With the NHL locked out, hockey fans looking for live action should turn to the NCAA, which kicks off its hockey season this weekend (though a few non-conference games have already taken place).
In the process those fans can catch a glimpse of a number of already-drafted NHL prospects. Here are some of the bigger names in the college ranks who bear watching this season.
Nick Bjugstad, C, Florida Panthers, University of Minnesota
Bjugstad was one of the NCAA's top players last season and arguably the top NHL prospect playing in the college ranks. So it was a bit of a surprise when he announced that he was returning for his junior season, as the Panthers may have put him in their lineup. Selected 19th overall in 2010, Bjugstad is a huge forward (6-foot-5) who has above-average offensive tools across the board and is unusually gifted for his size. This season, Bjugstad, playing on a very good Gophers team, should dominate and challenge for the Hobey Baker Award.
Derek Forbort, D, Los Angeles Kings, University of North Dakota
When he was drafted in the first round in 2010, Forbort was seen as a multi-tool player who needed time to develop. A huge defender with above-average skating and puck-moving skills is a rare commodity, and made Forbort worth a middle first-round pick. He has come along slowly in his first two years at North Dakota, but toward the end of last season showed flashes of the great player he could be. This NCAA season, he may be the NHL prospect with the most to prove.
Jon Merrill, D, New Jersey Devils, University of Michigan
Merrill certainly did not have an ideal 2011-12 campaign after he was suspended for a lengthy portion of the season for an undisclosed off-ice incident and played only 19 games for Michigan. However, Merrill's talent level shines through when he does play, as he's a high-end thinker at both ends. NHL sources I've talked to said he was certainly ready to turn pro last season. Merrill decided to head back to Michigan for his junior season and, considering his talent level, a Hobey Baker finalist-caliber season is expected, though he recently suffered a broken vertebrae during an exhibition match. How much the injury holds him back remains to be seen.
Kevin Hayes, LW, Chicago Blackhawks, Boston College
Though Hayes, Chicago's first-round pick in 2010, has played fine in his two years at BC and shown flashes of significant potential, his consistency has been an issue impeding him from elevating his prospect stock. His upside remains intriguing as he's a 6-3 forward with above-average speed, hands and vision who can be a very good player if he puts it all together. His junior season -- with former Eagle Chris Kreider gone to the Rangers -- would be a good time to do so.
Caleb Herbert, RW, Washington Capitals, Minnesota-Duluth
Herbert had a quality freshman season while playing second-line minutes. Minnesota-Duluth has a completely different look this season though, with J.T. Brown signing with Tampa Bay, Travis Oleksuk in San Jose and Jack Connolly going to Sweden. This season, Herbert goes from being a secondary option to a top player for Duluth; considering his skating-skill combo, he could take a big step forward this season.
Mike Reilly, D, Columbus Blue Jackets, University of Minnesota
A fourth-round pick in 2011, Reilly has the chance this season to raise his NHL stock. He was great in the BCHL last season, with scouts describing him as a fantastic all-around offensive player who was always making plays. Plus, he had a significant growth spurt in the last year. Reilly was very impressive at the recent USA World Juniors camp, and seems like a lock to be one of their top defensemen this holiday season. In their predictions for the conference's rookie of the year, WCHA coaches picked Reilly ahead of first-round picks such as Brady Skjei and Jordan Schmaltz (Rocco Grimaldi was selected the favorite).
Rocco Grimaldi, C, Florida Panthers, University of North Dakota
Speaking of the Grimaldi, he is prepped for a big, first full season of NCAA hockey after losing most of his freshman year to injuries. This season, Grimaldi has all of the tools to shine for North Dakota and be a top two-line player for the U.S. at the World Juniors. He's a great skater, puck-handler and shooter. And despite being very small (5-6), he plays a fine physical game as a result of his tremendous on-ice work ethic.
T.J. Tynan, C, Columbus Blue Jackets, University of Notre Dame
Tynan was one of the top players in college hockey last season, and was named the preseason favorite for CCHA Player of the Year in a coaches' poll. While only 5-8, Tynan is an intriguing NHL prospect due to his offensive tools. He's a solid skater with as powerful a push off as you'll find.
Scott Mayfield, D, New York Islanders, University of Denver
I heard concerns in 2011 (during Mayfield's draft year) from scouts about his hockey sense, and that may have kept him out of the first round. However, I also heard from scouts that it was simply a matter of playing at a higher pace, something that could come with experience, and not for a lack of instinct. Mayfield was certainly behind the pace at the start of his first NCAA season, but after a few injuries and opportunities opened up playing time, his game flourished toward the end of last season. Mayfield was being used on the top PP and PK units, and was checking good players. One scout noted that Mayfield also showed impressive offensive creativity, which, combined with his elite physical game and quality mobility, makes him a very interesting prospect to watch.
If you have any questions about any players profiled or not mentioned, feel free to leave a comment, and I will do my best to answer.
A version of this story originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
Corey Pronman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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