The Great Eight

A Bumper Crop Of NTDP Talent Is Ready For Upcoming NHL Draft

It It will be absolutely no surprise if-or when-the first-overall pick at the NHL draft in June turns out to be Jack Hughes of USA Hockey's National Team Development Program.

Since arriving at the program in 2017, the Florida-born center has mesmerized NHL scouts with his explosive skating, sick hands and uncanny ability to put the puck in the opposition's net. A year ago, as a 16-year-old, Hughes set the NTDP single-season record for most assists, with 76, topping the likes of Clayton Keller, Auston Matthews and Patrick Kane-not exactly  shabby company.

But the real eye-opener may come just after Hughes is selected. As many as seven other NTDP players could be taken in the first round. They include forwards Trevor Zegras, Cole Caufield, Alex Turcotte and Matthew Boldy, and defensemen Cam York-all ranked among the top 15 North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting. Alex Vlasic, another defenseman, is ranked 24th while Spencer Knight is the No.  1 North American goalie.

It's jaw-dropping to contemplate. That would mean 25 percent of the 31 first-round picks are not just American players-but Americans who all play for the same team. Consider this, too. Team USA can put an all-first-rounder unit on the ice-and still have two more sitting on the bench. Is there another team in the world that can do that? 

"It's a testament to what they're doing there," said Auston Matthews, an NTDP alum who was selected first overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2016. "I see so many guys from the national team in the NHL on a daily basis-Jack Eichel, Dylan Larkin, Charlie McAvoy."

The 23-year-old national team program was the brainchild of Ron DeGregorio, the current chair of USA Hockey's board of directors and brought to life by Jeff Jackson, now the head coach at Notre Dame, and  Bob Mancini, a regional manager of USA Hockey's American Development Model program. 

The team takes in 22 16-year-old players each year, and develops them over the course of two seasons by playing teams of older and stronger players from the USHL and NCAA. The concept is known as "over-speed training." They also play in several international tournaments, as well as a heavy dose of schoolwork and lessons in respect, humility and dedication.

"It was an unheard-of concept when we started, and we had to convince people it could work," said Scott Monaghan, senior director of NTDP operations, who has been with the program since Day 1.

There's no doubt that it works. The list of top American players who came through the NTDP is long. Along with Matthews, three other NTDP players have been chosen first overall in the NHL draft-Kane, Erik Johnson and Rick DiPietro. In the 2017-18 season, 95 alumni played in the NHL, and 72 in the AHL. Sixteen have become Stanley Cup champions.

In the last five years, however, the program has seemed to kick into a higher gear, producing more top-level talent than ever. Since 2014, 32 American-born players have been selected in the first round, and 25 were NTDP products. Seven national team players have been top-seven draft picks in the last five years-the elite of the elite. In the 18 years before that, just 11 top-seven picks were NTDP alums.

"It's a well-oiled machine," said Steve Greeley, a Buffalo Sabres assistant general manager who previously served as an NTDP scout. "There's not an NHL team that does not watch the national team a dozen times or more."

The program has been helped by the increasing numbers of American kids playing hockey from all parts of the country. The acquisition of USA Hockey Arena in 2015 gives the program a top-notch facility, with a shooting room, extensive weight room and skating treadmill. The coaching staff teaches a style of play based on speed, puck possession and play-making. 

"That's where the game is going," Monaghan said. "It's not dump and chase."

This year's U18 team is stocked with more than just the eight potential first-rounders. In fact, all 22 may eventually be drafted, for the first time ever. Twenty are ranked in the NHL Central Scouting's mid-term rankings for the 2019 NHL Draft. The other two have late birthdays and almost certainly will be drafted in 2020.

"This program has come a long way since the beginning," said Keith Tkachuk, the Massachusetts product who piled up 538 goals and 1,065 points in 18 seasons in the NHL. He's now a St. Louis Blues scout. "They've done an excellent job of helping these kids succeed."

Tkachuk knows the NTDP from firsthand experience, too. His two sons played for the national team. Matthew was taken sixth overall in 2016, and Brady, fourth overall in 2018. They now play for the Calgary Flames and the Ottawa Senators, respectively.

NHL rosters show that other paths also develop high-end American players, too. Kyle Connor and Johnny Gaudreau came through the USHL. Cam Atkinson and Nick Bonino played New England prep school hockey. Casey Mittelstadt and Brock Boeser were stars in Minnesota's elite high school league.

This year's U18 team is made up of players born in 2001, and it's led by Jack Hughes

"Away from the rink, he's a normal teenager," John Wroblewski, the U18 head coach, said on a recent afternoon at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, Mich. But on the ice, the way he accelerates and sees and thinks the game leaves Wroblewski at a loss for words. "He's just a freak, a mutant."

Wroblewski, in his third season as an NTDP head coach, actually played for the national team in its inaugural season in 1996-97. Hughes, he added, has desire and drive to go along with his physical gifts. "What people don't see behind closed doors is how much he burns to be a player," the coach said.

Hughes's father Jim played at Providence College and his mother Ellen at the University of New Hampshire. His older brother Quinn played at NTDP, was drafted seventh overall in 2018, by the Vancouver Canucks, and is currently a sophomore at the University of Michigan. A younger brother Luke is expected to play at NTDP next year. The three boys learned to skate while the family lived outside Toronto while Jim was working as a scout for the Maple Leafs.

Jack Hughes said his NTDP experience has been a blast. 

"Getting to play here every day and play with your best friends and play for your country is a dream come true," he said. While he is currently uncommitted for next season, he has set the lofty goal of being on an NHL roster when the puck drops next season.

Like Hughes, Trevor Zegras is a deft playmaker and passer, especially on the powerplay.

"The way he can dissect a team is something I've never seen before," Wroblewski said. 

Zegras is headed for Boston University next year.

Cole Caufield is a consummate goal-scorer. Last year in his U17 season, he scored an incredible 54 goals, one short of the single-season NTDP record held by Matthews. His best memory so far is the U17 Challenge a year ago. 

"We went undefeated and it was really cool to beat Canada in the final on their home ice," said Caulfield, who is committed to play college hockey with his hometown Wisconsin Badgers.

He will be joined by Alex Turcotte, who Wroblewski said is the most well-rounded player on the team. 

"He can go through you, around you and he can dangle you," the coach boasted. "He's nasty in shootouts. Alex is a blend of finesse and sandpaper."

The two defensemen are a study in contrasts. At 6-foot-6, Alex Vlasic, who is headed to BU, has the size and reach of a potential to be a top defenseman in the NHL. "For how tall he is, his skating ability is off the charts," Wroblewski said.

Cam York is seven inches shorter and has seen his game shift to a new level this season. In a January game against the Youngstown Phantoms, the Michigan commit scored three goals and assisted on four others. 

"It was just one of those games," York shrugged. "My teammates just found me and we made good plays."

Matthew Boldy demonstrated his talent level early on. Last year at a U18 Four Nations tournament, he put up four goals against Sweden. He credited Zegras. 

"Trevor set me up three times for easy ones," he said. 

Boldy will play at Boston College next year, where he'll be joined by Spencer Knight. The goaltender admits the NTDP program is not easy. It's a 12-hour day, beginning with school, a two-hour on-ice practice, off-ice work, study hall. 

"But you look back on it and go, 'Well that made me a little better,'" Knight said. 

 


 

Neal E. Boudette is an Ann Arbor, Mich., based reporter for The New York Times who writes about hockey any chance he can.

 

Issue: 
2019-03

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