coach Scott Sandelin play a consistent game while rolling four quality lines, and their depth players have proven to be nearly as valuable as the stars. Although Minnesota-Duluth can deliver a reserved brand of hockey before transitioning to its counterattacking style, there are several notable prospects on the roster who are legitimate scoring threats no matter the situation or strength on the ice. Granted, the loss of two-time All-American goalie Hunter Shepard to the AHL and Hobey Baker-winning defenseman Scott Perunovich and blue-line leader Dylan Samberg to St. Louis and Winnipeg, respectively, certainly stings. But the Bulldogs have a strong recruiting class and are returning all eight of their top-scoring forwards, including three NHL draftees in Cole Koepke (TB 6th/2018), Noah Cates (PHI 5th/2017), and Nick Swaney (MIN 7th/2017). The situation in goal has yet to be resolved, so expect Ryan Fanti (1999), Ben Patt (1996), and Zach Stejskal (1999) to battle it out in camp for the starting nod on opening night.
UDFA to Watch
RHD Louie Roehl (4/9/98 | 5’10, 170)
A responsible defender with improved skating to compliment his high hockey IQ, this 5-foot-10 senior may not possess Perunovich’s point-producing upside, but he makes up for it with solid play in his own end. Roehl can be counted on to maintain a slot presence and keeps loose pucks out of harm’s way or show poise under pressure when a line change is in order. Roehl is not flashy by any means, but he should be an intriguing long-term option for an NHL club in need of a mature defensive defenseman at the AHL level. Another undrafted Bulldog who could draw some attention is senior two-way center Justin Richards (1998), who was one of their top scorers in each of the last two seasons and is part of a select group of outstanding NCHC penalty killers.
2020 NHL Draft Prospect to Watch
C Blake Biondi
A star for Hermantown and a fill-in for the U.S. U18 NTDP, Biondi is a clutch performer who can impact the game in a variety of ways. Although it remains to be seen if he would have been better off playing a full USHL season prior to college, Biondi is too dangerous a scorer to overlook and should make the most of any role he’s given during his freshman season.
#TheTourney20: Another late goal for Blake Biondi but this one completes the hat trick. Filthy snipe. Lot more to his game than just scoring. Works hard, quick stick in the NZ, physical along boards, goes hard to the net.
Hermantown only 20 mins from a SF date with Cathedral pic.twitter.com/K69JUAYRLY
— The Draft Analyst (@TheDraftAnalyst) March 4, 2020
3. Denver (2019-20 record: 21-9-6)
The Pioneers will return most of their roster from the pandemic-shortened season and it’s a good one; it boasts an impressive freshman class that features several potential high-round picks in the upcoming NHL draft, plus several heavy hitters in the NHL prospect pool. Although Denver will have to make adjustments following the loss of key players like defensmean Ian Mitchell (CHI 2nd/2017) to graduations or pro contracts. Not only did head coach David Carle lose All-American defenseman Ian Mitchell to the Chicago Blackhawks, but he also has to compensate for the graduation of leaders such as defenseman Michael Davies and set-up man Liam Finlay. Helping bridge that gap, however, will be the return of top-scoring left wing Emilio Pettersson (CGY 6th/2018) and dynamic playmaker Bobby Brink (PHI 2nd/2019), plus a strong goaltending duo featuring starter Magnus Chrona (TB 5th/2018) and 6-foot-5 backup Devin Cooley (1997). Of course, losing a premier puck mover such as Mitchell could have a significant impact on the blue line. But the return of fellow Blackhawks’ prospect Slava Demin (VGK 4th/2018) and the additions of brilliant puck rusher Michael Benning (2020 NHL draft) and top Finnish prospect Antti Tuomisto (DET 2nd/2019) should help balance things out. Definitely mark down at least three or four of their games this year. It’ll be a treat.
UDFA to Watch
RW Kohen Olischefski (2/1/98 | 6’2, 180)
A wiry goal-scoring winger who established career scoring high’s as a junior last season, Olischefski was named team captain and should slot on Denver’s top line alongside Pettersson and center Cole Guttman (TB 6th/2017). Olischefski doesn’t possess the “wow” factor like several of his teammates, but he has good size, works hard along the boards, and knows how to slip into openings to bring his plus shot to bear.
2020 Draft Prospect to Watch
RHD Michael Benning
A slick playmaker from the back end who is one of the purest power-play quarterbacks you’ll find in any conference, Benning is the nephew of Vancouver Canucks general manager Jim Benning and a strong draft recruit. Although he’s listed at 5-foot-9, Michael’s choosing of the college path should help him build up muscle and adapt to the high level of physicality he’s expected to face when he suits up for the Pioneers.
