BUFFALO -- The 2016 NHL Draft could be a historic one when it comes to demonstrating hockey's growth in the United States.
Of the top 30 North American skaters ranked by NHL Central Scouting, 12 are American-born, including Auston Matthews, ranked as the No. 1 European skater because he plays in Switzerland. Matthews is the consensus choice to be taken at No. 1 by the Toronto Maple Leafs at First Niagara Center in Buffalo, where the draft will take place June 24-25.
If those 12 players are selected in the first round, that would set a record; 11 were picked in the first round in 2010. It would also be more evidence the work being done by USA Hockey and others across the country to develop the game is resulting in better talent.
"I think it's giving a nod, not only to the [National Team Development Program], but USA Hockey in general," said Matthews, who played this season with Zurich in Switzerland's top professional league. "Just growing the game has been huge, especially in that Southwest region of Arizona, California and Texas.
"It's been huge just to see all these guys who are projected to go very high, and it goes beyond that throughout the entire draft, so I think it's cool. It shows the development standpoint from USA Hockey and just how well they're doing in developing really good hockey players and growing the game."
As Matthews said, it's not just players coming from the usual places such as Minnesota, Michigan, and Massachusetts. Matthews is from Scottsdale, Ariz.; the No. 2 North American skater, forward Matthew Tkachuk, who plays for London of the Ontario Hockey League, was born in Scottsdale but grew up in St. Louis; and the No. 4 North American skater, defenseman Jakob Chychrun (Sarnia, OHL) is from Boca Raton, Fla. The development of the game, in part due to the expansion of the NHL to newer markets, has played a big part in that.
"We always worry about expansion and what would happen," Maple Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello said. "Look what Los Angeles and Anaheim have done and Phoenix and Carolina, Florida, Dallas, look at the way hockey players have been produced throughout the United States and North America. It's not Canadian, not American, it's North American players and they're crossing the border to play, and everybody is doing it.
"They're going to colleges and it's a worldly game, but hockey is here in the U.S. and it's a tremendous credit to U.S. hockey and also to the decision that [NHL Commissioner] Gary Bettman and the [Board of] Governors made over the years at a time when expansion at those given times was thought questionable."
NHL Central Scouting's David Gregory said American players have an increasing number of choices of where to play because USA Hockey's program is so strong.
"It's hard to pinpoint a reason for sure, but part of what I think that's made this group sort of expand is you can see what the national program is doing; there are options for players when they leave there," Gregory said. "A couple of these players, when you look at Tkachuk and [Max] Jones and then Matthews, [Charles] McAvoy [of Boston University], [Tage] Thompson [of the University of Connecticut] all took different paths after the program to develop in very strong hockey environments. I think that's really helped; they have a lot of options once they leave there, so you're seeing the benefits of that."
That is certainly the case in the St. Louis area, represented by four players who are highly rated prospects in the upcoming draft: Tkachuk; center Logan Brown of Windsor (OHL), the No. 7 North American skater; center Clayton Keller, the No. 9 North American skater (NTDP); and the No. 11 North American skater, center Luke Kunin of the University of Wisconsin.
"I'm definitely really proud of what we did in St. Louis growing up and all over the country," Brown said. "Looking at it now, we possibly could have four first-rounders from the team I played on when I was 6 years old up until I was 15. The development in St. Louis is growing, and you can see NHL players and even stars coming out of there more and more every year. Obviously USA Hockey is growing. It's really cool to see how far the game's come along."
Americans have been selected early in the draft more frequently in recent years. Erik Johnson and Patrick Kane were picked at No. 1 in 2006 and 2007, respectively, joining Brian Lawton (1983), Mike Modano (1988), Bryan Berard (1995) and Rick DiPietro (2000) in the exclusive club of Americans taken first.
The 2006 draft included 10 Americans selected in the opening round, while eight U.S.-born players went in the first round in each of the 2003 and 2005 drafts. That 12 Americans could be picked in the first round this year speaks to the competition and the success this class of players had playing with and against each other.
"It tells me it's growing; the program's growing," said Jones, the No. 14 North American skater, who plays for London. "It's getting better and better and that's what USA Hockey's trying to do. They're trying to expand development in the United States. A lot more kids are playing hockey nowadays and that's good for USA Hockey. In the long run, it'll make the World Junior team, the Olympic team … it'll make everything better."