Editor’s note: Ripping a page right out of the NCAA’s book, the United States of Hockey is naming three, that’s right, three All-America teams. Why let the college folks have all the fun? The three All-America teams will feature the American-born players I feel are the best at their individual position. There will be an All-America team made up of NHL players, one for college hockey (naturally) and another featuring 2012 Draft-eligible prospects. I’ll be naming six players to each of the three teams, while also throwing out some honorable mentions. The All-America teams will be revisited at both the half-way point and the end of the hockey season. They might look the same, they might look different and that’s the fun of doing it in the preseason. Keep in mind, there are plenty of great Canadian and European players in college hockey, but this list focuses just on the American-borns. We’ll have the NHL All-America Team up Thursday morning.
There was once a time where even college hockey was dominated by Canadians. For most schools, the best players were Canadian and at the very least half the roster was Canadian. In recent years, as the American talent pool has deepened and the competition for Canadian players increased, college hockey has become much more of an American-dominated game. There are still plenty of top quality Canadians that have skated in the college arenas, like Jonathan Toews (North Dakota) and Dany Heatley (Wisconsin), and current Colorado College standout Jaden Schwartz. In fact there are more Europeans than ever before in the college ranks.
That said, college hockey has essentially become an American-centered game. Elite American players have multiple choices, but the vast majority of them choose college hockey. Because of that, we get a really outstanding on-ice product. The college game is as exciting as ever and part of it is because of the depth of talent in the United States.
So enough praise for college hockey. Let’s get to the players that are going to make it great this year.
The list of college players is a little different than what you might find in college hockey’s regular All-America teams. It’s really tough to predict who is going to have a great season because, with 60 teams across the country, anyone can step up and have a great season. So instead, I went with players I feel are the most advanced at their current positions. This list could vastly change once the season gets rolling and some lesser known players emerge, as Andy Miele did last season en route to the Hobey Baker.
Just as a refresher, I’ll list the position and player, along with an explanation for that player’s inclusion on the All-America Team, then I’ll provide a list of those receiving honorable mention. So let’s get to it after the jump, shall we?
Left Wing –
COP OUT TIE
Chris Kreider – Boston College
Jason Zucker – Denver
The toughest decision by far on this list was between Zucker and Kreider, so I just went ahead and caved and put them both on. I know, total cop out. These two guys are just too darn good to not have both on here.
If there’s a faster player in college hockey than Kreider, I have yet to see him. Kreider’s offensive game continues to improve to match his elite-level skating. The fact that Kreider is still in college is actually quite surprising, but also a very smart move on the player’s part.
Kreider had an opportunity to turn pro with the team that selected him in the first round of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, the New York Rangers. Instead, he elected to stay in school for another year of seasoning and it could pay off for both Kreider and Boston College.
He’s already played on two U.S. Men’s National Teams and kept up with NHL players on the world stage. He’s also collected two medals at the World Junior Championships, gold in 2010 and bronze in 2011.
This may be Kreider’s last kick at the college can, so expect a big year out of the junior. He has yet to produce eye-popping numbers in college, but with two years of experience under his belt, and hopefully a healthy season, he’ll break out.
Whether he produces or not, Kreider will be one of the most exciting players in college hockey this season.
Zucker is also quite an exciting player. He burst onto the college scene last year and took WCHA rookie of the year honors after posting a solid 45 points. With another year of experience, Zucker will once again be a key to Denver’s offence.
DU may have the best top-six in the nation and Zucker’s the tops in that group.
His speed and tenacity make Zucker really tough to play against. He can be a bit of a pest, but he backs it all up with his offensive ability. He’ll frustrate the heck out of a lot of teams this year and may force the Minnesota Wild to offer him a contract upon the conclusion of this season.
He’s a three-time gold medal winner with U.S. National Teams (two at the World Under-18s and one at the World Juniors), and he’ll undoubtedly be searching for a fourth as part of the U.S. National Junior Team for the third time (assuming he’s healthy for the WJC). I got through all of that and didn’t even mention he’s from Las Vegas. Yet another player from a non-traditional market excelling on the ice. Bonus points.
Honorable Mention: Kenny Agostino, Yale University; Seth Ambroz, University of Minnesota
Center – Jack Connolly – University of Minnesota Duluth
There wasn’t an easier choice to make than picking Connolly as the center for this All-America team. He’s the only senior on the list and you can expect him to show all the young pups in college hockey how it’s done. I should also mention that Connolly grows a fantastic beard, though that did not factor into my decision (it should have).
He was the leading scorer for the national champion UMD Bulldogs in 2010-11 and has been an offensive dynamo the second he stepped into college hockey.
His statistical output has improved every year he’s been in school and because he’ll be without former linemantes Mike Connolly (no relation) and Justin Fontaine this year, he’ll be carrying a bigger offensive load. There’s no reason to believe he can’t handle that.
