The end of the NCAA regular season has brought some of the NHL's top college prospects that much closer to the pro ranks. The NCAA free agent crop could be one of the best in several years, but there are plenty of notable already-drafted prospects as well. Now, much like Chris Kreider last season, there are several key names throughout the college ranks who are either close or potentially ready to make the jump to the NHL. It doesn't mean they'll turn pro and join the big club for this season, but based on my discussions with industry sources and my own observations, here is a look at some of the top NCAA prospects close to making an impact in the NHL.
Nick Bjugstad, C, Florida Panthers (Univ. of Minnesota-WCHA)
Bjugstad's return to Minnesota was interesting seeing as Florida had a spot open for him on their NHL club. Perhaps it was the result of the lockout, but the center certainly put the extra time to good use. Bjugstad really rounded out his game in his junior season and showed significant defensive value. Bjugstad's 6-foot-6, 220-pound frame has filled out to where he looks physically ready for the grind of the NHL and to be an asset in that aspect of the game right away. His offensive upside is great as he has really good hands and skating ability for a man his size to go along with a great shot. The production was simply good, with 36 points in 35 games, which indicative of the lack of consistency in Bjugstad's offensive game. And while he has the tools to take over a game, there are times he leaves you wanting. Though he has top-line potential, he likely will end up an above-average regular in the NHL. He could be in Florida next season or after Minnesota's postseason ends.
Danny Kristo, RW, Montreal Canadiens (Univ. of North Dakota-WCHA)
It seems like the Habs' second-round pick from 2008 has been around forever, partly due to the fact he played a USHL season before going to college. Kristo had a great season, tying for 3rd in scoring among drafted prospects with teammate Corban Knight (45 points in 34 games) and was one of the most dangerous offensive threats all season. Kristo lacks the physical tools to intimidate opponents, but he has high-end speed, puck skills and has developed his playmaking game into a significant weapon. He also shows the work ethic to help on defense and fight through checks, something he's worked on in college. Kristo turns 23 in June and is arguably ready to jump to the top level, although Montreal has a lot of good forwards on their team now.
Corban Knight, C, Florida Panthers (Univ. of North Dakota-WCHA)
Knight was just a great do-it-all player for North Dakota this season. On the offensive side of the puck his top-end vision and good hands lets him be an asset, and this was evident all year as he was atop the NCAA scoring race for most of the season. Knight's hockey sense is great in both ends. He won 57.6 percent of his faceoffs this season, leading the nation in faceoffs won at 525. The next best player had 463. Knight isn't a flashy player with World Junior experience like Danny Kristo, so sometimes he can go under the radar but these last two seasons he's emerged as a top-flight prospect. With Florida lacking weapons up front, if he signs with them he could potentially push for NHL time quickly.
Johnny Gaudreau, LW, Calgary Flames (Boston College-Hockey East)
Gaudreau tied for first in scoring among drafted NCAA prospects, and in terms of all underclassmen in college hockey his 46 points in 41 games led the pack, with no other drafted underclassmen scoring more than 36 this season. He's a clear top 100 drafted prospect outside the NHL with elite puck skills, great hockey sense and elusiveness to his game. With young players you're always looking at the physical element in their development when seeing if they can make the jump. At 5-8, 150 pounds Gaudreau still has room to fill out, but even when he does he's not going to be physically intimidating anytime soon. His hockey skills will be what bring him to the top level. While I would be a little hesitant at seeing Gaudreau at the top level next season due to his size, I wouldn't exactly be surprised if he made that jump should Calgary sign him after this season.
Jacob Trouba, D, Winnipeg Jets (Univ. of Michigan-CCHA)
Trouba was named "Best Defenseman" at the recent World Juniors, but his excellence was not just on display in Ufa, as he's been a top player at Michigan this season as a freshman and was named to the CCHA All-Conference team. There's an argument he was even the best defenseman in college hockey. Trouba is a great all-around prospect who brings high-end skating, physicality and defensive value to the table. What's been key for Trouba as some NHL sources have noted is that his offensive game is flourishing to where you combine it with his defensive abilities, he has all the looks of an elite prospect. He tied for 12th in the country in defenseman scoring, but was second in shots on goal. The latter is more predictive of offensive ability for defensemen in short seasons. You always have to be wary about projecting a U-20 defenseman into the NHL, and of course he has to sign a pro deal, but you wouldn't find me surprised if Trouba is a Jet within the next 12 months and at the very longest in 2014-15.
Erik Haula, C, Minnesota Wild (Univ. of Minnesota-WCHA)
Haula was the other co-leader with Gaudreau as the top scoring drafted prospect in the nation, and was fourth overall in total scoring. Haula, a junior, was a seventh-round pick by Minnesota in 2009, who went to the USHL for a season before going to play for the Gophers. Haula brings a little of everything to the table, with one NHL source praising his speed, hockey sense and defensive ability, but he's also a creative offensive player as well. For those who remember, Haula was second in team scoring on Finland's 2010-11 World Junior team. While he can stay in school for another season, aside from another season to get stronger, there's not much left for Haula at this level. He will likely turn pro following the end of this season and he may follow a fellow Wild prospect, Jason Zucker, with a quick trip to the top level.
Nick Jensen, D, Detroit Red Wings (St. Cloud State Univ.-WCHA)
Jensen was a fifth-round pick by Detroit in 2009 and has been a top offensive defenseman in the WCHA conference for the last three seasons. Among drafted prospects, Jensen was second in defense scoring this season behind Oilers prospect Joey Laleggia. Jensen is a very talented defenseman who can show above-average to plus mobility, puck skills and puck moving ability. His defensive game has been coming along and that area of his game is ok, but it won't be where his value comes from. Detroit's young defense situation is interesting, as they've brought Brendan Smith and Brian Lashoff up to the NHL this season, have Adam Almquist in the AHL, and will have Ryan Sproul and Xaiver Ouellet going pro next season. Jensen though will turn 23 next September and is far along enough in his development that, should he sign with the Red Wings, he could be an option next season for NHL time.
Other players who are close to NHL ready:
Anders Lee, C, New York Islanders
Zach Budish, RW, Nashville Predators
Nick Shore, C, Los Angeles Kings
If you have any questions about a player not profiled feel free to leave a comment and I will do my best to get back to you.
A version of this story originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
Corey Pronman is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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