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Nieves could be first prep player taken at draft

by Mike G. Morreale
Matt Herr thought he had seen it all after taking over as coach at the Kent School in Connecticut following a productive collegiate and professional playing career.

That's before he was introduced to 6-foot-3, 184-pound center Cristoval "Boo" Nieves last season.

"I don't know how he skates so freaking fast for his size," Herr told "He's one of the best skaters I've seen this year. I think he can jump into the American Hockey League and play right now and you wouldn't even blink."

Actually, Herr's assessment might not be too far-fetched, as NHL Central Scouting has Nieves No. 31 among North American skaters eligible for the 2012 NHL Draft. He's the highest-ranked scholastic player, and by all accounts, likely will be the first scholastic player taken in the first two rounds.

Mr. Hockey Award announced Sunday

Forward Will Merchant of Eagan High School heads an impressive list of candidates nominated for this season's prestigious Minnesota Mr. Hockey Award.

The 28th Mr. Hockey Awards Banquet will be held Sunday at the Grand Ballroom at RiverCentre in St. Paul, Minn. The award, given to the outstanding senior high school player in the state, is named the day after the final game of the Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament.

The award winner is selected by a panel of NHL scouts, NCAA Division I coaches and selected media members from around the state.

Merchant is the highest-ranked of the 10 skaters nominated for the award player on NHL Central Scouting's midterm list of North American skaters for the 2012 NHL Draft. He's been praised for his speed and tremendous shot and describes himself as a power forward.

The 6-foot, 172-pound Merchant is No. 155 on Central Scouting's midterm list. Committed to attend the University of Maine in the fall, Merchant led Eagan (21-3-1) with 23 goals in 25 regular-season games. His 45 points ranked second on the team behind Nick Kuchera (15-32-47) and Michael Zajac, who also was nominated for the Mr. Hockey Award.

Zajac, who is not related to New Jersey Devils center Travis Zajac, had 21 goals and 26 assists in the regular season.

-- Mike G. Morreale
"'Boo' is certainly the best high-profile kid in this area since (Rangers prospect) Chris Kreider," Central Scouting's Gary Eggleston told

Kreider, currently starring at Boston College, was taken with the 19th pick of the 2009 draft by the Rangers after starring at Phillips Academy, a prep school in Andover, Mass.

"He just explodes off the mark and has agility, balance and quickness to break loose from traffic," Eggleston said. "He also has the physical strength to plow through checks along the wall and bring the puck with him. He sees the ice very well, is a very smart and creative playmaker and captains the team ... he's a very good team player."

In 18 games at Kent this season, Nieves has 4 goals, 29 points, 18 penalty minutes, 36 hits, six blocked shots and a plus-10 rating. He missed five games in 2010-11 due to injury, but finished with 11 goals, 28 points, 32 hits and five blocks in 22 games.

"He could be a Joe Thornton-type of player," Herr said. "That could be his upside. When Thornton first came into the League, people weren't sure he would even be able to play. Thornton slowed the game down and we'll see if 'Boo' can do it at the next level."

He'll start by moving up one level, as he'll finish this season with the Indiana Ice of the USHL, and he'll go up another level when he starts at the University of Michigan in the fall. The Saginaw Spirit of the Ontario Hockey League hold Nieves' rights if he chose to play junior hockey, but Herr believes Nieves fits better with the Wolverines.

"He's a perfect match for that place ... with his speed, he'll be a great CCHA player," Herr said. "He's got a little bit of toughness in him and they need a guy who can skate and make plays. I think the whole Michigan scene will be able to add something, because he'll be around very high-end players. We have some players who are good for 'Boo,' but 'Boo' is by far the most talented player we've had.

"(Coach) Red Berenson will give 'Boo' an introduction to how hard you need to train to be a pro and he's willing to work hard."

In addition to Nieves, there are several other prominent high school players considered highly regarded by NHL scouts. Here are four others, each preceded by their ranking according to Central Scouting:

No. 41 Samuel Kurker, St. John's Prep (Danvers, Mass.): The 6-foot-2, 198-pound Boston native possesses good size, strength and a solid wrist shot. The NHL player he most likely would be compared to is Milan Lucic. Kurker likely will attend Boston University in the fall of 2013.

In 18 games at Kent this season, Cristoval Nieves has 4 goals, 29 points, 18 penalty minutes, 36 hits, six blocked shots and a plus-10 rating.
"Sam is a power forward and goal scorer," Eggleston said. "He can get himself into open ice and shooting lanes with his skating and stickhandling ability. He has a tendency to want to do it all himself, and has led the team to wins by doing just that. He is most effective when he is engaged physically in the game. Like Nieves, he's a great kid, team captain, and well respected."

No. 44 Zachary Stepan, Shattuck-St. Mary's (Faribault, Minn.): The cousin of New York Rangers forward Derek Stepan plays a similar brand of hockey. Stepan, who is compared to another former Shattuck-St. Mary's alum, Zach Parise, has a good shot, good vision and excels at distributing the puck. He's committed to Ohio State University starting in the fall of 2013.

"One thing that sticks out where Zach is similar to Derek is the hockey sense," Central Scouting's David Gregory told "He understands that playing in every zone helps. He's a finisher and I like how he passes the puck. He also plays with a fearless approach as he's not afraid to pursue the puck in any area and get into traffic so he can possess the puck and make plays."

No. 60 Brian Hart, Phillips Exeter Academy (Exeter, N.H.): The 6-foot-2, 216-pound right wing has a great shot and good size. Hart, who is committed to Harvard in the fall, had scholarship offers to several high-profile soccer programs but settled on hockey.

"He has a wicked wrist shot, and has broken more than a few sections of glass this year," Eggleston said. "He plays the point on the power play, distributes the puck well, and has been a productive scorer. He is very strong on the puck down low, and wins the puck battles, giving him a chance to make a play."

No. 69 Theodor Blueger, Shattuck-St. Mary's (Faribault, Minn.): The Minnesota State University-bound center is smart with the puck, a good skater and noticeably quick on his feet.

"He doesn't shy away from being physical, either," Gregory said. "I remember one game I attended where he set the tempo right off the bat with a great forecheck while initiating the pace of the game. He has that kind of speed and quickness. He's not afraid to play at a high pace and possesses good vision. He lets plays develop and then moves with the puck ... he's a complete package."

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale

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