4. St. Cloud State (2019-20 record: 13-15-6)
Even the proudest of programs with histories rich in winning and tradition can go through a rough patch, which is exactly what happened to the Huskies this past season following the loss of a half dozen of its better players. Getting back to the top of the conference standings should remain a bridge too far, but coach Brett Larson’s group for the upcoming season should be able to piece together a strong enough effort to get St. Cloud St. back on the winning side; even after the graduation of three of their top five scorers. A key returnee is 2000-born Finnish speedster Jami Krannila (2020 NHL draft), who along with junior forwards Micah Miller (1998) and Sam Hentges (MIN 7th/2018) should either comprise the top line or at a minimum share pucks on the same power-play unit. One of the newer arrivals that should offer instant offense is Finland’s Veeti Miettinen (2020 NHL draft); a quick and elusive playmaker who can score in a variety of ways. In net, Czech import David Hrenak (LAK 5th/2018) will once again assume the top goaltending duties and should expect a lion’s share of the workload.
UDFA to Watch
RW Easton Brodzinski (8/13/96 | 6’2, 195)
A power winger from a hockey family, Brodzinski is a senior who expected to be one of the Huskies’ top scoring threats after he led them in goals (12) and points (27) a season ago. He plays a tough and physical style that increases in ferocity during battles in the corners and along the boards.
NHL Prospect to Watch
G David Hrenak (LAK)
The Huskies’ most notable prospect with an NHL affiliation, Hrenak will be counted on to steal more than just a game or two when he reassumes his role as their No. 1 goalie. Stylistically, Hrenak is somewhat reserved in his movements and rarely overcommits, but it usually takes a perfect shot to beat him. It seemed like second-chance attempts or higher impacted his numbers more than playing poor angles or being slow to react. Drafted by the Kings in the fifth round of the 2018 NHL draft, Hrenak was St. Cloud’s starter throughout the season and posted a respectable 12-11-6 record with a .906 save percentage.
#NuortenSMLiiga: RW Veeti Miettinen (Ranked No. 38) turns a lost draw on the PK into a SHG. Makes the right read, stick lifts for the turnovers, turns on the afterburners to gain space while drifting inside, then rifles one home from the left circle. Blues U20 trail Tappara 4-1 pic.twitter.com/qHsS7pKRWI
— The Draft Analyst (@TheDraftAnalyst) September 7, 2019
5. Omaha (2019-20 record: 14-17-5)
The Mavericks display a free-flowing, up-tempo style that is at its best when it forces the opponent to defend on turnovers. Although they were hit hard with several key graduations on defense, the goaltending of starter Isaiah Saville (VGK 5th/2019) will play a critical role in whether or not Omaha can finish above .500 for the first time since 2016. Additionally, coach Mike Gabinet will ice two critical transfers in former North Dakota puck-moving defenseman Jonny Tychonick (OTT 2nd/2018) and ex-Michigan winger Jack Randl (2000). They will join a trio of top-scoring wingers in Tyler Weiss (COL 4th/2018), Taylor Ward (1998), and Kevin Conley (1997). Therefore, scoring goals shouldn’t be a problem considering the notable transfers and returning firepower up front. It should be the Mavericks’ ability to limit the chances against, however, and minimizing the amount of energy Saville has to expend that could swing Omaha into one of its best finishes in recent team history.
NHL Prospect to Watch
LHD Jonny Tychonick (OTT)
The 48th overall pick in the 2018 NHL draft, Tychonick joins the Mavericks after two nondescript seasons at North Dakota. His shoot- first “offenseman” style did not always mesh with the conservative systems employed by the Hawks under Brad Berry, who made the young blueliner a healthy scratch on several occasions. Considering how anemic Omaha’s power play was a season ago (17.4 percent), a playmaker like Tychonick should be expected to run the top unit during the man advantage.
UDFA to Watch
RW Taylor Ward (3/31/98 | 6’2, 195)
A 6-foot-2 forward with good size and versatility, Ward can play anywhere on the top line while serving as a key cog on Omaha’s offense. He finished with 27 points in each of his first two seasons, although his team-best 16 goals were nearly double from the nine he scored the season prior. Ward is a big-bodied goal scorer with soft hands a nice touch around the net, where he likes to set up and cause havoc near the top of the crease.
6. Western Michigan (2019-20 record: 18-13-5)
No team will be hit harder from graduations than Andy Murray’s Broncos, who were second in conference with 125 overall goals but are losing four of their top six scorers. Hugh McGing (STL) and Wade Allison (PHI) have moved on, as well as recent AHL-signees Austin Rueschhoff (NYR) and defenseman Cam Lee (PIT). They do, however, have two strong defense prospects in sophomore Ronnie Attard (PHI 3rd/2019) and junior Mattias Samuelsson (BUF 2nd/2018). For the Broncos to succeed in 2020-21, they will also need scoring punch from senior center Paul Washe (1998), who is one of the top faceoff men in the country.
