Inside the NHL

Hearing the names of seven U.S.-born players called within the opening 15 picks of last month’s NHL draft was a striking confirmation of how far junior hockey in this country has come.

No, not the Western Hockey League (WHL) teams that form a U.S.-based component of Canadian major junior hockey. Major junior teams within the Canadian system, including the Seattle Thunderbirds and Everett Silvertips, have sent players to the NHL for decades and this year again saw 13 selected in the opening round and 71 overall.

But what’s caused the literal stampede of top American picks – 11 total in the first round in Vancouver — is the vast improvement of this country’s own junior leagues and a Michigan-based National Team Development Program (NTDP) that NHL Seattle wants to bring a Western branch of to its future Northgate Mall training facility. The national development program features under-18 and under-17 squads each comprised of 22 of the nation’s youngest junior-eligible players competing within the Tier I junior United States Hockey League (USHL) and against NCAA and international squads.

Of the 11 American first-round NHL choices this year, eight – including No. 1 overall selection Jack Hughes — came from the national development program and nine had USHL ties. The U-17 and U-18 squads typically face older competition and see their skills develop much faster as a result.

NHL Seattle owner Jerry Bruckheimer previously had expressed a desire to bring a portion of the national program and a USHL franchise to the Northgate facility. And both he and NHL Seattle CEO Tod Leiweke repeated that assertion in an interview at the draft last month.

“We want to become a hockey city,’’ Leiweke said, adding he’d like to be the hosts of the World Junior Hockey Championships as well. “And with the support we’ve had from the fans, again, when we go out and try to make that case, the statistics and facts work out well for us.’’

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To fully grasp the importance of this American junior hockey upswing requires understanding how non-existent it once was as a viable NHL path.

What’s sparked the turnaround is largely about U.S. junior players keeping NCAA options open if they don’t make the pros right away.

Before the 2000s, Americans wanting NHL careers often jumped from high school or a prep academy to the NCAA and developed well into their early 20s before scouts took a chance on them. Those seeking a quicker draft path left home in their mid-teens to play major junior hockey in one of three leagues under the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) umbrella, the WHL being one of them.

The CHL had long played a pro-like 72-game schedule and saw its players become the top NHL choice. But major junior players also are paid “stipends’’ and lose a season of NCAA eligibility for every game played in that Canadian-based system.

So, U.S. teens were forced into an early call on foregoing a future NCAA career. And with no standout junior leagues in this country until recently, they had little choice but to do just that.

That’s no longer the case, with USA Hockey founding the national development program in 1996 and designating the USHL as the nation’s top-tiered junior circuit in 2002. Since then, the 17-team, Midwest-based USHL has spent millions on infrastructure and development and become a significant major junior alternative.

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In a long conversation late last year about the differences between the various junior leagues in both countries, Ryan Kennedy, a senior writer for The Hockey News in Canada specializing on NHL draft prospects, said he felt the USHL still was “a notch” below the CHL major junior system, though he rated it a step above the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL) – considered the cream of Canada’s next-level junior “A” leagues below the major junior ranks.

“I think the USHL has done a really good job,’’ Kennedy said. “And, of course, with the National Team Development Program, which is kind of a part of the USHL, you have first-rounders basically every year.

“Usually half the team gets drafted even if they don’t pan out. So, that’s a huge difference in development for the entire country. Before that, a lot of them (top U.S. players) would have played for Minnesota high schools and then for preps in Massachusetts. Now, they can go straight to the NTDP.’’

As mentioned, it’s about keeping all options open.

With only 22 spots on each of the U-18 and U-17 national teams, the majority of U.S. players won’t be joining that elite program. But several do get drafted by NHL teams straight off USHL rosters, like first-rounder (31st overall) Ryan Johnson of the Sioux Falls Stampede, taken last month by the Buffalo Sabres.

In all, 32 USHL players were drafted this year.

And for those undrafted, or looking to hone their skills further after being picked, the NCAA remains open to them. More than 700 former USHL players were on NCAA Division I rosters last year, more than was supplied by any other junior league in the world.

There also is an improving Tier II North American Hockey League (NAHL) junior program in this country that rates below the USHL talent-wise but also sees a handful of players drafted each year.

The vast majority of NAHL players, though, are hoping for NCAA scholarships. Last year, a record 312 NAHL players committed to NCAA teams.

The CHL has tried to keep pace by offering financial scholarships so major junior players can pursue post-hockey-career college degrees. This past season, the WHL – which led all major junior leagues with 28 players drafted — joined other CHL circuits in shortening the regular season from 72 to 68 games, partly to give players more time to pursue high school studies.

But not everyone wants to stop playing hockey before attending college. And the ability to play in a USHL that’s drawing closer to a major junior talent equivalent while keeping the NCAA option open is a powerful lure.

One that practically guarantees the number of top U.S. picks will keep growing in drafts to come.