Hey, is anything controversial going on in the prospect world right now? Oh right, the Team USA world junior apocalypse. Here’s the thing: there will always be talented players left off camp rosters and second-guessing if the team doesn’t win. In the case of Minnesota first-rounder Alex Tuch, he hadn’t impressed as a sophomore at Boston College this year. With Toronto pick Jeremy Bracco, USA Hockey views him as an offense-only player – whether you agree with that assessment or not, it’s the mark he was given. But instead of dwelling on the negative, let’s get to the positives, shall we?
Brady Skjei, D – Hartford Wolf Pack (AHL): The New York Rangers haven’t drafted very often lately – going for Stanley Cups can have that effect – so prospects such as Skjei become all the more important. The top-scoring blueliner on a weak Hartford team, Skjei is playing well in his first full pro season after living his NCAA dream for three seasons at the University of Minnesota.
“I had been going to games since I was five and ever since I was that age I wanted to be a Gopher,” Skjei said. “So when I had a chance to commit there, it was a pretty easy decision.”
Once his junior campaign was finished, Skjei hooked up with the Wolf Pack, where he played 23 games last year (split between the regular season and playoffs). The jump from college to pro is a big one, even for a gifted skater such as Skjei.
“The first two lines are really smart players that can make plays that a lot of college guys can’t make,” he said. “You have to think the game more and play more physical.”
Off the ice can also be an adjustment for youngsters, but Skjei was more than happy to ride the buses when he first got to Hartford – especially since the trips at that point in the season weren’t too long. But the ultimate goal of course is to have him in New York blue. Funny enough, the former Gopher has a role model in Ryan McDonagh, the Rangers star who played for Wisconsin – Minnesota’s hated rival.
“He’s very good at every situation in the game,” Skjei said. “He’s a great skater and leader. He’s a guy I definitely look up to.”
And perhaps in the near future, Skjei will look at him on the other end of the blueline.
In the Pipeline
Mikko Rantanen, RW, (Colorado): With the world juniors just weeks away, Rantanen is heating up at the best time possible. The Finnish power forward with the sizzling shot has been great since finding his footing with the AHL’s San Antonio Rampage: he has six points in his past four games and is a top-20 scorer overall.
Mitch Marner, RW, (Toronto): “White-hot” may be the best way to describe Marner right now. The elite producer and creative wizard was named OHL player of the week on the strength of 11 points in three games for the London Knights. Marner is now tied with buddy Christian Dvorak for the OHL scoring lead with 58 points through 25 games.
Luke Opilka, G (St. Louis): There is a lot of uncertainty for Team USA when it comes to goaltending due to down years from pre-season favorites Brandon Halverson and Alex Nedeljkovic. So Opilka’s quick maturation could give the OHL Kitchener starter a boost at WJC camp. The Rangers netminder has some of the best stats in the league right now.
Will Borgen, D, (Buffalo): Borgen wasn’t even at Team USA’s summer camp in Lake Placid, but his play with the St. Cloud State Huskies made him tough to ignore. A great skater who plays with an edge, Borgen has made an immediate impact as an NCAA freshman and has seven assists through 16 games.
Brandon Carlo, D (Boston): Other than Zach Werenski, there aren’t many sure things for Team USA’s blueline, but Carlo is basically a lock thanks to his size, reach and focus on the defensive side of the game. The WHL Tri-City product is also a returnee from last year’s squad, which usually helps.
2016 Draft Stars
Vitalii Abramov, RW – Gatineau Olympiques (QMJHL): I wanted to wait a bit on Abramov, since he’s undersized and got a lot of points before most NHL draft picks had returned to the ‘Q.’ But after speaking with scouts, I’m feeling like he’s the real deal. Abramov is an excellent playmaker and isn’t afraid to go to the hard areas. He’s still Gatineau’s top threat with 44 points in 31 games.
Cam Morrison, RW – Youngstown Phantoms (USHL): Morrison, a Notre Dame commit, is having one heckuva breakout season for the Phantoms. The Canadian power forward is now one of the top scorers in the USHL with 12 goals and 25 points in 21 games.
Jacob Neveu, D – Rouyn-Noranda Huskies (QMJHL): The Huskies are still a juggernaut in the ‘Q’ and it’s not all coming from offense. The team can keep the puck out, too, and that’s where Neveu comes in. A shutdown defenseman and coach’s dream, the blueliner plays against top lines and is willing to sacrifice his body in any situation.
Matt Filipe, C – Cedar Rapids RoughRiders (USHL): The Northeastern commit has a tantalizing blend of speed, skill and nastiness and he’s hot right now. Playing for a top Cedar Rapids squad, Filipe is in the midst of a seven-game point streak that helped him garner USHL Forward of the Week honors last week.
Injury Report: First he was going to play for the U.S. Then, the IIHF told the dual citizen that he had to play for Canada. Now St. Louis pick Jake Walman won’t play for anybody after hurting his shoulder during a recent game against Merrimack. It’s been an interesting year to say the least for the Providence College defenseman.