The past two months have been good ones for American hockey players, culminating with Dustin Brown becoming the second U.S.-born captain to hoist the Stanley Cup and Jonathan Quick becoming the third U.S.-born player to win the Conn Smythe Trophy -- all on a Kings team constructed by American-born general manager Dean Lombardi.
But the celebration for USA Hockey began in April, when the National Team Development Program's Under-18s won their fourth straight world championship. Players from that tournament now are likely to be selected at the 2012 NHL Draft, to be held June 22-23 at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
"It was unique this year with Zach Parise [of the New Jersey Devils] and Dustin Brown both being [Stanley Cup Final] captains from the United States, then Jonathan Quick winning the Conn Smythe. That's something we've been striving for," said Danton Cole, who coached the U.S. U-18 team. "Hopefully we see more guys like that in the NHL."
Cole's USNTDP team could figure prominently in that goal. The U-18s cruised through the world championship tournament in the Czech Republic, wrapping up gold with a 7-0 victory over Sweden in the final.
The program had five graduates selected in the top 39 picks at the 2011 Draft. This year, their choices likely will start with Jacob Trouba, a physical defenseman and national team co-captain who was No. 9 among North American skaters in Central Scouting's final ranking. He could be one of a number of U.S. defensemen hearing his name called.
"[Trouba] is a heck of a player and a really good man and a great competitor. He's going to make somebody pretty happy for a lot of years, throwing him out on right D every night," Cole said. "Staying on D, Brady Skjei is probably going to go very high as well. [He is] probably one of the best skaters to come through this program. Patrick Sieloff will go fairly high, in the first couple of rounds probably. [He has] good offensive skill but makes his mark on the defensive side of the puck by being physical. We had a pretty strong D corps this year."
The real jewel of the U-18 blue line could be its other co-captain, Seth Jones. The Texas product and son of former NBA player Popeye Jones won't be draft eligible until 2013, but is already at the top of a number of boards. If he goes No. 1, he'll be the first American to do so since USNTDP product Erik Johnson and Patrick Kane did it in in 2006 and 2007.
"He's certainly in the mix at the top there," Cole said of Jones. "He's got work to do, a whole other year to build that resume. But somebody is going to sleep well at night throwing him out every night on D.
"I felt the same way about Jacob at the end of the tournament. Those two guys did a good job."