College hockey operates a bit differently than football or basketball. In those sports, the top prospects get drafted out of college, which means players are older and further developed by the time they’re available. The NHL, on the other hand, drafts its players around age 18. Many of them then choose to head to college if they’re not ready for the pros.
This creates a bit of a different dynamic for fans because there are players in school whose rights are held by NHL teams. College sports are seen as important for the development of athletes in many sports, but the NHL is the only one of the big four American leagues that allows players to be drafted, then go to college.
That means NHL fans have an extra reason to tune into college hockey, even if their alma maters don’t ice Division I teams. There are sophomores who will go on to be NHL stars soon. Teams are surely keeping close tabs on the action to see how their top prospects are coming along on the road to the Frozen Four.
With that in mind, here’s a look at 25 of the top NHL prospects in college hockey for the 2017-18 season. This isn’t an exhaustive list, and it’s limited only to players who have already been drafted. For more college hockey coverage, check out SBN College Hockey.
Here’s who you should be keeping an eye on, sorted by school.
D Casey Fitzgerald, Sabres (No. 86 pick in 2016 NHL Draft)
Fitzgerald is one of the Sabres’ top defenseman prospects along with Brendan Guhle and Viktor Antipin. The 20-year-old enters his junior year at BC set to become team captain. He’s been productive over his first two seasons, although he saw a slight dip as a sophomore.
F Dante Fabbro, Predators (No. 17 pick in 2016 NHL Draft)
F Jordan Greenway, Wild (No. 50 pick in 2015 NHL Draft)
F Patrick Harper, Predators (No. 138 pick in 2016 NHL Draft)
F Shane Bowers, Senators (No. 28 pick in 2017 NHL Draft)
D David Farrance, Predators (No. 92 pick in 2017 NHL Draft)
D Chad Krys, Blackhawks (No. 45 pick in 2016 NHL Draft)
G Jake Oettinger, Stars (No. 26 pick in 2017 NHL Draft)
The Terriers are going to be loaded with good NHL prospects next season at all positions, even with big losses like Clayton Keller, Charlie McAvoy, and Kieffer Bellows from last year’s team.
Up front, they have Greenway, a 6’6 behemoth who could be one of the game’s next great power forwards, plus Harper and Bowers. On defense, they have captain Brandon Hickey, Fabbro, Krys, and Farrance. Oettinger is one of the top goalie prospects in the game. As usual, BU will be one of the must-watch teams in college hockey next season.
F Henrik Borgstrom, Panthers (No. 23 pick in 2016 NHL Draft)
D Ian Mitchell, Denver, Blackhawks (No. 57 pick in 2017 NHL Draft)
F Troy Terry, Denver, Ducks (No. 148 pick in 2015 NHL Draft)
Terry is likely familiar to American fans after his starring role for Team USA at the 2017 World Juniors. He passed on signing an entry-level deal with the Ducks this year, however, so he’s heading back to Denver for his junior year. Borgstrom and Mitchell are other prospects to watch on the Pioneers, who will look to defend their national championship without captain and Hobey Baker winner Will Butcher after he signed with the Devils.
D Adam Fox, Flames (No. 66 pick in 2016 NHL Draft)
Fox had one of the best freshman seasons in recent memory with six goals and 34 assists in 35 games with Harvard. He’s undersized and doesn’t display elite-level skating, which could stifle him at higher levels, but his success right out of the gate against older competition in college is hard to ignore. He’ll be leaned on heavily again by Harvard as a sophomore, and should be one of the most productive blueliners in the nation.
D Cale Makar, Avalanche (No. 4 pick in 2017 NHL Draft)
Speaking of freshman defensemen putting up numbers, Makar enters his first year at UMass with huge expectations after getting picked No. 4 overall in the 2017 NHL Draft. He’s one of the top prospects in all of college hockey and plays an offensive-minded style that should be ripe for big numbers. A lack of size is the biggest issue, but Makar should be a delight to watch.
