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Draft Prospects Starting To Come "From Everywhere"

by Evan Sporer / Minnesota Wild

When Auston Matthews hears his name called at the 2016 NHL Draft, likely by the Toronto Maple Leafs' brass and the number one pick, a kid from Scottsdale, Arizona will have taken an unfamiliar path in his development, at least when it comes to his home zip code.

But such is life in 2016 and hockey development, as "non-traditional" markets are slowly climbing the ranks and producing prospects in greater volume as hockey's reach stretches across the United States.

"Look at Matthews," said Brent Flahr, the assistant general manager of the Minnesota Wild. "He’s a product of Phoenix, Arizona. So hockey is growing in this country. That’s a great thing for the NHL and hockey abroad because there are more and more players coming out of nowhere."

The geographical variety in talent hasn't impacted scouting as much at the NHL level, Flahr said, but is certainly creating change for amateur teams.

Mmost of the American-born players the Wild scouts, Flahr said, are already in the United States Hockey League, high school, or another program that makes them more visible.

But in terms of those amateur programs finding the top players, the search is officially on.

"For junior teams, they have to be looking all over the country now," Flahr said. "It's a harder job for them. Colleges, they're recruiting kids from a younger age. But they go to the US program, and US camps all over the country, and these kids are coming from Florida, Dallas, Phoenix, and it's great."

Minnesota still leads the way in youth hockey participation, with 57,107 registered players this past year.

Two of them, Kieffer Bellows (Edina) and Riley Tufte (Coon Rapids) account for two American-born skaters many project to be taken in the first round of the 2016 draft.

"Kieffer you can only describe as one thing: He’s a goal scorer," Flahr said. "He’s always been a goal scorer and he doesn’t hide it. He’s a pretty focused kid."

Tufte won the 2016 Mr. Hockey Award, presented annually to the best high school player in the state of Minnesota.

"Tufte is 6-foot-5, an unbelievable skater, a power forward, and a north-south player that can shoot the puck," Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher said. "The game I was at, the last time I saw him play, he must have had 15 shots on goal, and I think he scored three. He shoots the puck right through the back of the net."

Matthews isn't alone near the top of the projected draft board when it comes to Scottsdale natives; Matthew Tkachuk, son of former NHL All-Star Keith, is the second-ranked North American skater by the NHL's Central Scouting service, and many have him pegged to be selected in the top five come Friday night. He was also born in Scottsdale.

Tkachuk though grew up in St. Louis, where his father Keith spent the end of his NHL playing career. Matthew played his youth hockey beside another first round prospect and second generation player, Logan Brown. Also in that age group was a third projected first-round selection, Clayton Keller.

Arizona in particular has seen an influx of youth hockey players with former NHL players retiring there. On the West Coast, three Stanley Cup championship teams over the past decade (Los Angeles Kings 2012, 2014; Anaheim Ducks, 2007) have helped grow the game in popularity, paving the way for the likes of goaltender Thatcher Demko, a San Diego native and a Canucks prospect taken in the second round of the 2014 draft.

It's in part why a record number of American-born players could be selected in the first round of the 2016 NHL Draft, with as many as 12 projected to go in the top 30. The previous record is 11, set in 2010.

"Part of it is cyclical from country to country," Flahr said. "There are more kids playing hockey in the US and you’re going to see that in the NHL and higher levels. At the same time, look at the Fins this year and the Swedes the last couple years. It is cyclical but at the same time I think the US is going to continue producing players for years to come."

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