When the United States National Development Program was started in 1996, it was the dream of promising Americans.
The idea is to showcase the best talent around the country in a succinct way, showcasing elite players that might not be given the same recognition if they were normally distributed. It took a while for things to start again, with the United States not winning a medal at a major event until they won gold at the 2002 Under-18 World Championships, but they has been the team to beat in the international arena ever since.
That makes it easy for them to watch the show every year, even if the talent level fluctuates. This year, there is no elite talent to talk about – that will come next year – but there is still some great talent this year. So much so that the show had one of the best starts in franchise history, holding a 19-3-0 record over the weekend. They mainly compete against college and USHL teams, so achieving results like this is remarkable.
The most notable player at the moment is striker Will Smith. He overcame opponents at the Under-18 Five Nations in Plymouth, and led all NTDP Under-18 players with 43 points from 22 games. That’s nothing to belittle – an 80-point campaign looks likely, which should land him in some Pretty good company. He started the season as a mid-round player but was quickly praised by scouts as a potential top five pick.
Smith is an excellent scorer, can make fake passes better than anyone and is continuing to prove himself as one of the best passers in the draft class. Smith handles the ball with confidence, delivers a quick wrist shot, and can execute the best of them all. One concern of mine, however, is how quiet he might be if his teammates don’t get the job done. I’m not saying Smith needs good bandmates to produce, but he can float around at times, which leaves him a bit frustrated. However, Smith’s game is filled with skill and a team that needs a reliable center who can win a lot of confrontations and can attack on their own will be exhilarating to land Smith. .
Then there’s Ryan Leonard, another central person. He is the team’s top scorer, playing at a goal-per-game rate of just under 20 games. As an advanced sniper, Leonard possesses a shot that combines great speed and accuracy that allows him to take it down quickly without hesitation. When there is space in the power play, he can make his shot fly completely and he can keep his net in physical situations. The younger brother of potential Nashville Predators, John Leonard, has professional pedigree written all over him and must be a solid second-tier scorer in the NHL.
Oliver Moore is another man many expect to go through in the first round. Moore’s offensive output is a bit more muted than other top prospects, but he’s a quick two-way player who could make it into the NHL’s sixth team. He is full of energy with fast strides and high footwork in tight spaces. As a result, Moore wins a lot of puck fights and he can play against anyone on the squad with the same results. If the University of Minnesota forward doesn’t turn out to be a senior score producer, his value as an energy forward will present him with plenty of opportunities.
There are several other notable American strikers, such as Ryan Fine, Will Vote, Alex Weiermair and Danny Nelson. But the last one we will mention here is Gabe Perreault, the son of former NHL center Yanic Perreault. When Gabe comes into his game, he can be an unstoppable force on this level. Perreault’s ability to think faster than his opponents will get him far, even if his game is a bit off the ball.
On the blueline, it’s a bit mixed. But one defender that has received a lot of praise recently is Aram Minnetian. The blueliner attacker had an excellent Five Nations tournament with eight points and is really starting to look comfortable. He spent a lot of time as a striker in his youth, and you can tell by the way he engages and helps drive the plays. Minnetian does an excellent job of diving straight into the ice and his high attack IQ allows him to find teammates through his peripheral vision, which can be very deceiving. Minnetian will have no problem finding a role in the NHL one day after he finishes his studies at Boston University.
It will be interesting to see how the two goalkeepers of the team align in the future. Trey Augustine has a near-perfect record this year and was the first U.S. starter at the Under-18 World Championships as an underage last year. He’s only lost once on regulation in 21 games of his career and has all the important goalkeeper attributes – except size. He’s 6 feet-1 tall, still pretty small by NHL standards. However, as long as he can make up for that, he will get the manuscript’s attention. On the other hand, there’s Carson Musser, who’s 6 foot-4. His numbers aren’t as great as those of Augustine, and he doesn’t sit high on many draft boards. However, Musser still feels raw and may have untapped potential.
It’s still very early days, but a safe assumption could see around 12-14 USNTDP players selected this year. The five of them – Smith, Leonard, Moore, Minnetian and Perreault – didn’t need to wait too long. They will be easily the gold medal favorites at the U-18 World Championships in April and will continue to play great hockey this year. It’s not the strongest class we’ve seen, but it’s a solid one and one with many quality NHLers in the future.
But next year, look out for Cole Eiserman and James Hagens. They will be game changers.