America, it was beautiful. USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program had its best showing ever at the NHL draft this year, with 17 players hearing their names called. That meant nearly every eligible kid on the team (a couple had late birthdays and will be up in 2020 instead) got to put on an NHL jersey, and it started right at the top with first-overall selection Jack Hughes of the New Jersey Devils.
In the first round alone, the NTDP counted eight players, which was better than any league, let alone any team. So, yeah, these kids are pretty good.
For coach John Wroblewski, it looked promising right from the get-go. The squad, picked two summers ago in Michigan, was assembled quicker than usual with Hughes, Alex Turcotte and Trevor Zegras as the pillars at center. The competition was so intense that left winger Matthew Boldy – who was drafted 12th overall by Minnesota – almost didn’t make the final 40 for a tryout. But Boldy, who was only 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds at the time, convinced just enough staffers to get a golden ticket. Now, he’s a 6-foot-2, 192-pound scoring machine with a bright future ahead of him. “He was a Bambi-looking kid,” Wroblewski said. “But the package looked too good to pass up. He ate ‘The Program’ up with extra work, putting in the time to make sure his body was ready to go.”
All NTDP groups have the opportunity to be great, but this cohort in particular was spectacular. If you believe in the adage that “steel sharpens steel,” then the 2001 birth years are razor-sharp. “The practices were almost like games,” said Montreal Canadiens first-rounder Cole Caufield. “You’re competing for ice time. You’re competing for bragging rights. Every time you stepped on the ice, you wanted to prove to yourself and to your teammates that you’re still working. Everybody pushed each other.”
And with such a dazzling array of forwards to work with at practice, the NTDP defense corps and goalies were prepared for anything the opposition would throw at them in real games. “Going against Hughes, Turcotte and Boldy in practice, it’s going to challenge you and make you better in the long run,” said blueliner and Carolina Hurricanes third-rounder Domenick Fensore. “Pushing yourself to the limit makes you a better player overall.”
The team was so deep, a fourth-liner went in the first round. OK, that’s a little unfair, but it’s technically true: Johnny Beecher played a bottom-six role at center because of the team’s depth, but put the University of Michigan commit on any USHL team and he would have been, at worst, a second-line pivot. Needless to say, it didn’t matter to Beecher, who was chosen 30th overall by the Boston Bruins. “At the end of the day, more opportunities would have presented themselves if I had gone somewhere else, but I have no regrets,” he said. “I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else but ‘The Program.’ I love each and every one of my teammates, and our coaches were amazing. As far as I’ve come as a player and a person is something I couldn’t have gotten anywhere else.”
Wroblewski acknowledged the lack of ego it takes to fill such a role on a team and noted the conversations with players such as Beecher had to be delicate and built on trust. Plus, a player should see plenty of development if he concentrates on all the rep time he gets in practice. “You may only be getting 10 minutes of ice time less a week than other guys,” Wroblewski said. “So are you getting better on Friday and Saturday night, or in the seven or eight hours of practice during the week? These guys learned to scale down a lineup. That can be an important lesson as they get to the next level, where they might have to do it again.”
So other than being incredibly talented, why was this NTDP group so successful? Ask the kids and they’ll tell you that things started to gel early, in November of 2017. “The U-17 World Challenge was our first international tournament, and we ended up winning it,” Turcotte said. “That was a real turning point for us, and it brought us closer together.”
While many NTDP under-17 teams struggle, this incarnation won its first eight games of the season before dropping one to USHL Cedar Rapids right before the U-17s (where it went undefeated in seven contests). The team only had four losing streaks all year, none longer than three games. Compare that to the previous under-17 squad, which won only five of its first 15 games, and this past year’s edition, which won seven of 15.
As under-18s in 2018-19, this group beat NCAA-champion Minnesota-Duluth and hung 11 goals on USHL Youngstown and Central Illinois in consecutive games. The team was a juggernaut. “Everybody’s skill spoke for itself – you saw the success we had in both years,” Beecher said. “It can really be attributed to how hard we worked in practice. We were always battling and pushing each other to be our best. Everything was a competition and everybody wanted to win.”
The one letdown came at the world under-18s, where Team USA arrived as heavy favorites. Finland was without Kaapo Kakko, while Canada is always hampered by a lack of chemistry and prep time due to the CHL playoffs. But in the semifinal, the Americans ran into a phenom goalie in Russian 16-year-old Yaroslav Askarov, who dashed their dreams of gold with a 40-save performance and stopped all five Americans in the shootout for a 3-2 win.
In a way, the draft was bittersweet for the NTDP kids. Yes, 17 of them saw their lifelong aspirations of wearing NHL sweaters come true, but that new beginning meant the end of a very special time for the teens, who battled each other in basketball, golf and Fortnite when they weren’t at the rink.
“We’re all like 23 brothers,” Fensore said. “Leaving is going to be hard, not seeing these guys every day. We’ve seen each other every day for the past two years.”
Considering that 12 different NHL teams grabbed at least one member of the squad, there will be a lot of NHL games-turned-reunions in a few years.
This was a special U.S. NTDP group, and though it didn’t win gold at the world under-18s, we can still hand out some accolades. So here are some awards, just for fun, with input from the team itself:
“He’s not going to let off the gas,” said defenseman Domenick Fensore. “If we keep looking up to him, we’ll all be pretty good.”
“I just want to be the best – that’s my motivation,” Turcotte said. “I know I can annoy my teammates in practice sometimes, but I think they appreciate it, because it pushes them, too.”
Hardest Defenseman to practise against
“He came in as an ultimately skilled player with every offensive quality you’d want,” said coach John Wroblewski. “He turned himself into a complete and, I believe, an underrated 200-foot player.”
“A lesser individual might have crumbled under that disappointment and stress,” Wroblewski said. “For Alex to hit the ice flying, then deal with a nagging (hip) injury until Christmas, some guys might’ve been apprehensive or grip their stick tight upon returning, but he persevered.”
Best Fortnite player
“He’s a goal-scorer and a tough guy,” Fensore said. “He’ll block a shot with his neck if he has to. I love him.”
“To win championships and games you need a close, tight-knit group in the room, and that’s what he brings,” said Johnny Beecher. “He’s one of the most fun guys I’ve been around. And on the ice, he’s going to do whatever he can to help his team win.”