The U.S. NTDP’s Best Team Ever, A Year Later

Tony Ferrari

2020-06-09

The 2018-19 U.S. National Team Development Program squad lined up for the anthem at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, MI.

 

The 2001-born U.S. National Team Development Program team that commanded so much of the talk in the lead-up to the 2019 NHL Draft was up there with the strongest single collections of talent that the team has ever put together at one time. They dominated the draft unlike any team in history. With eight first-round picks and 17 players selected total, they set a record for the most players selected from one club in a single NHL Draft. 

 

One of the more interesting parts of the U.S. NTDP is that the team is together for two years at most. First, as U17’s in many of their draft-1 seasons and then again on the U18 team in most of their draft years. After that, they go their separate ways for the most part. Many of them head to the NCAA to continue their development. This dynamic means that keeping track of what the team does in the aftermath of their record-breaking year together can be a bit difficult. From the NHL to the NCAA, the team is all over the map. Some impressed in their first year after their draft night and some struggled in their next step. Some met expectations while others were well below or above what we expected from them this season.

 

The Record EIGHT First Rounders!

 

C Jack Hughes – 1st Overall – New Jersey Devils 

2019-20: New Jersey (NHL)  |  7G – 14A – 21P in 61GP  |  Expectations: Below

The top pick in last June’s Draft stepped right into the NHL this season. The year didn’t exactly go the way many, including Jack Hughes himself,  thought it would with the young American challenging for the Calder and pushing the 50-point plateau, but the young gun did get a year of valuable experience. The year confirmed what some had as a primary concern with the middle Hughes brother, he wasn’t physically ready for the NHL full-time. His skill allowed him to contribute but not nearly at the level he or anyone expected. It was a tough season for the young center with a sky-high ceiling. 

 

 

Although it wasn’t a perfect season, there is no reason to write Hughes off. He still possesses the elite skating, high-end puck skills, and intelligence that warranted his first-overall selection. There were certainly games where Hughes was clearly feeling himself and showed what a comfortable Jack Hughes can do. The future is bright for the young NHLer and now that he’s seen what it takes to play in the NHL expect a big step in each of the next couple of seasons. With some added strength, Hughes could be one of the most electric players in the NHL. 

 

C Alex Turcotte – 5th Overall – Los Angeles Kings

2019-20: University of Wisconsin (NCAA)  |   9G – 17A – 26P in 29 GP  |  Expectations: Slightly below

Playing behind Jack Hughes last year made him arguably the best second-line center in junior hockey last year. Alex Turcotte possesses a high-end skill set on both ends of the ice. He affects the game in the defensive end and drives play offensively. Unfortunately, this was the third consecutive season that the young American center has dealt with an injury that’s held him out of game action at times this year. This year, it was a knee injury. Despite the injury, Turcotte was a very good player when he was on the ice. So much so that his time at Wisconsin has come to an end as he signed his entry-level contract with the Kings. 

 

 

While the injury-bug was an issue yet again for Turcotte, his production was nearly a point-per-game for a BIG-10 team that was supposed to dominate the NCAA, yet struggled despite big-name talent scattered all over the roster. Turcotte’s season was often overlooked because of Cole Caufield’s impressive freshman year (more later). He struggled to produce in a muted role on the American World Junior team which lead to some criticizing his game. The reality was that he, nor the aforementioned Caulfield, were given a real shot to make a difference. With his entry-level deal being signed, he will look to not only take a step into pro hockey but he will also look to stay fully healthy for the first time in a few seasons. 

 

Trevor Zegras – 9th Overall – Anaheim Ducks

2019-20: Boston University (NCAA)  |  11G – 25A – 36P in 33GP  |  Expectations: Exceeded

The best pure-playmaker on the best NTDP squad ever continued to show just how good he is this year with Boston University. Trevor Zegras produced at a very good clip for a freshman in the NCAA and showed all of the skill, vision, and play driving ability that led to the Ducks taking him in the top-10. Zegras’ stock really seemed to take off at the World Junior Championships where he led the American team in scoring and led the tournament in assists. The highlight reel began just about every time the BU Terrier touched the puck. 

