Forward Joshua Norris and defenseman Nate Knoepke, teammates with USA Hockey's National Team Development Program Under-18 team and top prospects for the 2017 NHL Draft, have earned attention from NHL scouts after getting off to strong starts this season.
Norris, a 6-foot-1, 192-pound center, leads the NTDP U-18 with four goals and is tied for the lead with seven points in eight games. Knoepke, a 6-3, 202-pound defenseman, has one goal and one assist in 10 games.
They got their seasons started at the 2016 USHL Fall Classic East at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry, Pa, on Sept. 16 and 17. Norris had a goal and an assist in an 8-2 win against Dubuque, and had an assist in a 4-3 loss to Youngstown. Knoepke didn't have a point in the two games and was a minus-1.
Then at the USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game in Philadelphia on Sept. 22, Knoepke had a goal for Team Leclair in its 6-4 defeat of Team Howe. Norris had an assist in the game for Team Howe.
NHL Central Scouting gave them B ratings in its preliminary players to watch list.
Central Scouting's David Gregory said Knoepke's goal at the AAPG was a great example of his hockey IQ.
"He does pick the right times to jump in there and not get himself out of position," Gregory said. "It's all good if you can jump in the play all the time, but if you're doing it not at the right time it can cause problems. But this guy make the right decisions."
Norris said he tries to play a two-way game, and he pattern his playing style after Chicago Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews. He said there are a few areas he's hoping to improve as the season goes on.
"As a center, in the [defensive] zone, staying with your guys and not looping, stopping and starting," Norris said. "That's probably something I can improve on."
Gregory said Norris' offensive game makes him a player to watch as the season goes on.
"He's been one of [the NTDP's] most consistent guys for sure," Gregory said. "He's got a great work ethic that is complemented by the fact that he has some skill, good passing touch. He can really fire it too; he's got a nice release. As he starts to get more consistent with his scoring I think his status will grow in this draft."
Knoepke said he'd like to get better at using his size and strength to his advantage more.
"I think one thing that I need to improve is my speed and explosiveness and then getting more aggressive in the corners, giving more hits," he said. "I think my skating and pivoting [are] pretty good. I think I'm pretty good at just breaking the puck out and getting that first pass to the open guy every time."
NTDP U-18 coach John Wroblewski said Knoepke could become a force in the NHL once he hones his game.
"I would say the one thing with Nate is he might have a broader vision to utilize the middle of the ice on the breakout," Wroblewski said. "I really like how he uses his body in 1-on-1s with good gap control. He's a guy who has barely scratched the surface of what he will be because he has such a long frame, but very agile within it. Once everything, the fluidity of his game, comes together, you're going to see a tremendous NHL defenseman."