Prospect Currents: NTDP, USHL Tenders, CHL Drafts + more
NTDP U17 Roster Release (2004 birthyear)
I’ve already talked about many of the players who made next year’s NTDP 17 team when I previewed the Youth Olympic Games in January, and many of them will be mentioned in this space over the coming seasons, so I’ve broken down some brief comments by talking about the team itself, which includes some of the names in the mix for this Saturday’s OHL draft. I also noted a few players that didn’t make the team, just to give a brief look at this age group as I start to ramp up coverage heading into their recruiting window.
As for recruiting, this is the ‘grand-fathered’ age group before the change… many of the top prospects have college commitments due to making them before the recruiting rules changed last spring, but due to said rules, most of those who didn’t will not be able to commit until this coming August.
F Maddox Fleming - Shattuck-St. Mary’s Prep — NTDP rostered
The only player on this list to play U18 AAA hockey this year, Fleming took to it quickly in his first year at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, playing on a Sabres prep team that has iced a ton of legendary talent over the years. His 52 points in 42 games placed him near the top of the team’s scoring chart despite being one of the youngest on the ice every game. Great skill, asserts himself all over the sheet and makes plays at a high level. Arguably the top uncommitted prospect in the country.
F Frank Nazar — Honeybaked 15 — NTDP rostered
A good skater with high-end skill and playmaking capacity, the University of Michigan locked up a serious talent with Nazar’s commitment — he could eat the Big Ten alive in a few years. Like everyone else in this age group, he has to keep growing as a player, but Nazar is as gifted as they come. OHL Draft
F Cutter Gauthier — Compuware 16 — NTDP rostered
In an age group full of great names with matching talent who are projectable all the way up to pro hockey, Cutter probably has the best name — and he could be the most projectable for the NHL as well. A big, physical force, Cutter has a hell of a shot and is very hard to contain when he gets going. Athletic scorer who can play with a real edge. One scout compared him to Matt Tkachuk. Uncommitted OHL Draft
F Cruz Lucius — Gentry Academy 16 — NTDP rostered
In an age group that does not want for playmakers, there isn’t a skater who I thought was more impressive in that respect than Lucius, the brother of Chaz (2003 NTDP), who is himself a prolific producer. Where Chaz has a knack for putting the puck in the net, Cruz seems to have the same talent when it comes to creating golden opportunities for his teammates — almost certainly a side-effect of the two having played together for years. The fact that Cruz played for a pretty stacked Gentry team that often played against weaker opponents only served to further illustrate his capacity to embarrass and out-think his opponents. Minnesota commit
F Rutger McGroarty — Oakland Jr. Grizzlies 15 — NTDP rostered
Where Cruz Lucius’ Gentry team made short work of many of their competition, McGroarty and the other Michigan-based prospects on this list made short work of top teams from USA and Canada alike. A big, powerful force who can be very hard to contain when on his game, McGroarty impressed observers all year long. He has the tools to punish defenses in a variety of ways and was hyped as potentially the best prospect in this age group well before the season began. McGroarty has all the tools and a frame for pro hockey already. He will need to continue to improve his speed, explosiveness and take his game to the next level to live up to the amount of hype he’s already garnered. No easy task, but there are not many places better equipped to help him do that than the National Program. Notre Dame commit OHL Draft
D Hunter Brzustewicz — Oakland Jr. Grizzlies 15 — NTDP rostered
As I was first getting to know this age group, I made a priority to check out McGroarty (above), but it was his teammate Brzustewicz’s ability to make composed, high-percentage plays beyond his years that made the strongest impression on me. Add to that the fact that Brzustewicz is a late birthdate — he’s going to be someone NHL scouts keep close tabs on for the next few years. This is a great crop of 2004 defenders, but Brzustewicz is very much in the mold of the modern defensemen who can do it all and at a high level. Other than lacking a 6’0-plus frame, there are no holes to his game, no flaws in his projection. Michigan commit OHL Draft
F Charlie Stramel - Rosemount HS (MN) — NTDP rostered
I thought this big, late-birthdate athlete was a serious force for a nice Rosemount team this winter. Stramel is one of the players I’m most excited about following over the next few years. I really like his decision-making, great capacity to make high-percentage plays in all three zones. Another uncommitted prospect who will be in hot pursuit from D1 schools come August.