 

 

Zegras plays with a ton of pace to his game. He has speed and skill in bunches and isn’t afraid to utilize both to carve his opposition apart. He may have been the most impressive member of last year’s NTDP team. While many in draft circles looked at Zegras as a player who could have cracked the top-five in last year’s draft and the Ducks should feel fortunate that the top-line playmaker fell to them at ninth overall. With Anaheim needing an immediate injection of youth, Zegras’ first season with the Terriers will also be his last as he signed his entry-level contract and will look to make the jump to the NHL next season. He has the skating, skill, and intelligence to make an immediate impact on a roster devoid of much youthful, high-end talent. 

 

Matthew Boldy – 12th Overall – Minnesota Wild

2019-20: Boston College  |  9G – 17A – 26P in 34GP  |  Expectations: Met

It may come as a surprise to some that Matthew Boldy is given a passing grade in terms of meeting expectations for this year.  The 2019-20 season for the Minnesota Wild prospect was the tale of two Boldy’s. To start the year Boldy was struggling to generate offense and his game, in general, looked lackadaisical at times. When the calendar turned to 2020, Boldy seemed to take a step in the right direction as he was beginning to impact games more often, despite not finding the scoresheet very often. Despite a good shot, his shooting percentage was an insanely unlucky 2%. Then February hit and Boldy seemed to find his groove. He recorded 16 points in nine games in the month, exploding back onto the scene after some fans and even analysts began to sour. He finished the year with a decent final stat line, excelling in the second half. 

 

 

He plays a solid two-way game and may be the most understated player among the first-round picks from his NTDP club. He was often overlooked last year because of all the flash and talent on that team and this year because of his slow start, remained in the shadows. By the time he started to really hit his gear, many other players had already been having impressive seasons. Boldy is a smart player who doesn’t have nearly the amount of flash as many of his former NTDP teammates, but the Boston College forward could surprise next year as he looks to continue his second-half success for a full season back with the NCAA club.

 

Spencer Knight – 13th Overall – Florida Panthers

2019-20: Boston College  |  .931 S% in 33GP  |   Expectations: Exceeded

Spencer Knight was the best netminder in last year’s draft was a clear-cut first-rounder which has become increasingly rare amongst goalies in recent years. This year, he stepped into the Boston College crease and took over. As the co-MVP of his team, he was also nominated for the Mike Richter Award (given to the goaltender voted to be the most outstanding in Division I NCAA men’s ice hockey during the regular season). To say that Knight merely exceeded expectations almost seems unfair as he was immediately one of the best netminders in college hockey and left no doubt about him being among the elite goaltending prospects already drafted. 

 

 

Knight is an athletic goaltender who has cat-like reflexes. He possesses the size that NHL teams crave when looking for help in the crease and his composure in his net is already pro-level. His selection came before the Panthers signed Sergei Bobrovsky, a deal that doesn’t look great a year later. Knight should be able to supplant “Bob” as the number one and relegate him to being the highest paid back-up in the NHL. Knight has legitimate franchise netminder potential. 

 

Cam York – 14th Overall – Philidelphia Flyers

2019-20: University of Michigan  |  5G – 11A – 16P in 30GP  |  Expectations: Met

This was a tough year for the University of Michigan but one of the few bright spots was the play of freshman defender Cam York. He is planning on returning to the NCAA club next year and then turning pro with the Flyers after his college year ends. York took over for Quinn Hughes as Michigan’s young stud D-man and while he isn’t quite the same level of a prospect that the eldest Hughes brother is, York has admirably stepped in and done everything in his power to fill in. York showed his offensive skill off this season while running one of the powerplay units for the Wolverines and his defensive game was steady, albeit the team around him wasn’t always competitive. 

