- A major topic of discussion during the NHL Central Scouting meetings here this week was the recent announcement made by the USA Hockey's National Team Developmental Program to rekindle its relationship with the United States Hockey League next season.
In February, USA Hockey announced that its Under-17 and Under-18 NTDP teams would leave the North American Hockey League and become a full member of the USHL, marking the second go-round for Team USA in the league. NTDP teams also competed during a two-year run that ended in the spring of 2000.
Both the U-18 and U-17 teams will play in the USHL and count jointly as one team in the league standings.
The NTDP is in its final season as a member of the North American Hockey League, the nation's only Tier II junior hockey league. The NTDP has competed in the NAHL since 1997-98.
"We're extremely pleased to have the NTDP join the USHL," Dave Ogrean, executive director of USA Hockey, said in announcing the move. "It's a positive step and something that will be mutually beneficial. The NAHL has been a wonderful home and we feel fortunate to have been part of that league for more than a decade."
The move, under an initial three-year contractual obligation, provides USA Hockey's clubs an opportunity to match skill with the nation's only Tier I Junior A league -- the highest classification of junior hockey (ages 16-20) -- in the United States.
"The re-association of America's only Tier I program with the national program in place in Ann Arbor will yield a powerhouse league second to none in the United States – and the strongest opportunity ever developed for the world's elite 17, 18, 19 and 20-year-old hockey players to develop their skills on their way to college and professional distinction," USHL Commissioner Skip Prince says.
Many of the veteran scouts, who are here to finalize the final North American rankings during meetings this week, offered their own take on a switch as it will affect the way they scout NTDP prospects.
"I think as (USA Hockey) has tried to develop this program, they've tried different ways to get good competition and good viewings for their kids and then develop a team that's going to compete internationally," Central Scouting's Dave Gregory told NHL.com. "The great thing about the USHL is that it's the best junior league in the United States, so these kids will be competing at a high level every night."
The move effectively realigns USA Hockey and the USHL in a joint effort to promote and grow the player-development model, while protecting the amateur status and collegiate eligibility of the country's brightest stars.
"It's good to some degree, but I wouldn't like to see them entirely give up playing collegiate teams because it was also very beneficial to play against colleges," said Gary Eggleston, an Eastern-based scout. "If you take the Four Nations and Five Nations tournaments out of the equation, I don't see a lot of benefit for a kid going to that program versus just going to a USHL team."
Gregory likes the fact the NTDP will be competing for a title in the USHL.
"They're going to be competing for something, whereas, in the past, they'd play a bunch of games that were almost like exhibitions," he said. "The only time when it mattered was when they went to their tournaments. They've done this already with their Under-17 team in the NAHL and they've had good success with how kids have developed. I think this is a really good extension of that."
Jack Barzee, a scout from the Midwest region, also feels it's a step in the right direction for the future of the American player-development program.
"I think it's a great thing for junior hockey in the United States," Barzee said. "I think it's great to be playing in that league because it gives them an opportunity to have a set schedule and play for a championship and, not that I see anything wrong with them playing the colleges, but we're talking about a bunch of 17-year-old players who might not be physically strong enough against guys five years older.
"I think it's good for these kids as it allows them competition against players on their level and it will help over the course of the future of developing more American players."
The idea is to have the Americans play a full, 60-game schedule in the USHL, as well as maintaining commitments to international and college competition, including the International Ice Hockey Federation's world U-18 championships, which coincide with the USHL playoffs. Players not selected to play for Team USA at the international junior tournament will play in the USHL playoffs. The team also intends to maintain its relationship with the NAHL with a few exhibition games.
The NTDP will compete for the Anderson Cup in the regular season and will participate in the Clark Cup playoffs. The team will also participate in the annual USHL Fall Classic, which is a heavily scouted showcase event. The USHL anticipates nearly 200 scouts in attendance at this year's showcase in Sioux City, Iowa.
"I think the initial thought was that, in playing the colleges, they could get a different type of exposure and select and pick any tournaments they wanted while not being bound by a schedule," Gregory said. "But, over the course of time, I think they may be able to get the best of both worlds (in the USHL) where they can play a full schedule that's competitive, compete for a championship and still have time to go to tournaments."
"I think as (USA Hockey) has tried to develop this program, they've tried different ways to get good competition and good viewings for their kids and then develop a team that's going to compete internationally. The great thing about the USHL is that it's the best junior league in the United States, so these kids will be competing at a high level every night." -- NHL Central Scouting's Dave Gregory
While Central Scouting Director E.J. McGuire understands the rationale behind USA Hockey's move, he was also a proponent of those younger players gaining experience against college players.
"I don't know if the developmental team is using this to broaden its scope, but I liked when they played the older teams," McGuire said. "I liked drawing those kind of comparisons. I'm sure the NTDP had their reasons for doing it but, selfishly, I liked to see them play the University of Michigan to find out how these 17-year-old kids stacked up against 22-year-old men. It was a good barometer. But, if they're going to play more games and it's going to be apples-to-apples, the USHL is developing candidates who are all over (Central Scouting's list), so we'll be watching them play against their peers."
Contact Mike Morreale at firstname.lastname@example.org.