The US National Team Development Program made their only trip of the year to the state of Minnesota this past weekend, where they played two games against teams from the Upper Midwest High School Elite League.
It's still very early in their season, but so far, the U17s have been off to a sizzling start. Most notably, they had a 12-1 thrashing of the Janesville Jets of the NAHL in their first ever game(though tied them the next night), but they also already have three wins against two losses against USHL competition, which is significant, because it usually takes the U17s a couple months to get their footing in the USHL against the talented, and older competition. There was speculation when this team was put together that this could be one of the stronger groups to come through the program, and so far, they're off to a pretty good start.
They added to their win total on the season with wins over the Elite League's Team Southeast on Saturday, and Team Northeast on Sunday. I was at both games, and here were my thoughts...
I expected the blue line to be the strength of this team, and overall they looked pretty good. This weekend was my first chance to see Boston College uber-recruit Noah Hanifin. Skill-wise, he's one of the most talented kids I've ever seen at this age. He's a really solid 6'2" 205 lbs, moves well and hits hard. Offensively, he's a great puck-handler and sees the ice and anticipates plays very well. This weekend wasn't his best performance. He got caught being way too aggressive offensively a couple times in each game, leading to odd-man rushes the other way But once he learns to pick his spots a little better and not try to do too much, he's got the complete package. He'll be in the same NHL Draft as Connor McDavid, so he's not going to be the #1 overall pick, but could potentially go anywhere after that.
Just behind Hanifin is Zach Werenski, who, in any other year, would be getting way more attention as a potential first round NHL Draft pick. Just like Hanifin, Werenski is a smooth skater, has great lateral movement, and can be a punishing hitter. He also showed a willingness to jump into the play, and tended to pick his spots a lot better than Hanifin did, never really getting caught behind the play. His offensive abilities aren't quite where Hanifin is yet, but he's also a really special talent.
Behind the big two, there's a lot of talent with great potential still trying to find its' way against stiffer competition. That's to be expected for young defensemen in the first half of their U17 year, though Hanifin and Werenski kind of wreck the curve. The team rolled through eight defensemen all weekend which can kind of hurt the rhythm of the game for some players. There's a really nice mix of size with some bigger kids like Nick Boka(Michigan) and Christian Evers(North Dakota) with some quicker puck-moving D like Casey Fitzgerald and Charlie McAvoy. About the only concern I have about this group is that it's only a matter of when, not if, Hanifin and Werenski get called up to play for the U18 team this year, which could leave this group looking a little thinner.
The biggest surprise to me was how good the forwards were. I expected a decent group, but not necessarily one that had a dominating first line. Instead, on this weekend at least(and you probably have to take the competition into consideration), I would say they had two first lines.
Line 1A saw Colin White(Boston College) centering Jeremy Bracco(Harvard) and Luke Kirwan. On Saturday, it was showtime any time these three hit the ice. There's just a perfect balance on this line. Bracco is a smooth, flashy offensive player with really slick hands. Kirwan is a big, bruising power forward that does a lot of the dirty work. And White is just a solid all-around centerman that makes everyone around him look better.
Line 1B featured Matthew Tkachuk(Notre Dame) centering his linemate from last year, Luke Kunin(Wisconsin) and Christian Fischer(Notre Dame). On Sunday, this line was absolutely dominant. All three kids are tenacious along the boards, and move the puck really well amongst each other, and all three kids know how to put the puck in the net. Tkakchuk has grown quite a bit since I saw him last spring, and if he continues to get a little bigger, he should be a really big time prospect.
The third line was made up of Brendan Warren(Michigan) centering Jordan Greenway and Dennis Yan. Individually, this was maybe the most skilled line the team has, but somehow it never quite added up to much this weekend. Greenway has the most pro potential of any forward on the team. He's huge a 6'4", and has lost a lot of the baby fat he had when he younger, with exceptionally soft hands. He doesn't quite think the game fast enough yet to fully take advantage of his gifts though. Warren is a really strong skater, and quick hands. Yan is a deadly finisher, but doesn't quite give the same effort on the defensive end that he does on the offensive end. The big problem is that this group lacks a strong puck mover like the top two lines have, and they never add up to more than the sum of their parts.
The fourth line is a kind of a mix with a skill player in Jack Roslovic(Miami) centering grinders Michael Floodstrand(Harvard) and Brody Stevens, who is playing while Auston Matthews recovers from injury. Effort is no question with this group, but it's going to take them some time to mature before they're ready to be really effective at this level.
The one area where it's definitely too early to make any judgements is in goal. Both Michael Lackey(Princeton) and Luke Opilka(Wisconsin) got some time in goal, and the results weren't particularly pretty for either. Both kids are big, pro-style goalies, and while they each made a couple nice saves, it felt like every quality scoring chance the US gave up was going in the back of the net. Goalies develop much slower than skaters, and it's just going to take them some time working with the NTDP coaches to get things figured out.