The North American Hockey League held their annual Showcase last weekend at the Schwan's Super Rink in Blaine, Minnesota. Among the over 300 scouts in attendance at the event were scouts from nearly every NHL team, with many teams sending multiple sets of eyes, all trying to identify some diamonds in the rough for next summer's NHL Draft.
Much has been made of the USHL's tremendous success at the NHL Draft in recent years. A growing US talent base is generally cited as the reason. And that's true to an extent. And the league does a good job developing the talent they have. But the real secret to why the USHL has became such a dominant force on Draft Day is the tremendous strides they've made in consolidating talent within the United States. Their scouting and recruiting have gotten so good, and players are so strongly encouraged by other various interests to play at the highest competition level possible that they're pretty much getting their pick of the top draft-eligible talent. If a player from a different league is going to be considered for the draft, usually one of the first questions that has to be asked is, 'If he's that good, why isn't he playing in the USHL?'
For the NAHL, that's always been the case to a large extent, outside of in goal where the barrier to entry in the USHL can be difficult to meet for a 17-year-old goalie. And once again, it appears that some young goalies provide the NAHL's best chance for success on Draft Day. But it also appears this phenomenon has reached critical mass with the Upper Midwest Elite League. I wouldn't call it likely--somebody will emerge as the season progresses--but I would say it's a distinct possibility that no player in this year's Elite League is selected in the 2016 NHL Draft. That includes Shattuck-St. Mary's, whose Prep team appears to be the weakest in my memory, while a roster of former players that could have been on this team looks unstoppable.
That's not to say there wasn't any draft-worthy talent at the event. There were a lot of what I would call 'incomplete players'--players with some intriguing abilities, but that haven't quite put it all together yet to be considered surefire draft picks. There are also guaranteed to be some second and third-year eligible players that emerge over the course of the long season similar to draft picks like Jake Kupsky and Ivan Chukarov last season.
Here's a list of six players that intrigued me the most at this year's NAHL Showcase, and are worth keeping eye on throughout the season as potential NHL Draft picks.
Tyler Johnson-G-Topeka Road Runners-He got roughed up in his first NAHL game against Wichita Falls last week, so it might take a while for his numbers to bounce back, but has given up a total of two goals in the three games since, including two solid performances at the Showcase. He's got good size at 6'3" and is extremely aggressive in his positioning in the crease which makes him look even bigger. He's always at the top of his crease challenging shooters and there just aren't that many holes for them to hit. He also showed pretty good athleticism to recover when necessary. He may need some work to become consistent but appears to have a lot of upside.
Jack LaFontaine-G-Janesville Jets- LaFontaine is another big, young goalie that is a good example of why the NAHL is such a good league for Draft-eligible goalies. LaFontaine was drafted and protected by the Fargo Force in the USHL, but they opted to keep two older goalies on the main roster. LaFontaine should see more playing time and have a lot more success in the NAHL this year. He's not super athletic, but is a very technically sound goalie. He showed a nice glove hand but otherwise isn't likely to make a lot of great saves, but he'll make all the saves that he should. Also to his advantage is that he is a very good puckhandler and isn't afraid to leave his net to make a play.
Casey Staum-D-Elite League Southwest- If any player out of the Elite League gets drafted this upcoming summer, Staum is probably the best bet right now. Even though Team Southwest had an ugly weekend, Staum acquitted himself well. He's a very fluid skater with excellent footwork and he moves the puck effectively. He reportedly picked up some major NCAA offers over the weekend and should be making a college commitment soon.
Rourke Russell-D-Wichita Falls-I liked Russell a lot last year at the U16 level and he had a decent performance here moving up to the junior level. He's a smooth skater with quick hands and a strong stick. He'll still have to adjust to the pace and physicality of the NAHL, but he's listed at 170 lbs. right now and it's not difficult to imagine him being a force once he adds a little more muscle, especially in his lower body, and starts playing at 185-190 lbs.
Dalton Gally-D-Austin Bruins-Gally is an athletic rangy 6'4" defenseman that is a physical presence on the blue line. There's not much more to his game than that right now, but it's possible a team could be interested in his raw physical tools, especially if he takes off as the year progresses.
Joey Kubachka-F-Wilkes-Barre-Kubachka is a bigger winger that is at his best when he can use his size around the boards to battle for pucks. He handles the puck well for a bigger forward too, so there are some tools for a potential power forward. But he'll need to work on getting faster, playing with the puck on his stick more, and improving defensively.