It’s that time of the year again; time where NHL fans young and old see the future of their franchise walk across a stage and shake hands with the upper management of their team. To non-sports fans, watching grown men either cheer or boo 17-year-old kids may seem a bit absurd, and in some respects it is, but it is incredibly exiting nonetheless. In what is already going to be an excruciatingly long offseason for Caps fans, this article is looking at American hockey prospects, and how this draft could be historic for USA hockey.
Several top American prospects, according to Central Scouting’s final prospect rankings, are ranked inside the top 15, including standout center Auston Matthews, flashy winger Matthew Tkachuk, and USA National Team Development Program stars Kieffer Bellows (Kieffer’s Dad, Brian Bellows is an alumni of the Washington Capitals and played on the 1997-98 team when Washington made their only appearance in a Stanley Cup Final playoff) and Clayton Keller, all of whom are ranked in the top 10 skaters (Auston Matthews, having skipped playing junior hockey in lieu of playing in the Swiss league, counts as a European skater, making Don Cherry hate him that much more).
Matthews was a star at both the world juniors and world championships this year, and is a virtual lock to go first overall to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Tkachuk could go anywhere from 4-9, depending on what happens with trades and other picks, and Bellows and Keller will probably end up somewhere in the middle of the first round (if the Caps trade up and get one of them, I’ll be thrilled). Goalie Tyler Parsons had a standout season with a dominant London Knights team that won everything that they possibly could have, including the OHL Championship and the Memorial Cup. Defenseman Jakob Chychrun has all the tools to be an elite defenseman at the next level.
Why am I so focused on American prospects in this year’s draft? Well, this draft could have historic implications for USA hockey, as this year’s American class of prospects could shatter the record of 8 Americans taken in the first round (this was set in 2003). Additionally, much like the 2003 class that included Ryan Suter, Zach Parise, and Ryan Kesler, this class has superstar potential, and could help lead the United States to Olympic glory sometime in the near future. Matthews has shown that he can play with the big boys in both Switzerland and on the World Championship stage. Tkachuk put up insane numbers alongside Mitch Marner and Dylan Strome in London (Ontario, not England). Tyler Parsons didn’t need to steal games with the London Knights this season, but boy does he have the ability to.
Since the gold medal game in 2010 (which of course Sidney Crosby scored the OT winning goal), USA hockey has had its ups and downs. John Carlson scored the goal to win the World Juniors in 2010 (which was before the Olympic Games). A dominant 2013 World Junior team steamrolled Canada 5-1 in the semifinals en route to another gold medal. But outside of these two triumphs, USA hockey has not had a lot of success, especially on the senior level.
Constant mediocre finishes at the world championships, coupled with a disappointing showing at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi (despite the incredible TJ Oshie shootout against Russia) have seen USA hockey lag behind the likes of Canada, and even Finland, whose “golden generation” won this year’s World Juniors (if you have time, watch Patrik Laine highlights, you will not be disappointed). If the US is to put themselves back on the international hockey map, this year’s draft class may very well help them get there.
With the Winter Olympics in just over a year and a half, who knows what USA hockey’s roster will look like, and if any of the players selected in this draft will even be on it? But one thing is for sure; this year’s draft class has a great chance to break the record for American players selected in the first round, an accomplishment that would show how far USA hockey has come, and the strides it continues to make in its development of top-level hockey players.
By Matthew Jacobson
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