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American Eagles: Boston College Hit the NTDP Jackpot

The NCAA school has an impressive six recruits from USA Hockey's elite program, including the entire first line. How did they do it?
Ryan Leonard. Photo by Steven Ellis.

Ryan Leonard. Photo by Steven Ellis.

Look at the depth chart for the U18 U.S. National Team Development Program squad this season and you'll find a lot of intriguing prospects for the 2023 NHL draft. You're also going to see a bunch of Boston College logos on that sheet of paper.

In what can only qualify as an incredible coup for the Eagles, six of the NTDP's players are committed to Boston College, including the entire top line of Will Smith between Gabe Perreault and Ryan Leonard - all of whom could be first-rounders this summer. Will Vote rounds out the forward commits, while defensemen Aram Minnetian and Drew Fortescue are repping the future Eagles on the back end.

"They've progressed really well," said Boston College associate coach Brendan Buckley. "That group as a whole has improved a lot. Three of the forwards are right from our backyard; Massachusetts kids we had seen a bunch of as they were growing up in the area. The two defensemen played youth hockey with Mid Fairfield in Connecticut, which is close enough and they were always playing against Boston teams so a little bit lucky for us that we had good intel on some of those players early in the process."

The only forward not from Massachusetts is Perreault, an Illinois product whose Canadian father Yanic played in the NHL - and major junior before that. Perreault was the last of the six to decide on Boston College, but he certainly wasn't an afterthought for the Eagles.

"Whenever we went to watch the rest of the guys play, he always stood out as a kid with great hockey sense," Buckley said. "And it just so happened this year that he has played really well with two of the other guys coming in and they had great chemistry there. It was a natural fit on our end if he wanted to join them; it would benefit everybody."

But even with all those stars aligning for the Eagles, getting kids to actually commit means beating out some hefty competition from intra-city rivals such as Boston University and Northeastern, not to mention new cross-state powerhouse UMass and a world-famous school in Harvard.

"I always wanted to go to a Boston school," Leonard said. "It was just a matter of which one."

The high-motor right winger made campus visits to Boston College and, as an Amherst native, his home school UMass.

"He is as competitive as they get," Buckley said. "The first game I saw him, first period, he was the most physical guy on the ice and threw a big hit at center ice. And he can really shoot it - he can score goals from all over the ice, he does a good job on the penalty-kill and the power play. He's a 200-foot player for sure."

Leonard, who likes to watch NHLers such as Zach Hyman, Alex Tuch and Matthew Tkachuk, sits third in team scoring with 30 points through 19 games (behind lineys Smith and Perreault) and leads the NTDP with two shorthanded goals on the year. Chemistry has been key for his top unit.

"We work off each other really well," Leonard said. "We talk a lot on the bench, we're never satisfied and we always want to move forward."

When that line needs a puck transitioned out of the defensive zone or someone to jump into the rush, defenseman Minnetian is often the guy to do it. A great skater who grew up in New Jersey, Minnetian is a big Drew Doughty fan who played a lot of road games in Boston as a developing youth.

"BC was always the top school for me," he said. "I grew up watching them play, love the campus, love the city of Boston and grew up playing there a lot. It was a really easy decision for me."

Very much a modern-style defenseman, Minnetian will bring a lot of different skills to the Boston College blueline next season. He toured BC, BU, UMass and Michigan before ultimately tossing his lot in with the Eagles.

"He can really skate, he closes gaps well and does a really good job closing plays out in the D-zone," Buckley said. "He defends well with his feet and his stick, then when the opportunity is there, he can create offense by jumping up in the play."

So there's a lot to look forward to next year if you're an Eagles fan. This season, the team is finding its way in Hockey East, but the cycle of recruiting is always on the minds of the coaching staff, led by Greg Brown and associate coaches Buckley and Mike Ayers. Slotting in players for the future is always a moving target, especially for a name-brand program like Boston College that inevitably loses players early to NHL contracts: Technically, the Eagles could have still had Spencer Knight, Matthew Boldy and Alex Newhook on their squad this season.

Getting six players from the NTDP will certainly help ramp things up, as will continued growth from current freshman center Cutter Gauthier - himself an alum of 'The Program.' And having Gauthier go fifth overall to the Philadelphia Flyers before he stepped on campus certainly didn't hurt recruiting efforts, either.

But it's still a battle for the hearts and minds of the best teens from around the world for college recruiters. Boston College doesn't just have to beat out their Hockey East rivals for talent, but also the Denvers, North Dakotas and Michigans. That's where campus visits and the right pitch can make a difference.

"We're in an excellent league with Hockey East and the travel is unbelievably easy compared to some of the leagues the kids are coming from like the BCHL or USHL," Buckley said. "Some of our games are 10 minutes, 20 minutes away - we only have a few teams in our league where we spend a night in a hotel. Academically, Boston College is an unbelievable institution in terms of what you can use later in life and - I'm biased - but it's a great city with so much for the kids to do here. We're not right downtown, but it's maybe a $10 Uber ride if the kids want to go to a Bruins game, or check out a Red Sox game in the spring. Then you pull yourself out and you're on a super-nice campus with green grass; it's the best of both worlds."

Clearly that sort of pitch resonates and now the Eagles are looking at quite the influx of talent for the 2023-24 campaign, much of which comes from the NTDP.

"I knew as soon as I stepped on campus," Minnetian said. "When I walked into the locker room and walked around campus and saw how beautiful it was, I knew right away. It was the only place I got that feeling with. I actually told my parents as soon as I got in the car. We're trying to focus on this year (with the NTDP), but we do talk a little bit (about BC). We're all really excited and we know it's going to be a lot of fun."

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