The years were 1994 and 1995.
That's when most of America's top 40 hockey talents were born. They are the potential NHL draft picks who will showcase their abilities to the roughly 150 scouts and NHL general managers at 7 tonight during the CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game at First Niagara Center.
While 1994-95 may be better known in hockey circles as the season the NHL locked out its players for the first time, it has the potential to be remembered for something much more positive thanks to an abundance of talent born throughout the country and Western New York (remember: Tampa Bay second-round pick Dylan Blujus of Amherst, now playing with Brampton of the Ontario Hockey League, was born in 1994) during those years.
Buffalo-Niagara's representation in the Prospects Game consists of potential NHL draft picks Justin Bailey of Williamsville and Sean Malone of West Seneca. Bailey, who plays for Kitchener of the OHL – one of the best junior leagues in the world – won't suit up for tonight's game due to an injury suffered in the Rangers' loss to Windsor on Thursday night.
Malone is playing for the U.S. Under-18 National Development team, which plays a schedule of games in the United States Hockey League – the top junior league in the country – along with representing Old Glory during in-season international tournaments.
Having one player from the area selected for this game would have been impresive enough, but two? That's a testament to the hard work, competitiveness and commitment of the area's youths born in those years – with the ‘95s standing out simply because they've been pushing each other for so many years.
Bailey and Malone may be at the head of the 1995 class, but there are others from theirs and Blujus' birth years also making names for themselves. By the News' count, there are 10 players (almost 11) from here born in either 1994 or 1995 playing in the USHL – the same league that produced Sabres first-round pick Zemgus Girgensons. (The number grows to 16 if you include 1993 and 1992 birth years.)
"It is very good," said Jim Johansson, USA Hockey's assistant executive director of hockey operations, of the number of Buffalo area skaters on USHL rosters. "It has a proven track record in developing players. ... From a development path, the league is doing a fantastic job and it's also gotten exposure for those kids."
Here are some players to keep track of:
*Defenseman R.J. Gicewicz of Orchard Park. He played with Bailey and Malone on the U.S. Under-18 team at the Ivan Hlinka Tournament last summer and is pretty much on everyone's radar. He'd likely be playing in the Prospects Game today if he was eligible for next June's NHL draft. He's not, as he was born in November 1995. Only those born January 1993 to Sept. 15, 1995 are eligible for this year's draft.
Still, the 16-year-old earned a blue-line spot on the opening-day roster with the USHL's Green Bay Gamblers before opting to return home to play for Nichols and the Saints' Under-18 team. The Saints are one of three teams from the area playing in the two undercard games today at First Niagara Center. They play Amherst at 12:30 p.m. followed by a Tier I Elite League contest between defending state champion Buffalo Jr. Sabres/Regals and the Boston Jr. Bruins. Admission to those games is free.
*Zach Evancho, 17, of Derby. He is draft eligible and after finishing last season with Youngstown (one goal, one assist in 15 games), the former Buffalo Jr. Sabre/Regal forward has a full season to showcase his abilities for the Ohio-based Phantoms.
*Patrick Polino of Buffalo, a former standout forward for the Junior Sabres/Regals Under-16 and Canisius High School born in April 1995, is with the Chicago Steel.
*Kyle Eastman of Angola is a 6-foot-1 forward with the Tri-City Storm via Buffalo Jr. Sabres/Regals, who will turn 18 in January.
*Lancaster's Dylan McLaughlin, born in June 1995, is playing with Cedar Rapids this season after learning on the fly last year with Sioux City (one goal, seven points in 48 games).
Another 1995 birth year to keep track of is Matt Nuttle, a defenseman with the Jr. Sabres/Regals who was drafted by Youngstown.
The 1994s include:
*Jake Moore, a goalie for Youngstown via Arcade who went 13-5-4-1 with a 2.49 goals-against average and .911 save percentage last year with the Jr. Sabres/Regals 18-Under team.
*Kyle Mackey of Derby, who would have played for the Jr. Sabres of the Ontario Junior Hockey League except the defenseman made Youngstown's final roster via training camp.
*Former Timon and Jr. Sabres/Regals standout Michael Crowley is with Indiana, currently on the Ice's inactive list.
*Amherst's Andrew Poturalski, a Jr. Sabres (OJHL) standout last year, is with Cedar Rapids but currently injured. He had two goals and an assist and was a plus-2 in two games with the RoughRiders last year.
*Amherst forward Christian Lampaso is in his first full season with Des Moines.
Now folks, just because they're playing with the big kids doesn't mean they'll be drafted or earn the Division I dream. They have to fight even harder now for those coveted spots, but one thing is certain. They haven't shied away from a challenge yet during their careers. They won't start now.