BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — John Wroblewski wasn’t entirely sure what he was getting into in 1997 as a member of the inaugural group of players selected to participate in USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program.
Nor could he have envisioned during those humble beginnings how much the program would eventually evolve.
Some 22 years later, Wroblewski coached the Under-18 team and played a key role in helping produce a bumper-crop class of elite prospects eligible to be selected in the NHL draft at Vancouver, British Columbia, in three weeks.
”Every day, you drive in and coast past the flag on the way to your parking spot … and you kind of pinch yourself at what’s been fostered,” Wroblewski said by phone Saturday, referring to the program’s headquarters in Plymouth, Michigan. ”It’s unfathomable what’s occurred.”
Led by center Jack Hughes , who has a chance of becoming the eighth American-born player selected first overall and first since Toronto drafted Auston Matthews No. 1 in 2016, the NTDP has the potential of having a program-record six players taken in the first round.
Though alums include Matthews, Chicago’s Patrick Kane and Buffalo’s Jack Eichel, the program has never had more than three players selected in the first round immediately after completing their two-year terms.
Reflecting on the team assembled from a five-day tryout camp in March 2017, the 38-year-old Wroblewski knew there was something special about this group.
”We had the team picked on Saturday night, when the camp was going to break on Tuesday morning,” he recalled. ”When that separation point was quite apparent at the time, we knew what we had.”
Hughes is NHL Central Scouting’s top-ranked North American prospect after setting a two-year NTDP record with 228 points (74 goals, 154 assists). Centers Alex Turcotte and Trevor Zegras are ranked fourth and sixth.
Though under-sized at 5-foot-7 and 162 pounds, winger Cole Caufield is ranked eight after scoring a NDTP record 72 goals this season. And the list of potential first-round selections are rounded out by left winger Matthew Boldy and defenseman Cameron York.
That’s not all. A total of 10 NTDP players are ranked among Central Scouting’s top 50 North American prospects, and that doesn’t include Spencer Knight, the bureau’s top-ranked North American goalie.
”It’s an exceptional year for the program and these kids have worked hard to gain the recognition that they’re getting,” Central Scouting director Dan Marr said during the NHL’s annual pre-draft combine, which closed in Buffalo on Saturday. ”I anticipate USA Hockey will have the biggest smile on their faces on draft day because of the number of players to go in the first round, the top-three rounds and through the entire draft.”
The program was established to develop America’s top 17-year-olds under one roof and spend two years playing a barn-storming schedule against U.S. Hockey League and college teams. The players also represent the U.S. at Under-17 and 18 international tournaments.
The 18-year-olds finished this season with a record of 48-16 and won the bronze medal at the world championships, while outscoring their opponents by a combined 369-188.
Turcotte credited the level of competition simply during practice in spurring players’ development.
”We all became better hockey players because of how competitive we are and how everyone wants to be the best,” Turcotte said. ”No one wants to look bad.”
Arizona Coyotes general manager John Chayka credited the NTDP for staying ahead of the curve in developing players best suited to match the fast-paced style the NHL game is currently trending.
”The game’s getting to speed and skill, and these guys have it in spades,” Chayka said, adding he doesn’t consider the depth of this year’s class of NTDP prospects to be a fluke. ”They did a very good job obviously with this group. And I think it’s going to continue.”
USA Hockey executive director Pat Kelleher hopes the trend continues with Americans now making up about 30% of NHL rosters.
”Our goal is to make this more of the norm,” he said. ”We’re getting not only depth of players, but high-end players, elite-level players who are the faces of their franchise as well as USA Hockey. And that’s where we want to be.”
Hughes credited the NTDP for transforming him from what he said was a skinny 16-year-old into ”more of a man.” He also predicted the NTDP producing even more high-end players in the future.
”I don’t think this is a blip. I think USA Hockey’s at the best it’s ever been right now,” Hughes said. ”You see all the young guys in the NHL, the Americans that are at the top of the league right now. I think there’s a lot more from where that came from.”