F Josh Norris, Sharks (No. 19 pick in 2017 NHL Draft)
An incredible athlete who stood out at the pre-draft combine, Norris looks to turn around a Michigan program coming off its worst season in 31 years. He put up a point-per-game in the U.S. development program last season, and should get the opportunity to play in all situations as a two-way center.
F Casey Mittelstadt, Sabres (No. 8 pick in 2017 NHL Draft)
Another competitor for the title of “most talented player in college hockey,” Mittelstadt brings an incredible skill set to his native Minnesota. The combination of speed, vision, and finishing ability will stand out at the college level, even if he’s still a work-in-progress away from the puck. Mittelstadt has the potential to be one of the premier scorers in all of hockey in his prime.
F Joey Anderson, Devils (No. 73 pick in 2016 NHL Draft)
F Riley Tufte, Stars (No. 25 pick in 2016 NHL Draft)
D Dylan Samberg, Jets (No. 43 pick in 2017 NHL Draft)
Tufte entered college as the higher draft pick, but Anderson delivered the much better freshman season. The Devils’ third-round pick put up 12 goals and 37 points in 39 games with Minnesota-Duluth, which tied for second on the team. Tufte, a 6’5 power forward, recorded just 16 points in 37 games.
Samberg enters his freshman season now after the Jets picked him in the second round of the 2017 NHL Draft. He’s already got a pro frame (6’3, 190 pounds) at age 18 and could develop into a good defensive defenseman.
D Max Gildon, Panthers (No. 66 pick in 2017 NHL Draft)
Gildon is big and can skate, which gives him substantial upside even if he’s got a lot of development ahead of him. New Hampshire has senior Cam Marks back to lead the defense, but Gildon should have a shot at a sizable role.
F Adam Gaudette, Canucks (No. 149 pick in 2015 NHL Draft)
F Dylan Sikura, Blackhawks (No. 178 pick in 2014 NHL Draft)
A pair of lower draft picks who put together breakout 2016-17 seasons. Sikura went from 35 points in 64 games through his sophomore season to a monster 57 points in 38 games as a junior. Gaudette improved from 30 points as a freshman to 52 as a sophomore. They’re back again next season and should put up huge numbers.
Sikura, a senior, declined to sign an entry-level contract with the Blackhawks this offseason. He says he still intends to sign with the team next spring, but the door is now open for him to consider free agency in 2018 like Will Butcher and Alex Kerfoot did this year.
F Grant Mismash, Predators (No. 61 pick in 2017 NHL Draft)
The list of recent UND alumni is impressive: Jonathan Toews, Zach Parise, T.J. Oshie, Nick Schmaltz, Brock Boeser, Tyson Jost, Drew Stafford, and Travis Zajac are among current NHLers who played for the Fighting Hawks. They don’t have an elite NHL prospect this year, but Mismash could be a difference-maker as a freshman. With Boeser and Jost out of the way after signing NHL deals, the opportunity will be there.
F Denis Smirnov, Avalanche (No. 156 pick in 2017 NHL Draft)
The lack of size casts a cloud over his NHL upside, but Smirnov’s skill level on the wing stands out. He was dominant as a freshman with 19 goals and 47 points in 39 games, which compelled the Avalanche to take a shot on him with a sixth-round pick. Even if the physical limitations hold him back in the end, he should continue to put up numbers in college.
St. Cloud State
F Ryan Poehling, Canadiens (No. 25 pick in 2017 NHL Draft)
Poehling didn’t have an amazing freshman year at St. Cloud State, but it still convinced the Canadiens to use a first-round pick on him. He should be able to improve on his 13 points in 35 games in a big way as a sophomore, even if he projects more as a two-way center than a scoring phenom.
F Trent Frederic, Bruins (No. 29 pick in 2016 NHL Draft)
Frederic starred for the Badgers as a freshman with 33 points in 30 games, making the Bruins look good for using their 2016 first-round pick on him. He helped lead a turnaround to a 20-15-1 record under Tony Granato, a massive improvement from going 12-45-13 in the final two years under longtime coach Mike Eaves. Expect Frederic to play a big role again as a sophomore.