The NCAA Frozen Four will begin on Thursday night at TD Garden in Boston, MA when the University of Denver faces off against the University of Michigan. The University of Minnesota and Minnesota State University will complete the semifinal doubleheader to determine the final spot in the National Championship on Saturday night.
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The recent growth of NCAA hockey has heightened the magnitude of the Frozen Four as a showcase of NHL prospects who have already been selected during past NHL Entry Drafts. This year’s semifinal matchups will be highlighted by four standouts that lead one of the best crops of prospects in NCAA history. The semifinals have historically featured a long list of players in contention for the Hobey Baker Award, the “Hockey Heisman,” and each of these four prominent players to watch earned recognition as one of the top 10 finalists for the prestigious award this season.
Matty Beniers- University of Michigan/Seattle Kraken
The Seattle Kraken selected Matty Beniers second overall in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft. He was one of four Michigan players taken with a top-five pick. The 19-year-old center led the loaded Wolverines roster with 43 points (20 goals, 23 assists) during the 2021-22 season. He finished with one goal and one assist in two victories in the regional finals in Allentown, PA to help secure his team’s spot in the Frozen Four.
The Hockey Writers‘ prospect analyst Matthew Zator called Beniers the “ultimate two-way threat” in a pre-draft profile last year. He went as far as to say that the collegiate star “forechecks like a madman, plays a creative game in all three zones, and has a hockey IQ that rivals the greats.” Zator likened him to reputable 200-foot NHL centers and former Selke Trophy winners Patrice Bergeron and Jonathan Toews. Beniers could play for the Kraken to finish the 2021-22 season after the NCAA season ends.
The native of Hingham, MA will play the Frozen Four in his own childhood backyard. Beniers and fellow top-five picks Luke Hughes, Owen Power, and Kent Johnson provide the overwhelming talent that makes the top-seeded Wolverines the favorites in Boston this weekend. A title would add to their current NCAA record of nine National Championships.
Bobby Brink- University of Denver/Philadelphia Flyers
Bobby Brink paced the NCAA in scoring in 2021-22 with 56 points (14 goals, 42 assists) in 39 games for the University of Denver. His NHL expectations have soared after the outstanding season landed him a spot as one of the “Hobey Hat Trick” finalists. He is the only one of the four prospects on this list still in the running for the most prestigious individual award in college hockey, which will be announced on Friday night.
The Philadelphia Flyers selected Brink 34th overall in 2019. Their confidence in his upside enabled them to pass on Cole Caufield with the 14th overall pick knowing that they were set on Brink, a player with a comparable skill set, later in the draft. While Caufield has already shown promise with the Montreal Canadiens, the Flyers hope that Brink and their 2019 first-round selection Cam York will materialize as building blocks for their future and prove the benefits of their curious draft strategy.
Related: Flyers Prospect Brink Dominating the NCAA
Charlie O’Connor of The Athletic ranked Brink as the third prospect in Philadelphia’s system in February based on the belief that he can “overcome the combination of diminutive size and less-than-elite skating ability” with skill and offensive creativity (from The Athletic, Top 20 Flyers prospects: Cam York, Egor Zamula and Bobby Brink a cut above the rest, 2/22/22). Bill Meltzer also set a high bar for the Denver standout, saying he has the potential to become a “smaller (Claude) Giroux” because of his ability to make crafty plays like the former Flyers captain and current Florida Panthers forward.
The Flyers will almost certainly sign Brink to an entry-level contract (ELC) immediately after the Frozen Four. He will play the remainder of the 2021-22 season with the big club or with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms of the American Hockey League (AHL).
The Pioneers will look to tie Michigan, their semifinal opponent, with their ninth National Championship in program history. Fourth-year head coach David Carle, the 32-year-old younger brother of former NHL defenseman Matt Carle, will coach in his second Frozen Four.
Nathan Smith- Minnesota State University/Arizona Coyotes
The red-hot Minnesota State Mavericks will try to dethrone the Minnesota Golden Gophers, the all-time college powerhouse in the “State of Hockey,” on the back of 23-year-old center Nathan Smith. The former third-round pick of the Winnipeg Jets in 2018 finished second in the NCAA behind Brink with 50 points (19 goals, 31 assists) in 36 games during the 2021-22 season.
The Arizona Coyotes acquired Smith’s rights from the Jets ahead of the trade deadline on March 21. Reports suggested that Smith wasn’t willing to sign an entry-level deal with Winnipeg. Coyotes general manager Bill Armstrong spoke optimistically about the college star playing in the desert after the trade, calling him “a very skilled two-way center who is relentless and competes hard every night.”
Minnesota State will enter the Frozen Four in search of their first-ever National Championship surrounded by three powerhouse programs that have combined for 22 of them. Despite the lack of storied history in comparison to their opponents, they enter their matchup with Minnesota as the hottest team in the nation on a 17-game winning streak.
Goaltender Dryden McKay will also provide the Mavericks with a dependable backstop. He is nearing the end of his second consecutive season as a finalist for both the Hobey Baker and the Richter Award as the nation’s top goalie.
Luke Hughes- University of Michigan/New Jersey Devils
First, the Vancouver Canucks selected Quinn Hughes seventh overall in 2018. Then, the New Jersey Devils selected Jack Hughes first overall in 2019. The Devils completed the Hughes trifecta by selecting Luke with the fourth-overall pick in 2021. The Michigan blueliner beat out teammates Power and Johnson and joined Beniers as the second Wolverine to become a top 10 finalist for the Hobey Baker this season.
Peter Baracchini, prospect analyst for The Hockey Writers, was optimistic about Hughes’ chances to become a “top pairing, puck-moving defenseman” in the NHL. His style of play compares to his brother Quinn, who is seventh among NHL defensemen in scoring since the beginning of the 2019-20 season. The skilled puck-movers on the back end have taken the NHL by storm in recent seasons, and Luke will look to continue the trend when he joins the Devils. As one of the youngest players in college hockey this season, he will need more time to refine his defensive game before making the jump to the NHL level.
Ben Meyers of the University of Minnesota completes the Hobey Hat Trick along with Brink and McKay. Meyers went undrafted, but NHL teams now covet his rights just before he is eligible to sign an ELC. The Minnesota Wild are the front-runners to land the local star.
Denver vs. Michigan will begin at 5 p.m. (Eastern time) on Thursday, and Minnesota vs. Minnesota State will follow at 8:30 p.m. (Eastern time). The winner of the Hobey Baker Award will be announced on Friday after the semifinals and before the National Championship.
The top prospects, along with every other college player at the Frozen Four, will look to recreate the path of NHL legends like Paul Kariya and Johnny Gaudreau who led their teams to National Championship glory before making the jump to the highest level of competition the sport has to offer.