The USA National Team Development Program returned to the NAHL Showcase for the first time since 2009 this past weekend to play exhibition games against the Austin Bruins and Minnesota Magicians.
The last NTDP U17 that played at the Showcase was the ‘93 birth year—this year was all players born in 2001—and it was interesting comparing the two. Foremost, it highlights how much younger and how much more guesswork is involved in recruiting. The ‘93s came to the Showcase with just four players already committed to a college. This year, only two players on the NTDP roster don’t already have a college commitment, and it’s certainly not for lack of options with either.
The difference in maturity was quite evident too. I wrote about the ‘93s being completely overmatched against the older competition of the NAHL. This year, it felt like the opposite. Part of that is because the ‘93s weren’t a particularly skilled group(and history has kind of bore that out), whereas I think this age group is very good. But what stands out is just how much more developed this group was. I think it speaks to how much more serious the U16 age bracket has gotten in recent years, with getting top kids to play high level hockey with better coaching at a younger age. I’m not sure if it’s creating better long-term results necessarily, but it’s certainly getting kids to a higher level faster.
This year’s group of U17s looked really good. After being relatively unimpressed the past two seasons, I really liked this team. It looks like a very mature group, and one of the deepest groups the program has had in recent history. There weren’t many weak links in the group.
After opening the season with an impressive 12-1 win over the Minnesota Wilderness last week, the U17s had a little tougher time with the other two Minnesota teams in the league. They grinded out a one goal win over the Austin Bruins on Friday night, and had a one goal lead with three minutes to play against the Magicians before tacking on two late insurance goals on the power play for a 7-4 win.
They dressed all 13 forwards and all eight defensemen both nights. The D pairings were mostly consistent, while the lines were mixed and matched all weekend experimenting with chemistry, and they didn’t shorten the bench at all. They also had the two goalies split both games for some reason, with the second goalie in giving up a goal on the first shot he faced in both games.
Talent-wise, I really like the forwards up the middle in this group; the wings were just okay. The defense is very deep and solid. They remind me a bit of the ‘98 age group where there’s maybe not an elite high-first round NHL pick in the group, but there’s likely three or four second/third round picks. Goalies are always tough to judge, but they looked promising here despite some average numbers.
They were pretty sound in terms of system play too. On Friday night, Austin tried to slow them down with an ultra-conservative 0-2-3 set-up in the neutral zone that they were able to pick apart with a few well-executed stretch passes, and were otherwise effective moving the puck through the neutral zone all weekend. The defense gave up a lot of odd-man rushes, but that’s to be expected with kids at a new level testing the limits of what they can get away with.
Here were my thoughts on each of the players individually.
Jack Hughes(Uncommitted)- What a dynamic and special offensive talent. He’s got so many tools. Light, quick feet with great balance that allows him to separate his hands from his feet and make plays at a high speed. His vision and hockey sense are incredible too. The only thing that might keep him from putting up Matthews/Keller-type statistics at the NTDP is that I’m not sure he has a Tkachuk or Bellows-type scorer to feed the puck to to rack up easy points. He looks like a top-5 NHL Draft pick.
Cole Caulfield(Ohio State)-Another really fun player to watch. He’s listed at 5-6 146 lbs., but he’s super strong for his size and plays with an incredible motor. He picked up four goals on the weekend and looks like the best natural finisher on the team. Long-term, his size may scare some NHL teams, but he reminds me a lot of Nate Gerbe, who had an effective NHL career at a similar size.
Matthew Boldy(Boston College)-Boldy was my favorite of the team’s wings. He’s got a great first step for his size that allows him to win a lot of pucks and is very active and involved in the play.
John Beecher(Michigan)-Beecher is a kid that definitely has all the tools. He’s got prototypical pro size as the biggest winger on the team, and a good skill set to go along with it, but was fairly quiet in both games this weekend. It’s still their first weekend, so there may be an adjustment period. If he can start to play to his potential, he’s got a really high ceiling.
