Sunday, January 25, 2015

Patience personified...Flyers collegiate prospects

Ladies and gentlemen, accept no substitutes.

Anyone can steal a piece of the glory and attention by retweeting or repackaging stats which they've found by grazing certain site from one or two nights before.

I assure you, as long as I'm active on social media and writing, my interest and knowledge is backed by 25 years of following the college game which encompasses four years as a student at Boston College plus 15 additional years of observing and attending games as a broadcaster and writer across multiple conferences.

The final of my three wide-ranging columns this weekend focuses on an almost-intentionally ignored part of the Flyers' development game: draft picks who have decided on personal and professional development through Division I hockey.

While there's little flash and dash and less of a sure thing than Shayne Gostisbehere -- who is already climbing up the ranks from the American Hockey League -- the Flyers currently have six draftees who are plying their trade in the American collegiate ranks.

The following is a breakdown of each player, ranked by seniority, along with the status of their respective teams. 

Michael Parks -- Senior forward, North Dakota: The 22-year-old native of St. Louis and fifth-round pick of the Flyers in 2010 finished this past weekend with a goal and two assists as the Fighting Sioux swept Colorado College at Ralph Engelstad Arena.

On Friday, Parks set up Mark MacMillan's tying goal before netting the game-winner while his club was short-handed at the 6:37 mark of the third period. In Saturday's 5-3 victory against the Tigers, Parks added another helper on a MacMillan tally. For the season, he is tied for the team lead with 26 points along with Drake Caggiula, tied for the most assists (17) with Jordan Schmaltz and third on the club with nine goals. If you believe in its efficacy, he's also second on the squad with a plus-12 despite logging significant minutes at times on both ends of the special-teams work. He's picked up four game-winning goals, two power-play and two short-handed markers.

Why you should watch: North Dakota, which lost a painful Frozen Four semifinal to Minnesota last April in Philadelphia, is riding a 6-1-0 streak and picked up the nation's No.1 ranking in the first USCHO poll of the new year and looks to remain in the No.2 spot when the new poll is released tomorrow afternoon.

Projection: At 5-foot-11, 190 pounds, he's clearly an undersized forward. However, with good speed, good hands, and ability to perform successfully in nearly any situation on ice, he's going to be a valuable asset. Ron Hextall would definitely be wise to dump one of either Jay Rosehill or Zack Stortini in order to make room on the first/second line with the Phantoms next season.

Nick Luukko -- Senior defenseman, University of Vermont: The player taken one round later than Parks, the Catamount defenseman is a bottom-pair blueliner for Kevin Sneddon's stingy defense. Over the weekend, he was limited to two shots on goal, was a minus-2 and did not record a point as UVM was blitzed in two straight (4-2, 2-1) by Jack Eichel and his merry band of Boston University Terriers at Gutterson Field House.

During his final collegiate campaign, the West Chester, PA native ranks third amongst team defensemen with eight points in 25 games -- on a club whose leading scorer at present is 2011 Blackhawks draftee and senior Mike Paliotta.

Why you should watch: Basically, you should do your part to increase the visibility of college hockey in the eastern part of the Commonwealth by attending next Saturday's Penn State-Vermont contest. Luukko is a key cog in the wheel of the third-best overall team defense in the country (1.88 goals per game) taking on the Nittany Lions, who are now tied for sixth in the nation in offense (3.48 goals per game). Beyond that, Vermont is part of a hugely competitive top level in Hockey East, and can finish anywhere from second to eighth depending on how they fare in their late-season conference slate which includes four total games against Boston College and UMass-Lowell.

Projection: Though not on the order of when Russ Farwell decided to take Ryan Sittler seventh-overall in the 1992 draft, it was clear that Paul Holmgren's selection of Luukko was a favor to former Comcast employee, his father Peter. If the younger Luukko decides to continue his professional career, he'd do well starting out with Reading in the ECHL.

Reece Willcox -- Junior defenseman, Cornell University: Selected in the fifth round of the 2012 draft and a product of the Merritt Centennials of the British Columbia Hockey League, the 20-year-old left-handed shooter has posted just four points (1G, 3A) in 18 games this season for the Big Red, last season's ECAC champs who won't be repeating this year thanks to an 8-9-0 overall record. He was held off the scoreboard in Friday's 3-2 win over Harvard at Lynah Rink, exiting early with an undisclosed injury and then did not dress for Saturday's 5-2 home loss to Dartmouth. 