F Devin Kaplan - NJ Avalanche 16 — NTDP rostered
Kaplan’s a strong athlete with a great frame paired with speed and some high-end offensive traits… among a group of prospects that are all highly-lauded, it’s hard to argue that he isn’t right there at the top. Like all of these players, Kaplan will have to prove a lot at the next level so these two years at the National Program will be huge — but don’t be surprised if he emerges as a lottery pick come the 2022 NHL Draft. Boston University commit OHL Draft
D Lane Hutson — NJ Avalanche 16 — NTDP Rostered
The contrast between a big, athletic forward in Kaplan and the undersized, highly mobile, fourth-forward style defenseman that is Hutson on the same Avalanche team was something to watch this season. The combination certainly worked for a team that won a ton of games despite relying heavily on that young core. It would be easy to put Hutson into the box of “mobile, smaller puck-moving defenseman” that have so come into fashion over this past decade, but that would not really do justice to his game. He’s hard to ignore as he is engaged, loves to activate into the play and does a lot more than just push the puck around the ice and quarterback the point. How Hutson’s unique approach (and size) translates to higher levels of play will be telling, but I find it hard to bet against his offensive prowess and capacity to compete. Boston University commit OHL Draft
F Gavin Brindley — Florida Alliance 16 — Tendered with USHL Tri-City
Like Hutson, Brindley lacks the glaring pro upside of some of the larger, more hyped talents in this age group but when he’s at his best, there aren’t many better. Brindley has a fertile, resourceful playmaker’s ability to process the game with quickness and looks to have a lot of potential. Player comparisons can be flawed, but there are shades of Clayton Keller at the same age in the way Brindley picks up and creates as soon as the puck hits his stick. While I saw Keller, another observer compared him to 2019 2nd round NHL draft pick Robert Mastrosimone. Either way, it bodes well for Brindley, who is one of the top uncommitted players in the country. OHL Draft
D Seamus Casey — Florida Alliance 16 — NTDP Rostered
Like Brzustewicz, Casey is a preeminent right-shooting, Michigan-committed prospect in this age group on defense, though Casey has a bit more offensive flair and less of the overall appeal of Brzustewicz in my opinion. He’s an exciting player to watch as he makes things happen and, like Brindley, very much picks up when the puck hits his stick. OHL Draft
F Nick Pierre — Hill-Murray — Tendered with Sioux City
Hot off a Minnesota State Championship — a run where Pierre impressed any honest observer — there were a number of people I spoke to who thought he would be on this NTDP team. In the end, Pierre tendered with USHL-Sioux City soon after the roster was announced. The Musketeers, who badly need offense, should be thanking their stars they picked up a confident, highly-competent scorer in Pierre, who looks ready to take his game to the next level. Wisconsin commit
F Andon Cerbone — Brunswick — Potentially returning to prep school
Cerbone garnered so many rave reviews from observers that I ended up going back and reviewing some games in the fall only to realize I had seriously underestimated his talent and cerebral playmaking ability by a great deal, in part because he was playing up against some of the better teams in the country. While he lacks size and won’t necessarily wow you every shift the way some of the names on this list can, his team-leading 47 points for a Brunswick team with a serious schedule proved that he has what it takes. Come August, schools will be hot in the chase for Cerbone’s commitment.
D Charlie Leddy — Avon Old Farms — NTDP Rostered
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably wondering if there is a player that isn’t going to be obsessed with just making offensive plays on this NTDP 17 team — Leddy helps to fill that void. Life is going to be difficult for skaters who come near this 6’2, right shot defenseman who helped Avon Old Farms get to the semi-finals of the New England Championship. As his Mid-Fairfield coach Chris Gragnano told me this fall, “As an ‘04 [playing up], he has been physically dominant in some games, he’s changed the way teams have played against us simply by his physical play, the way he defends, the way he gets us out of trouble. He’s [also] actually contributed a ton on the offensive side of the puck, which has been really nice.” Boston College commit
D Spencer Sova — Honeybaked 15
I like Brzustewicz, Casey, Hutson, Leddy and the rest of the guys named to this team, but Sova is one of the most appealing (and projectable) prospects on defense in this age group for me. He has size, gets around the sheet well, possesses some offensive capacity and isn’t easy to play against. If some USHL team doesn’t convince him to take their route, USA Hockey’s loss will likely be the OHL’s gain. OHL Draft
F Gavin Hayes — Compuware 15
Like Sova, I think Hayes is a more standard, straight-forward and projectable prospect than many of those mentioned — but no less appealing for that. In fact, skaters like Hayes are exactly the types I think the NTDP should be looking at, as they can help take his game to new heights and turn him into a strong pro prospect.
F Nathan Lewis — Oakland Jr. Grizzlies 15
Like Hayes and Sova, Lewis is another very appealing prospect playing in Michigan, though I think he showed more of a high-end upside, more of an offensive ceiling. He’s an overall talent who boasts an appealing frame and tools along with great capacity to realize potential in the zone. It could all come together and college coaches will be eagerly following his development.
