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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

The top NHL prospects playing in the 2024 NCAA hockey tournament

Everywhere that Boston College coach Greg Brown looks, he sees NHL-level talent.

It’s not just on his own roster, where highly touted prospects like Cutter Gauthier (Anaheim Ducks) and Will Smith (San Jose Sharks) helped power the Eagles to the No. 1 seed in the Division I men’s hockey tournament starting this week.

He also sees it around the nation.

“It’s great for college hockey,” Brown told ESPN recently. “I think more and more people see it as a very viable path to get to the NHL, so you can not only come here, get your education, but you can play top-level hockey and hopefully make a career of it, if that’s what interests you.”

More and more NHL teams are seeking out NCAA players in the draft and free agency.

“I think every year the percentage of college players increases in the NHL. It’s just a great trend,” Brown said. “I think now you see not just American kids, but people from all over the world coming [to the NCAA], because they see college hockey as a great option to not only get an education but fulfill their dreams of playing professionally.”

The 16-team bracket is set. The puck drops on the 2024 men’s NCAA hockey tournament starting Thursday, with the Frozen Four scheduled for April 11 in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Here’s a look at some of the names in this year’s NCAA tournament with current and future NHL connections, from draft prospects to previous selections to the free agents whom pro teams will be chasing.

NHL draft prospects

Macklin Celebrini, C, Boston University

The freshman sensation has a dozen NHL teams calculating their draft lottery odds after every loss. Celebrini, a Vancouver native, had 59 points in 35 games for BU, including 31 goals. He tallied eight points in five games for the Canadian team at the IIHF World Junior Championships. The unanimous choice at No. 1 in the NHL Central Scouting midterm rankings, Celebrini is a potential franchise-altering center whose talent is matched by his determination on the ice and attention to detail.

“I think a lot of times with younger players that are that talented offensively … I’m not saying they cheat the game, but sometimes they’re not as responsible defensively at that young in age,” BU coach Jay Pandolfo said. “[Celebrini] is just so detailed on both sides of the puck. He defends just as hard as he wants to go on offense, and I think that’s why he’s as good as he is.”

Artyom Levshunov, D, Michigan State

The Belarusian blueliner won Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year last week, capping a terrific season ahead of what’s expected to be a top-five selection in this summer’s NHL draft. The 6-foot-2 defenseman was the No. 2-ranked North American skater by NHL Central Scouting and had 33 points in 36 games for the Spartans.

“He is the most complete package for a defenseman,” Central Scouting vice president Dan Marr told NHL.com. “He’s just a beast physically. He’s got the right kind of confidence. He’s not cocky; he’s just really motivated.”

Zeev Buium, D, University of Denver

Denver defensemen Zeev Buium and his brother Shai, who was drafted 36th overall by the Detroit Red Wings in 2021, are the sons of Israeli immigrants who grew up playing roller hockey in San Diego. Zeev had 48 points in 38 games for Denver this season.

He was ranked fourth among North American skaters by Central Scouting, and most draft projections have him as a lottery pick this summer. NHL draft expert Tony Ferrari of The Hockey News said, “Buium is producing at a rate we haven’t seen from a draft-eligible defender since the 1970s — and the offensive side of the puck may not even be his best trait.”

Drafted NHL prospects

Boston College Eagles

Cutter Gauthier, C (Anaheim Ducks)

Gauthier gained instant fame — perhaps infamy — when the fifth overall pick of the 2022 draft had a change of heart about playing for the Philadelphia Flyers. They traded him to Anaheim for defenseman Jamie Drysdale and a draft pick, revealing publicly that Gauthier didn’t want to play in Philadelphia. That instantly stung Flyers fans and management, prompting CEO Dan Hilferty to say: “I don’t really feel bad for Cutter when he comes to Philadelphia. It’s going to be a rough ride here and he earned it.”

Things got nasty quickly for Gauthier, who said he received death threats after the trade. “I would say the first week was definitely pretty hectic with all the messages that I was getting,” he told ESPN. “But things have definitely calmed down. I could focus on the team here.”

Overshadowed by the controversy is that Gauthier is an outstanding prospect, with an NCAA-best 35 goals in 37 games this season and 59 points overall. He’s a net-driving scorer who doesn’t shy away from physicality — or controversy, apparently.

Ryan Leonard, F (Washington Capitals)
Gabe Perreault, F (New York Rangers)
Will Smith, F (San Jose Sharks)

They were linemates at the world juniors for Team USA and for Boston College this season, as the freshman trio helped fuel BC’s run to the top of the college hockey rankings. Smith had 67 points in 37 games, while Perreault amassed 57 points in 32 games and Leonard had 54 points in 37 games.

