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Noah Dobson and his unique road to the 2018 NHL Draft

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Brian Savage calls it a “hockey candy store.” The Red Bull Academy in Salzburg, Austria features state-of-the-art facilities and the ability for young players to improve their games to a level that could pay off with a future professional career.

A young Noah Dobson and his family saw just that and made a decision to begin a unique path to the National Hockey League.

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It was during the 2015 Canada Winter Games tournament in Prince George, B.C. that Dobson came on the radar of Paul Henry, a Red Bull scout who helped put together Canada’s 1994 Olympic team. In a tournament that featured future NHL draft picks like Owen Tippett, Gabe Vilardi, Jaret Anderson-Dolan and fellow 2018 prospects like Jett Woo, Joe Veleno and Calen Addison, the 15-year-old Dobson had an impressive showing with four goals and eight points in six games.

Henry would set up a meeting that spring with the Dobson family in Summerside, Prince Edward Island and give them the sales pitch. Intrigued, they flew to Austria to meet Pierre Page, then Red Bull’s Global Sporting Director, and Savage, who served as a North American scout.

“They were very impressed and excited to agree to come to Red Bull Academy where they could do the supervised online schooling program approved by Canadian and American Universities like Harvard and others,” Page told Pro Hockey Talk recently.

Page, who coached 636 NHL games with four teams, had a vision to make Red Bull a destination for young hockey players. As soon as players arrived, they were blown away.

“When I got over there, to stay at their facilities, it was just a whole great experience playing on a different side of the world and seeing other countries at the same time playing the game you love,” says Dobson. “It’s the kind of experience that I’m going to look back at and have lots of memories from.”

Savage’s presence helped in the recruitment. The former NHLer, who played 12 seasons in the league, moved his family, including his three boys, to Salzburg to help Page get the academy going. His son Ryan also played for Red Bull.

Dobson spent the 2015-16 season in Salzburg, playing 24 games with the U-18s and 11 games with the U-20s. Like some of his teammates, he was alone in a new country, a long ways away from his family.  But the players’ schedule kept them busy, with trainings between four and six hours a day, plus schooling and access to ice any time for extra work. Savage and head coach Matt Deschamps would have the players over for some home-cooked meals and take them out for various activities, like skiing, to help deal with homesickness. 

“I think it really benefited me as a player and a person, experiencing different cultures,” says Dobson.

“[Dobson] was sold on the program and totally committed to paying the price to make this year really worth it,” Page says.

Once comfort set in, and the routine of a hockey life picked up, Dobson’s game improved. Already a good skater as a tall, right-handed shot, he impressed the Red Bull scouts during the Canada Winter Games tournament holding his own against older competition. The year in Salzburg saw improvements on both ends of the ice, thanks to the additional work he was doing after practices.

“Really what he needed was some strength and guidance on and off the ice,” says Savage, who now works with hockey tournament company 200×85. “He had a really good shot. He really had a nice total package to him and we were just there to enhance it and get him to the next step. Obviously his coaches in junior have done a great job getting him to where he is now.

“I think that year at Red Bull showed him how hard he had to work to get to where he wanted to be.”

The Acadie-Bathurst Titan would make Dobson the sixth overall pick in the 2016 Quebec Major Junior Hockey League draft. He would spend the next two seasons compiling 24 goals and 95 points over 130 games and helping deliver a Memorial Cup this past May. As the NHL Draft approaches, he’s the fifth-ranked North American skater, and isn’t expected to have a long before hearing his name called by a team.

“I think he’s going to have a great career, whether it’s a year from now, two years from now, when he gets a little bit stronger and can compete against the men. But I see him being in those top three defensemen eventually,” says Savage. “I’m sure with his work ethic and determination he’s going to continue going strong. Whatever team gets him is gonna get lucky because he’s a great kid.”

Page, who parted with Red Bull in Feb. 2016, continued to track Dobson after he left for the QMJHL and described his development as “incredible.” He has faith in the 18-year-old’s talents and knows there’s a great NHL career ahead for him.

Says Page, “I would not want to be the team who passes on him at the draft.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Capitals’ Brett Connolly knows ups, downs of top prospect’s NHL journey

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WASHINGTON — Brett Connolly remembers the experience fondly, eight years later. In 2010, he was one of the top NHL prospects who got the chance to attend the Stanley Cup Final between the Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers. 

Fresh faced out of Prince George of the WHL, Connolly was an 18-year-old kid getting to meet some of the league’s top players like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Chris Pronger and Jeff Carter. On Monday, he was on the other side getting to meet the top prospects of the 2018 NHL Draft class in Rasmus Dahlin, Andrei Svechnikov, Brady Tkachuk, Noah Dobson, Evan Bouchard, Quintin Hughes and Filip Zadina.

“It’s amazing. Time goes so fast,” Connolly said.

Those seven prospects will likely be going somewhere in the top 10 later this month in Dallas, just like Connolly, who was chosen sixth overall pick by the Tampa Bay Lightning. And from his NHL experience he knows that just because you’re selected high nothing is guaranteed.

After spending one more year with the Cougars, Connolly played 68 games for the Lightning in 2011-12, recording 15 points. Most of the next two seasons saw him refining his game in the AHL with general manager Steve Yzerman preferring he play bigger minutes and not be stuck on the NHL club’s fourth line. The emergence of other young players ahead of him led to a 2015 trade deadline deal that sent him to the Bruins. Two seasons in Boston ended with him failing to make a lasting impression. He entered the free agent market and was signed by the Washington Capitals in 2016 where he’s finally found a comfort zone.

Through his experience, Connolly has gained plenty of wisdom to impart on the next class of prospects.

“For me, when you do get picked, it really doesn’t matter,” he said. “You’ve still got to earn your ice time. You’ve got to be better than the people that are drafted below you. It’s just the start. There’s so much hard work to be done. There’s going to be tough times for all those guys. It’s just a matter of sticking with it and being positive and believe in yourself when times are tough. I’m sure all those guys are good enough players to figure it out. We’ll see those guys in the league soon.”

Having gone through their junior seasons, the NHL Combine and this brief media tour during the Cup Final, the prospects still have a little more than two weeks until draft night.

“A little anxious now for the draft. You have your meetings with teams, you kind of want to know where you’re going,” said defenseman Noah Dobson (NHL Central Scouting No. 5 ranked North American skater), who won the Memorial Cup with the QMJHL’s Acadie-Bathurst Titan this season. “At the end of the day it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, so you’ve just got to sit back and enjoy it with your family and soak it all in.”

“I don’t think it’s hit me yet. I think it will once I get on the plane to go to Dallas,” said defenseman Evan Bouchard (NHL Central Scouting No. 4 ranked North American skater), who’s gotten plenty of advice from London Knights teammates Robert Thomas (St. Louis) and Alex Formenton (Ottawa), who have been through the process. “I’m just trying to enjoy this experience now.”

Those who have come before them, like Connolly, felt the pressure to succeed being such a high pick. You’re being selected by teams that are hoping to have their fortunes turned around, and some of those hopes are tied to how you succeed — or fail. It comes with the territory. But such is the experience of a top prospect.

“You’re so young. It took me a couple of years to figure out how to be a professional and all that,” said Connolly. “That was the biggest thing for me, just sticking with it and finding a role on a team. There’s definitely pressure, it’s just how you handle it and channel it into a positive. Those guys I’m sure have been dealing with it all year. There’s a lot of pressure all year in your draft year and that’s kind of the start of it, especially for the high picks, those 1-2-3 guys, it’s a lot of pressure. 

“The league is changing so much, the young guys are so talented.”

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Guide

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.