PLYMOUTH, Mich. - Player development is the hallmark of USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program. That was highlighted at the 2023 NHL Draft, as 13 NTDP players were selected.
Scott Monaghan, the assistant executive director of USA Hockey for the NTDP and USA Hockey Arena, has been with the program since its inception in 1996 and has seen the growth of the program.
“We have come from a place where we only had one kid in the first round where we now consistently have three to six players in the first round and then, 12 to 18 throughout the draft,” he said. “The program has helped elevate the number of Americans drafted annually as we have helped grow hockey in the United States.”
The NTDP was developed to identify and train elite hockey players under the age of 18. Since 1999, when the NTDP had its first eligible draft class, the program has seen 396 NHL draft picks. Of the 396, 228 of those picks have come in the first three rounds, including 96 in the first round alone.
Nick Fohr, who will begin his 13th season with the NTDP and his second season as a head coach, understands it’s the little things that make the difference in the program.
“When are you looking from the prospective of the draft and development piece, the biggest factor in what makes it special is the having the best-of-the-best every day in practice,” he said. “It’s having those guys who can drive and push each other daily to get better. All day long, it’s hard. Practice is hard. It takes everything to be successful and helps drives competitiveness.”
It doesn’t end there for Fohr. On top of the facilities, the strength and conditioning program and the staff, it’s the players that ultimately make the difference.
“It’s really that they learn from each other,” he said. “Certain players have that work ethic piece down while others follow the lead of the top ones. It really causes them to feed off each other and learn from each other.”
The program has had a top-five selection in the draft each of the past six years, which is the longest stretch by any team in NHL Draft history. In addition, five NTDP players have been selected as the No. 1 pick, with the most recent being Jack Hughes (New Jersey Devils) in 2019.
It should be no surprise that the NTDP had four forwards hear their names called during the first round of the 2023 NHL Draft. Will Smith (Lexington, Mass.) was selected fourth by the San Jose Sharks. In addition, Ryan Leonard (Amherst, Mass.) went to the Washington Capitals at eighth overall; Oliver Moore (Mounds View, Minn.) went 19th to the Chicago Blackhawks and Gabe Perreault (Hinsdale, Ill.) was selected 23rd by the New York Rangers.
For Fohr, who will coach the U18 group next season, everything is about the development of the players to help get them to that spot. Once a team is selected with players from all over the country, they come to Plymouth to practice, train and play games. Everything is done with a purpose, including the schedule to aid in their development.
The U17s play games against NAHL, USHL and in three international tournaments. In the U18 season, the squad plays USHL competition, a lengthy NCAA schedule and in two international tournaments. The year culminates at the IIHF Under-18 Men's World Championship, which allows the players to go against players in their draft year.
“The versatility of the schedule is so important for the growth and development of the players,” Fohr said. “It allows kids to show different aspects. From an international aspect, you are playing against other kids … It makes it easier for the scouts to evaluate when playing head-to-head.”
When you watch the draft and hear the names being called, the announcers always reference the “big events” a player has been in. The U18 World Championship is one of the events that can help distinguish a player.
“You hear it on TV how they reference the U18 World Championship or the World Juniors,” Fohr said. “It is a high-pressure event where you are playing for your country and a gold medal. It is the big stage, and you are playing against kids from different countries in your age group. It really allows you to separate yourself.”
Playing against college teams is maybe the most unique scenario for the U18s as they prepare for the next level.
“The college games are harder since we are playing older, smarter and stronger players,” Fohr said. “It gives us a chance to see how the players come up and play against that structure. They need to learn how they can be productive and effective. Scouts can see those moments and what our players can do.”
Monaghan, who is set to begin his 28th season with the NTDP, is very proud of the program's accomplishments, which includes 11 gold medals at the U18 World Championship. More important than the medals though are the players that have developed through the program that still celebrate the success of the team today.
“Off the ice, not only do we have successful hockey players, but we have successful individuals who have grown during their time with the program, Monaghan said. “So many of them continue to return to help celebrate the history and accomplishments.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.