Little introduction required for this week’s column as McKeen’s Editor in Chief, Ryan Wagman, delivers an in-depth look at the NCAA Conference Playoffs. He also outlines the prospects that may have an NHL impact earning an entry level contract. Get comfortable for a great read and get ready for some excellent hockey this weekend.
We will return with our 2020 NHL Draft coverage next week with features from McKeen’s team members Brock Otten, Senior Canada/OHL Prospect Analyst and Jimmy Hamrin, Senior Europe/Sweden Prospect Analyst. At the end of this article we have listed all the 2020 NHL Draft eligible prospects we have already introduced to the readers of this column; with links for easy access. If you want to dive deeper, our team are scouting, analyzing and writing about prospects all season at www.mckeenshockey.com
Editor's Note: Drafting is only half the battle. Dominate all season long with our Season Pass! Use our NEW Lineup Adviser, get our Weekly and Rest-of-Season rankings and projections, track all of your players and more on your way to a championship! Click here for more!
NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues Tuesday with a clash between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Boston Bruins. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here!
PROSPECTS IN THE NEWS – NCAA CONFERENCE PLAYOFF PREVIEW and NHL CONTRACT WATCH
By Ryan Wagman, McKeen’s Editor in Chief/Senior US Prospect Analyst
The long preamble to the 2019-20 NCAA Hockey season is behind us and now the scramble for the 60 teams to be among the 16 standing (skating) in the Regionals is upon us.
For those unfamiliar with the American Collegiate hockey landscape, there are six conferences ranging in size from 7-12 teams, plus one program (Arizona State) that plays as an independent.
Each conference plays a year-end tournament and the six tournament winners are all given entry to the regional tournaments, which will play out between March 27-29. The other 10 teams in the Regionals will be determined by those with the highest Pairwise rankings who do not have automatic entries when the selections are made. It is fair to say that the Atlantic Hockey conference will only be represented by their conference champion, as their highest ranked team (Sacred Heart) comes in at #23 in the Pairwise. Independent ASU will also likely be invited for their first Regional, barring a series of upsets in every conference, thanks to their 13th spot ranking.
It is still way too early to speculate on anything else, barring noting the teams that have already been eliminated thanks to either not qualifying for their respective conference tournaments, or those that were eliminated in the first round of the Atlantic Hockey, ECAC, Big Ten, or WCHA conferences last weekend.
The other ancillary benefit of this period is that collegians start signing with NHL teams once their teams have been eliminated (not counted draft eligible free agents). After every subsequent team is eliminated, rumors abound about the likelihood of a given player on that team signing a deal. In fact, as I write this, two players who I will highlight below are heavily rumored to be signing (or to have already signed) with an NHL team today.
Let’s run through the NCAA conference-by-conference, noting who is still alive, who could make the Regionals without winning the conference, and potential NHL and the odd other tidbit of note. We will close with some potential (or factual) NHL signings among the already eliminated teams.
Atlantic Hockey is generally neglected by analysts because a) a non-conference tournament winner rarely gets into the Regionals, and b) there are generally only a couple of potential future NHLers in its ranks. At present, there are only three drafted players in the conference and two of those are almost certain to never sign an NHL contract, with the third being a longshot. Perhaps there is a free agent among this lot who can emerge like Joseph Duszak of Mercyhurst last year, before he signed with Toronto.
The first round played out over last weekend, without any surprise results, and the bottom three seeds – Canisius, Holy Cross, and Mercyhurst – all being eliminated. The Quarterfinals proceed this week, in a 1-8; 2-7; 3-6; 4-5 seeding format. The round will play out as a series of best-of-threes, all in the home rink of the higher seeded team.
- American International vs 8) Bentley
- Sacred Heart vs 7) Robert Morris
- RIT vs 6) Air Force
- Army vs 5) Niagara
As discussed above, the highest ranked team in the conference, via pairwise, is Sacred Heart at 23. In other words, no team other than the conference champion will reach the Regionals.
NHL Impact: negligible
A step up from Atlantic Hockey, although still an underdog to the big four conferences is the WCHA. This conference can often be expected to send two teams to the Regionals, sometimes including a top seed. The ten-team conference tournament includes the top eight teams, as the bottom two – Alabama-Huntsville and Ferris State – sitting out.
In the conference quarterfinals last week, the WCHA field was cut in half, with some mild upsets in the group. Of course, top seed Minnesota State took down Alaska Anchorage without mercy, winning two games by a combined 12-3 scoreline. Second seed Bemidji State surprisingly stuttered before eliminating seventh seed Lake Superior State in three games.
