2017-18 Sabres prospects NCAA preview

While European and North American junior leagues are already ramping up, we're still a little bit away from the October start of NCAA action. We won't see any of these players at the Prospects Challenge or in training camp, but let's take a look at what to expect from the Sabres' dozen student-athletes that will playing Division I college hockey in 2017-18.

Big Ten

All eyes in Sabreland this season will be on Casey Mittelstadt.

Scouts are raving about him after his dominating performance at the World Junior Summer Showcase. Fans have been loving what he's done in a Minnesota pro summer league. The media is now on board.

The one Sabres fans are calling #Mittelstudt is ready to take college hockey by storm as a true freshman with the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers.

The Gophers always have a boatload of talent on their roster, so there are some decent options available to coach Don Lucia with how to best leverage Mittelstadt's talents, especially when noting that the top two pivots from last season, Justin Kloos (MIN) and Vinni Lettieri (NYR), have been lost to graduation.

Senior winger Leon Bristedt could certainly use a new playmaker on the second line, but the ideal spot for Mittelstadt is on the top unit smack dab between 2016-17 leading point-getter Tyler Sheehy and sophomore sniper Rem Pitlick (NSH).

In addition to leading even-strength minutes, I'd let Mittelstadt work the left wall on the power play just as he was used when shredding the competition for Team USA at the World Junior Summer Showcase.

I've set the bar at a fairly high but reasonable 45 points. If Mittelstadt can get to that number as a freshman, it'll basically serve as statistical proof that he's ready to skip out of Dinkytown and make the jump to the pro ranks in 2018-19.

I'm aware that some fans are talking about a potential Hobey Baker campaign. If it happens, great for Mittelstadt. In reality, his primary focus is competing every night, keeping Minnesota atop the B1G standings, and helping the Gophers achieve the mission of winning their first NCAA Championship since 2003, when Thomas Vanek guided them to the title in Buffalo.




Notre Dame forward Connor Hurley is ready to go for his final season of collegiate hockey in one which sees Notre Dame make their B1G debut.

Four seasons ago, Hurley was piling up points alongside Nick Schmaltz (CHI) at the World Junior "A" Challenge. That unstoppable duo has since gone in different directions. Schmaltz has moved on to NHL success, while Hurley has had some nice bursts with Notre Dame, en route to amassing 48 points (14+34) in 98 career games, but overall has battled consistency when needing to pay a price to make a play.

The size, vision and passing skills are all in play. Hurley was getting into a decent playmaking rhythm last season before his junior campaign was ended prematurely due to an undisclosed issue. He finished the season with four goals and 16 points while playing in roughly half of the Fighting Irish's contests. When projected out to a full season, he would've been the team's third-lading scorer among forwards.

The door is not closed for Hurley as far as the Sabres are concerned, but he'll likely need to grab the Irish's top-line center spot, excel at the point on the power play, and basically double his career-to-date point totals by surpassing 15 goals and 45 points in order to reaffirm his position as a legitimate pro prospect.

EDIT 9/5/17: Hurley has transferred to Minnesota. He'll sit out 2017-18 due to NCAA transfer rules and will have one year of eligibility remaining. 

Linus Weissbach, chosen in the seventh round in 2017, enrolls at the University of Wisconsin for his freshman campaign coming off a 2016-17 season that saw him lead the USHL's Tri-City Storm with 19 goals and 47 points in 49 games.

Where Weissbach slots in remains to be seen. The Badgers return three of the top-four scorers from last year's 20-win squad in Trent Frederic (BOS), Cameron Hughes (BOS) and Seamus Malone, but after that the forward spots could be wide open. It's fair to think the Weissbach's speed can be an asset on the middle lines out of the gate.

Weissbach, one of nine NHL draft picks in Madison this season, is the fourth Badger ever to be selected by the Sabres, following in the footsteps of Jake McCabe (2012), Brad Navin (2011) and Doug MacDonald (1989).

Penn State forward Brett Murray settles in for his sophomore season as one of five drafted players on the roster following his second-semester enrollment last January and subsequent 12-game adjustment period.

Murray has the hulking frame and power-forward tools to become an impact player for the up-and-coming PSU program, but still just 19 years of age, he's likely going to need a little more time to master the pace of the college game and find his true offensive range.

With that said, Murray should get plenty of opportunities to find his role on the team. Just five of the Nittany Lions' forwards are upperclassmen. He is one of 10 sophomores dotting the PSU roster at all positions, a class that includes the team's leading scorer from last season, Denis Smirnov (COL).

I'd prefer to lay off a statistical projection, instead setting a primary goal of improving in each weekend block of games leading up the holiday break and inching his way to becoming a key piece on what should be an exciting program to watch over the next two seasons.

NCHC

Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill didn't draft defenseman Will Borgen, but you can bet he'd love to have him in the fold.

Borgen, who is entering his third year of college, will engage what should be his final season of collegiate hockey as a reliable two-way leader for the always-tough Huskies program.

Coning off a 2016-17 season that saw him named one of three finalists for NCHC Defensive Defenseman of the Year, Borgen was already well on track for a key role with his mobile, physical style, and with Dennis Cholowski (DET) bolting for an NHL contract and continuation of his development with Prince George of the WHL, the soon-to-be 21-year-old will see even more key minutes in all situations and gain more experience on the power play.

