I started this series last summer, profiling some of the top American prospects for the NHL Draft, and it seemed to go pretty well, so I thought I would continue it this year. First up is Roseau High School defenseman Aaron Ness.
Player: Aaron Ness
Weight: 170 lbs.
CSB Mid-term: 35th
CSB Final Ranking: 27th
Aaron Ness has always been a hockey prodigy. His father, Jay Ness, was a star defenseman at Roseau High School and would later go on to play at the University of North Dakota and be drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks. When Aaron was five years old, his father moved the family from St. Cloud, Minnesota back to his hometown of Roseau, where Aaron became the star of an extremely talented group of young players in the town.
He first made a name for himself on the state and national level when he led Roseau to a record 7th state high school championship. In the final, he helped shut down Grand Rapids High School star, and eventual first round NHL draft pick, Pat White. Ness was named to the all-tournament team. Shortly after the tournament, Ness committed to the University of Minnesota, after being heavily recruited throughout the year by a number of top schools, including his father's alma mater, North Dakota. Over the summer, he played with the US U-18 team in Prague, and drew good reviews from the scouts in attendance.
Ness came into his draft year touted as one of the best prospects in the state. Over the summer, he was offered a spot on the NTDP U18, but declined, opting instead to stay close to home and help with his father's business. During the fall High School Elite League, Ness was one of the top performers, and helped lead his team to a first place finish in the National Invitational Tournament. He also played in a few games with the NTDP U18 team against college teams in the fall.
Going into the high school season, Ness made the decision to combine his junior and senior years of high school so that he could attend the University of Minnesota next season. The extra academic work didn't affect his performance on the ice, however, as Roseau went undefeated through the regular season, before falling in the state tournament semifinals to Hill-Murray. Because it was his final year of high school academically, Ness was eligible for Minnesota's Mr. Hockey Award, which he won after the high school season.
Ness' biggest strengths have always been his incredible hockey sense and excellent skating ability. He was coached by his father while growing up, and Ness plays like a coach's kid. Not only is he always aware of where he is supposed to be on the ice, but he is also aware of where everyone else is supposed to be. He sees the ice well and is excellent at distributing the puck. He has a very fluid, natural skating stride. His light frame allows him to have excellent agility, and his speed should only increase as he develops more muscle. Despite a small frame, Ness isn't afraid to play with a physical edge.
His weaknesses are pretty obvious to even the untrained eye. There aren't many players, especially defenseman, his size in the NHL. He'll need to add a lot of muscle to avoid being pushed around by bigger, stronger, players in the NHL. His shot from the point has been criticized as being very weak, though Ness is a very smart, efficient shooter. He's not likely to beat a goalie cleanly with his shot, but he is excellent at firing low, accurate shots through traffic that can get to the net. The other concern is that Hill-Murray played an extremely physical game against him in the state semifinal and seemed to throw him off his game a little bit.
At the NHL level, he likely projects to be a second-fourth defenseman that can quarterback a powerplay and rack up a ton of assists. His size may keep him from being a franchise defenseman, but if he can avoid injuries, his intelligence and savvy should help him have a long NHL career.
In most NHL Draft projections, Ness is usually in the late first round. I doubt there is that much agreement among the 30 NHL teams, however. Some teams will fall in love with his skating and off-the-charts hockey IQ and have him in the middle of the first round, and some teams will be scared off by his lack of size and have him much, much lower on their board. But the draft isn't done by committee, so all it takes is one team to fall in love with a player. That said, I think Ness will go a little higher in the draft than most people expect in the late 'teens to early 20s of the first round.
Minnesota head coach Don Lucia said:“We couldn’t be more excited to have Aaron join our program. He’s a dynamic offensive defenseman who should be able to step right in and be in the mold of some of the great defensemen who have played here in the past.”
Roseau head coach Scott Oliver said: “I think that there are different ways to defend people and Aaron is going to defend people differently than obviously some other players will. He uses his quickness, his speed and his hand speed. He’s not going to be 6’2, 6’1 or even 6' tall, but Aaron is very, very explosive and pound for pound he’s probably the strongest player that we have in our program. And he hasn’t filled out yet but he will. Project him as a 21 or 22-year-old with his body type and what he’s able to do physically is going to be different than it is today. I just think that in time, he’s going to be able to answer those people who have a concern about his lack of size right now. I don’t see that being a problem or a concern in order for him to make it at the next level, I really don’t.”
In January, ISS wrote: "There is a lot of interest in this skilled puck-moving defenseman and rightfully so. While most NHL scouts were arriving back from the WJC in Sweden, more than a few could be seen at the Roseau High School game.
With about a dozen NHL scouts including ISS watching, Ness didn’t disappoint collecting two 'Highlight reel' assists. Plays above and beyond this level.
Electrifying! Best player on the ice. Excellent skater. Feet will be an asset. Potential star. This is a player to watch. You win with guys like this."
At the 2007 Select 17 Festival, WCH wrote: "Aaron Ness(Minnesota commit): The most mature hockey player at the camp. Sees and understands the game better than anybody. It’s starting to get to the point where his lack of size is a little more of an issue, but for the most part, he can skate well enough that it isn’t too much of a problem."
After the World U-18 tournament, The Draft Guy wrote:"He's got some power play abilites, but he's 5-10 160. Maybe better than Cade Fairchild if you compared the two. He has good quickness and agility, but he couldn't break rice paper with his shot. He's poised; a contain dman. He's really talented. He can't shoot, but he's quick and he can really distribute the puck well."
Dean Spiros of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune profiles Ness.
Ness is named Minnesota's Mr. Hockey.
Deuce by Definition profiles Ness, including a compilation of some of his Youtube highlights.
The Hockey News features Ness.
The Hockey News profiles Ness' trip to Russia with the US U18 team.