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March 15, 2022, 11:29 am ET
Updated On: March 15, 2022, 11:30 am ET




By Brock Otten


It’s signing season in the NCAA as the Frozen Four is around the corner. Many teams are already done for the year, while others are currently battling to secure a spot in the big dance. As such, it is the perfect time to take a look at some high-profile players who could be turning pro soon once their NCAA seasons are over (some sooner than others). The players chosen for this piece are likely to sign their entry level contracts, omitting other top NCAA prospects like Devon Levi (BUF), Brendan Brisson (Vegas), and Matt Coronato (CGY) who are less likely to leave college early. 


1. Owen Power - Defense - Michigan (Buffalo Sabres)

It is not often that the recent first overall pick does not play in the NHL the following year, but Power’s decision to stay at the University of Michigan for his sophomore year looks like a great one. No question, he could have played for the Sabres this year, especially coming off that great performance at the World Championships last summer for Canada, where he played key minutes. However, returning to the NCAA has allowed Power to really blossom offensively, gaining confidence in his ability to lead the attack and be a dominating two-way force. Michigan also has a great chance to capture an NCAA title this year, which would be the icing on the cake of a tremendous season for Power, who also played a key role for Canada at the Olympics in Beijing. At 6’6 and well over 200lbs, it really is remarkable how effortless a mover Power is and his ability to chew up ice quickly is the true key to his dominance, both offensively and defensively. Once Michigan’s season ends, Power will undoubtedly sign with the Sabres and may even get in some significant game action for them, setting him up to know what to expect for next year. He should also play again for Canada at the World Championships. Next season, look for Power to be an immediate top three defender for Buffalo and he could have a similar impact to what Moritz Seider is doing in Detroit this year.


2. Jake Sanderson - Defense - North Dakota (Ottawa Senators)

There are a lot of parallels between Power and Sanderson. Both returned to the NCAA for their sophomore seasons in order to improve their confidence and play offensively. Both hope to capture an NCAA championship this year on teams ranked inside the top five nationally. Both are strong skating defenders who dominate both ends of the ice. Lastly, both players should be immediate impact players in the NHL once they sign their entry level contracts. Sanderson is an absolutely suffocating defensive player because of how quickly he is able to close on puck carriers or those retrieving dump-ins. With the Ottawa Senators looking to take that next step as a playoff team next year, Sanderson will be a key defensive fixture for them immediately, likely helping to anchor their penalty kill and taking on key defensive assignments. However, his improvement as an offensive player this year at North Dakota has really improved his outlook as a potential #1 defender who can partner with Thomas Chabot for years to come. Like Power, Sanderson should get in a few games at the tail end of this NHL season, teasing Ottawa fans with what they can expect next season.


3. Luke Hughes - Defense - Michigan (New Jersey Devils)

There is certainly a chance that Hughes returns to Michigan for his sophomore season. He has had a remarkable freshman year, but there is still room for growth in his game defensively. The Devils may opt to take a more patient approach with him. However, there is also a significant chance that they opt to sign Hughes to get him into the fold as soon as possible, especially given that the team’s powerplay sits in the bottom third of the NHL and that Ty Smith has seemingly regressed as an offensive defender. Offensively, there is little doubt that he is ready to be an impactful puck mover and powerplay quarterback. His 17 goals this year (and counting) are the most by a U20 defender in the NCAA since Jack Johnson scored 16 in 2007. Additionally, his 36 points and point per game average compare favorably to the 18-year-old season Adam Fox recently had at Harvard, which is obviously terrific company to keep. Hughes’ skating and puck skill is already at an NHL level and if he can put in great work this offseason to get stronger, he could play a key role for the Devils next season, especially if they shelter him defensively and keep his offensive zone starts high.


4. Matty Beniers - Center - Michigan (Seattle Kraken)

Even with the Kraken recently signing top producing center Jared McCann to a new five-year contract, there is no doubt that the NHL’s newest franchise could use a speed and skill boost inside their top six. Insert the team’s first ever draft pick, second overall selection Matty Beniers. Beniers is coming off of a solid sophomore season that saw him improve upon his freshman year, increasing his goal scoring output from 10 to 18 (and still counting). At this point, there is little doubt that Beniers will sign with Seattle once Michigan is eliminated or wins an NCAA championship. From there, he should be given an immediate middle six role and will likely play in all situations for the Kraken next season. Beniers is bound to be a fan favorite in Seattle with his non-stop motor. He loves to push the pace and his compete level without the puck is one of his best traits. With his ability to gain and prolong possession down low, Beniers also elevates the play of those around him, which is going to be critical for Seattle moving forward as they look to slowly build out their roster. 


