Buffalo, N.Y. The U.S. National Team Development Program has players drafted by NHL teams every year. This past season there were 85 alumni from the Plymouth-based USNTDP on NHL rosters.
But this year will be like none other for the USNTDP.
Some projections have as many as 10 USNTDP players going in the first round of the NHL Draft, which is June 21-22 in Vancouver. In addition, it would not be surprising to see five of the first 10 players off the board hail from the USNTDP.
The most USNTDP players taken in the first round so far was five last year, and that is sure to be exceeded later this month.
Forward Jack Hughes, who will be the first or second player chosen in the draft, says USNTDP's prolific presence in the draft is a byproduct of rigorous practices among talented teammates and intense game competition.
“Our practices are just as hard as the games,” said Hughes. “We practice, we compete, every day.”
In the final NHL Central Scouting release detailing its top 50 North American draft prospects, the USNTDP had a staggering 10 skaters listed – an unheard of one-fifth of the total. And that didn’t include USNTDP goaltender Spencer Knight, who is Central Scouting’s No. 1-ranked goalie.
It’s not hyperbole to say there’s rarely been a junior team so stacked with talent entering the NHL Draft.
“It’s an exceptional year for the program and these kids have worked hard to gain the recognition that they’re getting,” said Dan Marr, Central Scouting director, last week at the NHL Draft Combine. “I anticipate USA Hockey will have the biggest smile on their faces on draft day because of the number of players to go in the first round and through the entire draft.”
The USNTDP began in 1997 as a way to get the top 17-year-old players around the country together, while playing against Midwest junior and college teams.
The program has flourished with its intense, skill-based training, and players such as Dylan Larkin (Detroit Red Wings), Auston Matthews (Toronto Maple Leafs), Patrick Kane (Chicago Blackhawks) and Jack Eichel (Buffalo Sabres) going through the program, among other NHL established alumni. Good players are entering the program, and they’re getting better by going against equally talented personnel on a daily basis.
“We all became better hockey players just because of how competitive we are,” said forward Alex Turcotte, projected to be a top-10 draft pick. “Everyone wants to be the best, and definitely it helped us in practice. There’s some good battles and we were competitive with each other and it made our team better.
“Everyone is coming from their youth team, they’re a top player, and they’re competitive and used to being the best. When you go against them in practice it’s a lot of fun and you’re really competitive with each other. It makes you compete against one another. No one wants to look bad. You face the best.
“We learned a lot of discipline. It’s a pretty intense schedule with the practices and study halls and the games.”
John Wroblewski, who coaches the national team and was a player himself on the inaugural 1997 team, talked early this season about how a player such as Hughes is pushed every day in practice by forwards Turcotte and Trevor Zegras (another likely high first-round draft pick).
The daily competition accelerates everyone’s development.
“It’s enormous,” said Wroblewski, of the players pushing each other to excel. “He (Hughes) has Alex Turcotte and Trevor Zegras right behind him, going up against him. We have a bunch of guys in that room that really compete in practice and push and have the skill level close to Jack.
“And that makes Jack and everyone else keep reaching for another level. It’s the environment they are thrust into.”
Hughes remarked at the combine about how the national program helped transform him from a scrawny 16-year-old into “more of a man,” because of the rigorous on- and off-ice programs.
Hughes believes this is only the start for USA Hockey, given the large number of young Americans thriving in the NHL, and the popularity of the USNTDP and its success in recent seasons.
Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill, who coached the USA world championship team last month, said the pool of players is getting larger and deeper, with the success of the USNTDP a major reason why.
Hughes believes players who’ve gone through the national program have an added edge heading to the pro level.
“There are no days off with the program,” Hughes said. “Practices are (like) games. You’re going up against Matt Boldy, a (likely) first-round pick, Zegras, Spencer Knight in net, (Cam) York and (Alex) Vlasic on defense.
“You’re playing against some high-end players every day. It just epitomizes what the program is.”
Where they rank
On the NHL Central Scouting final 2019 draft rankings, 10 of the top 50 North American skaters are from the U.S. National Team Development Program:
1. Jack Hughes, F
4. Alex Turcotte, F
6. Trevor Zegras, F
8. Cole Caufield, F
9. Matthew Boldy, F
12. Cameron York, D
38. Alex Vlasic, D
39. Henry Thrun, D
46. Drew Helleson, D
49. John Beecher, F