The NHL Draft will make its grand return to Canada on Friday, touching down in Vancouver for the league’s first entry draft on Canadian soil in a decade. But given what’s set to transpire once the names start rolling off the board, the festivities might as well take place in Plymouth, Mich.
It’s there, at Plymouth’s USA Hockey Arena, that the Americans have rooted their National Team Development Program, the country’s novel approach to building elite prospects. The NTDP has already produced its fair share of household names over its two decades of operation — from veteran champs like Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel to newer phenoms like Auston Matthews and Jack Eichel — but the program is on track for another major step forward this week, with the 2019 Draft figuring to feel the full weight of USA Hockey’s developmental prowess.
It isn’t just that NTDP all-time leading scorer Jack Hughes still looks most likely to earn first-overall honours to lead off the night — it’s what looks likely to happen afterwards, as four of Hughes’ highly-touted teammates could all earn selections in the top 10 as well, while seven in total look like sure-thing first-rounders.
Should the draft board stack up that way, it would be arguably the most dominant showing yet for USA Hockey in the top end of the draft, their finest in more than a decade — when four Americans went in the top 10 in both 2005 and 2006. It’ll be a far more unique feat this time around given how rare it is to see more than two or three players from the same team called to the stage in the first round together.
So goes the next step in the United States’ charge into its golden era, one that’s already enjoyed a wellspring of young, all-world talent in the NHL over the past decade and a slew of top picks over the past few years alone.
“I think that we’re mature as a hockey nation now,” says U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer and Vezina Trophy winner John Vanbiesbrouck, now assistant executive director of hockey operations for USA Hockey. “I think we’ve gained a lot of respect on the global stage, around the world. If I could turn back the clock, I’d like to think that a lot of my teammates and myself contributed to that growth and maturity. But I think we’ve come of age as a hockey nation.”
How Hughes and his teammates contribute to the next chapter of that story will go a long way in affirming that sentiment. And Vanbiesbrouck, who’s been front and centre to see this current crop performing on and off the ice all year, knows there’s plenty of top-tier talent and potential among the group that will head to the stage after Hughes.
Let’s start with the program’s other high-flying record-setter:
“Cole Caufield, he gets a lot of acclaim for his scoring, but he does a lot of things right,” Vanbiesbrouck says of the diminutive winger who broke the NTDP’s all-time goals record in 2018-19, as teammate Hughes upended the points record. “His mentality is just the right way to play the game — he’s eerily similar to Alex DeBrincat, who’s had a couple good back-to-back seasons for the Chicago Blackhawks. People love scoring — I think if you like scoring, you’re going to like Cole Caufield.”
The early goings of the first round also figure to feature three of the program’s other talented forwards — two dynamic centremen and one reliable two-way winger — along with their gifted (and potentially underrated) blue liner, too:
“A lot of forwards are getting acclaim — [Alex] Turcotte, [Matthew] Boldy, and [Trevor] Zegras, the question mark is where they’re going to be drafted and in what order. But there’s some steadiness back there in a first-power-play-type guy in Cam York. I think Cam York is probably, if there is one, a secret on the team, because they look at our forwards so much.”
One of the most decorated U.S.-born goalies in NHL history, Vanbiesbrouck has a special appreciation for NTDP netminder Spencer Knight as well, with the Darien, Conn., native’s poise with the puck and mature approach to the game setting him up to likely become just the 10th American goalie ever selected in the first round.
The method by which the NTDP has built this marquee draft class is one all their own, grounded in gathering the best the country has to offer and throwing them into the fire together for a full season to grow and challenge each other.
It is, in fact, that foundational togetherness that is the key to the program’s success — collecting the best of the best is bound to create a successful team, but more importantly the thinking goes, it’s also bound to raise the level of each player on that team. The day-to-day becomes less a cakewalk through practices against lesser teammates and more an unending test against peers who can think the game at a similar level.
“It was a constant grind,” says NTDP U18 head coach John Wroblewski. “You have that built-in inner competition, not only for spots on the team, but just for supremacy. Who can shoot more pucks in the shooting room, who can stay on the ice longer — it was a constant teeter-totter of guys trying to jump over top of the guy next to them.”
And a constant grind, too, for a coaching staff tasked with trying to better a group of players already more advanced than the vast majority of prospects across the country.
“The thought process there is to challenge these guys with complicated, complex, challenging drills that we can come up with to enhance speed, power and creativity. And that’s a difficult venture with players as good as some of these guys were, because they would master certain items quicker than most groups would,” Wroblewski says. “So we’d constantly tweak and add different layers to what we were doing to keep these guys engaged.”
Game nights were a different animal altogether, with the high-flying NTDP squad always a date worth circling on opposing calendars.
“We never had easy games,” the coach recalls. “While there were some games that we’d pull away and the score would look lopsided, every team and every player that we played against went into those competitions with the utmost desire to perform, to compete, to show what they could do.”
But the focus for the NTDP isn’t necessarily on winning every game. It’s on using those experiences to shape and mold elite talent, on honing in on the details — hockey-related and otherwise — that wind up truly defining an individual, Wroblewski says. Those routinely tense affairs did serve as a useful education on the high-pressure nature of game days at the level his players are hoping to advance to. For Hughes, this was just one of many lessons in his crash course on fame as the No. 1-ranked prospect even before the 2018-19 season.
“For him, it wasn’t just one year. Sometimes the guys emerge during their draft year and become the No. 1 pick, they enter the conversation, but this has been ‘the Jack Hughes draft’ for a few years,” says Wroblewski. “I always believed in the talent, I always thought that there was a phenom there on the ice, but you’re never quite sure how a guy is going to be able to handle the rigours or stardom — the media, the scrutiny from other teams, the attention that he garnered from them, sometimes two or three players trying to hunt him down and take him out of competitions.
“The way he held through that, persevered, and then actually used it to his advantage throughout the course of the season, I thought was supremely impressive.”
The fruits of Hughes’ labour will soon be unleashed on the big leagues. Same goes for the NTDP, with the next crop of American stars beginning their NHL journey on Friday. The wave of on-ice American dominance has been building for a while now and this NTDP class is further evidence of that.
“You know, you could look at the [Stanley Cup finalist] Boston Bruins and say, there’s 14 players or so that are American-born on that team. You could never say that back 30 years ago — you were lucky to have two on a team,” Vanbiesbrouck says. “I don’t think that there’s any level of distraction away from an American-born player anymore — for that college-bound player, the fact that he’s not tough enough, or for a goalie, that he’s too soft, or for a defenceman, that he doesn’t think the game.
“I think we’ve removed all the criticism and the doubt.”