F Max Namestnikov — Honeybaked 15
Another offensively super-talented skater on this list, playing with Frank Nazar on a great Honeybaked team, the two made sparks fly. I remember tuning in to the second period of one game where they scored on a few shifts in succession, and not flukes, but unstoppable goals that any team would surrender. Wherever he plays next year, the Michigan State commit is one to keep an eye on.
F Landen Gunderson — Maple Grove — Potentially returning to high school
The NTDP took eight Minnesotans this season, and the program could easily have taken three or four more from the State of Hockey before even looking in Gunderon’s direction, which is no slight to him and more of a comment on how deep the age group is. Gunderson, a late birthdate 2004, looks to be a great, honest prospect at forward coming out of a Maple Grove program that has produced a ton of talent.
F Jimmy Clark — Edina — Potentially returning to high school
Like Gunderson, Clark is a late 2004 at forward from Minnesota. He showed some offensive upside for the vaunted Edina Hornets program as a freshman. He won’t be eligible to commit for over a year, but when the time comes, the smart money is on plenty of schools calling.
D Tristan Sarsland — Benilde-St. Margaret’s — Potentially returning to high school
There were a lot of names I could have mentioned here, but I was reviewing a Benilde game the other night and figured he was as worthwhile a name to throw in here as anyone. Sarsland’s got good size and a nice, pretty projectable two-way upside, having just finished his second year of high school hockey and committing to CC just over a year ago.
D Chris Able - Chicago Mission 15
The Ohio State-committed late ‘04 was one of the top 2004 defensemen I saw this season, a two-way force who is tough to play against.
As mentioned, there are a lot of great players in the age group, and I’ve nowhere near noted all of them — either on or off next year’s NTDP-17 team.
Some other prospect news, especially on the younger age groups..
The NHL announced their draft would be postponed, but the amateur hockey world stops for no global pandemic and the OHL draft looks to be going on as scheduled this April 4th. Over the course of the season, I heard from a few OHL scouts and people in the hockey world who said that this year’s crop in Canada is weaker than normal and, while I can’t speak to that, considering the amount of high-end Americans in OHL territory, how these Americans figure in seems to be up in the air. The draft will be an informative experience for observers.
Many of the players I’ve mentioned above will be names to watch, especially those that weren’t named to the NTDP like Spencer Sova, Max Namestnikov, Gavin Brindley, Nathan Lewis, Gavin Hayes, Zach Filak and others. The NTDP names to keep an eye on have all been mentioned, but I neglected to write up Logan Cooley, Tyler Duke and Isaac Howard, who could certainly be selected as well.
The most interesting name to watch when it comes to this OHL draft, for my money, isn’t actually an American, though he did play in America this year… well let’s talk about that separately.
The Chicago Steel (whose GM, Ryan Hardy, I interviewed on my podcast last week) announced three big signings.
The two signings that made the most noise were the Fantilli brothers, Adam and Luca. They made a big splash in prep hockey this season with Kimball Union, where Adam wowed observers with assertive play and great offensive talent combined in a big, long frame that makes him hard to ignore. Adam is likely the top prospect for the OHL draft and it will be interesting to see who opts to select him in that draft. Fantilli was reportedly visiting North Dakota recently. However, with his brother Luca, also a talent (but on defense), already committed to Michigan, Michigan has to be an early favorite for anyone looking into the crystal ball on Fantilli’s college destination. The fact that the brothers have opted to play together and cited being on the same team as a big factor in their decision-making reinforces that. The two heading to Michigan is a scary prospect in its own right — the Wolverines have cornered the market on some of the brightest talent in the age groups that will be matriculating in Ann Arbor around 2022, 2023.
That said it is far from guaranteed that Adam will go to college just because he’s chosen the USHL. His father, Giuliano, told The Hockey News that the OHL wasn’t the right place for Adam this year (emphasis on this coming season), and explicitly left the door wide open for his late-birthdate son to depart for the Ontario league after a season in the USHL.
That wouldn’t even be Adam’s draft year, which would be that following, 2022-2023 season, which is why the college route is still plausible and very intriguing. As I wrote in a fall edition of this column:
“Adam will be heavily recruited by the OHL and the NCAA over the coming seasons. A December birth-date 2004 (a month away from turning 15), Adam is looking to fast-track so that he could be a senior next year at KUA and graduate with his brother. In that case, he would technically become eligible to start playing in the NCAA at sixteen years old and nine months — he’d be one of the youngest, if not the youngest player to play college hockey, during that the 2021-22 season… this is all assuming Adam doesn’t end up in the Ontario league.”
The Steel also submitted the first USHL tender for next season in Jake Livanavage, a defenseman from the Phoenix Jr. Coyotes program. For those who aren’t familiar with the tender process, it allows a team to use one of their top draft picks to sign a prospect for the upcoming season. Speaking of tenders…
Mehlenbacher to Muskegon
There was another tender announced, a Canadian: Buffalo Jr. Sabres forward Owen Mehlenbacher, a well-rounded offensive force with size (listed at 6’2, 180), skating and skill to spare. With a frame and game that projects well, the Fort Erie, Ontario native will be in high demand for Division 1 recruiters come August when this age group becomes eligible to make college commitments.