He’s been one of the best players in college hockey consistently and you’d have to think there’s an NHL contract from some team waiting for him when he’s done. He’ll probably be one of the most sought after college free agents on the market.
Strap in for another exciting season out of Jack Connolly.
Honoroable Mention: T.J. Tynan, University of Notre Dame; Drew Shore, University of Denver; Anders Lee, University of Notre Dame; Andrew Miller, Yale University; Rocco Grimald, University of North Dakota
Right Wing – Danny Kristo – University of North Dakota
After a stellar freshman campaign, in which he was named WCHA Rookie of the Year, Kristo’s sophomore season was bizarrely derailed by frostbite. After that incredible scare, Kristo recovered in time for the national tournament, but didn’t look to be quite back at full speed.
Thankfully, Kristo is fully healed and looking to get back on track after last season’s troubles.
He’s a true burner. Kristo can wheel with the best of them and he plays a very hard game. He’s fearless on the ice and makes big plays. As a veteran on a North Dakota team that lost some big guns like Chay Genoway, Matt Frattin and Jason Gregoire, Kristo will be required to up his game.
Because I feel he will rise to that challenge, the Montreal Canadiens prospect earns his spot on this All-America Team.
Honorable Mention: Beau Bennett, University of Denver; Matthew Nieto, Boston University; J.T. Brown, University of Minnesota-Duluth; Brian Ferlin, Cornell University
Defense – Jon Merrill – University of Michigan
Despite a 12-game suspension to start the season, Merrill makes the All-America team based on his incredible freshman performance in 2010-11. Despite the fact that there may be some character concerns, Merrill is one of the best NHL prospects playing college hockey right now.
Outside of Justin Faulk, Merrill was the best freshman defensemen in the country last season. His steady game with good offensive instincts came in handy on more than one occasion for a team that ended up in the national title game.
Expect Merrill to return from his suspension with added motivation and a high compete level. Hopefully the lost time teaches him a lesson and he brings the focus back to hockey in a big way.
If Michigan is going to have much success this season, the Wolverines will need Merrill to bring his best game night in and night out. He often does and that’s why he’s on this list.
Defense – Brian Dumoulin – Boston College
The Carolina Hurricanes draftee had a chance to turn pro at the end of last season, but decided to stick with BC for at least one more year. The big, mobile defenseman was an honest-to-goodness NCAA All-America selection in 2010-11. A very attractive prospect and probably not far from being pro-ready, Dumoulin probably made the right decision to stay in college for one more year.
Now a junior on one of the nation’s elite teams, Dumoulin will be playing a leadership role for the Eagles. Dumoulin has a great first pass out of the zone and sees the ice well. With some outstanding forwards to get the puck to, his assist total should increase (though he posted 30 last season).
The fast pace of Hockey East is perfect for Dumoulin’s game and he should continue to flourish. If this is going to be his last year in college hockey, expect Dumoulin to make the most of it.
Honorable Mention: Nick Bailen, RPI; Ben Blood, University of North Dakota; Adam Clendening, Boston University; Robbie Russo, University of Notre Dame; Stephen Johns, University of Notre Dame; David Makowski, University of Denver
Goaltender – Mike Lee – St. Cloud State University
There may be no goaltender that is more important to his team than Lee, and that’s why he’s on this list. The Huskies and will live and die with Lee. He is the backbone and he’s a pretty strong one.
St. Cloud is in the always tough WCHA, so there are few “easy” games. Because of the high level of competition, Lee will have to raise his game in his junior season. Additionally, because of the tough schedule, Lee’s win-loss record might not be the best, but he can keep St. Cloud in it.
Last season he posted a 2.75 goals-against average and .910 save percentage in 24 games. As the most seasoned goaltender on SCSU’s roster, the Phoenix Coyotes pick is going to get more games and will be relied on more heavily.
It’s a tough call, and with goalies it’s a bit of a crap shoot, but Lee feels like a comfortable choice to be part of this preseason All-America Team.
Honorable Mention: Cal Heeter, The Ohio State University; Cody Reichard, Miami University; Mike Johnson, University of Notre Dame; Andy Iles, Cornell University
It should be an incredibly exciting NCAA season with a lot of top talent. This was a pretty difficult list to put together, and in the end, who knows how it will pan out. It sure is fun to do all of these preseason lists, though. Hockey is here and that’s just neato, gang.
Make sure to check back Thursday morning for the 2011-12 Preseason NHL All-America Team. And if you missed it, take a peak at the All-America team made up of 2012 NHL Draft-eligibles.
Another Editor’s note (sorry!): Notre Dame and Hockey East officially announced that the Irish will join the conference in 2013-14. Additionally, it was announced the Notre Dame will have a television deal with VERSUS/NBC Sports Network when that move is made. That is some seriously huge news. I’ll have a reaction up hopefully later tonight. Stay tuned.