By Dave Starman
Always fun when Michigan and Notre Dame square off in anything. This weekend it is on the ice and the Saturday night game will be shown nationally on the CBS Sports Network.
The two teams feature a couple of good NHL prospects for two of the three local teams. Michigan, which has produced numerous NHL’ers (like current Ranger Carl Hagelin, Andrew Cogliano, Jack Johnson, Mike Cammeleri, Marty Turco, Mike Komisarek, Eric Nystrom and Matt Hunwick to name a few) has two Devils’ picks on its roster in SR forward David Wohlberg and defenseman Jon Merrill.
The Fighting Irish, who can claim Stanley Cup Champion Mark Eaton as well as Eric Chondra, Ian Cole, and another Cup winner in Brett Lebda among recent alumni, have two Islanders drafts in forward Soph’s Anders Lee (LW) and defenseman Robbie Russo.
Merrill is the top prospect of the bunch. A fleet skating defenseman who can both score and distribute the puck for grade a scoring chances, Merrill is a veteran of the USA National Team Development Program and has played on the past two World Junior teams. Coming into the weekend, he has 29 points in 44 games, good numbers for a defenseman in college hockey. Don’t let the numbers fool you, the kid can dominate games and impact outcomes in all three zones.
Merrill has a unique quality in that he never seems to get trapped in a bad area with the puck. His radar for friendly sticks is tremendous and he moves the puck quickly and with authority. He has a cannon of a shot that he can score with and runs a good power play. He can skate the puck up ice himself or move it to get it back in a better spot with more speed.
Defensively he is solid. Good feet allow him to gap quickly and challenge at the defensive blue line. His backwards skating is good enough that he can make up ground moving backwards when he needs to. Good stick, good anticipation of the options of the offensive team. Because he is so good offensively, especially with his hockey sense, he can see things develop offensively for the opposing teams.
Merrill has played four games this season for Michigan, returning to the lineup after the World Junior Tournament. He was suspended by the team for the first half of the season but in talking with him and his coach, former Ranger Red Berenson, all is good with Merrill as the second semester begins. Merrill is a future top four defenseman in the National Hockey League.
Islanders fans have been excited about Anders Lee after last season. Lee comes into this weekend with a 14-8=22 line in 24 games and has 6 power play goals. In 68 NCAA games he has 66 points and point per game guys are much rarer than in the days guys like Rod Brind’Amour and Brian Gionta played.
Lee was a unique prospect in that he was among the top three high school football players in Minnesota as well as a legit NHL prospect. When he arrived at Notre Dame the joke was he was probably the best quarterback in South Bend.
There is some football in his hockey. One thing Lee can do is use his body to his advantage. As I have said often on air, he has the best shoulders in the NCAA. Lee has a great ability to get his shoulder inside his check anywhere on the ice and be able to get to loose pucks, carry the puck and drive the net and protect the puck while in motion or on the walls. That skill has helped him become not only a scoring threat, but to use a football term, he extends plays with his puck protection and work ethic.
He has an NHL shot, good hockey sense and above average speed. Some scouts question his skating ability for the NHL level but he is being coached by one of the best skaters every to play college hockey in Paul Pooley, the Associate Head Coach at Notre Dame under former Islanders assistant Jeff Jackson. Lee can get around the ice pretty well, plays with a physical edge, and is pretty shifty for a guy his size. He has nice balance and coordination and can handle the puck in tight spaces.
Many future NHL’ers come out the NCAA and there are a number of Rangers, Devils, and Islanders draft choices developing in the NCAA. To see a schedule of games on the CBS Sports Network, log onto CBSSportsnetwork.com or follow me on twitter @DaveStarmanCBS.