By Alex Annun
After a grueling season spent trying to attain NCAA Hockey’s greatest prize plenty of guys ended up signing contracts with AHL and NHL clubs to begin their transition to the big leagues.
Top prospects like Matty Beniers, Owen Power, and Kent Johnson all signed with their parent clubs and even Michigan Captain Nick Blankenburg signed with Columbus as an undrafted free agent. Lots of movement for some of NCAA Hockey’s big names, but let’s talk about some of the debuts we haven’t already discussed and how these players fared in their first taste at the professional level.
Bobby Brink, RW – Philadelphia Flyers (10 GP: 0-4-4)
Age: 20, 5-9 163lbs
After Denver’s win over Minnesota State in the Frozen Four Finals, the Hobey Baker Finalist signed his contract with the Philadelphia Flyers and was immediately deployed in the top six on a team looking to gain some clarity going into the offseason. Averaging 15:28 TOI across his stint with the Flyers, Brink’s playing style has seemed to fit right in at the NHL level. Always being praised for his tenacity, Brink cut out a pass in the slot, shielded the puck from forecheckers, successfully offloaded the puck, and poked the puck loose for a breakaway chance that was put away on the rebound for his first career assist – all on his first NHL shift. Now, all of his shifts certainly won’t be like that but in that instant he showed the Flyers everything he brings to the ice in his game and what they can come to expect from him. His vision, awareness, and ability to open up lanes for himself are some things that the Broad Street faithful will be sure to fall in love with, if they haven’t already.
Nicholas Abruzzese, C/LW – Toronto Maple Leafs (9 GP: 1-0-1)
Age: 22, 5-9 161lbs
The Crimson Captain, Nick Abruzzese elected to forego his senior year and lace up his skates in Toronto instead. He debuted on the fourth line where he can hope to bring some offense to a team that is looking to find depth scoring heading into what is hopefully a deep playoff run. At Harvard he was a solid playmaker as he totaled 24 assists in 28 games and was even good for 9 goals on the season. He tallied his lone goal against the Boston Bruins in the final game of the season with a neat redirect in front of the net that was able to beat Jeremy Swayman. He could potentially find himself getting an opportunity on PP2 as he showcased a nice one-timer with the Harvard Crimson and might be able to fill a similar role for the Leafs going forward. Though he has only played small minutes thus far, as he has been deployed on the bottom line, Abruzzese can be nurtured with this limited role and get comfortable before making his impact felt more strongly. With the Toronto Maple Leafs being built primarily around skill and currently finding themselves rather cap strapped, Abruzzese can use his skill, size, and contract to really cement himself as an attractive option for the upcoming season if he can start showing a bit more of a consistent offensive spark on the fourth line.
Jack McBain, C – Arizona Coyotes (10 GP: 2-1-3)
Age: 22, 6-4 212lbs
After four years at Boston College and a little bit of a trade saga Jack McBain landed in the NHL via the Arizona Coyotes this season after posting a career year for the Eagles to the tune of 33 points in 24 games. Suiting up in a middle six role for the Coyotes, McBain averaged 14:02 TOI per game and has done a nice job adjusting to the pros early on. His size is perfect for someone like him who does a nice job getting to the front of the net and he has found some success early on by out-muscling his opponents and winning races to the loose puck as a result. He has shown good movement through the slot as well and was able to tally his first NHL goal in a drive by high slot deflection to beat Fleury and the Wild. His physical attributes have made his transition a little smoother than some other prospects typically face, and he will look to carry that into next year where he should be afforded a similar role on a young and rebuilding team in Arizona where many of the roster spots should be up for grabs.
Nathan Smith, C – Arizona Coyotes (10 GP: 2-2-4)
Age: 23, 6-1 190lbs
Coming off of a strong season in which he led the Minnesota State Mavericks to the Frozen Four Finals and compiled 50 points in 38 games, Winnipeg Jets draft pick Nathan Smith ended up signing with Arizona after opting not to sign with the Jets. With more room to crack the roster in Arizona, Smith’s career has gotten off to a decent start as he has seen time as the 2nd line center averaging 13:54 TOI across his first 10 games. Smith is a solid size and brings a versatile game to the Coyotes lineup as he blends his puck skills with a physical edge to his game. He forechecks hard, throws some massive hits, and can beat players 1 on 1; all of which should add up to a decent NHLer. After a few scoreless games to start, Smith had points in 3 of 4 games during his stint with the Coyotes as he showed that he was starting to get acclimated after just a short bit of time with his new club. An entire offseason of training and practicing with his fellow NHLers should see him come back and ready to challenge for even more ice time next season.
Brendan Brisson – Henderson Silver Knights (7 GP: 3-5-8)
Age: 20, 6-0 185lbs
While he may not have made his NHL debut yet, Brendan Brisson is another NCAA star that has made the transition to professional hockey after his Michigan Wolverines were bounced by Denver in the Frozen Four Semis. Signing an AHL contract with Henderson, Brisson got off to a torrid start to his professional career after scoring in each of his first three games, also tallying three assists during those games as well. Brisson’s hockey IQ is one of, if not, his best traits as he sees the ice so well and knows exactly what he wants to do before the puck has even arrived on his stick. His shot and passing ability cannot be overlooked either, despite being overshadowed on the loaded Wolverines’ team Brisson is a gifted shooter and puck distributor which made him such a weapon on the powerplay. Henderson and Vegas both play some exciting and fast paced hockey so a player with the offensive skillset that Brisson has should certainly have a chance to continue to flourish. Given the salary cap trouble that Vegas finds themselves in they are going to have to look for low cost players who can make an impact to their team this offseason, and they are getting a nice look at what Brisson can potentially bring to their lineup next season