The end of the NCAA regular season has brought some of the NHL's top college prospects that much closer to the pro ranks. The NCAA free agent crop could be one of the best in several years, but there are plenty of notable already-drafted prospects as well. Now, much like Chris Kreider last season, there are several key names throughout the college ranks who are either close or potentially ready to make the jump to the NHL. It doesn't mean they'll turn pro and join the big club for this season, but based on my discussions with industry sources and my own observations, here is a look at some of the top NCAA prospects close to making an impact in the NHL.
Nick Bjugstad, C, Florida Panthers (Univ. of Minnesota-WCHA)
Bjugstad's return to Minnesota was interesting seeing as Florida had a spot open for him on their NHL club. Perhaps it was the result of the lockout, but the center certainly put the extra time to good use. Bjugstad really rounded out his game in his junior season and showed significant defensive value. Bjugstad's 6-foot-6, 220-pound frame has filled out to where he looks physically ready for the grind of the NHL and to be an asset in that aspect of the game right away. His offensive upside is great as he has really good hands and skating ability for a man his size to go along with a great shot. The production was simply good, with 36 points in 35 games, which indicative of the lack of consistency in Bjugstad's offensive game. And while he has the tools to take over a game, there are times he leaves you wanting. Though he has top-line potential, he likely will end up an above-average regular in the NHL. He could be in Florida next season or after Minnesota's postseason ends.
Danny Kristo, RW, Montreal Canadiens (Univ. of North Dakota-WCHA)
It seems like the Habs' second-round pick from 2008 has been around forever, partly due to the fact he played a USHL season before going to college. Kristo had a great season, tying for 3rd in scoring among drafted prospects with teammate Corban Knight (45 points in 34 games) and was one of the most dangerous offensive threats all season. Kristo lacks the physical tools to intimidate opponents, but he has high-end speed, puck skills and has developed his playmaking game into a significant weapon. He also shows the work ethic to help on defense and fight through checks, something he's worked on in college. Kristo turns 23 in June and is arguably ready to jump to the top level, although Montreal has a lot of good forwards on their team now.