It's pretty safe to assume the future of USA Hockey will remain in good standing no matter where the U.S. Olympic men's team finishes at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
The American stars leading the way for the U.S. overseas have been laying the groundwork for the teenagers currently working their way up the ladder with aspirations of one day donning a red, white and blue jersey at the Olympics. U.S. National Team Development Program under-18 team coach Danton Cole can sense the impact each Olympic event has had on players going through the program.
"I watch a lot of hockey with my two daughters and there's always two or three guys on almost every NHL team who have come through the program; I always point out if I coached a player," Cole told NHL.com. "The first question asked when we heard the players announced to the Olympic team was, 'Dad, did you coach any of them?' I told them that there weren't any guys I coached on this year's team but that there may be a couple 1994 birth years [Seth Jones, Jacob Trouba] in the mix at the next Olympics if NHL guys are still in it.
"That's one of the things about coaching in the program; the level of talent within USA Hockey is good enough where guys are having an impact in the NHL or Olympics at some point. It's a pretty interesting and rewarding position to be in."
Cole, a former collegiate and NHL player, is in his fourth season as a coach at the USNTDP. He most recently led the U-18 team to the championship of the Five Nations Tournament in Russia with victories against Russia, Finland, Sweden and Czech Republic by a combined score of 20-9.
"This team had a tough time winning games outside their age bracket last year and it would have been easy for them to feel a little demoralized or lose sight of the plan entering 2013-14, but these guys stuck with it and put in a lot of work to improve," Cole said. "There's always a big jump from Year 1 to Year 2, but these guys have been able to continue to prove it throughout the season. We talked about there being eight more weeks until the [IIHF U-18] World Championship, so we need to make sure our mindset is right."
Here's a look at the top five skaters starring for the USNTDP U-18 team this season and who might be playing a role for the U.S. at future international events. The number next to each player is the ranking given that player by NHL Central Scouting on its midterm ranking of the top North American skaters eligible for the 2014 NHL Draft.
Sonny Milano (No. 16): The Boston College-bound left wing plays on the top line with right wing Alex Tuch and 2015 draft-eligible center Jack Eichel. He leads the team with 58 points and seven power-play goals in 39 games. He has 17 goals, 41 assists and a plus-24 rating.
"Everyone knows he has the hands, hockey IQ and offensive ability," Cole said. "But what has impressed us even more is his commitment to backchecking and the defensive zone. He's finding a lot of time on the penalty kill now and he's made himself a very complete hockey player."
Dylan Larkin (No. 17): The second-line center has 22 goals, 38 points and a plus-11 rating in 41 games. Larkin, committed to the University of Michigan, also has five power-play goals and is considered one of the finest skaters in the 2014 draft class.
"He has the offence, can score and skate, but he's also learned the little subtleties needed to play the center position," Cole said. "He's taken an unbelievable mature approach; kind of an NHL-repertoire approach to practices and games. He's training to be really good at it and his progress has been great."
Alex Tuch (No. 21): The 6-foot-3.5, 213-pound forward has rounded out his game since the start of the season. He skates surprisingly well for a big player and has 24 goals and 45 points in 41 games. The Boston College recruit had two goals and four points in his team's four-game sweep to the Five Nations Tournament title.
"He's always been a big body and has skated well but I think he's just starting to realize how big and strong he is," Cole said. "He imposes his will on the game sometimes, and that's a good compliment. If he makes it to the second round a lot of [NHL] people made a mistake."
Jack Glover (No. 27): Committed to the University of Minnesota, the 6-3.25, 190-pound defenceman plays a strong, physical game. He has one goal, 20 assists and a plus-6 rating in 41 games.
"He's another one who has made a really big jump over the last month and a half," Cole said. "We throw a lot at the guys from the outset and it takes a while for everything to come together, but he's played outstanding hockey for us. He's been assertive."
Jack Dougherty (No. 29): The 6-1, 186-pound defenceman joined the NTDP this season and has impressed with five goals, 15 points and a plus-23 rating in 38 games. The Minnesota native is committed to the University of Wisconsin in the fall.
"Jack has good offensive instincts and little bit of a mean streak in him which we like and encourage," Cole said. "He's going to be a good hockey player."
NEW REBEL IN RED DEER
Red Deer Rebels forward Connor Bleackley hopes to follow the path of former standouts and first-round NHL draft picks Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Matt Dumba.
Nugent-Hopkins, a center, spent two-plus seasons in the Western Hockey League with the Rebels and totaled 57 goals and 177 points in 141 games. He was chosen by the Edmonton Oilers with the first pick of the 2011 NHL Draft.
Dumba, a defenceman selected by the Minnesota Wild with the seventh pick of the 2012 draft, spent three-plus seasons in Red Deer before his trade to the Portland Winterhawks in December 2013. He has 51 goals, 131 points and 245 penalty minutes in 201 WHL games.
This season Bleackley appears to be the next strong prospect coming out of Red Deer. He's No. 31 on NHL Central Scouting's midterm list of the top 2014-draft eligible skaters in North America.
"I'm a two-way center who creates offence with my speed and strength, with a hard accurate shot," Bleackley told NHL.com.
The 6-0.5, 192-pound center leads Red Deer in goals (26), power-play goals (10), assists (37) and points (63).
"He's a smooth-skating center with deceptive speed and quickness and he has a very effective two-way game," Director of NHL Central Scouting Dan Marr said. "He's reliable and responsible enough to be used in all situations."
Bleackley was asked if he has followed the careers of Nugent-Hopkins and Dumba.
"Matt and I have become pretty good friends and we always keep in touch over text messaging or even Xbox," Bleackley said. "I'm always watching Oilers games and Ryan is a very exciting player to watch."
