A smart, versatile center from New Brighton, St. Cloud State’s Sam Hentges has the Minnesota Wild hoping that a seventh-round centerman can eventually play big minutes for the team, just like fellow final-round selection Erik Haula did in the past. Hentges takes the #24 spot on Hockey Wilderness’ Top 25 Under 25 list, and could climb even higher in years to come if he can overcome injury issues that have dogged his junior and collegiate career.
A product of Totino-Grace High School in Fridley, Minnesota, Hentges has been just shy of a point-per-game player at every level, and scouts note his strong stride and top speed, his vision, and his battle level to use his 6-foot, 185-pound frame to muscle opponents off the puck. Corey Pronman of The Athletic, as recently as September of 2020, thinks Hentges’ game can translate to the NHL level, saying he is “a well-rounded hockey player who I think has enough elements to be a bottom-six forward in the NHL.”
So why did Hentges fall to the seventh round of the 2018 NHL Draft and to No. 24 on our T25U25 list? Nagging injury concerns, primarily. Prior to the draft, scouts had little tape to go on as the 21-year-old suffered a shoulder injury that limited him to only 23 games combined with the Des Moines Buccaneers and the Tri-City Storm of the USHL — an injury that required offseason surgery. In January of his freshman year at SCSU, Hentges suffered a lower-body injury that nagged the second half of his season, and again required offseason surgery to repair. And injuries struck again during a stellar sophomore season, costing him four games in January, including a big series against the Denver Pioneers.
Hentges’ offseason surgeries also cost him valuable training time with the Wild, as his injuries have prevented him from missing the Wild’s development camp each of the last two seasons. And since COVID-19 will likely mean the cancelation of the 2020 iteration of the annual prospect training camp, Hentges is going to be even farther behind the curve when it comes to playing with his future Wild teammates.
Should Hentges (along with his doctors and trainers) figure out how to put his injury woes behind him, the late-round definitely has the ability to reward the Wild for their leap of faith and eventually make his way to the team’s bottom-six forwards.
After bouncing between the wing and center spots his freshman season, Hentges moved more consistently to second-line center role in his sophomore year and enjoyed a blistering start to the season. Leading the NCHC in scoring through mid-November as well as being named the league’s player of the month October of 2019 after scoring five goals and six in his first six games. Hentges continued to lead the team in assists and points when he missed three series in January and February, but despite the time off the ice, still finished the pandemic-shortened season only three points back of the team lead with 24 points, and led the Huskies in points per game with 0.876.
Entering his junior season at SCSU fully healthy and with major surgery over a year behind him, Hentges should be able to take a big step forward playing No. 1 center minutes on a still relatively young Huskies squad, filling a space vacated by graduating senior Nick Poehling.
And while the specter of COVID-19 still looms over professional and collegiate sports heading into the fall and winter of 2020, the NCHC has taken major steps to ensure not only player safety but the continuation of their season, instituting league bubbles similar to the NHL playoffs. St. Cloud State will play games during the first half of their 2020-21 season in Omaha, Nebraska. Hopefully that means Hentges and his SCSU teammates can get in as many games in as possible.
Roll the Tape
When you see Hentges’ highlights, the first things that pop off the screen are his speed, his vision, and his hands. Open ice is Hentges’ best friend, and can make good use of his skills to beat defenseman for a slick shot on net.
Even if the defender gets him off his skates, Hentges can still beat you, as he did with this NCHC play of the year winning goal.
From a playmaking perspective, Hentges has great vision for the pass, and earned a couple assists last year that may make you think he has eyes in the back of his head.
And while his aggressive and tough style of play continues to make injuries a lingering concern, Hentges is not afraid to battle in the corners and in front of the net. Here, he fights off pretty much the entire UMD on-ice complement to power the puck into the net.
Kids, be hard on the puck. Sam Hentges amidst a mosh pit of Bulldogs gives St. Cloud the lead and win with 1:11 left in regulation. St. Cloud is 27-4–3. They are the clear cut #1 team in the country to this point—Undefeated at home. #CawlidgeHawkey pic.twitter.com/DqlTljT14A— Bucci Mane (@Buccigross) March 10, 2019
As a junior and the top-line centerman, Hentges will be called upon to help lead SCSU back to the NCAA tournament after a season that, had it been played to completion, would have seen the Huskies as no more than a bubble team for the dance. If he can stay healthy, Hentges should be able to take that next step and be amongst the NCAA leaders in scoring, as he was through half of his sophomore campaign. And in the NCHC, he’ll have the chance to test himself against of the stronger teams in NCAA hockey such as North Dakota, Denver, and the two-time reigning NCAA champions University of Minnesota-Duluth.
Beyond that, the Wild are seemingly always in need of depth centerman, and his playmaking ability and willingness to get grimy in the corners would lend itself well to a bottom-six role. The only problem is getting to the Wild, as Minnesota has spent early picks in every draft since loading up the prospect pipeline with centermen. Fighting for a spot with the likes of Marco Rossi, Alexander Khovanov, Damien Giroux, Marat Khusnutdinov and Jack McBain, making the team will depend greatly on Hentges further developing his game, building his strength, and most importantly, staying healthy. Because Wild fans only need remember Mason Shaw to recall a player with tremendous upside that had injuries end his chances at getting to St. Paul.