“We’re very happy that they all came together and that chemistry. They didn’t have a break-in period when they got to school because they’d been together at the program,” Brown said. “So I think they hit the ground running right from the start and they’ve continued to generate offense throughout the season.”

Smith was drafted fourth overall by the Sharks in 2023.

“He’s a very cerebral player, sees things very quickly and has the skill set to make those thoughts happen. He can pass the puck extremely well and he sees a small space for some people. He’s able to create that pass and complete that pass,” Brown noted. “So there’s so many things he does well, but I think the real probably separator is just seeing things a little quicker than a lot of players.”



Greg Brown credits youth, well-rounded play for Boston College’s success

Boston College coach Greg Brown attributes the Eagles’ 1-seed in the NCAA men’s ice hockey tournament to the team’s all-around play and poise of their freshmen.

Boston University Terriers

Lane Hutson, D (Montreal Canadiens)

Listed generously at 5-foot-10, the Hobey Baker nominee is a tremendous offensive defenseman, with 46 points in 35 games this season. The 20-year-old sophomore, a second-round pick by the Canadiens in 2022, continues to develop his game.

Case in point: When Hutson shocked his U.S. world junior teammates by exchanging punches with Sweden’s Anton Johansson in the gold-medal game, taking a decision from his 6-foot-4 opponent.

Notice how we didn’t say he dropped the gloves. “I definitely got a couple funny messages about my gloves not coming off. My response is that I’ve got to protect the hands,” Hutson told ESPN. “And his gloves were on too. So it was a good fight.”

Tom Willander, D (Vancouver Canucks)

One of the better skaters in the 2023 draft class, Willander was selected by the Canucks at No. 11 last year. He had 22 points in 35 games for BU this season, his first in the NCAA. Elite Prospects called Willander “a nightmare to play against” because of his speed, physicality and competitive nature.

Denver Pioneers

Sean Behrens, D (Colorado Avalanche)

Taken by Colorado in the second round of the 2021 draft, Behrens had 29 points in 40 games for the Pioneers this season. He’s a solid two-way defenseman who helped Denver win the national championship in his freshman season, although he doesn’t bring a lot of size to the blue line.

Jack Devine, RW (Florida Panthers)

Devine doesn’t have the prospect pedigree that other names on this list possess — he was a seventh-round pick by the Panthers in 2022 — but a lot of top NHL prospects would have loved to have Devine’s numbers this season for Denver: 55 points in 40 games, including 27 goals, to earn the 20-year-old a spot as a Hobey Baker finalist. That might not necessarily portend anything for the NHL level, but few players in the nation leveled up like Devine did year over year.

Michigan State Spartans

Trey Augustine, G (Detroit Red Wings)

The Spartans goalie posted a .918 save percentage in winning 22 of 33 games this season as a freshman. Selected in the second round of the 2023 draft by the Red Wings, he was outstanding for the U.S. world junior team and was a semifinalist for the Mike Richter Award, given to the nation’s top men’s college goaltender.

Isaac Howard, LW (Tampa Bay Lightning)

His two goals in the gold-medal game against Sweden were almost as memorable as his 2022 NHL draft attire: vivid white suit, blue turtleneck and a gold chain, declaring himself “the best-looking guy here” after the Lightning selected him 31st overall. Having transferred from Minnesota-Duluth, Howard had 33 points in 34 games for the Spartans.

He said he can’t wait to reach the NHL and start facing off against his hockey heroes. “I really liked Alex Ovechkin [growing up]. I loved his swagger, his goal scoring. He was just really fun to watch,” he told ESPN. “It’ll definitely be really cool to look over and face off against some guys that I grew up watching. I think that’s one of the coolest parts about becoming a player in the NHL.”

Maxim Strbak, D (Buffalo Sabres)

The Slovakian defenseman had nine points in 30 games this season as a freshman. He was selected in the second round by the Sabres last year and is considered one of their most promising defensive prospects.

Michigan Wolverines

Gavin Brindley, RW (Columbus Blue Jackets)

Undersized and perhaps underestimated, Brindley is known for his solid skating and serious hockey motor on the ice. The Blue Jackets have a bit of a Michigan pipeline going here with Adam Fantilli and Kent Johnson already in Columbus, Ohio. Brindley is certainly on track to join them.

Seamus Casey, D (New Jersey Devils)

The rich are going to get richer in New Jersey if and when Casey makes the leap to the NHL. The Devils already have Michigan product Luke Hughes and Slovak standout Simon Nemec among their young defensemen. Casey will add another puck-moving dynamo to the mx, with 45 points in 38 games for the Wolverines in his second season with the team.

Frank Nazar, C (Chicago Blackhawks)

Drafted 13th overall in 2022, Nazar had 39 points in 38 games, showing off his natural playmaking skill for Michigan. It was a strong statement season after he missed most of 2022-23 following hip surgery.

