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Gruden developing as player, growing with game

Lessons learned from father helped USNTDP forward become prospect for 2018 NHL Draft

by Adam Kimelman @NHLAdamK / Deputy Managing Editor

Every Thursday, will look ahead to the 2018 NHL Draft with an in-depth profile on one of its top prospects.

Jonathan Gruden wasn't a fan the first time he got on the ice. Fifteen years later, it's hard to get his skates off.

Gruden, a forward with USA Hockey's National Team Development Program under-18 team, is No. 48 in NHL Central Scouting's midterm ranking of North American skaters for the 2018 NHL Draft, to be held at American Airlines Center in Dallas on June 22-23.

That's a long way from the rink in Germany he first shuffled out on.

"I was around 2 or 3, living in Germany, my dad was playing over there," Gruden said. "I didn't like it at first and [my father] thought I wouldn't start playing. Then we tried again and I loved it."

In 2002-03, Gruden's father, John Gruden, was playing for Eisbaren Berlin in Germany's top league. It came near the end of an 11-season professional career that included 92 games with the Boston Bruins, Ottawa Senators and Washington Capitals.

John said he always thought his son would come around to hockey.

"I wasn't worried, just said now isn't the time," he said. "My neighbor … his son was a little younger and loved it and my son wanted Woody and Buzz [from "Toy Story"]. The next year when I went back to Washington for camp, you could see the light switch went on for him and I like this."

After John retired, the family settled in Michigan and Jonathan developed his game with the Little Caesars and Honeybaked hockey programs.

John was also developing as a coach and was hired as an assistant with the NTDP in 2011. John helped with Jonathan's teams, but did his best to be a parent rather than a coach from the stands.

"I supported him and always told him be a good teammate and make people better and listen to your coach," John said. "The only thing I can do as a parent is screw it up. I sit back."

Jonathan appreciates the input he's received from his father while also being able to grow on his own.

That includes watching how his father handled an odd situation with Flint of the Ontario Hockey League in 2015-16. John was fired as coach 17 games into his first season, reportedly because the team owner wasn't happy with his son's ice time. A player boycott led to Gruden being re-hired a day later. He eventually was promoted to general manager but was fired again with 15 games remaining in the season.

"He handled it with such class," Jonathan said. "Was a tough situation there. He did everything he could to be with [his players]. That was the No. 1 priority, the team. Luckily, they protested for him like that. It was a huge testament to what kind of coach he is."

Jonathan said his big takeaway was, "Success isn't going to be a straight line. There's going to be bumps along the way. With that, be a great player and a great teammate and great things will happen."

Some pretty good things have happened for Jonathan this season. He's sixth on the NTDP with 49 points (24 goals, 25 assists) in 52 games and tied for second with a plus-30 rating. He started at center but a move to left wing on the top line with fellow 2018 draft prospect right wing Oliver Wahlstrom and center Jack Hughes, a top prospect for the 2019 NHL Draft, has helped unlock his full skill set.

"Long-term he'll be a center, but physically it's hard to him to play a top two-line center role with those defensive responsibilities and produce a lot of offense," NTDP coach Seth Appert said. "When we switched him to the wing his offense came out."

NHL scouts have been happy with what they've seen whether Gruden has been in the middle or on the wing.

"He is a smart player who understands the game in all zones," said David Gregory of NHL Central Scouting. "He's responsible defensively, and very effective in the face-off circle when he plays center. He is versatile and can play the wing as well. He works hard and is not afraid to go to tough areas, and lets the play develop so he can create scoring chances. His skating is very strong, and he accelerates well with and without the puck. 

"He plays the game at a high pace, which is well-suited to how the pro game is trending. Goes to open areas to make himself an option on the attack. In general, he is a very complete player who improved throughout the season. He will get very high consideration in the top three rounds of this year's draft."

Gruden (6-foot-0, 172 pounds) knows he needs to get stronger and he'll attempt that at Miami University next season. He chose college rather than the Ontario Hockey League, where his father is in his second season as coach of Hamilton. Jonathan's OHL rights are held by London.

"He'll have to the time at Miami to develop his body to become an NHL player," Appert said.

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