In this year's Stanley Cup Final series between the Devils and Kings we were guaranteed to have an American raising the Cup. Three of the final four teams had American captains. It’s just one more sign pointing to an American explosion in the sport.
For our 8th Scouting Session we’ll focus on the rise of the American hockey player. There’s a growing pool of talent that seems to be closing the gap on our neighbors to the north.*
*(Yes Canada, relax...we know the gap is still wider than the Niagara, but just let us be here ok? I’ll make you a deal...go ahead and wage battle Jim Rome Show style in the comments section if you’d like. US v. Canada)
Jeremy: Kris, as you watch juniors all over Canada and feeder leagues into that...would you say it’s clear that the United States is gaining on Canada in terms of the talent pool?
Kris: Yeah I think so. Definitely gaining and there are a lot of contributing factors. It’s happening at the draft and at the development ranks. USA Hockey has done a really good job of developing talent. There’s been a lot of success in juniors tournaments, but it starts even younger than that. They have this thing called the American Development Model. It starts much younger than in years past. USA Hockey has its act together.
The proof is in the pudding. Team USA has won four STRAIGHT gold medals in the IIHF Under-18 World Championship. You don’t always get Canada’s best team in that tournament because the CHL but they field a competitive team and the US has held court.
If you go to recent draft history and how it has translated...last year there were 60 Americans drafted. There were 5 taken in the first round. There were 28 taken out of the USHL (the top Junior A league in the country).
Jeremy: How are those numbers significant...in comparison to years past?
Kris: It’s ultimately relevant to the Kings being in the Stanley Cup. The Gretzky trade created a new market - California. The California market is alive and well. All these former players have stayed out there to teach and develop young players. In 2010, Americans made up 11 of the first round picks. California had more players ranked in the top 100 than the state of Massachusetts. Think about the timeline. Gretzky is traded in the late 80s, and 22 years later there’s a pipeline of players. There are more rinks. There are more players. We are seeing a nationalization of the sport. It’s reasonable to think that the Kings run this year could lead to a little “baby boom” of sorts. Even Anaheim winning the Cup led to a lift in youth participation.
Jeremy: I’ll tell you one thing that I hear a lot of. The college track works now. It used to be that a player didn’t really view the D-1 path as the optimal way to make the NHL and now it seems that it’s every bit as good as Juniors. Would that be right? What’s changed?
Kris: The game is better on the collegiate level because there are more top tier programs. It comes down to the talent level of the player. There are kids that go to college now because they have an opportunity to develop a bit more. If you draft a player, you hold his rights for 2 years....unless he goes to college. In that case, you hold his rights until he’s done at school which can be 4-5 years. The player is closer to free agency but is also much more likely to be mature physically and emotionally.
Jeremy: What’s that mean on draft day this year? Is it a strong year for the US?
Kris: It’s not as strong at the top as year’s past. It’s a pretty good European year. There were 11 in 2010, 5 last year, and possibly only 3-4 guys going in the first round this year. Anything can happen with those last few picks of the first round but really it’s not that deep.
Jacob Trouba - Defense - 6’2’’ 195 - Right-handed - Committed to Michigan
Big, yet quick defenseman. Poised and hard-nosed. He does a lot of things very well. He’s got a big body but he doesn’t overplay the physical side. He’s likely gone by the time the Sabres pick at #12. If there’s a team that’s looking to get a guy fast-tracked through the system, he’d be a good pick. He was probably the best defenseman with Team USA at the World Juniors last time around.
Fiesty aggressive power forward. Good touch around the net. He’s a skilled forward with good size. He has an edge to his game. He also has that NHL bloodline (check the name). Matteau de-committed from North Dakota and is instead headed to the QMJHL this coming season. That’s the battle that college will also have against juniors. The player makes the choice.
Brady Skjei - Committed to Minnesota - Defenseman
He’s a big imposing player. Has a lot of tools to work with. He stands out on the ice as a very agile, mobile skater for a big guy. He’s going to use the collegiate system to develop his body and his game. 6’3’’, 200 pounds.
Jeremy: So those are the three projected 1st rounders.On bloodlines, it’s interesting that a former NHLer has a son, in the US. Is it nuts to think the expansion and success of the NHL itself, primarily in the US, is part of what fuels Team USA’s efforts to develop the best players.
Kris: Yes I think so. If you go into a lot of the booming markets, it’s not just bloodlines...it’s the former players staying in their markets and turning to teach. Rob Blake is still in LA. Former Sabre John Tucker works with a crazy-good team in Tampa.
If you’re thinking about the Sabres and pick through the data and where they might go, you should know this: Kevin Devine has selected an American player in every draft he’s run. You should expect one. Plus, the Sabres now have a bit of a connection to USA Hockey and that’s Ron Rolston. He was the Head Coach with US Hockey’s National Team Development program. He’s the progressive new coach. He’s an asset.
It’s a light year, but don’t let that skew the general theme. With 2 picks in the first 21, they could be picking an American player.
Jeremy: But wait...they’re trading up remember? Any American we’re going to see them do that for?
Kris: No not this year. But back to the Cup, you’ve got 12 Americans on the two teams, 6 apiece. There is a long way to go. Only 2 Americans are in the Top 30 in scoring. No Hart Trophies. 3 straight Vezinas (maybe a 4th with Jonathan Quick). It’s happening...slowly but surely it’s happening.