Judd Caulfield(North Dakota)- A big power forward that can mix a heavy physical game with some good puckhandling skills. The game is still moving a little too fast for him after making the jump from North Dakota high school hockey, but once he settles in and adjusts, he has a lot of high-end pro upside.
Trevor Zegras(Boston University)-A crafty offensive player with a good stick, and still has a lot of room to fill out. He looks like he has potential as a really nice supporting piece in this group.
Alex Turcotte(Wisconsin)-Turcotte showed some flashes of the parts of his game I liked so much last season, specifically his great hands, body control, and ability to make plays at speed. But playing at the junior level this past weekend, everything had to be sped up just a bit more, which threw the timing off, and nothing quite seemed to be working for him. Again, it’s early, and the potential is there for him to really start to excel in a few months.
Danny Weight(Boston College)-Not a terrific skater, but I like his hockey sense and the decisions he makes with the puck. He’s more effective offensively than some of the faster players around him.
Michael Gildon(Uncommitted)-Gildon was effective here using his speed and aggressiveness. He’s not going to make a lot of skilled offensive plays, but has potential to be one of the better wingers on the team if he continues doing dirty work in tough areas.
Owen Lindmark(Wisconsin)-A good skater with a little offensive upside. He’ll be an effective lower line player for this team.
Sean Farrell(Harvard)-A young kid that still needs to fill out, but I like the way he plays with the puck on his stick. He moves it around well and can get off a nice shot.
Patrick Moynihan(Boston College)-Not the most exciting prospect, but he played a solid, responsible game.
Ryder Rolston(Notre Dame)-Rolston was probably the rawest player when this team was selected last spring—he’s one of only two late birthdays on the team—and that’s still the case. It’s going to take him some time to catch up to what is an already fairly developed group of teammates.
Cam York(Boston College)- He makes the game look so easy. He has incredible poise for his age. He’s outstanding at evading pressure then making a play with the puck. I don’t think he has high-end offensive upside, but he’s picking up a lot of points just by playing in the other team’s end a lot and making smart decisions with the puck.
Henry Thrun(Harvard)-Much like York, he’s just so smart and rock solid. There’s not much offensive flair to his game, but he’s always making nice plays to make his team better. He’s a guy they’ll be able to lean on in tight situations.
Alex Vlasic(Boston University)-It’s incredible how far he has come since he played at the NAHL Showcase last season. He started to grow into his long, lanky frame and his feet have started to catch up to the rest of his body. He’s a 6-5 defender with the ability to be a really effective power play guy. He definitely has the most upside of anyone on the blue line.
Drew Helleson(Boston College)- Helleson’s style of play is more aggressive in terms of pushing the puck up the ice and trying to create offensively. It was a bit rough at times with him getting caught out of position trying to force something that wasn’t there, but knowing when to pick those spots to jump up into the play is something that is going to take a little longer to develop.
Marshall Warren(Harvard)-My big concern with Warren last season was a tendency to get caught out of position, and then use his superior athleticism to catch up. That was the case a few times here, except it’s a lot tougher to recover from those mistakes at this level. Once he adjusts a bit, he should be a very solid option.
Case McCarthy(Boston University)-I had a few small pluses and a few small minuses, but for the most part, he played a quiet, steady overall game.
Dominic Fensore(Quinnipiac)-Does pretty much everything you’d want a smaller defenseman to do. He skates well, he moves the puck well, he plays with a little edge to his game on the defensive end. Overall, a very solid performance.
Ryan Siedem(Boston College)-A very solid option as the team’s eighth defenseman. There’s nothing overly flashy about the way he plays, but he’s a decent, fairly quiet defensive defenseman.
Spencer Knight(Boston College)-I liked him as the better of the two goalies. A bit shaky coming in midway through the Austin game, but settled down and made some huge saves to preserve a one goal lead late in that game. He’s very aggressive in handling the puck, which cost him a cheap goal on Saturday, but overall should be an asset.
Cameron Rowe(Omaha)-Not as flashy as Knight was, but he’s got good size and decent positioning. He should mature into a pretty good goalie.