LaStarza to Waterloo
Also in USHL Canadian tender news, the Waterloo Black Hawks furthered a very productive pipeline from Shattuck-St. Mary’s by picking up Sabres 16 star Michael LaStarza, a Quebec native and prolific scorer who led his 16 team in scoring despite ‘playing up’ at the 16 level. As with Mehlenbacher, LaStarza is uncommitted and is already heavy on the radar for college recruiters, something this news will likely only further.
Borgesi to Tri-City
The most recent tender was Philadelphia native Vinny Borgesi, who lit up 15 hockey with 100 points for Selects Academy this season. The Storm have had a veritable wealth of talented puck-movers on the back-end, this season in Mike Koster and Mitchell Miller, last season in current UMass star freshman Zac Jones and plenty of others over the years. Borgesi looks to be in that mold and will join another up-and-coming star in the aforementioned Brindley in Kearney, Nebraska next season. Borgesi is committed to Northeastern.
Vermont Coaching Search seemingly stalled by the Coronavirus, enter Jerry Keefe
Speaking of Northeastern, I wrote plenty on the subject of Vermont’s new coaching staff this winter but one name that has floated conspicuously into the mix is Northeastern’s Jerry Keefe. Without Keefe on the Huskies staff, there is no question that Northeastern would not have had the recent success they’ve enjoyed — nor the talent they currently have on roster. It’s clear to see that Keefe would be an appealing candidate for the Cats. One source thought Keefe would kill it in Burlington were he to get the top job, especially if he were surrounded by a strong staff.
Connor Bedard is granted Exceptional Status by the WHL
The WHL draft will also still take place, though it has been moved up and will be conducted online. The first overall pick is quite clear ahead of time: barring the unforeseen, it will be Vancouver-area prodigy Connor Bedard, who was granted exceptional status in the Western league. He became the first to receive the status so as to play in the ‘Dub’, a status which has been granted generally only to Ontarian super-talents, such as Connor McDavid, John Tavares and fellow aughts birth-year standout Shane Wright, who all got the status so they could play in the Ontario league early. A lethal scorer himself, Bedard will likely go first overall to the Regina Pats when the draft does take place later this month.
WHL completes US Prospects Draft (See full draft below)
Last but not least — though, potentially least…I’ll get into it — the Western Hockey League’s US Prospects Draft has come and gone. As the name implies, the draft focuses solely on US-born prospects and consists of two rounds.
While there are some who would consider these CHL US draft’s to be a kind of threat to college hockey — in that the teams have a special draft dedicated to recruiting Americans away from the route — I don’t think it is a major concern, for two reasons. First, the Quebec circuit has taken similar steps with regard to drafting Americans some years ago and they have not seen a boom of recruitment where the U.S. is concerned. While the two leagues are different, moves like these are done from a position of weakness, not because the WHL is doing a particularly amazing job already in that respect. There are certainly American players in the Western league, but with very inconsistent results regarding their long-term careers and the league does not currently corner the market on top Americans who are eligible to play there — the NCAA does.
Second, I think this draft doesn’t have the punch that the WHL draft ‘proper’ does. The OHL draft, already written about above, will take place soon and as noted many of the top prospects this year are Americans. If a team takes one of them early, they will expend a valuable asset to do so, skipping over a Canadian who is highly likely to report. If the OHL were to create an ‘American’ draft, the players taken would be just one of many Americans mandated to be selected. Teams give up very little to do that.
When a Western league team took an American in their traditional draft, let’s say in the third or even sixth, seventh rounds, that meant, again, they think the American is better than all of the Canadian prospects they could have selected. Even with the inherent flight risk potential, they put their money where their mouth is and prioritized an American, which is an accolade in itself for the American prospect in question. Now that the league mandates Americans be taken in this ‘US-only’ draft, it doesn’t have the same gravitas. This might as well be called an American flyer draft, where teams take prospects because they have to, not unlike how the Q mandated teams select Americans.
That’s nothing against the WHL, by the way. Not only is the on-ice product terrific, I know a number of great, highly-competent and accomplished hockey people who work in that league and the circuit itself is proven to produce premier talent. They have had their fair share of success recruiting American players, though, again, the NCAA route has often been prioritized for Americans in the west.
Anyway, I didn’t spend much time watching the 2005 age group this season so I don’t have anything to say about these prospects today, though I’m sure many of them will be discussed in this and other prospect spaces in the years to come. Here’s the list below — thanks for reading. Jasper