Western Michigan's Dan DeKeyser leads the way among free agent prospects - GS Photo/WMU Athletics
Three defenseman lead the way among top free agent prospects in the CCHA and WCHA
With the season winding down, it's a good time to look at which undrafted NCAA players may go on to become the next Matt Read, or Chris Kunitz, or Jason Garrison. As usual, there are some excellent candidates in the CCHA and WCHA this year, in a class that seems long on some very good, very big defensemen. Here's the list:
1. Dan DeKeyser, Junior, Defense, Western Michigan
DeKeyser was one of the top NHL free agents targets last summer, fielding offers from nearly every NHL team, but chose to return to Western Michigan for his junior season, and the extra year of development hasn't hurt his stock at all. DeKeyser doesn't bring a lot in the way of offensive upside, so his 2 goals and 10 assists through 27 games this season doesn't look impressive, but DeKeyser is a solid 6'3" 198 lbs. and an excellent skater that plays very solid shutdown defense. DeKeyser should have his choice of NHL teams again this summer, though the Detroit Red Wings seem to be the front-runner for his services.
2. Andrej Sustr, Junior, Defense, Nebraska-Omaha
Sustr is a player that stands out immediately when playing simply because he is 6'8". His enormous size has made him a bit of a late bloomer, but he's begun to show the skating ability necessary to play in the NHL. He's not a punishing, physical defender, but does possess pretty soft hands for a player of his size, and makes a nice first pass out of the zone. He's scored 20 points through 30 games this year, including eight points on the power play.
3. Nate Schmidt, Junior, Defense, Minnesota
Schmidt leads all NCAA defensemen in scoring with eight goals and 20 assists so far on the season. His best asset is his rocket shot from the point on the power play, and he's been an effective distributor of the puck, helping the Gophers to one of the nation's best power plays. But what gets lost with all those points is how much Schmidt has improved on the defensive end in the past year. If he can play passable defense and take advantage of his canon shot, he has the potential to be an effective NHL player.
4. Eriah Hayes, Senior, Forward, Minnesota State
Hayes is a 6'4" 210 lbs. power forward with good goal scoring touch around the net. Hayes showed flashes of NHL potential in his first three seasons, catching the eye of the Chicago Blackhawks, who have invited him to their prospect camps in recent years, but struggled to show potential consistently. This year, Hayes has scored 16 goals and 12 assists through 30 games, including a nation-leading 10 power play goals, and has never been afraid to mix things up physically, showing that he might have a future as a presence in front of the net at the NHL level.
5. Ryan Walters, Junior, Forward, Nebraska-Omaha
Walters doesn't have overwhelming size, generously listed at at 6'0" 188 lbs, but he's been the most dangerous scoring threat in the NCAA this season, with a nation-leading 42 points through 30 games. He's a decent skater with great hands and offensive instincts. Walters has toned things down physically this year because he's been so valuable offensively, but can play with a nasty streak if need be.
6. Shayne Taker, Junior, Defense, Notre Dame
Taker is a late-developing player that was originally committed to play for Sacred Heart before Notre Dame saw the potential in the 6'4" 201 lbs. defensive defenseman. Taker is never going to be a flashy player, but does provide safe, reliable, and physical defense.
7. Austin Czarnik, Sophomore, Forward, Miami
Czarnik was passed over in the draft due to his lack of prototypical NHL size at just 5'9" 160 lbs. But it's difficult to ignore the type of production he's put up in his two years of NCAA hockey. He's backed up last year's 37 point campaign with 30 points in his first 30 games this year. Czarnik has a lot of speed and great hockey instincts that may allow him to survive against the physical rigors of the NHL.
8. Alex Krushelnyski, Senior, Forward, Colorado College
Krushelnyski was a player barely on the radar heading into this season, but has had an incredible year. Krushelnyski has 32 points through 30 games this year, including 28 points at even strength. He's the nation's third best scorer at even strength behind Walters and Boston College's Johnny Gaudreau. There's nothing flashy about his game, but he's the type of player that wins battles and rarely makes a mistake. He has the type of tools to be an effective bottom line player in the NHL.
9. Drew Leblanc, Senior, Forward, St. Cloud
Leblanc returned to St. Cloud for a fifth year after missing nearly all of last year with a broken leg, and has shown no ill effects from the injury, already besting his career-high 39 points scored as a junior. Leblanc will have to become more conscious on the defensive end at the pro level, but his ability to distribute the puck is nearly unparalleled in the college game.
10. Kellen Lain, Junior, Forward, Lake Superior
Lain is a bit of a project, but he stands at 6'6" 220 lbs. and has scored 6 goals and 7 assists in 23 games this year for the low-scoring, defensive-minded Lakers. Lain has skated in prospect camps for the Anaheim Ducks and Detroit Red Wings, and it seems likely that some team will be intrigued by his size and skill.
11. Rylan Schwartz, Senior, Forward, Colorado College
While never quite as dynamic as younger brother Jaden, Schwartz has always been a dangerous offensive player in his own right. He's having a very strong final campaign, with 35 points through 30 games this year, and his playmaking abilities could be valuable for some NHL club.
12. Kenney Morrison, Freshman, Defense, Western Michigan
Morrison still has a ways to go before he's ready for the NHL, but the potential is enormous. Morrison has good size at 6'2" 198 lbs., and has the offensive ability, including a booming slap shot, to quarterback a power play. He needs to make big strides on the defensive end, but has slowly been picking up that part of the game under the tutelage of former NHL head coach Andy Murray.
13. Chris Casto, Sophomore, Defense, Minnesota-Duluth
Casto seemed like a lock to leave school as a top free agent target heading into the season, but a rough second year has caused his stock to drop a bit. Casto is 6'3" 210 lbs. and moves really well for a player of his size. If he can develop into a shutdown defender, he'll be a highly prized free agent target.
14. Wade Epp, Junior, Defense, Northern Michigan
Epp is a 6'4" 210 lbs. defensive defenseman that the Edmonton Oilers invited to their development camp last year.
15. Mike Boivin,Senior, Defense, Colorado College
Boivin is an offensive defenseman that has been a rock on the power play for the Tigers this year. Colorado College has a long history of getting offensive defensemen into the NHL including players like Mark Stuart, Jack Hillen, Nate Prosser, and Tom Preissing.