NHL Prospect to Watch
Ronnie Attard (PHI)
A 6-foot-4 right-shot defender who plays a physical two-way game, Attard is another one of those prototypical big-and-talented Broncos’ blueliner who have dotted previous Broncos rosters under Murray. With 14 points (6 goals, 8 assist) in 30 games, Attard’s adjustment to the college game happened rather quickly, so an increase in role and responsibility for this season should be expected. He also owns one of the most feared shots in all of college hockey and is no stranger to delivering bone-crunching hits in open ice.
UDFA to Watch
LW Rhett Kingston (11/4/97 | 6’1, 194)
Kingston is a junior two-way forward who competes hard in all three zones and is used in critical defensive-zone situations. Last season, the BCHL product saw a significant spike in production, jumping from only three points in 13 games as a freshman to 17 points (9 goals, 8 assists) in 33 matches a season ago. He’s a little on the older side but his defensive play and shutdown abilities should render his birthdate a non factor.
7. Colorado College (2019-20 record: 11-20-3)
Patience definitely is a virtue for those who support the Tigers, as their hockey program will ice one of the younger groups in the conference thanks to the arrival of 11 incoming freshmen. Those same supporters should also have their sights set on the 2021-22 season, when one of the top recruiting classes in the program’s history makes landfall in Colorado Springs. For now, however, the Tigers under coach Mike Haviland will have to plug holes left by the graduation of three of their top six scorers, with two of them being leading point-getter Chris Wilkie (FLA) and set-up man Nick Halloran (1997) — a duo that last season made up 40 percent of Colorado College’s offense. One newcomer to look out for is former NTDP’er Hunter McKown (2020 NHL draft), who is a strong winger with good size and underrated stickhandling skills. Haviland also seems to have found a promising No. 1 netminder in Matt Vernon (1998), the son of former NHL backstop Mike Vernon who appeared in 29 games in 2019-20. Although he’s on the smaller side at 5-foot-11, Matt plays his angles quite well and can shrink the net with his positioning and impressive coverage of the lower half. If his job is challenged by anyone, it would be 6-foot-6 freshman Dominic Basse (CHI 6th/2019). In any event, both goalies are expected to see the ice tilted against them, as the few changes made to an already-green defense corps led by impressive junior puck mover Brian Yoon (1998) involve the addition of freshman rearguards Nicklas Andrews (2020 NHL draft) and Jack Millar (2020 NHL draft). A baptism by fire is what they should expect within a group who last year surrendered an NCHC-worst 96 goals in only 24 games.
Top Drafted Prospect
RW Josiah Slavin (CHI)
A 6-foot-3 power winger who led all Tigers freshmen in scoring, Slavin should be expected to take on a more prominent role in the attack and could see significant time on the top power-play unit. He finished with only 13 points (5 goals, 8 assists), but 11 came away from the power play — the same number as Bobby Brink and in two less games.
UDFA to Watch
RHD Brian Yoon (1998)
A swift puck mover who plays a mature, composed game in all three zones, Yoon should be the main man on the Tigers’ blue line and eat more minutes than any defenseman on the squad. He can quarterback the power play and deliver clean passes with the right touch, but Yoon also takes the puck for a skate and is capable of going from goal line to goal line while maintaining complete control of the puck. Yoon shows a competitive fire and will not back down from a physical challenge — just two of several reasons why he’ll be counted on for most late/close scenarios.
8. Miami-Ohio (2019-20 record: 8-21-5)
The RedHawks struggled in their second year under coach Chris Bergeron and will need several things to fall into place just for his squad to sniff a .500 record. For starters, the Hawks have to achieve scoring balance within an attack that a season ago was primarily led by seniors Gordie Green and Karch Bachman (FLA). Now that both have graduated, the onus will be on the likes of center Casey Gilling (1998) and 2000-born winger Ryan Savage (2020 NHL draft) to pace the offense for the forwards. Miami’s defense is led by 6-foot-2 lefty Derek Daschke (1998), a junior who registered 23 points (10 goals, 13 assists) in 34 games and was used in all situations. Lastly, the graduation of senior goalie Ryan Larkin opens the door for former Sioux City backstop Ben Kraws (2000) to assume the full-time duties.
2020 Draft Prospect to Watch
RHD Dylan Moulton
A 2001-born blueliner who anchored a key middle pairing for the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers, Moulton is a mobile and heady defender who can block shots and finish checks without giving away much in positioning. A native of the Nashville area, Moulton is a steady stay-at-home type who can be summoned to successfully cover the low slot and break up plays at the line. He usually stays within himself and doesn’t try to be too fancy, so don’t expect to see significant point production.
UDFA to Watch
C Casey Gilling (3/25/98 | 6’0, 185)
Gilling should be one of Bergeron’s leaders this season; not only for his status as a senior but also for his playmaking ability. He tied for second on the squad last season with 31 points (9 goals, 22 assists) and 14 of his points came during the power play, where he recorded a team-high 11 assists.