Leading up to the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, Wild.com will take a look at the top 30 ranked skaters according to the International Scouting Service. The Minnesota Wild owns the 15th pick in the first round, which will take place Friday, June 24 at First Niagara Center in Buffalo, N.Y.
It was the summer of 2015, and Riley Tufte was weighing his options.
The rising Blaine High School senior sat in the Fogerty Arena locker room with his coach, Chris Carroll, a decision still needing to be made.
Stay in Minnesota, where he was born and raised, and finish his high school career? Or take off for Fargo, cutting his time in Minnesota short to play in the United States Hockey League?
Carroll, who said he truly didn't know what Tufte would do, had few words for a player whom he'd watch grown for nearly a decade.
"He was like, 'I want to come back,'" Caroll said. "And I was like, 'Yup, you'll come back, and you'll be Mr. Hockey.'
"And then I kind of just walked out of the locker room after that just to kind of let him think about that."
Carroll's words, Tufte said, were intriguing. Some seven months later, Tufte made good on Carroll's prediction, winning the 2016 award, an annual honor bestowed upon the best player in the state.
"It was basically just staying back with my friends, and playing another two years with them," Tufte said." I had a chance to leave my junior year of high school, and I really didn't want to leave after my junior year. I said I was going to leave my senior year, but I had in my mind that I didn't want to leave, and just stay back. I didn't want to leave my buddies the last year of high school. I didn't feel like that was right."
Tufte enters the 2016 NHL Draft an 'A'-rated prospect, expected to be selected in the first round. The Ham Lake native was taken first in the 2014 USHL Futures Draft by the Fargo Force. He has had coaches and hockey programs pulling him in all different directions since, but Tufte opted to stay in Minnesota, with the friends and teammates whom he had grown up with and close to.
"I've always had Blaine across the chest from my youth years, all the way up to my senior year of high school," he said. "I don't know, Minnesota high school hockey and my community means so much to me."
Carroll said Tufte has always been a good player. His greatness coincided with a growth spurt that saw Reilly shoot up to 6-foot-2 entering his freshman year.
"Through those huge growth spurts he kept pace with his development, and when I say development I mean his skating ability, his eye-hand coordination, shooting, all of those things that when a kid grows five inches over the summer it's kind of like Bambi on ice," Carroll said. "But he never went through that sort of awkward stage that I would say the majority of kids that grow so much do."
What it did was give Tufte a power-forward frame with the skills, Carroll said, of a 5-foot-9 forward.
Now standing at 6-foot-5, Tufte is one of the tallest prospects in the 2016 NHL Draft. He was listed 22nd by the ISS in its final pre-draft rankings, and has committed to attend the University of Minnesota-Duluth this fall.
Where some players opt to leave high school early to join the USHL, or the United States National Team Development Program, Tufte stayed Minnesota through-and-through, something his coach and peers took notice of.
"He puts an exclamation point, and he is the pushback argument to anybody, NHL scout, USHL scout, anybody that asserts the argument that you have to leave high school to develop as a college player, a Junior player, an NHL player," Caroll said. "There's a two-word rebuttal to that argument, and it's Riley Tufte,. Without question, you say those two words, argument is over."
Tufte said it did cross his mind, how staying could hurt his draft stock, but his desire to stay at home with his friends and teammates was the trump card. A year later, he was named the state's top player, improved his draft grade, and jumped from recording 51 points in his junior season, to 71 points in his final year at Blaine High School.
"I can remember the conversation, and he did leave it at that," Tufte said of his exchange with Carroll over the summer. "It kind of caught my eye. I was thinking about leaving high school, but after he said that I just thought to myself, I don't know, it was really intriguing to me."
It also paved the road for future Minnesota youth players to feel comfortable not leaving the nest. Eden Prarie's Casey Mittelstadt, projected to be a high first-round pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, announced that he would finish his high school career instead of playing in the USHL or pursuing other options.
Carroll has known Tufte for years. Though he took over as the head coach at Blaine prior to Tufte's junior season, he's worked with the program in different capacities prior to that, including as the strength coach, and with Tufte's older brothers.
"He kind of has that little brother syndrome if you will," Carroll said. "His older brother, four, five years older, was actually really strong, and had a group of kids that worked out quite a bit in the offseason to prepare themselves. Riley wanted to be right along with them, but being a 14-year-old kid, he could barely do a pull-up.
"He was pretty not-strong."
A lot has changed since then. Tufte can do a pull-up, and Carroll said his work ethic has kept him on the trajectory he currently finds himself.
"Him seeing this group of kids, his older brother's year, and all the stuff that they went through from an off-ice standpoint; he really, really embraced that," Carroll said.
It's all been part of Tufte's growth, both physically and mentally. As he's shot up the height charts though, he said he hasn't let that change his identity as a player.
"I have a little bit of a power-forward mind, but at the same time, I like to make plays," Tufte said. "I'm a skilled, big forward."
Carroll said that is what makes Tufte such an intriguing prospect. He's the rare blend of size and skill, the likes of which draws comparisons to Rick Nash, Jamie Benn, and another Minnesota player who made stops at Fogerty Arena, David Backes.
"It's a hybrid for of a big strong kid, but they can finish, and they can play," Carroll said. "It's a pretty small group that he sort of fits in. That's where a lot of the potential and a lot of the interest from NHL teams is coming."