5. Kent Johnson - Center/Wing - Michigan (Columbus Blue Jackets)

The fifth overall pick in the 2021 draft, Johnson has had a solid sophomore season at the University of Michigan (no doubt, an early trend of this article). While the production has only increased minimally, his overall play has improved. Johnson has made strides in his decision making with the puck and has improved the consistency with which he is able to attack the middle and play through traffic. We saw this at the Olympics recently, where Johnson was one of Canada’s most consistent offensive players and play creators. There is certainly no doubting the skill that he possesses. The expectation is that Johnson will sign with Columbus when Michigan’s season ends, forgoing his further eligibility. Johnson has a chance to be a top six player for the Jackets as early as next year and could be a top candidate for next season’s Calder Trophy.


6. Bobby Brink - Wing - Denver (Philadelphia Flyers)

Perhaps no player in the NCAA has improved as much this year as Bobby “Orr” Brink. Currently the nation’s leading scorer, Brink has exploded as a junior after posting modest numbers as a freshman and sophomore. The Pioneers are also one of the frontrunners for the NCAA Championship this year thanks to their balanced three-line attack. There has never been any doubt as to Brink’s skill and offensive touch. However, given his lack of size (5’9), his lack of dynamic explosiveness has hindered his ability to be a consistent contributor, even at the NCAA level. However, Brink has managed to make some strides as a skater this season, in addition to increasing his physical intensity level. The results have been extraordinary. Is there still work to be done? Absolutely. Is Brink a slam dunk to be a longtime NHL player? No. However, the Flyers have to be ecstatic with his progression and they will likely reward him with an ELC at the conclusion of this NCAA season. With a strong camp, there is certainly some chance that Brink jumps right to the NHL, however a more likely scenario sees him playing out next year in the AHL as he adjusts to the pace of the pro game.


7. Brock Faber - Defense - Minnesota (Los Angeles Kings)

Brock Faber may not be the flashiest defensive prospect around. His offensive production didn’t improve from his freshman to sophomore season. For that reason, perhaps Los Angeles lets him return to Minnesota for his junior year to see if he can take that next step as an offensive defender. However, Faber is unquestionably ready to play a defensive role in the NHL, with a game tailored to the modern NHL. For that reason, the Kings (who could possibly let Olli Maatta walk as a UFA) may wish to bring Faber into the fold at the end of this NCAA season. Faber may have been the U.S.’ best defender at this year’s Olympics and his ability to positively impact the transition game and neutralize the ability of the opposition to push pace would look good on a young Kings’ blueline. An elite skater, Faber uses his effortless four-way mobility perfectly to his advantage, always placing himself in the right position at either end of the ice. Even with some other young defenders playing a role currently, Faber has the ability to make the jump straight from the NCAA without playing in the AHL and could be a third pairing defender for the Kings next season should he sign.


8. Henry Thrun - Defense - Harvard (Anaheim Ducks)

Is there a more underrated defensive prospect out there right now than Thrun? Harvard’s numero uno has emerged as a legitimate top four defensive prospect for Anaheim under Ted Donato, who has done a remarkable job of developing defenders in recent years. Even with the Crimson taking last year off (Thrun played in the USHL again last season) he has not missed a beat in his junior year as one of the NCAA’s top scoring and top all around defenders. Thrun possesses every quality one might want in a competent NHL defender. He is mobile. He can play in any situation. He can move the puck. His defensive positioning and awareness is sound. Thrun is just a very well-rounded player who has progressed wonderfully since being drafted out of the U.S. NTDP. Harvard players do have a habit of returning to campus for their senior seasons (why would you not want to complete your degree from such a prestigious University), but the Ducks are unlikely to want that to happen so that they ensure his rights are retained and guaranteed. Thus, look for them to make a big push to get him signed this offseason. Depending on what Anaheim does at the deadline this year, there could be an immediate role ready for him should he prove to be worthy.


