The best undrafted American-born hockey players will take to the ice at First Niagara Center Thursday night with the hope of returning in June. For the 42 players featured in the CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game, it’s the official kickoff to the season and their whirlwind – and sometimes anxiety-filled – draft year.
The showcase (7 p.m., NHL Network) is a chance for players to raise their stock or catch the eye of NHL scouts and front-office personnel.
It’s something Jack Eichel knows very well. The Buffalo Sabres rookie played in the game last year and went on to be the No. 2 overall pick at the NHL draft.
But his advice to the players, including a number he has played with on various U.S. National Teams, is to stay true to your own game.
“I think a lot of guys want to come in here and make their impression on all the scouts and personnel from the NHL that’s going to be here,” said Eichel, who was the most outstanding Pplayer in last year’s game. “I think it’s important for them to come in and just put their best foot forward and work hard and do whatever they do. I think that’s what I tried to do last year and I was lucky to have a pretty good game.
“USA Hockey is doing a better job every year of making this event a top-notch one and one that players want to come and play in. It’s a testament to USA Hockey and how much they’ve been growing the game over the years.”
At last year’s draft, 26 players selected participated in the All-American Prospects Game. Overall there were 55 Americans chosen, seven in the first round. A record three of the top eight picks were from the ranks of college hockey.
This particular event is in its fourth year and grew from the idea of showcasing the best hockey talent in the United States.
“We wanted something to celebrate the American player and our connectivity to the NHL and the NHL draft,” said Jim Johannson, the assistant executive director of hockey operations for USA Hockey. “The players really make the event. A marker, if you will, for this game has been the NHL Draft. We’ve had upwards of 25 to 26 kids drafted out of this game on a consistent basis, which does show the depth of player we have in it.
“On display here right now, it’s hard because NHL draft lists vary throughout the year, but I think it’s safe to say there’s about eight to 10 kids who are projected right now as first-round draft picks for this year. It’s equally exciting to know the NHL Draft will be here this year.”
When the NHL Draft opens at First Niagara Center on June 24, it’s likely fans will hear a number of names from Thursday’s game.
Six players are potential first-round picks based on NHL Central Scouting’s preliminary player-to watch-list for September: forwards Matthew Tkachuk, Max Jones, Kieffer Bellows, Alexander DeBrincat and Riley Tufte along with defenseman Charlie McAvoy.
If some of those last names look familiar, they should be. Eight players on the rosters for the teams coached by Derek Plante and Jeremy Roenick have fathers with NHL experience – Tkachuk, Jones, Bellows, Logan Brown, Luke McInnis, Graham McPhee, Drake Rymsha and Tage Thompson.
Then there’s Griffin Luce, a Williamsville native whose grandfather is Buffalo Sabres Hall of Famer Don Luce.
Buffalo native Stephen Dhillon, who plays for the Niagara IceDogs in the Ontario Hockey League, will be one of the goaltenders for Team Roenick.
There will be one glaring omission – the presumptive overall No. 1 draft pick.
Auston Matthews, a native of Scottsdale, Ariz., decided to spend this season playing professionally in Switzerland. He signed a one-year contract with the Zurich Lions of the Swiss National League. In the U.S. National Team Development Program, he broke Patrick Kane’s records for goals (55) and points (117) in a season.
Matthews will still play for the U.S. at the Deutschland Cup in November and at the World Junior Championship Dec. 26-Jan. 5 in Finland.
“Auston Mathews is obviously a guy everyone feels will be the No. 1 pick in the draft and it’s a unique situation for him,” Johannson said. “I think he’s in a good setting in Switzerland where he’s playing. The great part of it for us selfishly is we’ll get him twice this year for the Deutschland Cup event and we’ll get him at the World Junior Championships. From our aspect, it’s great knowing we’ve got him for those games.
“I think for Auston, he wanted to play against what he felt was the best competition for him this year, and he found a setting that’s going to work both on and off the ice. He’s in a good organization in a good league. … I think it’s good for his development and we’re obviously excited to see him in November.”