Rutger McGroarty, F (Winnipeg Jets)

Last season, Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff said McGroarty made “great strides” as a Michigan freshman. This season, those strides became a full-on sprint for the Wolverines forward, with 52 points in 33 games. He also had five goals in seven games for the U.S. world junior team. Cheveldayoff has spoken with McGroarty’s reps about potentially joining the Jets after Michigan’s season is done.

UMass Minutemen

Michael Hrabal, G (Arizona Coyotes)

The Coyotes drafted Hrabal in the second round in 2023, taking a chance on a goalie with considerable size (6-foot-6) but who is still trying to find consistency as a young netminder (19). He had a .910 save percentage in 29 games for UMass, earning All-Hockey East second-team honors.

Scott Morrow, D (Carolina Hurricanes)

Hurricanes fans were thrilled when the team was able to land Pittsburgh star Jake Guentzel at the trade deadline without having to surrender Morrow. The third-year player at UMass had 30 points in 36 games this season. He has a big frame (6-foot-2) and is terrific in transition.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

Oliver Moore, F (Chicago Blackhawks)
Rhett Pitlick, F (Montreal Canadiens)
Jimmy Snuggerud, RW (St. Louis Blues)

Snuggerud’s dominant linemates from last season — Matthew Knies and Logan Cooley — graduated to the NHL, but he still popped 34 points in 37 games for the Gophers, with 21 goals scored for his second straight season.

That was thanks in part to his clicking with Pitlick, a junior left wing, and Moore, a freshman center. As of March 1, that line generated nearly 40% of Minnesota’s goals. Pitlick had 19 goals, which was second to Snuggerud on the team. Moore used his considerable speed to make a difference offensively as well.

Sam Rinzel, D (Chicago Blackhawks)

The 6-foot-4 defenseman had a strong freshman season at Minnesota (27 points in 37 games) and was part of the U.S. world junior championship team. He’s a prospect with a ton of potential, and this season he showed flashes of what the Blackhawks saw in drafting him 25th in 2022.

North Dakota Fighting Hawks

Jackson Blake, F (Carolina Hurricanes)

The son of former NHL scorer Jason Blake, the North Dakota sophomore had 59 points in 39 games to earn himself a Hobey Baker finalist nod. He’s a quick, fearless scorer who loves getting involved in the offensive end. A fantastic fourth-round find in 2021 for a smart NHL front office.

Maine Black Bears

Bradly Nadeau, LW (Carolina Hurricanes)

A Canadian-born scoring left wing at the University of Maine, eh?

OK, comparisons to Hall of Famer Paul Kariya probably aren’t fair to Bradly Nadeau, whom the Hurricanes drafted 30th overall in 2023. But the sharpshooting winger certainly made his mark for the Black Bears this season with 19 goals and 45 points in 36 games as a freshman.

His brother, Josh, had 45 points in 36 games this season after posting 110 points in 54 games with Penticton of the BCHL. The winger was undrafted entering his freshman year at Maine.

Wisconsin Badgers

Charlie Stramel, C (Minnesota Wild)

It’s easy to see what the Wild liked in Stramel, with his 6-foot-3 frame, physical game and playing a position of need (center) for the organization. Unfortunately, questions linger about his offensive production, with just three goals and five assists in 33 games for the 21st overall pick in the 2021 draft. How much of that was due to usage by Badgers first-year coach Mike Hastings and how much of that was Stramel?

Top NCAA free agents

Collin Graf, F, Quinnipiac

Graf played a key role in Quinnipiac winning its first Division I national championship last season, after transferring there from Union. He ran it back with the Bobcats and ended up a Hobey Baker finalist with 48 goals in 32 games. He attended the Nashville Predators development camp last summer.

The New York Rangers are among the teams interested in his services after the tournament. The Massachusetts native is easily the top NCAA free agent available.

Riese Gaber, RW, North Dakota

The 24-year-old center captained North Dakota this season, his fourth with the program. He followed up two straight 37-point seasons with a 34-point campaign. He’s undersized (5-foot-8) but plays relentlessly and flat out produces.

T.J. Hughes, F, Michigan

The 22-year-old Wolverine is only a sophomore, which means there’s not a guarantee he’ll be looking to make the leap. But with 44 points in 38 games — a second straight strong NCAA season — he’ll likely have a number of NHL teams curious if he is.

Jacob Quillan, C, Quinnipiac

Please recall the set play that Quinnipiac ran at the start of overtime in the national championship game to defeat Minnesota. Please recall that Quillan won the draw to start overtime and then scored the goal that ended it. He returned to the NCAA against this season, his third, and tallied 44 points in 37 games. He’s a 200-foot player and a strong penalty killer, skills that could transfer to the pro level.

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