A higher end prospect for the Sabres, Borgen is a simple defenseman with a simple mission for the season ahead: Continue to own your space and flash into the zone, and eliminate the unforced errors.

When St. Cloud State senior Judd Peterson was drafted June 23, 2012, Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" was starting its nine-week run atop the Billboard Hot 100, the Cubs were 24-47, Jack Eichel was a year away from his driver's license, and Twitter was still cool.

Peterson, who will be a 24-year-old senior this season, scored 16 goals two years ago as a sophomore and started hot last season with nine markers in his first 16 games. He faded away from there, though, scoring just twice in 18 games after the holiday break.

EDIT 9/23/17: It was learned in late September that Peterson was dealing with a nagging hip injury that required surgery in April

In his sixth post-draft season, and at an age I normally move prospects to "graduated" status, Peterson needs to dominate in order to garner NHL looks. He's a collegiate product, which helps him considering Jason Botterill's propensity for that development route, but when I say dominate I'm thinking 25 goals minimum.



Hockey East

Boston College defenseman Casey Fitzgerald enters his third season on Chestnut Hill looking to prove that he's among the elite players in the conference while serving as a tri-captain for the high-flying Eagles attack.

A confident defender, Fitzgerald upped his profile as part of Team USA's gold medal win at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship, yet he went backwards statistically with 22 points (5+17), five fewer than his freshman total.

Fitzgerald is an offensive defenseman by trade. Aside from working on his acceleration and increasing his straight-line speed, the primary goals this season are very straight forward.
1) Eclipse the 30-point benchmark, and 2) get back into the top-five in scoring among Hockey East defenders just as he did as a freshman.

While Fitzgerald went backwards in his offensive numbers last season, Boston College teammate Christopher Brown was the polar opposite as a top-six forward fixture, moving the needle from two goals and 11 points as a freshman to nine goals and 26 points as a sophomore despite missing six games due to mono.

Brown, who will join Fitzgerald as one of three Eagles captains, will once again play a prominent role in what should be a breakout season for the 21-year-old. With BC's top five scorers from last season gone, Brown's returns as the leading point producer from last year's club.

Brown continuing the trend by getting to 15 goals and 35 points is certainly within the realm of possibility, especially if he earns the expected power play time and remains opposite steady linemate David Cotton (CAR) to keep the chemistry flowing from his sophomore year.

Providence defenseman Jacob Bryson was a pleasant surprise last season, finishing third among Hockey East freshmen defensemen with 20 points, and sixth among all NCAA freshman defenders with 17 helpers.

With a year of experience under his belt and Jake Walman out the door to the St. Louis Blues, the London, Ont. product is set to take on a much bigger role as the top returning defenseman for Nate Leaman's Friars.

What we saw from Bryson last season was a defender with a good handle on the puck, especially on the power play, where he could circulate it at ease. In fact, half of Bryson's points last season came with the man advantage.

What we're looking for this season out of the undersized Bryson is more speed and quickness. Adding a step to his skating should be the key to better management of his defensive zone responsibilities. He'll cover more space and close gaps more quickly. From there he'll be able to focus on improving his body and stick positioning.

As Bryson ratchets up his defensive game, strides will need to be taken up ice as well. He has a nice offensive skill set and an impressive wrist shot, but he'll want to shoot the puck more often. If there is one benchmark I'd like to see Bryson surpass this season, it'd be 85 total shots on goal. He should easily hit the mark given the minutes he's expected to play.

Following a quick ramp-up in the USHL with Madison and switching his commitment away from Wisconsin due to academic concerns, defenseman Philip Nyberg landed at Connecticut in January and was given an immediate top-four assignment with power play and penalty killing duties. He ended up playing just shy of half of the Huskies' games, notching six points (1+5) in 16 outings to finish second among team defenders in points-per-game.

With the adjustment period behind him, Nyberg is poised to re-join Joe Masonius (PIT) on the top defensive pair as the Huskies look to become a .500 (or better) squad for the first time since joining Hockey East in 2014-15.

Nyberg has his marching orders in terms of showing more command with the puck. Statistically, I'd be comfortable with a four-goal, 14-assist campaign, which would put him at roughly half a point a game as a sophomore.

As the Cale Makar (COL) era begins at UMass, third-year defender Ivan Chukarov could be one of the many beneficiaries if the Minutemen staff are looking to pair their freshman gem with an experienced left-handed stick.

The co-recipient of the Craig Ramsay Award as the hardest working player at the Sabres 2016 Development Camp, Chukarov produced two goals and six points last season as a middle-pair defender for a team that won just five of their 36 games. He'll have some competition to play with Makar, including offensively gifted freshman Mario Ferraro (SJS), but there's no question that Chukarov will remain a top-four presence with greater offensive upside that what he's shown for the revamped UMass squad.

ECAC

Brown has gone backwards in the win column over the three years that Max Willman has been there.

The Bears won eight games in 2014-15 when he was a freshman. They slid to five wins the following year, and landed at just four victories last season.

The Bears can go only go up, and Willman is poised to pair with fellow senior Sam Lafferty (PIT) on the top line as the Ivy League club shoots for double-digit victories for the first time since 2013-14 (11).

I like Willman's potential to be a solid AHL contributor with his willingness to do the dirty work and ability fill the net. He broke out last season with 11 goals and 26 points in 31 games. Building on those numbers should see him garner consideration for a contract, where he can continue his development as a sleeper prospect in Rochester.


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