9. Jack McBain - Center - Boston College (Minnesota Wild)

McBain’s bracketed affiliation with Minnesota is weak at best currently, as rumors suggest that the power center is looking to test the free agent market following the conclusion of his senior season at BC. As such, the Wild have been shopping his rights. Heading into the year, McBain had largely been considered a disappointment, failing to progress tremendously over his three previous NCAA seasons. But after really working hard to improve his skating and his ability to play with pace, McBain has become one of the NCAA’s elite forwards this season, flirting with the goal per game mark all year long. Given his age, size, and experience, McBain is possibly NHL ready and could play in the bottom six of an NHL team next season. Who that team is remains to be seen, but one would have to believe that McBain and his agency will look to pick someone with an opening or two down the middle heading into next year, carving a path for him to be an NHL player sooner rather than later.


10. Ryan Johnson - Defense - Minnesota (Buffalo Sabres)

At this point, I think we pretty much know what we’re going to get from Johnson as an NHL player. Coming off his junior season with the Golden Gophers, Johnson’s offensive capabilities never really materialized at the NCAA level. His mobility remains an asset, but the puck skill and confidence never really caught up to that. That said, Johnson’s strengths as a defensive player (similar to the aforementioned Brock Faber, coincidentally a teammate at Minnesota) make him a strong bet to be a long time NHL defender through the middle of the lineup. It seems very likely that the Sabres will bring Johnson into the fold next season, along with Owen Power, with the hope that he can move quickly through the organization to help shore up the team’s defensive depth. 


Honorable Mentions


Nathan Smith - Center - Minnesota State (Winnipeg Jets)

The road to significance for Smith has been long and winding. He spent his draft +1 year repeating the USHL, despite being a late birthday. This has led him to be a 23 (turning 24) year old junior at Mankato. However, his junior season has been a breakout campaign for him. Smith has been neck and neck with Bobby Brink as the NCAA’s leading scorer this year and he has been a large reason for Minnesota State being the #1 seed in the nation right now. He could return as a senior and opt for free agency (certainly a possibility), but it seems more likely that he signs in Winnipeg after the season, where he would have a chance to earn a bottom six role right away. Smith has always had the skill and sense, but by improving his physical tools (speed, strength, etc.) over the last few years, he has been able to take his game to that next level.


Aidan McDonagh - Wing - Northeastern (Vancouver Canucks)

Another junior, it seems likely that McDonagh turns pro after another strong season with the Huskies, one that has seen him emerge as one of the top goal scorers in the NCAA. McDonagh is most dangerous in the slot or at the hash marks on the powerplay, where he can unleash his howitzer. However, he also has the size, quickness, and tenacity to battle down low at the next level and play with pace. The Canucks are very high on McDonagh, and he could push for a roster spot as early as next season.


Ronnie Attard - Defense - Western Michigan (Philadelphia Flyers)

Slowly but surely, Attard has emerged as one of the top defenders in the NCAA. His progression over his three years at Western Michigan has been steady and now he finds himself as one of the top scoring defenders in the nation. A big, physical, throwback, Attard also has a cannon from the point and does well to operate inside the offensive zone, holding the line effectively. His skating will always be a focal point for improvement, but his four-way mobility has improved since his USHL days and it seems likely that the Flyers will sign him following his junior season. He will likely need time in the AHL to adjust to the pace of the pro game, but he has certainly solidified himself as a legitimate NHL prospect.


Jordan Harris - Defense - Northeastern (Montreal Canadiens)

Will he, or won’t he? That seems to be the million-dollar question right now regarding Harris and his odds of signing with the Canadiens following his senior year with the Huskies. Like the aforementioned Jack McBain, Harris could wait until August and become a UFA. However, unlike McBain, rumours suggest that Harris is more likely to sign with Montreal than not. The fact that his offensive production has decreased this year should not be incredibly worrisome, given that Northeastern was not an offensive juggernaut like in his sophomore and junior seasons. Harris is still a mobile, puck mover who shows potential as a longtime NHL defender. 


Drew Helleson - Defense - Boston College (Anaheim Ducks)

Voted as the Hockey East’s best defensive defenseman last season, Helleson continues to make gains as a two-way defender who is a capable puck mover to go with his stifling brand of defense. A strong four-way mover, Helleson has size, reach, and plays the right side, all things that should allow him to move quickly through his new organization, Anaheim, who acquired him for Josh Manson yesterday along with a second-round pick. Fresh off of his junior season, Helleson should sign with Anaheim this offseason and has a serious chance of being a long time and reliable second pairing guy for the Ducks.

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