The other two matchups were upsets if we only look at the conference standings, but not at all surprising if we look at full 2019-20 records. 6th seed Michigan Tech knocked off 3rd seed Northern Michigan in two games, the latter of which went to triple overtime (I love playoff hockey). NMU was the better team in intra-conference games by points percentage (.595-.524), but MTU was far better overall by the same measure (.577-.526). Finally, Alaska-Fairbanks and Bowling Green had equal points percentages in conference play (.583) but AFU won the tiebreaker, even though Bowling Green was significantly better overall (.605-.514). Bowling Green knocked off AFU in two close games.
The semifinals run as a pair of best-in-threes this weekend, with Bemidji State hosting Bowling Green and Minnesota State hosting Michigan Tech. Regardless of the outcomes, Minnesota State will play at the Regionals. Bemidji State is not a lock but is not that far off and a trip to the Conference Finals could seal the deal. Any other Regional invite would require an underdog winning the conference tournament.
NHL Impact: Like with Atlantic Hockey, there are only a few drafted players developing in the WCHA, and of those four, one has already gone on to an amateur try-out in the ECHL, an indictment on his NHL chances if there ever was one. Where the WCHA has a clear advantage over AH is in getting players to the NHL or AHL as free agents. In as much as the pro aspirations for Nathan Smith of Minnesota State (Winnipeg) or Brandon Kruse of Bowling Green (Vegas) are legitimate, there is no shortage of others whose names have been suggested as having value as free agent signings for NHL teams.
Minnesota State has a couple of impact offensive forwards in Marc Michaelis and Parker Tuomie, both seniors, and both German nationals. Expectations is that they would return to the DEL if an NHL deal was not forthcoming. Other observers have also appreciated the all-around game of blueliner Connor Mackey, a junior, or right-shot senior blueliner Ian Scheid, who has a long history of offensive contributions. Additionally, goalie Dryden McKay, a sophomore, may only be listed at 6-0”, but it is hard to ignore a .942 save percentage, that after posting a .927 mark as a freshman.
There are a few names from the eliminated Northern Michigan that could be attached to NHL clubs in the near future in the form of defenseman Philip Beaulieu, right winger Darien Craighead, and versatile winger Vincent De Mey. The former two are graduates while De Mey just finished his sophomore campaign. Finally, I would be remiss not to mention big blueliner Alec Rauhauser of Bowling Green, the team captain who has put up big numbers in each year on campus.
The 12-team ECAC began its playoffs last weekend, allowing the top four seeds to sit out while the bottom two-thirds played a series of three game sets pitting 5-12; 6-11; 7-10; and 8-9. With one notable exception, the favorites all advanced. Fifth-seeded Harvard handily defeated 12-seed St. Lawrence. Eight-seed Colgate allowed only two goals in sweeping nine-seed Brown. Seven-seed Yale had to sweat against 10-seed Union, failing to score in the first game and finally being dragged to double overtime in the third game before a goal by unlikely blueliner Graham Lillibridge put them in the quarterfinals. Six-seed Dartmouth was not so lucky. The 11-seed, Princeton, had won only two conference games all season, but doubled that ignominious mark over the weekend, with a pair of overtime victories over the heavily favored Big Green.
The best-of-three quarterfinal series will start on Friday, with the following matchups:
- Cornell vs 11) Princeton
- Clarkson vs 8) Colgate
- Quinnipiac vs 7) Yale
- Rensselaer vs 5) Harvard
The final series is extra notable as it has been decreed that the series will be played without an audience due to the relative prevalence of COVID-19 in the area. Regardless of the outcome of the tournament, Cornell and Clarkson are assured of spots in the Regionals. Quinnipiac has a narrow chance if they make the semi-finals or finals and other breaks fall their way. Any other team in conference would need to win the ECAC tournament to make Regionals.
NHL Impact: Dartmouth is not known as a hockey hotbed, and the last NHLers of note from the program were the recently retired Ben Lovejoy, Lee Stempniak, and Tanner Glass. While there were no Big Green alums in the NHL in 2019-20, winger Drew O’Connor looks to follow in those footsteps soon, especially if the rumors about a contract with Pittsburgh come to fruition. A late bloomer who never really put up big numbers pre-college, he scored 17 times as a freshman and popped another 21 this year. He has an NHL frame and a knack for being in the right place at the right time to find loose pucks.
There are 32 drafted players in the conference, and I won’t list them all, but the rosters of Cornell, Quinnipiac, and Harvard are all particularly prospect-laden. Regarding the undrafted types. We will have to wait for Clarkson to finish their season. Centers Devin Brosseau and Josh Dunne both have pro attributes. I also wouldn’t sleep on 6-7” right-shot defender Connor McCarthy, who skates pretty well for his size and has the requisite big shot from the point. He took big steps (literally and figuratively) this year.
The conference also has some goalies of note in Frank Marotte of Clarkson, Owen Savory of Rensselaer, and Matthew Galajda of Cornell. Savory is pretty interesting, and he allowed more than one goal only two times in his last 13 games. All three are in the 6-0” – 6-1” range but stop pucks and could receive chances.