October 22, 2010

Prospect Game Review: Massachusetts at Minnesota

Slow day in DC today, so I fired up the DVR and knocked this one out. I might get to another one before the day's over. The Golden Gophers barely scraped out a victory over UMass, 5-4, at home. The Isles' Aaron Ness figured prominently into this one, and I also got a chance to catch Michael Marcou again. Minnesota also sports a roster of several NHL draft picks. It was my first time seeing them since the end of last season.

Isles Prospects (2 players)

Aaron Ness (2nd round, 2008): Let me use this forum to say that Ness made the wrong decision (hockey-wise) in returning to Minnesota for his junior year. I ranked Ness #23 in the organization, partly because he hasn't done much at Minnesota to develop. He has made some substantial strides, but nothing like his college counterparts Jason Gregoire and Shane Sims. He has a world of talent, with several superior attributes: top-notch, wonderfully fluid skating; excellent decision-making in both ends; the ability to make a tape-to-tape pass; very intelligent stick work; and a good knowledge of positioning. He plays in all situations for Minnesota because he's their best defenseman by a pretty long margin-- he's on PP1, PK1, and the first pairing even-strength.

Though he's getting his minutes, Ness hasn't progressed very much because he needs to be challenged. Don't be fooled by the stats-- fire up Fox College Sports and watch him play a couple games. It doesn't look like he belongs anymore. Here's an example: Ness jumps deep into the play (as he usually does) to create a scoring chance, which ends with his teammate shooting the puck wide of the net. Normally speaking, in the pro game, Ness would be screwed; this is a situation analogous to what led to Sean Bergenheim's goal-scoring breakaway in Tampa last night. Not at the college level, though-- Ness is fast enough to skate right back into position, even as the opponent's forwards begin the rush. A two-on-one for UMass turns into a two-on-two, and Ness sticks away the cross-ice pass into the corner. Crisis averted. That play is subtle, but it signifies total domination regardless. That's just a microcosm of what he can do at this level now.

Ness has been ready for the pros since his freshman season. Garth Snow knows this, too; he's tried to sign Ness the past two off-seasons to no avail. I don't blame Ness for thinking that there's unfinished business in Gopher Land, considering they've had a ton of talent but Don Lucia's foibles behind the bench have probably been the primary reason why they haven't played in the Frozen Four. That's what drew Rhett Rakhshani back for one more year, also. Thing is, I'm not sure how badly Ness will hurt his development by hanging out in college far longer than he needs to.

Why is that? Because Ness needs to undertake a pro training program to get stronger. He gets knocked off the puck without much effort in the college ranks, and that's a problem. He can make up for it through pure skill here, but in the pros, it won't fly. When I met him at prospect camp, I'd peg him at about 165 pounds. He needs to pack on 25-35 over the next 2-3 years to hack it in the NHL. Time will tell. His bulk is the last impediment to what could be a very fruitful NHL career.

Michael Marcou (Prospect camp invite, 2009-2010): A local kid from Kings Park, Mike was invited to prospect camp this year, where I met him. His brother James, now with the San Jose Sharks' AHL team, was a standout at UMass and an Isles prospect camp regular. Jimmy earned a pro contract through stringing together a couple great seasons in Amherst, including an All-American nod. While he had an uninspiring start to his college career, Mike has improved to the point where I think he'll merit a pro deal also.

Mike is in his junior season, and he looks a lot better than he did as a scrawny freshman. He's only 5'11" but has probably put on some weight because he looks heavier than 158 nowadays. He plays a strong two-way game, and he notched a goal and an assist against a way more talented Minnesota squad. He gets primo minutes and wears the A for the Minutemen, who rely on him in every situation. He did really well on both the PP and PK, showing great positioning and stickhandling. His awareness is exceptional; he intercepted several passes, one of which led to a slapshot goal. He assisted on the goal with his own net empty to bring UMass to within one, and he triple-shifted to generate several scoring chances for the game-tying tally. Unfortunately for UMass, it wasn't to be.

Nevertheless, I walked away very, very impressed with this kid. Look for him to come back to Isles prospect camp in the summer, where I think he's gonna get a second look. Pro contract? Way too tough to say, especially if he's still less than 180 pounds, which simply won't cut it. But he's got the solid two-way game to make it in the AHL if he bulks up. He's one to keep an eye on.

Other Players

Cade Fairchild (4th round, 2007, St. Louis): Fairchild's another typical St. Louis draft pick as far as defensemen go, very strong in the offensive zone and simply adequate in his own. He follows in the footsteps of Pietrangelo, Rundblad, Cundari, Warsofsky, and others of that ilk. He's a senior now, and I see him getting signed once the smoke clears. He runs a PP particularly well.

Zach Budish (2nd round, 2009, Nashville): Our very own Anders Lee's teammate from Edina High School. One of my favorite players from the '09 Draft before it even happened, and he's done nothing to change that impression. He's a champ in front of the net, helping out on two Minnesota goals by eating up the crease area. He's a conscientious backchecker and makes it a point to hit people. He's a bit of a slow skater, but I think he'll be just fine once he hits the pros.

Jay Barriball (7th round, 2006, San Jose): Scored a natural hat trick in this game that was mostly created through the work of his teammates. Nice finisher, though. He's captain of the team, playing his fifth season because he got hurt last year. Probably in line for an ELC.

Nick Bjugstad (1st round, 2010, Florida): Good player. Noticeably large and fast. Very creative offensively. Only a freshman, so he's got a lot more in store for him. Let's hope his development doesn't go along the same trajectory as, say, that of Jordan Schroeder. Remarkably similar to fellow Minnesota first-rounder Brock Nelson (Isles' property).

Jacob Cepis (Undrafted senior): Nobody has his rights, probably because he's very undersized. Good spark plug, though. He might not ever make it because he's only 5'7", but after two USHL seasons, two years at Bowling Green, and another year at Minnesota, he enters his senior year a smart and accomplished player who makes sure he distinguishes himself every time out there. Might get a deal somewhere if he has another good season.

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