The last time an Entry Draft was held in Minnesota, seven high school players from within the state were selected over a dozen rounds.
That was 1989 at the old Met Sports Center. Although the Entry Draft now is only seven rounds, it's quite possible that number will be equaled if not surpassed when one of the NHL's signature events returns to the Twin Cities on June 24-25, at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
Of the 10 Minnesota high school players rated among the top 178 skaters in North America by NHL Central Scouting, Mario Lucia
of Wayzata High School and Joseph Labate of the Academy of Holy Angels were at the top of the list.
Who will be the first scholastic player chosen?
Both Minnesota natives were invited to the NHL Scouting Combine earlier this month and each received strong reviews. Lucia, of Plymouth, is ranked No. 34 by Central Scouting, while Labate, a native of Burnsville, isn't too far behind at No. 51.
"When I look at Labate and Lucia, I don't see that big a difference between the two," Central Scouting's Jack Barzee told NHL.com. "Watching Labate was like watching Nick Bjugstad (Florida Panthers, No. 19, 2010) because he skates so well. Lucia is probably more like Brock Nelson (New York Islanders, No. 30, 2010) with those great hands around the cage.
"But I do feel Labate is more of a physical presence than Lucia."
Lucia realizes he must improve physically in order to ultimately excel at the next level.
"No one's game is perfect, but I need to boost my strength," he said. "I'm only about 190 pounds, and when all is said and done, I should be between 205 and 210. So increasing my strength and being more physical in all aspects, whether it's skating, winning puck battles or becoming gritty around the net, are areas I'll improve."
Since the 2003 Draft, 135 high school players have been tabbed. The record for most high school players chosen was 69 in 1987, topped by the Montreal Canadiens taking Bellows Free Academy forward John LeClair in the second round (No. 33).
Since 1969, there have been 774 high school players chosen in the Entry Draft, which accounts for 8.1 percent of the 9,546 players selected over that span.
Lucia, a left wing, had 25 goals and 47 points in 24 games this past season. His team finished the season 20-6-2 following a 4-3 double-overtime loss to Eden Prairie in the Section 6AA championship at Mariucci Arena in Minneapolis on March 2.
Barzee believes Lucia's untapped potential is what will make him a coveted draft pick.
"Mario has one ingredient that you can't coach but are born with and that's his release and ability to score goals," Barzee said. "He's got a great big reach but isn't fully developed and wears down, so he sometimes doesn't have the endurance as some other players. But his upside for becoming a prolific scorer is through the roof. He knows when to shoot and when to pass … he has a natural gift for that."
Lucia remains unsure of his next step. Options include the Des Moines Buccaneers of the United States Hockey League and the Penticton Vees of the British Columbia Hockey League. He's also narrowed his college choices to Notre Dame and Minnesota, where his father, Don, has been the coach for the last 12 seasons.
"I'll make a decision on Des Moines or Penticton by the end of July," Lucia said. "As far as college goes, it's been tough. I want to make the right decision. My dad tells me I've earned the right to pick a school and whatever I pick, he'd back me up."
Labate, meanwhile, is committed to the University of Wisconsin after producing 29 goals, 52 points and a plus-27 rating in 26 games for the Stars (16-9-1). The 6-4, 180-pound center was held without a point in just three games. He turned down scholarship offers from Nebraska-Omaha, Maine, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Bemidji State and Minnesota State.
"Once I stepped foot on the (Wisconsin) campus, I just really liked the coaches … all three of them (coach Mike Eaves and assistants Bill Butters and Gary Shuchuk) played in the NHL and that's my goal, so I think they can help me get there," Labate told NHL.com.
"He has unbelievable skill, is a great skater and possesses really good hands," Barzee said of Labate. "He can shoot the puck and is very unselfish."
Holy Angels played a non-conference schedule that included many of the state's powerhouse programs, such as Edina, Benilde-St. Margaret's, Minnetonka, Burnsville and Eden Prairie. Despite Labate's 2-goal, 1-assist effort in the quarterfinal round of the Section 2AA tournament, Holy Angels dropped a 4-3 decision to Prior Lake.
"We couldn't make it to the state tournament this year, but as a team we got better during the year and it was a really good learning experience for me," Labate said. "It was a time to be a leader and the go-to guy and I think I really benefitted from that."
Both players are very much looking forward to spending two days at the Draft.
"I mean, everyone wants to be drafted in the first round and it would be a dream to go in the first round, but my expectations are, hopefully, early second," Lucia said. "Either way, being drafted is an honor, especially in your own state. It doesn't really mean anything at this point since you still have to work your way up there."
"It would be awesome (to be drafted) in front of family and friends," Labate said. "I bet a lot of guys wish that it was in their hometown. I'm lucky to be able to say that and to be able to go there with my family and friends. It's going to be really fun."Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale