TORONTO, ON -- Don't think for a second that all those U.S.-born draft prospects invited to the NHL Scouting Combine this week aren't paying close attention the Stanley Cup Final between the New Jersey Devils and Los Angeles Kings.
Of the 27 American-made players participating at the Combine this year, five are members of the United States National Team Development Program Under-18 team. Each realizes that for the first time since 1999, an American-born captain will have the opportunity to be the first to raise the Stanley Cup after winning the deciding game of the series.
Significant? You bet.
The lucky captain will be either Minneapolis native Zach Parise of the Devils or Ithaca, N.Y.-bred Dustin Brown of the Kings.
"That's pretty special," USNTDP forward Nicolas Kerdiles told NHL.com during a break from the nine interviews scheduled with NHL teams on Tuesday. "USA Hockey has come so far and has gotten better every year. So having Zach Parise or Dustin Brown lift the Cup is going to be huge in just pushing kids in the U.S. who want to play hockey even more.
"I think it's special, especially in California, having a Kings team with a chance to win the Cup. The way they're going, there's a chance, so it's helping U.S. and California hockey grow."
Kerdiles, who developed in the California youth hockey system via the L.A. Selects, is ranked No. 29 on NHL Central Scouting's final list of the top draft-eligible North American skaters. The 6-foot-2, 201-pound left wing had four goals, nine points and a plus-8 rating in six games to help lead the U.S. to its fourth straight gold medal at the 2012 World U-18 Championship in the Czech Republic in April.
"Dustin Brown hits and competes so hard and that's why they've gotten so far … because their captain has led the way," Kerdiles said. "Zach Parise is the same way. He throws hits every game and produces and is an all-round player. That gritty mentality that they have is special, and it's something where it's got their teams to where they are right now."
For Kerdiles and his USNTDP teammates at the Combine -- forward Stefan Matteau and defencemen Jacob Trouba, Brady Skjei and Patrick Sieloff -- seeing an American-born captain raise the Cup provides all the motivation they'll need in their draft year.
"It shows how far U.S. hockey has come as a whole, because a while back you would have never thought of this happening in the NHL," Trouba told NHL.com. "I think it shows how the U.S. has grown as a hockey country, and how I think it's only going to continue to grow."
Trouba is the top-rated player from the USNTDP at No. 9 on Central Scouting's final list -- No. 5 among defencemen -- and is considered a candidate to be a top-10 pick when the 2012 NHL Draft is held at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh June 22-23.
"I think everyone that's involved in the growth of the game in the U.S., including the NHL, USA Hockey and the USHL, play a part in promoting and expanding the game to where there are more opportunities for youth to get involved," NHL Central Scouting Director Dan Marr told NHL.com. "I think the fact we have two American-born captains is a unique circumstance and will only further bolster the U.S. programs."
Matteau, who has dual American/Canadian citizenship, holds no hard feelings over the fact the Devils eliminated his father's former team, the New York Rangers, in the Eastern Conference Finals.
"I can see how it will be pretty special ... Memorial Day just passed," Matteau, No. 17 on Central Scouting's final rankings, said. "USA Hockey has improved over the years and our whole team is psyched to see that."
Matteau, who led the USNTDP group with 27 interviews scheduled at the Combine, was fifth on the team in scoring with 32 points in 46 games this season. He also accumulated a team-high 166 penalty minutes. Kerdiles led the team in goals (22) and points (48) in 54 games.
Sieloff, who will play for the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League next season, was an alternate captain for the U-18 team that won gold at the World U-18s. He's ranked No. 31; Skjei, who had four goals and 18 assists in 56 games, is No. 19.
"It shows where USA Hockey has come over the years; their international success has carried over right into the NHL," Sieloff said. "USA Hockey has done a great job putting players into the NHL. Each year it'll keep growing. The scouting for the program has been great across the States."
Kerdiles said U-18 coach Danton Cole, who played seven seasons in the NHL, did a tremendous job this season. He now hopes the lessons and advice learned will be put to good use at the Combine.
"I really thank him for everything he's done, and he's taught me a lot about the NHL-style game that you need to play," Kerdiles said.
"Danton stresses that it's not easy getting to the NHL; he's been through it and he just shows the intensity you need to have and how you have to have that same intensity all the time," Trouba added.
The 6-2, 193-pound Trouba doesn't seem overly concerned with the fitness testing portion of the Combine, which is slated for Friday for all five USNTDP prospects.
"I didn't practice too much," Trouba said. "I haven't been doing anything too crazy. I'm kind of relying on the [work put in] over the last two years to get me through the day, because that's who I am. I'm not going to change."
Author: Mike Morreale of NHL.com