Why you should watch: Willcox and his fellow Cornellians entered the weekend operating at a 90.6 percent success rate on the penalty kill -- third best in the country. Also, as shown in this video from earlier in the season, he can move the puck with confidence and his shot has some weight and speed to it from distance.

Projection: With the way Hextall has stocked the minors with Division I talent, no reason why Willcox couldn't remain with the franchise on a minor-league deal to start. If Cornell could generate more offense through either a better recruiting class next year or a shift in philosophy from head coach Mike Schafer, Willcox's game can bloom where he may be compared to a Mark Alt. 

Merrick Madsen -- Freshman goaltender, Harvard University: Taken in the sixth round of the 2013 draft, this lanky, 19-year-old Idaho native finds himself gaining valuable experience simply by soaking up what incumbent senior Steve Michalek (12-4-2, 2.12 GAA) has been doing for the fourth-ranked Crimson. He's only appeared in one game so far, in relief of Michalek, giving up two goals in 43 minutes in a 5-1 loss to St. Lawrence last weekend.

Why you should watch: Not for Madsen himself, but for the esteemed denizens of Cambridge themselves, who knocked off then-No. 1 Boston University in late November and currently rank second in ECAC Hockey with an 8-3-2 record. There's a local connection here, as junior forward Kyle Criscuolo is a native of South Jersey and attended St. Joseph's Prep in North Philadelphia before heading north to New England prep hockey in order to secure notice from top tier colleges.

Projection: Madsen simply needs more work, and Crimson head coach Ted Donato hasn't been shy about riding his upperclassman in the crease. With Michalek set to move on, it will be incumbent upon Madsen to keep an even keel through his frosh campaign and then train vigorously in the offseason so that he'll come back to campus with gaining the starting spot clearly in mind. There's always juniors if he feels he won't get a fair shake in the Ivy League.

Mark Friedman -- Freshman defenseman, Bowling Green University: Philadelphia's third-round pick in this past June's draft has been a significant factor in his new team's rise to the upper echelon of the WCHA (11-3-2) and inside the top 10 national rankings (No. 6 at 15-5-4). Friedman has scored a point in five straight and nine of the last 11 games (1G, 10A). Over the weekend, he contributed three assists and a blocked shot as the Falcons split with Lake Superior State (1-3, 3-1). His 14 points ranks second to Pierre-Luc Mercier among BGSU blueliners.

Why you should watch: The Toronto-area native has a two-game set against Matt Read's Bemidji State looming next Friday and Saturday. With 10 goals and 40 points in 51 games with Waterloo of the USHL last season, his offensive upside can only expand with time and increased responsibility. Like Parks for Dave Hakstol, Chris Bergeron is growing more comfortable playing Friedman in different situations.

Projection: Now that Gostisbehere's made the pros, Friedman is most likely the defensive prospect with the greatest potential even at this early stage of his development. The rest of the story should be filled in appropriately as long as he remains with the university.

David Drake -- Freshman defenseman, University of Connecticut: A testament to the Chicago-area native's path well under the radar after being taken in the seventh round of the 2013 draft, was that I didn't even realize UConn had a player on the Flyers' radar until I spied Kjell Samuelsson lurking in the underbelly of XL Center after the Huskies hosted Boston College back in the first week of November and won a hard-fought 1-0 decision.

Drake, 20, is coming off two years with Des Moines in the USHL. He posted five blocked shots as his team lost 6-1 and tied 3-3 against Notre Dame in a home-and-home series last weekend. He's tied for sixth on the club with 28 blocks, so he's got the basis for learning how to position his 6-foot-4, 185-pound frame. Connecticut has been a cradle rocker in its first season inside Hockey East, going 4-6-2 in conference with wins over BC, Vermont and UMass Lowell to its credit.

It may very well be that the prospect with the greatest potential to have an impact on the franchise has already left college.

Anthony Stolarz, if he had stayed where he was instead of jumping to juniors, would no doubt be the stud junior incumbent starter on Nebraska-Omaha. Who knows, he very well could have been the difference between the Mavericks being tied for the NCHC lead (9-4-1 along with UND) and blowing the likes of Parks and North Dakota out of the water for that automatic NCAA tournament bid. 
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