Commentary: Scouting the Frozen Four for future NHL talent

Thursday’s Frozen Four games feature 80 players that have all achieved a high level of proficiency at the NCAA level. Who among this group could turn out to be the best prospects for a long and successful career in the NHL? Here is a look at who has the best chance to be playing on your TV sets for the next decade or so in the National Hockey League.

The best NHL prospect of the group, not surprisingly, is Chris Kreider of Boston College. A 6-foot-2, 215-pound junior, Kreider was the first pick of the New York Rangers, 19th overall in 2009. Since then he has become at times the most dominant player in college hockey.

Where Kreider has shown his NHL capability is in his international play. His play under Dean Blais at the 2010 World Junior Championship in Saskatoon, helping lead Team USA to a gold medal, was a performance that will live on for many years in the annals of USA Hockey. He was asked to play for Team USA in the World Championships that spring, and he wasn’t out of place among pro players from around the world.

In 2011, Team USA lost to Canada in the semifinal game and didn’t look good doing it. Kreider took the heat after the game in a postgame interview. Much like Phil Esposito did after Game 4 in Vancouver in the 1972 Summit Series, Kreider challenged his teammates to play a bigger and better game next time out. That was against Sweden and his team responded by winning the bronze medal and he was the Americans’ best player with a pair of goals. It was a leadership moment no one seems to remember but a defining moment in who Kreider is and can be at the next level once he gets assimilated there. He is accountable, and that is a huge part of being a great pro.

Kreider has speed, with his coach Jerry York telling me he is the fastest player he has ever coached at BC, and that is saying a lot. He has an NHL release on his wrist shot and can place it very well. He’s an excellent special teams player especially on the power play, where he can either play the point, the right wing half wall or the slot. His slot game on the power play was huge in Saskatoon. Blais was the first one to utilize him in that role and it was hugely successful experiment from the get-go.

There is one New York Rangers player Kreider reminds me of. I’d never compare any player to Mark Messier but Kreider does a lot of things that Messier did style-wise that draws that comparison. First is his speed and strength of stride. Kreider’s first three steps are as explosive as any player in the NCAA. He can recruit strength in his stride like an NHL player. Second is his ability to use his wrist shot as a weapon. Quick release, heavy shot, deceptive in its path to the net that can keep a goalie off balance. Messier was more of a threat from the off wing with his wrister than Kreider is but as he matures as a player Kreider could be a dominant three-lane player offensively at the NHL level. Kreider, like Messier, has that ability to see the offensive is starting and instantaneously put on the afterburners and go.

Kreider has become a better defensive player in his days at BC and a large part of that has been because of assistant coach Mike Kavanaugh. Kreider is a quiet and honest kid but has really developed into a great teammate, and that reflects his maturity as a person and his experience at both the NCAA and international levels. Kreider was playing Massachusetts public high school hockey when BC goalie coach Mike Logue told Kavanaugh to go see him. It wasn’t until Kreider got to prep school that Kavanaugh saw him but all were sold and he became an Eagles player. This is a kid who developed in the prep school system of Massachusetts.

Kreider is a player that should be a top-six forward, eventually an all-star, and a longtime successful NHL player following what is a terrific college career. He heads into the weekend with 90 points in 112 career NCAA games, a national title, three Beanpot titles, gold and bronze medals at the WJC, Hockey East playoff championships and Hockey East regular season championships. He has been a winner at every level; that trend will continue.

After Kreider, two players jump out as guys that can have long and successful NHL careers. One is Billy Arnold of BC and the other is Nick Bjugstad of Minnesota.

These two, like Kreider, have had success at the international level in the World Juniors. Bjugstad won bronze last year in Buffalo and both were part of the unsuccessful venture this past year in Edmonton, but Arnold was really good in the tournament for all the same reasons he has been good at BC.

I’ll start with Arnold. My feeling is that he, Maine’s Matt Mangene and Notre Dame’s Billy Maday were the top three defensive forwards in college hockey this season. Where Arnold succeeds is that he is effective in all three zones on both sides of the puck. He has 17 goals and 17 assists this season and 27 goals and 27 assists in 79 career games, remarkable balance but not surprising for him. He can score a big goal as evidenced in his Beanpot OT winner but is just as capable of quietly setting up a great scoring chance or eliminating a chance from happening in his own end.

Where Arnold stands out is in his combination of hockey sense, speed and skill. He can process the game quickly and sort out well under pressure but he can also slow the game down. Good stick, head on a swivel, and a nice ability to put a puck in a good spot for teammates are all hallmarks of his game and requirements for success at the next level.

Arnold has good size for a No. 2 or 3 centerman at the next level at 6-foot, 210 pounds and he is in much better shape physically this season than he ever was. His commitment to fitness and conditioning were a huge part of why he has taken two steps this season as a player who wants to be a bona fide NHL player.

His trademark is his faceoffs and it is obvious that Blais trusted him at the WJC and York does at BC with big defensive-zone draws. His quick hands, string-on-his-stick ability and his compete level on draws are noticeable.

Arnold wears No. 24 as a tribute to his dad’s idol growing up, former Boston Bruins player Terry O’Reilly. When looking at leftover jerseys for a youth team Billy Arnold made, Dave Arnold took 24 for his son and told him that O’Reilly might not have been the most talented player but was one that always worked hard, never took a shortcut and stood up for his teammates. Most of all, he represented the get-your-nose-dirty attitude you needed to be successful in hockey. Arnold has all of that in his game and it continues to manifest. Add in his skill and you have a great prospect for many reasons.

Arnold was a fourth-round choice of Calgary, 108th overall, in 2010.

Next up is Bjugstad, who at 6-foot-4, 205 pounds is still growing and can be a dominant player at times. Injuries have nagged at him this season but when healthy he is a combination of sheer physical force and deceptive finesse.

Bjugstad might not project as a scorer at the next level according to some veteran scouts I talk to, especially ones in Minnesota that have seen him his whole career. However, when you watch Bjugstad play you see someone that, A, has as good a wrist shot as anyone and, B, for a guy his size has good hands and puck skills especially in tight spaces. He is one of those rare players that is really big but can play in tight spaces and be effective. His puck protection skills are tremendous. He likes to hit and enjoys the physical game. The earlier in a game he gets physically engaged the better game he plays. With him, contact and confidence seem to go together.

Bjugstad can play a multi-dimensional game offensively. He likes to go get loose pucks, is good on the walls and is comfortable either in a rush-type offensive or in an offensive setup. He’s a good special teams player and, like Kreider, can play the point or down low in a man advantage.

His hockey sense is good and still improving, and when he plays on an NHL sheet full-time you’ll see his reaction time in his own zone get that much better to complement how much room he can cover so quickly (his home rink is Olympic size at Minnesota).

His trademark is his shot. His uncle Scott, a former Gophers player, U.S. Olympian and NHLer, owns a shooting school near Minneapolis and Nick is there often to work with Scott on breaking down the mechanics of his shot and improving it through repetition and strengthening drills. His wrist shot is a lethal weapon and he can get it off quickly and doesn’t need a great angle to the net to make it a dangerous scoring chance.

Enjoy the games Thursday. You have almost 20 NHL drafts in the late game. In the early game you have some free agents like Troy Grosenick, Jeremy Welsh, Brett Wysopal and Jordie Johnston. Nate Schmidt of Minnesota is a great free agent that NHL teams are watching. We’ll see a few of these guys in the NHL at some point.