NHL Draft Notebook
Day for the Red, White and Blue
Draft offers further evidence that U.S.
NTDP is coming of age
By Mike Eidelbes
|First overall pick Erik Johnson
was one of six players selected in the first round of
the 2006 NHL Draft to have played for the U.S. National
Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich.
VANCOUVER, B.C. – As one drives south
from downtown Vancouver, the hazy visage of Mt. Rainier,
though more than 200 miles away, looms majestically in the
distance. A similar scene played out at Saturday’s
2006 National Hockey League Entry Draft as U.S.-born players
dominated the landscape at GM Place much like the volcanic
monolith across the border.
The run on the boys in red, white, and blue
started as expected when U.S. National Team Development
Program defenseman Erik Johnson, who’ll be a freshman
at Minnesota in the fall, was chosen by St. Louis with the
first overall pick. Another Gopher, forward Phil Kessel,
was taken by Boston at No. 5. Two spots later, the new-look
New York Islanders tabbed Gopher No. 3 – incoming
freshman forward Kyle Okposo – with the seventh selection.
By the time the first round drew to a close,
a record 10 U.S. citizens had heard their names called.
Heck, Jefferson H.S. in Bloomington, Minn., produced as
many top-30 selections – Johnson and former Minnesota
recruit Peter Mueller, who opted to continue his career
with Everett (Wash.) in the Western Hockey League –
as the Czech Republic and Russia.
Just as impressive was the number of players
chosen who had ties to the U.S. National Team Development
Program, the centralized training program for the country’s
top junior-aged players launched by USA Hockey nearly a
decade ago. A dozen prospects who had participated in the
Ann Arbor, Mich.-based program were selected in the draft’s
first three rounds. On occasion, there were so many former
NTDP alums congregated in the GM Place interview area the
place looked like a family reunion, with everyone exchanging
congratulations, handshakes and hugs.
“The development program is one of the
things that shaped me into the player that I am,”
said Johnson, responding to one of the first questions asked
by a member of the media shortly after he was drafted by
“I always knew there was a path to success
in hockey,” said Boston University-bound defenseman
Brian Strait, who captained the U.S. team to a gold medal
at the World Under-18 Championships in Sweden this spring.
“The [NTDP] was on that path.”
The path wasn’t always smooth. When
USA Hockey first hatched the national team concept, it was
met with skepticism by a number of observers and resistance
from others who believed plucking the top teen skaters from
across the country and bringing them to Ann Arbor would
hurt the traditional developmental routes (the United States
Hockey League and prep circuits in Minnesota and New England).
A valid concern at the time? Perhaps, but USA Hockey president
Ron DeGregorio theorizes the opposite may be true.
“In some ways, maybe [creating the NTDP]
enhanced it,” he explained. “It provided another
option, and that made those other options like the USHL
and high school leagues improve their product as well. That’s
the American way.
“The National Team Development Program
is the West Point of hockey in the United States. There’s
a standard and every player how comes through is held to
that high standard.”
To a man, the NTDP alums in Vancouver credited
the program’s focus on strength and conditioning as
the biggest factor for their continued growth as players.
“We’d always have a set schedule
for training up there every day,” goaltender Joe Palmer,
who’ll attend Ohio State, said. “With the intensity
and the pace, it’s definitely an advantage compared
to what you’d normally do as far as conditioning.”
Despite all the successes of the past decade,
there’s still room for growth – DeGregorio says
the need for developing goalies and players with better
one-on-one skills remains unfulfilled – but if Saturday’s
draft is any indication, options like the NTDP have allowed
U.S.-born players to gain equal footing with prospects from
around the world.
“The program exists to win medals and
develop players,” said defenseman Mike Ratchuk, a
second-round pick by Colorado who’ll attend Michigan
State this fall. “They’ve been doing their job,
because it seems to have worked pretty well so far.”
SEEN AND HEARD AT GM PLACE
|Welcome to the show: The Montreal
media put defenseman David Fischer, who will play at
Minnesota this fall, on the spot early.
Loves Grand Forks – It's a difficult question
for any 18-year-old to field, let alone one who was a high
pick in a professional sports draft. But so often, the first
question a prospect hears upon meeting with the media is,
are you going to sign with (insert team name here) and start
your pro career next season?
