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  • Does Minnesota Hockey Have to Worry About Players Jumping to the USNTDP?

    Joe Bouley

    The Minnesota Wild created the “State of Hockey” motto in order to connect the expansion franchise to the history of the sport in the state. While outsiders see the slogan as a self-adoring proclamation of NHL hockey success, the “State of Hockey” is no “Titletown, USA.” Far from it. The reason the marketing slogan resonates so strongly among Minnesota fans is because of the connection to the sport of hockey at various levels. From youth to high school to college and adult amateur leagues across the state, hockey certainly has a grassroots foundation within the culture of Minnesota.


    The NHL draft is one area where Minnesota Hockey gets to flex. Over the last decade, there have been, on average, 11 Minnesota-born players taken in every year of the draft. It starts with Minnesota Hockey and its community-based model. It allows players to play for their hometown, or close to it, and allows youth players to grow up with their teammates while keeping costs relatively low. That model is unique to Minnesota. 


    Other hockey hotbeds like Michigan and Massachusetts champion the use of club hockey. Players looking to take the sport seriously are encouraged to move away from their friends and families to play longer schedules packed with games. They stay with a billet family that provides a place to stay and call home while they train. Former Minnesota Wild player Jason Zucker is a product of that model. It’s a model that works.


    However, while the Minnesota Hockey model churns out NHL-caliber players every year, it’s a model that is slowly being devalued by scouts. The organization for top US talent has become the United States National Team Development Program. Eight of the 31 first round picks in the 2019 draft were from that program. Five players picked in the first round of the 2018 draft were NTDP alumni. 


    K’Andre Miller, a top rated defenseman picked by the Rangers in 2018, chose to forego his junior and senior years at Minnetonka High School for the NTDP. Jake Oettinger, the goalie from Lakeville who made his NHL debut for Dallas in the Western Conference Final this year, left Lakeville North for the NTDP as well. 


    Ryan Wagman, a writer for the popular NHL scouting publication McKeen’s Hockey, wrote an article on draft eligible players with late birthdays thriving as part of the USNTDP. In it, he paraphrased an NHL scout explaining the benefits of the USHL, and specifically the National Development Team.

    “...Playing on a regular USHL team can have a very similar effect; the player would be playing at a higher level, and against significantly better competition than he would playing at his local high school or prep school level.”

    Looking at the last decade, the numbers reflect the shift by NHL scouts towards the USHL. And when you compare the schedules, you can see why scouts and analysts prefer picking from leagues that have more of a sample size from which to make decisions. The USHL schedule features 62 games, while the Minnesota State High School League offers 25 games during the regular season. For players looking to get noticed by NHL scouts, it comes down to performing in the sections and state tournament to raise their stock.




    This is a weird position for Minnesota Hockey, the governing body of youth and amateur hockey in the state. Minnesota Hockey says, “it is a proud affiliate of USA Hockey.” Yet, for a program that is as proud of the model it pushed, the players it has developed and feeding one of the elite high school tournaments in the country, having players jump from the Minnesota program to the national program must hurt.


    This isn’t saying that Minnesota Hockey and the community-based model is needing a shake-up -- that’s far from the point -- but it does show that scouting trends are cyclical. Minnesota Hockey hasn’t fallen off or have become forgotten. It’s just going to have to wait its turn to come back around. 


    Digging deep into various draft guides, the first Minnesota player ranked comes after 100. Jake Boltmann out of Edina leads the group of Minnesota players. If all the names called called on Tuesday, Minnesota Hockey will have another successful draft that on par with their average. It does look like most of the names will get the call in back half of the draft. Having that elite player taken high in the first round out of the Minnesota Hockey model will have to wait another year.

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