With 12 regular-season games remaining, the Rebels are teetering on a WHL playoff berth as the eighth-place team in the Eastern Conference.
"It's been exciting to say the least, and there have been a lot of ups and downs; we're really trying to make a push to get into the playoffs and improve on our eighth position," Bleackley said. "And once you get into the playoffs you never know."
TOP MIDWEST PREP PERFORMERS
The Midwest Prep Hockey League playoffs are slated to begin this weekend at Ridley College in St. Catharines, Ontario.
There are two players competing in the postseason tournament, which runs Feb. 21-23, listed on NHL Central Scouting's midterm rankings of the top 2014-draft eligible players in North America: goalie Sean Cleary of Lake Forest Academy in Illinois and left wing Warren Foegele of St. Andrew's College in Ontario.
Cleary is No. 19 on Central Scouting's list of the top goalies in North America. His combination of solid technique and good size (6-2.25, 185 pounds) is an attractive package for NHL scouts. Cleary is 5-3-1 with a 1.98 goals-against average, three shutouts and a .922 save percentage in nine games for Lake Forest. He was 4-0-0 with a 1.93 GAA and .913 save percentage in 2012-13, his first season with the team.
"Sean has good overall net coverage and spreads out his body very well on initial shots," Central Scouting's Al Jensen said. "He has a strong and well-balanced stance, is good on his skates and moves his feet well; he also has good coverage in his butterfly. Overall he's a good goalie but he's been a bit inconsistent with his play this year."
Foegele (6-0.75, 178) is No. 62 on Central Scouting's midterm ranking of North American skaters. Considered a power forward, Foegele leads the Saints with 29 points (12 goals, 17 assists) in 13 games. The University of New Hampshire recruit had seven goals and 17 points in 13 games last season.
PROSPECTS ON THE RISE
1. Joel Daccord, Cushing Academy (HIGH-MA): Taken by the Saint John Sea Dogs in the 11th round (No. 185) of the 2013 Quebec Major Junior Hockey League draft, the 6-1, 165-pounder is opening some eyes as a junior at the Massachusetts prep school this season.
Daccord, who attended North Andover (Mass.) High School prior to transferring to Cushing for the 2012-13 season, is 17-8-0 with a 2.40 GAA, four shutouts and .920 save percentage this season. His father, Brian Daccord, played at Merrimack College and is a former goalie coach for the Boston Bruins. Daccord was added as a C-ranked player on NHL Central Scouting's February players to watch list.
As a sophomore Daccord went 9-2-0 with a 1.95 GAA, four shutouts and .926 save percentage. He hasn't yet determined his hockey plans for 2014-15.
"He's a very good positional goalie who plays a quiet, calm and relaxed style," Central Scouting's Al Jensen said. "He spreads out well and plays the top of the paint on most shots, has excellent balance in his stance and lateral movements. He's got great instincts, reads and reacts very well and reminds me a lot of the way Curtis Joseph played."
2. Leon Bristedt, Linkoping Jr. (SWE-JR.): The forward from Waxholm, Sweden, will attend the University of Minnesota in 2014-15. He has 20 goals and 37 points in 26 games as an alternate captain for Linkoping's under-20 team in the SuperElit league. Bristedt was upgraded to a B player on Central Scouting's February players to watch list.
"He's a small (5-8, 180), stocky sparkplug," NHL Director of European Scouting Goran Stubb said. "He's an excellent skater, good passer and gives it 100 percent on every shift. He's also a sniper. A great player to watch."
3. Jordan Papirny, Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL): Recently added as a C player on Central Scouting's February players to watch list, the 6-foot, 166-pounder is 18-11-6 with a 3.14 GAA, one shutout and .899 save percentage in 37 games. The Edmonton native is in his first full season in the WHL.
DRAFT DANDY OF THE WEEK: BEAU STARRETT
Edmonton Oilers amateur scout and Boston College hockey legend Scott Harlow believes left wing Beau Starrett of the South Shore Kings of the United States Premier Hockey League has what it takes to one day become an effective professional hockey player.
Harlow would know. He not only worked as an amateur scout for the Oilers the past four years but he's also the coach and GM of the Kings. It's there Harlow has had the benefit of evaluating the 6-foot-4.75, 195-pound Starrett the past two seasons.
"I don't see why he couldn't get himself up into the early rounds of the draft," Harlow told NHL.com. "I coached Kevin Hayes for years and he reminds me a lot of Kevin. He probably doesn't have the goal-scoring ability that Kevin has, but he does have more jam and works very hard. Kevin was a first-round draft choice [No. 24, Chicago Blackhawks, 2010] and I feel Beau is one of those players who could be exceptional in five to six years."
He has 10 goals, 42 points and 80 penalty minutes in 44 games this season for the Kings.
Starrett is committed to Cornell University for the 2015-16 season; he'll play one more season of junior hockey next season. He was selected by the Minnesota Magicians in the ninth round (No. 168) of the 2013 North American Hockey League draft, but Starrett said he isn't sure where he'll play next season.
Starrett has attracted the attention of NHL Central Scouting, which has him No. 83 on its midterm ranking of the top 2014 draft-eligible skaters in North America.
"I have great size and a great reach," Starrett said. "My playmaking ability combined with my hands and vision create a lot of scoring chances. Not many players have the size I have or the stickhandling and poise to top it off. I'm also responsible defensively with playing through bodies."
"I think that Beau has proven to people that he has great work ethic and he has a very consistent compete level," Starrett said. "These were concerns going into the season. Everyone knows he has great size, skates very well and has very good hockey sense."
Author: Mike G. Morreale | NHL.com Staff Writer