The BioSteel All-American Prospect Game at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, Mich., replaced the USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game and the USHL Top Prospects Game, which allowed for more prospects to be split up between two events. The new format saw the Under-18 USA Hockey National Team Development Program take on the top NHL draft-eligible players from the USHL, going under the team names of Team Knuble (U.S. NTDP) and Team Gomez (USHL). Team Knuble was dominant from the get-go, taking the 6-1 victory in the showcase event.
But like the CHL and CJHL contests, the score only mattered so much. The event was all about evaluating talent. At this point in the year, NHL scouts have a solid grasp on the top performers, so exhibitions such as this help confirm thoughts about the individual players. Nobody jumps up the draft rankings dramatically, but surprise performances can help fringe players. A three-point night likely helped Hunter Strand's situation, but he's not eligible until 2021. The real focus was on the 2020 draft, and despite the fact the American draft class is slightly weaker than it was last year when 11 United States products were drafted in the first round, there was still some notable talent on display ahead of what is being called the strongest draft since 2003.
Here's a look at 10 of the best performers from Monday evening:
Jake Sanderson, D (NHL CS Rank: 11)
Sanderson was the highlight of the showcase, throwing big hits, skating long lengths with the puck and making highlight-reel passes. He was the easy choice for MVP. The top American for the 2020 draft, Sanderson is a smart defenseman who knows when to take risks and has a backup plan if those risks don't pan out. As he showcased Monday, Sanderson uses his speed to put create opportunities and wastes no time getting back in position after a rush. The son of former NHLer Geoff Sanderson, the 17-year-old is everything you want out of a modern-day defenseman and will be a big addition in a draft where defense takes a backseat to pure offensive talent.
Ty Smilanic, C (NHL CS Rank: 18)
The 2019-20 season hasn't been kind to Smilanic, who has missed a combined 13 games due to a sprained ankle, mononucleosis and a broken finger. In fact, he skated in Monday's contest with a finger cast, but it didn't seem to stop him from being one of Team Knuble's most noticeable players. Through all the injuries, Smilanic has been solid with 14 points in 21 games with the U-18 team, this after his 20 goals and 38 points were one shy of the team scoring lead last season. In terms of pure goal-scorers, Smilanic is one of the best options from the United States. Once he's back to full health, fans will get a better look at his ability.
Thomas Bordeleau, C (NHL CS Rank: 26)
A dual citizen of Canada and the United States (his dad, Sebastien, actually represented France internationally), Bordeleau helped set up Luke Tuch's goal in the second period to negate any momentum Team Knuble may have had. The playmaking center might be the best passer in the country and easily one of the best playmakers in the draft, as shown by a few crafty give-and-go plays Monday. A smart two-way center, Bordeleau has improved his strength over the past few years. He doesn't get knocked around as often as he did back in midget AAA.
Brendan Brisson, C (NHL CS Rank: 31)
Despite a scoreless outing in Plymouth, Brisson has had a wild few weeks. Brisson was the best player at the World Junior A Challenge with five goals and 12 points, and prior to the all-star outing on Monday, Brisson was coming off of a five-point run in two games with USHL Chicago. Not a big kid at 5-foot-11, Brisson showcased excellent speed and skill with the puck and had a few nice rushes in the first half of Monday's battle. It would be great if he had a bit more size, but Brisson has raw talent.
Luke Tuch, LW (NHL CS Rank: 35)
It might be a lazy comparison, but Luke plays a game very similar to that of his older brother, Vegas Golden Knights forward Alex. A big, 6-foot-2 forward, Tuch is a strong kid who creates havoc around the crease and he was rewarded with a goal in the second period. A Boston University commit for 2021, Tuch puts a lot of power behind his shot and he moves well for a big kid, too. Knocking the puck off of him is a challenge.
Brett Berard, RW (NHL CS Rank: 36)
Berard is this year's "good player, but quite small" option on the U.S. NTDP, and he showcased how impactful he can be with a goal and an assist Monday. Tiny yet shifty, Berard got his goal on a breakaway on his first shift of the game and was buzzing around the net for the remainder of the night. Berard has 14 goals with the program this year, trailing Bordeleau by one for the team lead. Most notably, Berard's 12 goals at 5-on-5 and four game-winning goals put him first in both categories. Berard will fall down the draft rankings due to his size, but he's a solid middle-six scoring option.
Tyler Kleven, D (NHL CS Rank: 44)
Sanderson's biggest competition for the top defenseman on the U.S. NTDP, Kleven had a goal and an assist and showcased his blast of a shot from the point on more than one occasion. Monday's contest was a big one for Kleven, who recorded two points for the first time in junior hockey. He's not a high-output defenseman – his 16 points in 85 games with the program confirms that – but Kleven's real skill is his lateral quickness and smooth stride, a great quality in a 6-foot-4 and 201-pound defender. Kleven isn't afraid to get physical along the boards and while he doesn't put many pucks in the net, he's deceptive with the puck and can drag opponents long enough before making a smart pass.
Sean Farrell, LW (NHL CS Rank: 53)
Also a member of the stacked Chicago USHL team, Farrell didn't put a point on the board but his play away from the puck was notable. The 5-foot-9 forward possesses great speed and was always on the attack. He had a few noteworthy breakout passes, too. Farrell is a strong passer, as shown by his league-leading 30 assists and 40 points in 28 games. His 1.50 points-per-game average is good for 10th among non-U.S. NTDP USHLers since 1999-00 and there are no signs he's slowing down. As long as he continues to improve in his own zone, Farrell will be a good value pickup at the draft.
Drew Commesso, G (NHL CS Rank: 2G)
Commesso, a Boston University commit for 2020, was actually the quietest goalie on Monday, but of his 10 stops, there were a few big ones that stood out. Specifically, a pair of breakaway saves in the first period that kept the game tied at one. Obviously, it's still early, but Commesso's .921 save percentage in 17 games with the U-18 team this year ties John Gibson for the best mark in program history among goalies with at least 15 stars. That's a showcase of some upside given the U-18 team's overall weaknesses compared to the powerhouse team from last year. The best 2002-born goalie in the country, Commesso is confident and doesn't let a bad goal get to him.
Gunnarwolfe Fontaine, LW (NHL CS Rank: 212)
Fontaine didn't find the scoresheet – that's going to happen when your team's only goal comes with the man advantage – but he had a couple close calls in the second half of Monday's game and a few exciting moves up his sleeve. The 5-foot-9 forward plays a similar style to Brisson: speed, speed and more speed. Fontaine made major noise at the World Junior A Challenge with 10 points, including a late game-tying goal and the overtime winner in a 5-4 thriller over the Czech Republic in December. And, yes, he has the best name in the draft.
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