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U.S. team defensemen top CSS prelim rankings

by Mike G. Morreale
Did you really expect Kurt Kleinendorst to spend the previous nine seasons with the New Jersey Devils' organization and not know the value of defense?

Kleinendorst, in his first season as coach of the U.S. National Team Development Program Under-18 Team, not only spent the last three seasons as coach for the Devils' American Hockey League affiliate in Lowell, but as New Jersey's assistant coach in 2000-01.

It's no wonder five of the top seven players on NHL Central Scouting's preliminary ranking for United States Hockey League players happen to be defensemen playing for Kleinendorst -- No. 1 Derek Forbort, No. 3 Stephen Johns, No. 4 Justin Faulk, No. 5 Jarred Tinordi and No. 7 Jonathon Merrill. This year, the USNTDP is ranked alongside USHL players; the team is playing a mix of college, USHL and international competition.

Additionally, goalie Jack Campbell, who backstopped the U.S. to the gold medal at the 2009 World Under-18 Championship, is rated No. 1 among goalies.

"We just want to make a commitment to be good defensively and want to have a plan in place for certain moments, because at the end of the day it's not like an algebra problem where you've got exact numbers and can come up with an exact answer," Kleinendorst said. "Hockey is just constantly changing, but for the most part it's the commitment of playing on the defensive side of the puck when you don't have it and these kids have been great about that.

"I keep telling them, everything coming out of my mouth is what you're going to hear next year, the year after and the year after that. I'm not telling them anything that isn't important to becoming a better hockey player and that some coach down the road isn't going to have to instill if I don't do it."

The NTDP was riding a six-game winning streak entering its game against Tri-City of the USHL on Nov. 21. For the season, the U-18 team is 10-4-1 and has allowed just eight goals over its last five games.

"I like our approach that we've taken where we don't get too excited when we win and don't get too disappointed when we lose," Kleinendorst said. "I feel our group really started to come together following our three straight road victories over Utica, Cornell and Colgate (Oct. 23-25)."

Following the release of Central Scouting's preliminary rankings Tuesday, Kleinendorst took the time to discuss those top players recognized as potential top 2010 Entry Draft choices with The number preceding each player is their ranking according to Central Scouting.


1. Derek Forbort (6-4 1/2, 198):
The most surprising thing about the top-rated prospect on the U.S. hockey list is the fact he's fresh out of Duluth East High School. Forbort, who's committed to the University of North Dakota for next fall, has 8 assists in 20 games with the NTDP this season. He also had 2 assists for the U.S. in their win at the Under-18 Four Nations Cup earlier this month in Finland.

"Here's a kid who wasn't even here last year and has just risen right to the top," Kleinendorst said. "He's got size, intelligence and a great compete level. It doesn't really surprise me to see him at the top."

"He's probably a top-two defenseman in the NHL if he reaches his potential," said Central Scouting's Jack Barzee:

3. Stephen Johns (6-3 1/4, 215): The Wampum, Pa., native, who's committed to the University of Notre Dame, offers a physical element Kleinendorst appreciates. He has 5 assists and six points in 20 games this season.

"He's a big kid who likes to play physical, is skilled and skates well," he said. "Right now we're working with him to be a little more patient on the defensive side. He's always been able to be aggressive, make mistakes and get away with it, but the higher up the ladder you go, the less forgiving that's going to be.

"But Stephen has nice offensive instincts and he's willing to learn."

Barzee agreed with Kleinendorst's assessment.

"Stephen just needs to be a little bit more disciplined because he likes to get into the physical game and sometimes he's a little too aggressive and takes himself away from the play," he said, "but this guy can play at the point on the power play, can kill penalties and can beat you with his body."

4. Justin Faulk (5-11 3/4, 196): Kleinendorst likes to refer to the University of Minnesota Duluth-bound Faulk as a "bulldog."

"He's probably our strongest defenseman from the waist-down," he said. "He's strong with the puck and strong on his skates -- although we're working on his foot speed."

Faulk leads the team with 9 goals, including a team-leading 7 on the power-play. His 14 points is tied for second on the team. He had 2 assists in four games at the Four Nations Cup.

"He's strong with the puck, can turn on a dime and can shoot the puck like Al MacInnis," Kleinendorst said. "He's probably our most underrated player, who just now is starting to catch people's eye, but how could he not. He's just a powerful kid."

"Faulk might be the most NHL-ready defenseman on the team," said Barzee.

5. Jarred Tinordi (6-5 1/2, 205):
The captain of this year's U-18 NTDP team has provided great leadership on and off the ice.

"I keep telling them, everything coming out of my mouth is what you're going to hear next year, the year after and the year after that. I'm not telling them anything that isn't important to becoming a better hockey player and that some coach down the road isn't going to have to instill if I don't do it."
-- USNTDP U-18 coach Kurt Kleinendorst

"To me, a captain is a captain -- I don't care if you're 17 or 35 years old," Kleinendorst said. "I've been very careful with Jarred and have let him know that, while I understand he's just 17, there are certain things I'm going to expect from him and he's been unbelievable. The way he carries himself and the respect that the guys have for him in the locker room has been great."

Tinordi, who played in 67 games with the Under-17 team last season, where he recorded 6 goals, 20 points and 71 penalty minutes. Jarred is the son of Mark Tinordi, who played 12 NHL seasons with the Rangers, Minnesota North Stars/Dallas Stars and the Washington Capitals. Jarred, who has chipped in with 5 assists and 32 penalty minutes this season, has verbally committed to the University of Notre Dame for next fall.

"He's learning how to play the game a little bit more and staying away from being overly aggressive," Barzee said. "He's shown patience."

7. Jonathon Merrill (6-3 1/4, 198):
Kleinendorst admitted there are few, if any, mistakes in Merrill's game. The University of Michigan-bound defenseman is second on the team with 10 assists, and he has 3 power-play goals.

"He could arguably be where Forbort is (at No. 1 on the list)," Kleinendorst said. "As far as all-round defensemen go, he's it. He'll kill penalties and can be used on the power-play. He's the kid you want out there in the last minute of the game because it's rare to see him get himself in trouble. He uses his stick really well."

Merrill also played a role in the U.S. team's gold medal-winning performance at the 2009 World Under-18 Championship, and he led the team's defensemen with 3 points during the club's three-game sweep to win the Four Nations Cup.


1. Jack Campbell (6-2 1/2, 175):
Campbell, who entered this season with eye-opening credentials, has the potential to be selected in the first round of the 2010 Entry Draft.

"I knew Jack's reputation coming into this season and he hasn't disappointed me one bit," Kleinendorst said. "The one thing that has really impressed me is the fact I've never seen a goalie his age, even on the AHL level, who handles the puck as responsibly as he does. He just has a feel for the game. He's no Marty Brodeur, mind you, but he makes decisions with the puck that'll never hurt the team."

In 28 appearances with the Under-17 team last season, Campbell went 20-6-0 mark with a 2.17 goals-against average and .916 save percentage. He even made seven appearances with the Under-18 Team last campaign, going unbeaten with a sparkling 1.17 GAA and .940 save percentage. In his first full season with the Under-18 team, he's 6-4-1 with a 1.98 GAA and .927 save percentage.

"With the way our game has changed, it's important to have a guy back there who can slow down an opposing forecheck by controlling the puck and Jack can do that," Kleinendorst said.

Contact Mike Morreale at
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