The stage is set for the top scholastic prospect in the nation to endure the most memorable moment of his hockey career -- without ever stepping on the ice.
It'll likely happen during the early rounds of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., when local boy Mario Lucia
of Wayzata High School hears his name called at some point.
There's a good chance the junior power-forward will become the 10th high school player from Minnesota in the last eight years to be selected in the opening round on June 24. He was the highest-rated North American high school skater on NHL Central Scouting's mid-term report in January and will probably retain that spot when the final release is made in April. Lucia was ranked 30th among all North Americans.
"Hopefully, I'll move up into that first round and get drafted on national television in front of friends and family and, being from Minnesota, I couldn't ask for much more," Lucia told NHL.com. "My family will be there and many of my friends will, too. It'll be great."
Lucia, who lives 21 miles from St. Paul in nearby Plymouth, is the son of Don Lucia, the 12th-year head coach of the University of Minnesota. His older brother, Tony, was drafted in the sixth round (No. 193) in 2005 and spent two seasons in the United States Hockey League with the Omaha Lancers.
Mario remains uncertain where he'll attend college in the fall of 2012, but he's narrowed his choices to Notre Dame, Colorado College and Minnesota. A decision is coming very soon and while one would think the Golden Gophers would be at the top of that list, that just isn't the case.
"It would be tough to play there, but tough not to play there," Lucia said. "Going there might be a distraction with all the chirping going on from fans and players on opposing teams. My dad has told me to go where I feel I'll be successful and where I can have fun."
There's no question Lucia had plenty of fun this past season at Wayzata, though losing a double-overtime game to Eden Prairie in the Section 6AA championship was not how he envisioned his year ending. Still, he produced a career-high 30 goals, 54 points (2.00 points-per game) and a plus-34 rating in 27 games with Wayzata (20-6-2), including 5 goals and 7 points in three sectional playoff games. He had 15 goals, 25 assists, 40 points and a plus-25 rating in 25 games in 2009-10.
"When Mario Lucia
has the puck on his stick, he makes everyone else better," Central Scouting's Jack Barzee told NHL.com. "When he's got the puck inside the blue line, he's a threat to score or set up a picturesque play … he's that dangerous."
Barzee went on to say that every top prospect on the board possesses a certain "ingredient" that separates them from the rest of the pack. In the case of Lucia, "his greatest gifts are his hands and shot."
"He has a mind for this game, just by the way he passes and how he knows when to shoot," Barzee said. "If I were to compare him to a recent draft pick from Minnesota, I'd say he's similar to Brock Nelson
(Islanders, No. 30, 2010) because he's very smart and responsible."
At 6-foot-2, 183 pounds, Lucia doesn't possess the typical 17-year-old frame.
"He's a dynamic playmaker," Wayzata head coach Carl Davis told NHL.com. "He protects the puck so well in traffic and uses that size to his advantage. He's a threat coming out of the corners. He works so hard in the weight room -- he's outworked everyone on my team. This young man has a passion to get better and he wants to get to the next level. He's gotten so much stronger this year."
Davis, who is in his 16th season as coach, said Lucia will be the highest-drafted player from Wayzata. He was used exclusively at left wing all season alongside center and Central Scouting's No. 160-rated North American skater, Tony Cameranesi
"I never tried Mario at center although we thought about it," Davis said. "He's so good with the puck, he would have that tenacity down low in the defensive zone to support, create and transition … he never throws away the puck. I believe his offensive skills are right in that first-round range."
Lucia will likely spend the 2011-12 season in the USHL with the Sioux Falls Stampede before returning to Wayzata to complete his high school education. Sioux Falls drafted Lucia in the fourth round (No. 56) in 2010.
"I'm hoping to get to 190-195 pounds by the end of the summer and then fill out to 210," Lucia said. "I realize you can't just play a skill role all the time. You have to be able to dish it out and be a grinder, block shots and do the gritty stuff."
In addition to his success on a scholastic level, Lucia also played 15 games with the U.S. Under-18 National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., earlier this season, connecting for 4 goals and 5 points.
"He came back from the U.S. team with a better perspective on the game," Davis said. "He was playing in the Elite League in Minnesota in the fall and got pulled out of that to play for the Under-18s. When he returned, he was just so much ahead of everyone else. He realized how hard he had to work to get to the next level. Just that experience playing there for a short time allowed him to be a smarter player."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale