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All-American Prospects Game breeds competition

by Mike G. Morreale

BUFFALO -- The last time two college freshmen were selected among the top five in the first round of the NHL draft in their first year of draft eligibility occurred nine years ago when Jonathan Toews and Phil Kessel went off the board.

Toews, after his first season at the University of North Dakota, went to the Chicago Blackhawks with the third pick. Kessel (University of Minnesota) was selected fifth by the Boston Bruins.


Team Grier

GOALIES: Luke Opilka, USA U-18 (USHL); Ryan Bednard, Johnstown (NAHL)

DEFNSEMEN: Doug Blaisdell, Kitchener (OHL); Zachary Werenski, Michigan (BIG 10); Brandon Carlo, Tri-City (WHL); Christian Evers, USA U-18 (USHL); Tory Dello, Tri-City (USHL); Casey Fitzgerald, USA U-18 (USHL); Caleb Jones, USA U-18 (USHL)

FORWARDS: Jack Eichel, Boston University (H-EAST); Alec Baer, Vancouver (WHL); Jeremy Bracco, USA U-18 (USHL); Jack Roslovic, USA U-18 (USHL); Jordan Greenway, USA U-18 (USHL); Connor Moynihan, Halifax (QMJHL); Karch Bachman, Culver Academy (HIGH-IN); Kyle Connor, Youngstown (USHL); Ryan Smith, Green Bay (USHL); Brent Gates, Green Bay (USHL); Cameron Askew, Moncton (QMJHL); Taggart Corriveau, Westminster (HIGH-CT)

Team Olczyk

GOALIES: Mike Lackey, USA U-18 (USHL); Ryan Larkin, Michigan (NAHL)

DEFNSEMEN: Grant Gabriele, USA U-18 (USHL); Nick Boka, USA U-18 (USHL); Joseph Cecconi, Muskegon (USHL); Noah Hanifin, Boston College (H-EAST); Steven Ruggiero, USA U-18 (USHL); Jack McNeely, Lakeville North (HIGH-MN); Spenser Young, Dubuque (USHL)

FORWARDS: Paul Bittner, Portland (WHL); Brock Boeser, Waterloo (USHL); Christian Fischer, USA U-18 (USHL); ^Mike Floodstrand, USA U-18 (USHL); Erik Foley, Cedar Rapids (USHL); *Robby Jackson, Chicago (USHL); Tanner Laczynski, Chicago (USHL); Thomas Novak, Waterloo (USHL); Chase Pearson, Youngstown (USHL); Troy Terry, USA U-18 (USHL); Brendan Warren, USA U-18 (USHL); Colin White, USA U-18 ( USHL); Dennis Yan, Shawinigan (QMJHL)

*- injury replacement

^- injured and will not compete

The odds of it happening again at the 2015 NHL Draft are pretty good, as Boston University center Jack Eichel and Boston College defenseman Noah Hanifin are set to play prominent roles for their respective teams this season while in the crosshairs of NHL scouts.

Eichel is considered the best American-born forward and Hanifin the top American-born defenseman in the 2015 draft. The two standouts, who last season were teammates for the United States National Team Development Program Under-18 team, will be going head-to-head Thursday at the CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game at First Niagara Center (7 p.m. ET, NHL Network).

Who has the edge?

"We mess around sometimes and skate together in the summer," Eichel said Wednesday during a press conference promoting the AAPG. "We're in a pro league together. He might be a little bitter, but my team is the three-time defending champ. We beat him in the semifinals three years in a row."

Eichel, who is expected to be one of the top two players selected in the draft, is looking forward to the challenge. The AAPG will feature 42 of the top American-born prospects eligible for the 2015 draft; they will compete in front of more than 200 NHL scouts.

"I think it's in anyone's competitive nature to think about the draft," Eichel said. "You live your whole life playing hockey and it's a dream to get selected in the NHL. So if you get the chance to be selected, it's a huge honor. If I sat here and told you that I didn't want to be the No. 1 pick I think I'd be lying, because I do. But I'm not going to lose sleep over it. There's been plenty of great NHL players that haven't been the No. 1 pick and have had good careers. It's in the back of my mind, but at the end of the day it's not the end-all, be-all."

Many believe either Eichel or Connor McDavid of the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League will be the No. 1 pick. Eichel said he isn't too concerned with the comparisons to McDavid.

"I just try to concentrate on what I can control and myself," Eichel said. "Connor's a good player, and he's playing in the OHL for the Erie Otters and I'm playing in Hockey East for Boston University. There's going to be comparisons wherever you go. I just try to focus on myself and make sure I'm doing the right things and trying to get better. That's about it."

Former NHL forward Mike Grier and NHL on NBC analyst Eddie Olczyk will coach the teams. Don Granato (Team Grier) and Nick Fohr (Team Olczyk) of the USNTDP will serve as assistant coaches. Eichel will play for Team Grier and Hanifin for Team Olczyk.

"I'm very excited to be part of this game. It's a huge deal, and obviously playing in Buffalo gets me super excited," Eichel said. "It's a rich hockey city with a lot of background. It's been an amazing time being part of USA Hockey. Every time you get a chance to represent them it's a huge honor. I've had a lot of great people help me along the way, great parents and a lot of great coaches. I've been really fortunate playing youth hockey with a lot of great coaches."

In addition to Eichel and Hanifin, another top college player will be skating at the game. University of Michigan freshman defenseman Zachary Werenski will also be starring alongside Eichel for Team Grier.

There are nine players competing in the AAPG considered A-rated prospects on NHL Central Scouting's preliminary players to watch list for September: centers Eichel, Colin White (USNTDP, United States Hockey League), Kyle Connor (Youngstown, USHL) and Thomas Novak (Waterloo, USHL), left wings Paul Bittner (Portland, Western Hockey League) and Jordan Greenway (USNTDP, USHL), and defensemen Hanifin, Werenski and Brandon Carlo (Tri-City, WHL).

The game will consist of three 20-minute periods and, if necessary, a five-minute overtime. If a winner still hasn't been determined, the game will go to a shootout.

There were five players from last year's All-American Prospects Game selected in the first round of the 2014 NHL Draft: Dylan Larkin (Detroit Red Wings, No. 15), Sonny Milano (Columbus Blue Jackets, No. 16), Alex Tuch (Minnesota Wild, No. 18), Anthony DeAngelo (Tampa Bay Lightning, No. 19) and Nick Schmaltz (Chicago Blackhawks, No. 20).

Jim Johannson, USA Hockey's assistant executive director of hockey operations, feels this year's American-born group of draft-eligible players is something special.

"I think this is the deepest pool [of American prospects] that we've ever had in the game from a rankings standpoint," Johannson said. "There's movement throughout the season, but I'm comfortable sitting up here saying there's potential for us to have five of the first 10 picks in the NHL draft this year, and that would be groundbreaking for the USA.

"I know we'll have a great first and second round in the draft, but what the actual numbers will be I won't know until it starts. To be able to showcase all of them [in Buffalo] to celebrate USA Hockey not only says a lot for our development across the board, but also what the quality of this [All-American Prospects Game] will be on Thursday."


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