I've had a few opportunities to see the NTDP U18 play this season via screen, but last Friday night against Minnesota was a rare opportunity for me to see the U18s play live.
Judging the team as a whole, I'd call this one of the stronger U18 teams in recent years. The strength of the team is definitely at forward, where they've got some legitimate superstars in Auston Matthews and Jeremy Bracco. There aren't many big NHL prospects on the blue line, but they're strong enough, and goaltending looks a bit better than what they have in an average year.
This is a heavily scrutinized bunch, as most of the players in their NHL Draft year. So I figured I'd give my thoughts on what I saw out of the team on Friday night, and how I see them projecting going forward.
Auston Matthews(2016 Draft eligible)- Matthews was good enough that I'll devote an entire post to him sometime before the World Juniors. But he's the top available player in 2016 right now, and I'm sticking with my assertion that he's a little bit ahead of where Jack Eichel was last year. Max Jones was great at the World U17 Challenge, but Matthews is the top overall prospect for 2016 right now.
Jordan Greenway-A big disappointment that Greenway didn't make the trip out to Minnesota due to injury. He's pretty solidly in the first round of the draft right now, and with his combination of size and soft hands, he should stay there. I had some concerns about his hockey sense last year, but he's too intriguing of a package to fall out of the first round of the Draft regardless.
Matthew Tkachuk(2016 Draft eligible)-There's no way he's the 6-1 he's listed at, but he's always been a kid that uses the size he has so effectively that he plays bigger than he actually is. He's a very smart player, so he's always around the puck, and uses body positioning very well. His great offensive instincts and excellent shot are going to make him an effective scorer at the next level. He's most likely in London next year, but should be a first round pick in 2016.
Jeremy Bracco-I've differed from NHL Central Scouting all year on Bracco in that I see him as a legitimate first round draft pick, and they don't. On Saturday night, he broke the NTDP career mark for most assists in program history, passing JD Forrest and Patrick Kane. I can understand the drawbacks. Bracco isn't very big, and he's definitely a wing, he doesn't quite have the footspeed to play up the middle. He's not much of a two-way player either. But every single time he touches the puck he's going to make a positive play with it. His hands and vision are so world-class that he's going to give you way more positive than negative every night. It's very tough to find players that can produce like that outside of the first round of the draft.
Colin White-White has slipped a little over the course of this past year from the early part of the first to the middle of the first round. There's a lot to like about White, but the slide is understandable. He does a lot of things very well. He's a strong skater, plays hard, and is very smart, including being responsible on the defensive end. He'll have no trouble playing center at the next level, which is not an easy thing to do. But I just don't see enough explosive offensive ability to justify going in the top ten of the Draft. A smart two-way center is always a valuable commodity, but he doesn't seem like a first line NHLer at this point.
Christian Fischer-I think I differ from the conventional wisdom a little bit on Fischer too. I've seen some people rank him late first round to early second round, and I haven't had him quite that high on my list. He's every bit of the 6-1 212 lbs. that he's listed at and uses it well. He hits, he protects the well along the boards. But the part that really intrigued me was that I thought he showed some really nice vision on a couple of passes. Still more of a second round-type pick for me, but I can see why people like him.
Casey Fitzgerald-Fitzgerald had a bit of an up-and-down game on Friday against Minnesota. He did some things really well, and had a few bad mistakes mixed in. He moves laterally very well, I loved his vision and passing ability. He made a lot of nice reads and outlet passes at his own blue line, which is a high-value skill. He could improve defensively in his own end a bit. But if he cleans up some of the mistakes he made and becomes a little more consistent, he could be a solid puck-moving defenseman at the pro level.
Troy Terry-I've been impressed with Terry since making the move to the NTDP this year. He's not playing a big scoring role on the team, but I think his skating has improved since joining the NTDP. He's always had good hands and a strong stick. He's just barely eligible for the 2015 Draft, so he's a young kid, and he appears to be trending in the right direction.
Luke Opilka-Opilka had a strong game for giving up four goals on 29 shots. The third goal he gave up was the only one I give him any sort of chance at saving. He was in good position and used his size to make a number of tough stops look easy. It seems like he's way bigger than the 6-0 he's listed at, which is a good thing for a goalie.
Joe Masonius- Masonius hasn't received much Draft attention; Central Scouting hasn't listed him on any of their preliminary rankings. But he played a strong game on Friday night, scoring a big goal on a nice shot in the third period, then setting up the game-tying goal with 1:30 remaining. He's not a big kid, and not superlatively fast for his size, but if he keeps making good decisions with the puck and creating offense, he'll be a kid worthy of a closer look for the NHL Draft.
Caleb Jones-Aside from jumping into the play for a nice goal, Jones had a pretty quiet game, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. He was solid and reliable all night. People hoping for another version of his older brother will be disappointed, but he'll be a very good player in his own right.
Brendan Warren-Warren has always been an excellent skater, and he showed a good compete level and willingness to work along the boards and go into rough areas along the ice. But he just hasn't developed into the scorer that many thought he would when he committed to Michigan at a young age. Warren held his own when he took a few shifts with the top scoring line, but he's not a player that's going to create a lot of offense for himself and others. He'll be a solid mid-round draft pick, but that lack of scoring upside will keep him from going really high in the draft.
Jack Roslovic-Roslovic has always been a player with great hands. Last year, he hadn't quite filled out enough to make a big impact with the U17 team. This year, he's added a little weight and made a bigger impact in some of the USHL games I've seen the NTDP play, but wasn't much of a factor against older, bigger NCAA competition. He's on the path, but he's not quite there yet. He still needs a few years to develop, but his playmaking ability is an exciting asset.
Steve Ruggiero-Ruggiero played strong, quiet, defensive hockey and he brings a nice physical element to his game. He could probably stand to become a more multi-dimensional player, but nobody is going to turn down a reliable defenseman.
Grant Gabriele-Central Scouting seems a little higher on Gabriele than I am. He's still very much a project because he needs to fill out a lot before he's really ready for the college level. I can certainly see his potential has a puck-moving offensive defenseman, but there's still a lot of blanks that need to be filled in
Nick Boka-Boka has missed a little time this season and wasn't quite at his sharpest here. I still like his upside and potential. He needs to get more reliable with the puck and sometimes gets caught watching in the defensive zone, but he's got all the physical tools.