For most NCAA hockey teams, the regular season kicks off tonight. Over the past few seasons, the Colorado Avalanche have drafted more players bound for college hockey than anywhere else.
Headlined by Cale Makar - the fourth overall selection in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft - Colorado’s class of NCAA prospects is an exciting one and a group that we plan to monitor all season.
With the season getting underway this weekend, here is a preview of the teams and players Avalanche fans should be paying attention to this college hockey season.
If you’re going to watch one NCAA hockey team this season, make it the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Cam Morrison is back for his junior season and this year he is joined by fellow Avalanche prospects Nate Clurman and Nick Leiverman.
A former second round pick, Morrison didn’t take the jump many had hoped last season. His point production went down, finishing with 8 goals and 23 points over the 40 game season. This year, Morrison is expected to play a leadership role with the Irish, and will likely be lining up as the left-winger on the team’s top line.
Leiverman and Clurman both come in as 20-year old freshman and could find themselves playing together as the team’s third defensive pair.
Of the three, Morrison is the only one that should be viewed as a legitimate NHL prospect. While his offensive production didn’t grow last season, he plays a strong two-way game as a power forward and could turn out to be the hard forechecking winger that many thought A.J. Greer was going to be.
This week’s schedule: Ice Breaker Tournament - Friday vs Mercyhurst, Saturday vs TBD
The forgotten man in the Matt Duchene trade, Shane Bowers is about to begin his sophomore season with the BU Terriers.
After putting up an impressive 17 goals as a freshman - outproducing fellow freshman Brady Tkachuk - Bowers is going to look to prove he’s one of the better two-way centers in the NCAA. He’s an underrated scorer that has the size and instincts to stick at center in the NHL.
Many around the team believe that Joe Sakic is saving one of the 50 player contracts to sign Bowers at the end of his season, so we may see him in an Avalanche jersey for a playoff push this spring.
This week’s schedule: Friday & Saturday @ Minnesota State
University of Minnesota
After eligibility issues at Wisconsin, Sampo Ranta landed at the University of Minnesota and is expected to have a huge impact on the Golden Gophers this season.
The Gophers actually started their season last weekend with a home-and-home against rival University of Minnesota Duluth. Ranta scored the team’s first goal of the season, and added another in the second game of the series.
Ranta is a kid that has a game built for the NHL. He’s a very fast skater, but more importantly, he is able to play at a high pace when he has the puck on his stick. He played really well during international exhibitions this summer and we should expect to see him as a key member of Finland’s World Junior team this December.
This week’s schedule: Saturday vs USNTDP U18
After an incredible 47 points in 39 games as a freshman, Denis Smirnov took a big step back last season at Penn State.
He was drafted by the Avalanche in his third year of eligibility, but unfortunately, the diminutive winger had his 2017-18 season sidetracked by injury. It took him a long time to get up to speed, but Smirnov did eventually end up scoring 15 goals in 30 games. This season, the 21-year old is going to look to show he’s back o full health and that his freshman season wasn’t an anomaly.
Unfortunately, Smirnov is hurt again. He missed yesterday’s season opener after getting hurt in an exhibition game last week.
He’s a small, ultra-skilled winger that could end up being a huge find for the Avs - if he can stay healthy.
This week’s schedule: Thursday (4-3 victory) & Friday vs Clarkson
University of Nebraska-Omaha
Speaking of little wingers with great potential to be a late-round steal, Tyler Weiss is a kid that Avalanche fans should be excited about.
Playing for a smaller school, Weiss is going to be given the opportunity to play a big offensive role as an 18-year old - something he wouldn’t get at bigger programs.
He’s a kid with a tremendous story and someone you can’t help but root for.
He’s got a ton of talent, and should be one of Colorado’s most exciting prospects this season. I wouldn’t be surprised if he end the season as the NCAA’s freshman scoring leader.
Check out this amazing highlight reel goal from his first NCAA exhibition game:
This week’s schedule: Friday & Saturday @ Union
UMass is the home of Cale Makar - the crow jewel of the Colorado Avalanche prospect pool.
Many fans were shocked - and irrationally upset - when Makar decided to go back to UMass for a second NCAA season. The decision showed that Makar sees in himself what a lot of fans don’t seem to want to accept - that he’s got a lot of work to do on his game before he’s ready to make the jump to the NHL.
Already an elite offensive defenseman, his point total this season doesn’t matter. He needs to spend the year getting stronger and working on his play away from the puck in the neutral and defensive zones.
Makar is expected to play a big role for Canada at the World Juniors again this winter and in all likelihood he will sign his ELC the second the season ends at UMass.
Miro Heiskanen was selected one pick ahead of Makar, and seeing how great he’s been to start his NHL career might leave Avs fans clamoring for their own rookie defender. He is a high-end prospect that has the potential to be almost as good as Heiskanen, but patience is necessary with Makar.
He will be the leader on a young UMass team that could take a huge step up the Hockey East standings this season.
This week’s schedule: Friday vs RPI, Saturday @ RPI