 

 

York is a bit undersized at just 5’11” but the young blueliner has shown the ability to play effectively against players who are older and more physically mature. He should take a big step this season as U of M is going to be bringing in a very strong freshman class that includes 2020 draft-eligibles Brendan Brisson and Thomas Bordeleau as well as stud 2021 draft-eligibles Owen Power and Kent Johnson. The added firepower and the maturity of York’s game should push his game to the next level. 

 

Cole Caufield – 15th Overall – Montreal Canadiens

2019-20: University of Wisconsin  |  19G – 17A – 36P in 36GP  |  Expectations: Exceeded

Hey! Did you hear? Cole Caufield is really good at scoring goals. What you also might not know is that he is a pretty underrated playmaker as well. Caufield is an intelligent goalscorer who finds his spot and just scores. There was a lot of criticism heading into the draft that Caufield would require an elite center to score goals because he played with Jack Hughes or Alex Turcotte almost all year with the NTDP. The fact of the matter is that the BIG-10 freshman of the year and all BIG-10 First-Team All-Star was oftentimes the best player on the ice, at least offensively, for the Badgers. 

 

 

Caufield will return to the Badgers next season and the expectation for next year is that he improves away from the puck and his 200-foot game show signs of improvement as well. Some concerns about his skating seem to have been alleviated this year to some extent as he rarely looked like he a player who wasn’t able to keep up in puck races. He uses his high-end offensive awareness to beat defenders to the dangerous areas in the offensive zone. His shot is lethal as we’ve all seen from the numerous highlight reels from his past two seasons. Should he have another season in which he exceeds expectations the way he did this year, he could very well be signing his NHL deal at the end of the 2020-21 NCAA season. 

 

John Beecher – 30th Overall – Boston Bruins 

2019-20: University of Michigan  |  7G-9A-16P in 31GP  |  Expectations: Met

The final NTDP player selected in the first round, John Beecher went to the Bruins and there may not have been a better fit for the physically imposing, 200-foot center. He may not have blown the doors off at Michigan this year but he did exactly what he was expected to. He showed that he was a capable and responsible two-way forward who hasn’t let a bit of heavy stride affect his ability to play in the middle. He will need to continue to improve his foot speed and quickness but he seems to pass that test every time it’s questioned as he advances through his development. Beecher has a heavy release and showcased that in the BIG-10 conference this year. Much like Boldy, he is a bit of an overlooked player on the 2018-19 NTDP squad because of the simplicity in his game. 

 

 

He is at his most effective when he is paired with a true play driver. Beecher has a good set of hands and a good shot but his playmaking and creativity aren’t strong points. He should have ample opportunity to be paired with a skilled play driver such as Brisson, Bordeleau or Johnson next season as the 2020-21 University of Michigan freshman class is going to help push the school back into the conversation as one of the top teams in the BIG-10. Beecher should be a key cog in that as he will have a year of experience and already possesses the physical frame and strength to play against the college level. 

 

 

Nine more picks to set the NHL Draft Record! 

 

Alex Vlasic (43rd overall, Chicago Blackhawks) was the next full-time NTDP player off the board. His season with Boston University was fairly unnotable. He finished with just four assists in 34 games but he was never going to be an offensive dynamo. He suffers from a bit of a clunky stride at times. He is the old-school glass-and-out rearguard that our parents grew up with. He has the size NHL teams love on the backend but can he skate well enough to be a contributor at the next level? 

 

Four picks after Vlasic, the Colorado Avalanche selected defender Drew Helleson (47th overall). The defense-first blueliner didn’t have a prominent role with Boston College but looked capable in limited action. He played in just 28 games and registered six points but as showed some skill and puck-moving ability at times. With no expectations of an immediate impact any time soon at the NHL level, an increased role next season and the year after should allow him ample time to work on his craft.