Credit to North Dakota's Jonathan Toews for
handling that grenade like a White House spin doctor by
turning it into a soliloquy on the virtues of life in Grand
"I loved my year this year. It was awesome
playing for the Sioux," said Toews, who was grabbed
by Chicago with the third overall pick. "If I don’t
feel I’m ready and I can’t be an impact player
and not bouncing up and down between the minors and stuff,
the place I want to be is at North Dakota. Until I feel
I can make the next step appropriately, I think I’ll
have a great time [at North Dakota] working and improving
Fighting Sioux coach Dave Hakstol, who was
at GM Place Saturday, says he doesn't harbor hard feelings
toward those who immediately throw out the jump-to-the-NHL-immediately
"Those are questions you have to deal
with both as an athlete and with your program, and those
are things that we talk about throughout the year,"
said Hakstol. "This is a pretty special day for Jonathan
and his family and it’s something for them to enjoy
and take it in for all that it’s worth.”
Avoids the Crusaders – Outside of Johnson
and perhaps second overall pick Jordan Staal, the brother
of Carolina Hurricane Eric Staal, Kessel generated the most
media interest. But as reporters from various outlets ringed
him two or three people deep at times, this year’s
WCHA rookie of the year spoke in hushed tones, perhaps relieved
that the constant swirl of expectations, speculation, rumors
and innuendo that's followed him for the better part of
two years will now finally die down. At times, he was barely
He did manage a wry grin, however, when a
reporter asked if he’ll swing by the campus of Holy
Cross in Worcester, Mass., the next time he visits Boston.
The Crusaders, of course, bounced Kessel’s Gophers
from the first round of this year’s NCAA Tournament.
“I’m gonna steer clear of that
place,” Kessel said. “They did a number on me.”
for Diving – Diving may be verboten in today’s
NHL, but swimming is obviously allowed. Four prospects mentioned
that they spent time prior to the draft in the pool, but
it was anything but a relaxing soak.
“My little cousins wanted to go swimming,”
Kessel reported, “so I went swimming with them.”
At another Vancouver hotel, Johnson, Minnesota
freshman-to-be Kyle Okposo and Toews engaged in a friendly
competition that involved throwing a quarter into the water.
“We all go underwater with goggles and
try to catch it before it hits the bottom, and we fight
for it." Okposo, a foward who chosen by the New York
Islanders at No. 7, said. "There might have been a
few bruises here and there, but it was all in good fun.”
with Sweaters – In an arena dotted with fans
wearing sweaters from a gaggle of NHL teams and clubs from
the major junior ranks, a couple teenagers clad in the Columbia
blue jerseys of the Jefferson H.S. Jaguars (located in the
Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington) stood out, especially
when they cheered loudly after Erik Johnson’s name
was announced. Turns out the pair – one of whom, Ben
Roberts, is the son of former NHLer Gordie Roberts –
are friends of Johnson’s from Minnesota
“They were coming out here to visit
their grandparents, so they decided to stop by the draft
and I gave them a couple of my old Jefferson jerseys to
cheer me on.”
Fischer – He may not have been the most talented
player in the draft, but Apple Valley (Minn.) H.S. defenseman
David Fischer, another Minnesota-bound prospect who went
to Montreal with the 20th overall pick, might have been
the funniest. Among the gems unleashed by the guy who says
his nickname is "Fishdaddy:"
Position? – Future Michigan defenseman Chris
Summers, another U.S. NTDP product, was asked whether he
saw his future with the Wolverines as a forward or on the
blue line. Summers, selected by Phoenix with the 29th overall
pick in the first round, played well up front in fill-in
duty at the World Under-18 Championship in Sweden in April,
an event won by the U.S. team.
"I heard a rumor I was going to play
goalie," Summers said, drawing laughs from the half-dozen
or so reporters surrounding him. Given the travails Michigan
experienced between the pipes last season, more than a few
Yost denizens might encourage him to strap on the pillows.
• Pass the
Mic – Prior to the draft’s start,
a roll call is conducted to ensure the teams are in place
and their communications systems are working. Anaheim, the
first team to check in, did so accordingly. During the ensuing
silence, a lone voice from the GM Place rafters shouted,
“We love you, Brian Burke,” a paean to the ex-Providence
Friar and former Canucks general manager. Similar bouquets
were not directed toward the team's current GM, Maine alum
Avs on D – Suddenly, Colorado has become
an unofficial haven for ex-college offensive defensemen.
Provided the Avalanche resigns former Bowling Green standout
Rob Blake, who is an unrestricted free agent, the team will
boast an impressive triumvirate of Blake, ex-Michigan Stater
John-Michael Liles and Jordan Leopold. The 2002 Hobey Baker
Award winner and former Minnesota captain was dealt to Colorado
by Calgary along with a pair of second-round draft picks
in exchange for wing Alex Tanguay.
The Avalanche also holds the rights of recently
graduated Wisconsin All-American rearguard Tom Gilbert and
Saturday added a pair of incoming college freshmen to their
stable by taking Nigel Williams (Wisconsin) in the second
round and adding Kevin Montgomery (Ohio State) in round