North Jersey Avalanche 16s Steal the Show at AYHL Showcase

BU recruits Devin Kaplan and Lane Hutson lead the way for the Atlantic District's top team

The Atlantic Youth Hockey League started the season with a showcase at the Ice House in Hackensack, NJ this weekend, but it was the North Jersey Avalanche, in their home rink, that stole the show in a weekend full of U15, U16 and U18 games. With the most Division 1-committed prospects in the Atlantic circuit by far, the Avalanche, who outscored opponents 17-3, appeared to take the weekend as a kind of tune-up for what will be a fiercely competitive weekend next week at the Ice House. That weekend (Sept. 13-15) they will host teams from the BEAST series as well as elite midwestern AAA programs — including the Chicago Mission and Detroit Compuware.

In addition to AYHL play and the BEAST series, the Avalanche formed a 5-team regional league (the “Northeast Pack”) this season. That circuit features Pittsburgh Pens Elite, Buffalo Jr. Sabres, Mount-St. Charles, Selects Academy (@ South Kent), and Mid-Fairfield. M-F are only participating at the bantam level, while the rest will participate with three teams from 15s through 18s.

Paving the way for the Avalanche program this year is a 16 team that boasts a pair of 2004-birthyear stars in Boston University commits Devin Kaplan and Lane Hutson. I spoke with Avalanche 16 coach Vinny Smith about some of his prospects and thoughts on youth hockey after they took down Elite Hockey Academy in their second win of the weekend.

The Avalanche have cemented themselves as one of the premier teams for prospects in the region, how did you do it?

The biggest thing for us, when we came to the Avalanche a couple years ago, was the ownership was willing to give us the resources, give us an opportunity to do what we wanted to do. We’ve had some tremendous people step up and help that process out. I think it gives us the opportunity to recruit high-end athletes and then develop the kids from within, so we can enhance the guys who are home-grown. The culture is the biggest thing for us, it’s one thing to have really good hockey players, to have a ton of talent, but I think the culture of what we do… the growth away from the rink, our charity work, that’s created a sense of worth and pride in putting on the jersey. For us that’s the biggest thing.

What is your philosophy when it comes to player development?

We don’t really deviate, we do more skills than anyone. We don’t care about the results on the weekend. We preach competitiveness and wanting to win in everything you do, but our Tuesdays, Wednesdays, doing individual skill stuff, it’s non-negotiable. We’re not going to go into this weekend against Mission and Compuware saying hey, Tuesday we have to really bear down on defending and getting pucks out. We’re going to do skills. That’s important for our development philosophy. As far as growth for our kids, the amount of stuff we do… we put them in situations where they have to be good people. From different situations that we do with the Ronald McDonald House to a lot of the outreach stuff that we do with the community.

On BU recruit Lane Hutson:

Yeah, I’ve been fortunate enough to coach a lot of good hockey players. I think Lane Hutson is probably the best D I’ve coached at this age. I had Adam Fox, one of the most interesting, coaching Foxy was one of the best things I ever experienced because it taught me a lot, obviously you don’t get kids like that a lot, that are so smart, and so poised, control the game, good human being. I think Lane is a step above him right now, and that’s a lot for me, because Foxy’s my guy. The thing with [Lane] that most people are going to learn, that is going to cement him as the best D in the country, even cutting into other age groups… away from the rink he is probably the most diligent kid I’ve seen in my life. He’s an absolute savage. He cares so much… that makes it scary.

It looks like [Lane’s] playing his own game out there.

Yeah. His IQ, awareness, and intensity. There are a lot of guys that are really smart, I don’t know if I’ve seen a kid with this much bite that has that much brains.

On BU recruit Devin Kaplan:

Kaplan’s similar, I’ve never coached a kid with his ability. I’ve had a lot of guys that have played pro, really good college players, but his athleticism and his brain combined, it’s outrageous. He’s so smart for a kid at that size. In my opinion [Kaplan’s] the best forward in the country in his birthyear, when he’s at his best. Obviously they both have work to do… but you know, they’re both outrageous.

Do you notice [Hutson and Kaplan] drop their game when they play the weaker teams?

We’ve tried really hard… with the Avalanche, the biggest thing, obviously with all due respect to the Atlantic league, we’ve put teams together that have kind of been a little better than the league. So what we do outside the schedule with the BEAST and the Northeast Pack this year, getting more of an HP model of playing the top 5-6 teams, 6-7 times, playing real hockey every weekend. This year will be really good for our guys. It’s tough, they play a lot of hockey and when they start to be able to do things, get away from it… (University of Alabama football coach) Nick Saban said it this weekend, talking about playing the right way. He was getting heat for their New Mexico game like ‘why do you schedule these guys’, he said if you play the right way, as men, you’ll get everything you need to get out of the game. These kids are still boys, so there is going to be a lot of that where they play down to someone’s level.

On prospects not named Devin Kaplan and Lane Hutson:

We’ve got a lot of guys, it’s a deep team right, it’s tough to go into it without giving you ten names. Harry Meirowitz has had an unbelievable start to the season. He’s a smart kid from Long Island. The way we play matches his game, he loves to skate, he’s got a lot of ability getting up the sheet and involved in the offense. That’s been a great match and he’s been really good early. Danny Minnehan, I’m blown away by him. He’s a high-profile kid, was at the 40-man camp last year. You get a kid like that you think you’re getting a lot of skill, have to teach a lot of things away from the puck… I don’t think the kid has cheated one rep. Just in terms of that he’s been really impressive. I like our group a lot this year, I could go on about everybody. I think the kid [Sam] Lipkin’s (Quinnipiac commit) a pro hockey player if his body gets there.

What do you think about College Hockey v. Major Junior?

I think it’s completely up to the kid. If you’re a blue chip kid who has the opportunity to be a top 30 (NHL) draft pick, I completely understand if you want to go do [Major Junior]. For me it’s probably like 95-5 in terms of college because it lengthens your career, it’s a longer development path. With the rate of what college hockey is doing right now I think there’s no reason at all that a kid should go major unless there is a situation where a particular pro team is dictating that.

What do you think about kids playing other sports? Do you think it’s possible to play another sport while being at this level (U16 AAA) of competitive play? Should they give it up at this age?

It’s tough. At this level, the amount of time and the commitment, the wear and tear on your body. Especially in the off-season, everyone is telling them they need to get bigger and stronger. It’s really hard to play that amount of games and then go play another sport, lacrosse or fall ball.

Have you noticed any difference between kids in your program that have played other sports (compared to those that specialized early)?

It’s down the middle for me, I don’t have a hard take on that. I played all four sports growing up, that’s the way things were when I was growing up. (Do you think that helped you?) I think athletically, it does. Kids should play sports up until a certain age. If a kid’s a kid who can go play at scholarship level, and he’s trending that way at 13, 14, you probably have to have a serious conversation about [specializing]. That’s an opportunity to get an education for free, and if the kid’s a pro prospect, that’s obviously life-changing. I do think up until about 13 years old, I think [playing other sports] is good for you. Also, it’s about the fun… if you’re not a high, high-end kid, or you’re in the middle, having fun and enjoying life is huge. We talk about recruiting, you guys write up all the kids that are high-end, there are a lot of kids that play this sport, you know, the experience and the life lessons are just as important. So playing multiple sports is huge.

Thanks to Vinny for taking the time + the Atlantic District for putting together a great, well-run weekend of hockey in Hackensack.