NASHVILLE — Minnesota rookie Thomas Vanek made his mark early in his first year in college hockey, proving before the holiday break that he was one of the nation’s top freshmen. But it wasn’t until the Frozen Four when Vanek scored game-winning goals against Michigan and New Hampshire to give Minnesota its second consecutive national title that the whole nation truly began to take notice.
Now, it is time for Vanek to reap his rewards.
Entering this weekend’s NHL Entry Draft, Vanek sits as the top collegiate prospect. Ranked third by the NHL Central Scouting Service (CSS), Vanek is thought to be a sure top-ten pick, a potential top-five, and if any luck holds with him, he could go in the top three.
Not bad for a kid from Graz, Austria, who didn’t make his way to the United States until three years ago.
Vanek was part of a freshman crop of players — all of whom will be on display Saturday as the Draft kicks off in Nashville — who comprised one of the most highly-regarded rookie classes the collegiate level has seen in years.
Joining Vanek were highly-touted forwards Zach Parise of North Dakota, son of former NHLer J.P. Parise, and Boston College’s Patrick Eaves, son of Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves. In the opening month of the season, these three players made headlines throughout the country, consistently finding their way to the scoresheet.
Ironically it was Vanek who got the least attention of the three prospects. Parise started out a house of fire, recording a hat trick and eight points in his first weekend of play, but cooled off later in the year. Eaves showed a solid scoring touch early, but was injured in December and missed the next 12 weeks of his season.
Over that time it was Vanek who made strides forward, eventually finishing the season with 31 goals and 31 assists, WCHA rookie of the year honors over Parise, and the NCAA Frozen Four Most Outstanding Player award. For good measure, his Golden Gophers also won the WCHA Tournament title and their second straight national championship.
Accompanying that success was an elevator-like ride towards the top of the CBS ranking, eventually leveling out at third among North American forwards and defensemen.
But with Vanek’s rise to the top, one can’t ignore the play and potential for his counterparts.
Parise is another top prospect, ranked ninth by CSS, Parise is a lock in the first round and has been predicted by some to go in the top 10. His 26 goals and 61 points paced North Dakota this year to a fourth-place finish in the WCHA which is more than respectable considering some felt the team had multiple holes at the season’s start.
Joining Vanek and Parise at the top of the Draft’s elite is incoming freshman Ryan Suter. Already committed to attend Wisconsin, the son of former Olympian Bob Suter and nephew of well-known NHLer Gary Suter was ranked seventh by CSB. Some experts, including the Hockey News believe that Suter could be the top collegiate prospect taken.
The comparison between the three is actually quite interesting. Vanek has had a chance to prove himself on a national stage and took the opportunity in April’s Frozen Four. But some scouts knock the Gopher rookie for his lack of focus and often-times so-so attitude.
At 5-foot-11, Parise gets the automatic knock for size, but as some scouts have pointed out, that never effected his father at the game’s top level.
Still, that leaves Suter with little-to-no blemish on his record. His peed and skill place him near the top of many scouts’ lists and his performance at both the Under-18 and World Junior Championships, if anything, bolstered his stock value.
The top trio of collegians will no doubt be the top story come Draft Saturday. But that’s not all we’ll be talking about.
Below these three rests a solid crop of U.S. college players with potential early-round impact. Ohio State’s Ryan Kessler, Colorado College’s Mark Stuart, Michigan’s Jeff Tambellini, Dartmouth’s Hugh Jessiman, and Maine’s Jimmy Howard all have solid first-round potential. Add into that mix two of BC’s top prospects — the younger Eaves and incoming frosh Brian Boyle — and college hockey could see its most successful first-round ever.
The thought of all 10 prospects being first rounders is, without a doubt, a long shot. But CBS rankings show it could be possible. Kessler is ranked 16th, Stuart 17th, Jessiman and Tambellini take 20 and 21 respectively, Howard is second among goaltenders, and Eaves and Boyle fall as dark horses at 31 and 34 respectively.
The truth lies that likely Kessler, Stuart, Jessiman and Tambellini are borderline first-round locks. Howard poses the biggest question mark having struggled at the World Junior tournament and then finished an incredibly successful rookie campaign at Maine with a whimper, winning just two of his final nine starts.
Eaves and Boyle will both lock into dark horse roles, with Eaves a high prospect despite playing only 14 games (scoring 10 goals and eight assists) due to injury, and Boyle a non-proven player, opting into the Draft as an 18-year-old out of well-known St. Sebastian’s (Mass.) high school.
These 10 become this year’s truest top ten, with little or no supporting cast ready to take their place in the early round. Should the game’s biggest upset ring true and all 10 be drafted in the first round it would be a never-before matched accomplishment. To date, the highest number of first round collegiate selections is eight.
Regardless, this year’s draft is already designed as a college hockey fan’s dream. Now the only thing left to do is watch.