Hockey Day in America: The USNTDP gets American players off on the right foot

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The prominence of American players in the NHL is something that’s gotten the attention of the rest of the hockey-playing world. Watching the United States make the gold medal game in the 2002 and 2010 Olympic games as well as seeing the World Junior Championships team take home the gold in 2010 has served notice to the world that America is serious about hockey and things are getting better year by year.

American players don’t pop up out of nowhere though and it all starts at the grass roots level playing pee-wee, bantam, and midget hockey. From there, if players are good enough they can take part in the United States National Team Development Program. The list of players who have come through the USNTDP in Ann Arbor, Michigan is illustrious and growing by the year. Patrick Kane, Ryan Kesler, Phil Kessel, Jimmy Howard, and Ryan Suter are among the names the USNTDP can call alumni.

The success of the USNTDP is something they’re trying to improve upon and help grow the sport in the United States. Having success stories like the players mentioned as well as others only helps increase the program’s profile.

Chris Peters, formerly of USA Hockey and currently writing at The United States of Hockey, says that what the program is doing is only helping make hockey all the more popular in the States. The USNTDP’s growth, however, came thanks to the United States not liking where they stood compared to the rest of the world.

“USA hockey had struggled so much internationally,” Peters said.  “[current Notre Dame head coach] Jeff Jackson, I think, was the coach of the junior team in in ’95 or so and said they were getting killed out here. They obviously wanted to get the best players and develop them all the same way.

“Basically what it’s done over the 15 years in its existence is that not only has it made those 40-plus players better but it’s forced everyone else to get better at what they do… Now we’re not only seeing the high-end players being very good but also the depth players as well.”

source: Getty ImagesThe growth of the program has been impressive over the years. According to USA Hockey, since 1999 there have been 30 players (PDF) drafted in the first round of the NHL Draft that have gone through the USNTDP. Three players out of the USNTDP system have been No. 1 picks in the draft in that time: Rick DiPietro (2000), Erik Johnson (2006), and Patrick Kane (2007).

In 2007, the top two picks in Kane and James van Riemsdyk were both graduates of the USNTDP program and Kane went on to win the Stanley Cup in 2010 with the Chicago Blackhawks over van Riemsdyk’s Flyers. While Kane is the prime example of what can happen when coming up through the USNTDP ranks, the goals the USNTDP has are set high, especially on the world stage.

“The main goal is to get those guys prepared for international hockey, their future hockey careers. That’s part of the mission statement,” Peters says. “In the last seven or eight years, every international tournament the United States plays in now they have a chance to win gold.”

Going from being a country that was an afterthought in hockey development to being a world power takes time and hard work and what the USNTDP does and where American hockey is at now shows that their commitment is paying dividends.

Lightning re-sign journeyman forward Conacher

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Cory Conacher has turned an impressive Calder Cup Playoffs run into a two-year contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Per the club, it’s a one-way deal in the first season and a two-way deal in the second, paying $650,000 annually at the NHL level.

Conacher, 27, had 12 goals and 16 assists in 22 playoff games as the Syracuse Crunch made it all the way to the 2017 Calder Cup Final.

The undrafted and undersized forward was also productive during the regular season, racking up 60 points (17G, 43A) in 56 games for the Crunch and four points (1G, 3A) in 11 games for the Lightning.

Conacher has been quite the traveler in recent years, making numerous stops in both NHL and AHL markets. He spent the 2015-16 season in Switzerland, before returning to North America to sign with the Bolts last summer.

Sens keep Condon with three-year, $7.2 million extension

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Ottawa was thrilled with the way Mike Condon played last year.

And so, they’ve rewarded him.

Condon has signed a three-year, $7.2 million extension, the club announced on Monday. It carries a $2.4 million average annual cap hit, and makes him the only Sens goalie under contract beyond next season. Both Craig Anderson and Andrew Hammond are UFAs in 2018.

Condon, 27, found stability in Ottawa after a whirlwind start to the year. He was waived by Montreal out of training camp and picked up by Pittsburgh, but only saw 20 minutes of action before the Sens acquired him.

His acquisition was necessary after news broke that Anderson’s wife, Nicholle, had been diagnosed with cancer. And as Anderson took leaves from the team to be with his wife, Condon got plenty of opportunities to play, and found his groove.

His first season in Ottawa featured several team records, including playing in a franchise-best 27 consecutive games between Dec. 1, 2016, and Feb. 4, 2017. He became the fastest goaltender in franchise history to record five shutouts, when he did so in his 32nd game on Feb. 16 versus the New Jersey Devils.

That performance led some to speculate Condon would test the market this summer, possibly for a No. 1 gig somewhere — or, the opportunity to compete for one.

That said, he and the Sens had started extension talks all the way back in February, suggesting both parties wanted to continue working together.

This means that another potential UFA goalie is now off the market. With reports that Ryan Miller is on his way to Anaheim, the pool of available guys is now led by Brian Elliott, Steve Mason, Jonathan Bernier, Chad Johnson, Anders Nilsson, Darcy Kuemper and Ondrej Pavelec.

Rangers reportedly on verge of re-signing Brendan Smith

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The New York Rangers are “close to finalizing” a contract extension with defenseman Brendan Smith, according to TSN’s Bob McKenzie.

The deal is expected to be four years long with a cap hit of $4.35 million.

Smith, 28, was traded from Detroit on Feb. 28, and the Rangers clearly liked what they saw.

In the playoffs, Smith played all 12 games, averaging 19:41 of ice time while adding four assists and finishing a team-high plus-8.

It remains to be seen if signing Smith makes it less likely that the Rangers pursue Kevin Shattenkirk in free agency.

Don’t forget the Blueshirts got Anthony DeAngelo in the Derek Stepan trade, and DeAngelo’s game is quite similar to Shattenkirk’s — albeit far less proven at the NHL level.

Related: Smith, Rangers still talking

Report: Kings land Sabres goalie prospect Petersen

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Sounds like Cal Petersen is headed to Los Angeles.

Per LA Kings Insider, Petersen — the star Notre Dame goalie taken by Buffalo at the 2013 draft — has decided to sign with the Kings when he becomes an unrestricted free agent on Aug. 16.

The decision comes just days after Petersen told the Sabres he wouldn’t be signing with them.

“I’ve spoken to Cal. At this time I think he’s going to probably move to free agency and we’ll go from there,” GM Jason Botterill said, per the Buffalo News. “Disappointed, but we’ll move on.”

Petersen, 22, is coming off a great junior year for the Fighting Irish. He went 23-12-5 with a .926 save percentage and 2.22 GAA, helping the club advance to the Frozen Four. Petersen was also named a finalist for this year’s Mike Richter Award, given annually to college hockey’s top goalie.

In April, he was named to the U.S. team at the World Hockey Championships in France and Germany. He was one of three goalies on the squad — along with Connor Hellebuyck and Jimmy Howard — but didn’t appear in any games.

In late May, Petersen announced he was forgoing his senior year at Notre Dame to turn pro, but declined to say which club he would be signing with. Buffalo’s rights to Petersen expire on Aug. 15.

With the Kings, Petersen finds himself in a good situation. Jonathan Quick is entrenched as the No. 1, but turns 32 next season and missed most of last year with a groin injury. The backup battle will be between 30-year-old Jeff Zatkoff and 25-year-old Jack Campbell.

Organizationally, the club doesn’t have a ton of depth. L.A. cut ties with Czech goalie Patrik Bartosak following his assault charges in a domestic violence case in 2015. Jack Flinn, 21, saw a bit of time with AHL Ontario last year, and the club has used draft picks on the likes of Alec Dillon and Matthew Villalta.