PHILADELPHIA, PA — With the 2014-15 NHL season about to kick off this week, the hockey world is buzzing. Players, coaches, and fans are all anticipating the first official puck drop of the year. The same goes for hockey families at all levels, from midget up through the minor leagues and collegiate levels. It’s the time of year for fresh beginnings, new goals, and high hopes.
But for some, the days leading up to the beginning of a new season also offer a chance to look ahead to the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. CCM and USA Hockey hosted the 3rd annual All-American Prospects Game (AAPG) on Thursday, September 25th, 2014 to showcase top U.S. talent for fans and scouts. “It’s definitely an honor. I’m excited and can’t wait to see what happens,” said Boston College forward Colin White. According to NHL Central Scouting’s preliminary rankings, White is an A-ranked prospect.
The game, held in Buffalo, NY for the second time, featured 42 of the top American-born hockey players eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft. This summer’s draft marked the second-highest number of Americans selected in a single NHL draft, with 65 U.S. names being called and the team at USA Hockey hopes that events like this will allow that number to keep rising. And in keeping with the “second” theme, it was the second consecutive year that the All Habs team was in the press box to cover this landmark event.
Former NHLer and Buffalo Sabres alum Mike Grier was chosen as one of this year’s honorary coaches at the AAPG. He believes U.S. prospects deserve a night like this to show off their talent, saying, “It’s a great showcase. When you see the talent that’s out there I think you can put it against any country in the world.”
U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame inductee and NHL broadcaster Eddie Olczyk served as the second head coach and called the event “a celebration”. He’s proud of how far hockey development in the United States has come in recent years. “If you went back 20 years ago, our top 100 draft-eligible kids could not compete against Canada’s. Is it 100 to 100 now? I would like to argue that it is. It’s pretty close.”
This year’s roster included nine potential first-round candidates like Jack Eichel, Jordan Greenway, Noah Hanifan, Zach Werenski, and Kyle Connor.
Grier and Olczyk took to the ice with their respective teams early Thursday morning for a brief practice. This type of exhibition game doesn’t allow for coaches to really develop systems within their teams, but time spent on the ice allows players and coaches to get a feel for lines and get into game mode.
After both teams practiced, the players spoke with members of the media. It was easy to see the emotion in the players’ faces during the scrum. “Everybody was real excited out there, y’know, to get things going. To put on the jersey was pretty cool,” said left-winger Kyle Connor. His goal for the night? “Try to push the nerves aside and just focus on what I do best and try to play my game out there.”
Connor Moynihan, who plays with the Halifax Mooseheads in the QMJHL, was assigned to Team Grier and confidently stated, “A lot of talent in this group right here.” White mentioned that his coach, Grier, had some sage advice for him and his teammates during practice. “Play hard, play your game, and you want to make an impression.”
Making an impression would be key in front of more than 200 NHL scouts, head coaches, and GMs. In addition, more than 7,000 fans, an event attendance record, filed into the First Niagara Center to watch these future stars. The first few minutes of the game were a bit unorganized as players skated through nerves and excitement, while goaltenders Luke Opilka and Michael Lackey put on quite a show.
Both coaches were impressed with their goalies, and Olczyk stated, “I liked our play a lot in the first period. We really hemmed them in their own zone and we worked their defense and created a bunch of chances, but when the goaltending is that good you’ve got to find a way to put the puck in the back of the net.”
It didn’t take long in the second period for players to start finding those ways to score on Opilka and Lackey. Team Grier eventually prevailed with a final score of 6-3. Jeremy Bracco, who finished the night plus-3 with two goals for Team Grier, was pleased with his performance and excitedly spoke about his second goal. “Great play by Greener on the wall. I got lucky to come in and I usually go five-hole so I was kind of thinking that the whole way and he kind of left it open for me so, got lucky.”
His coach spoke positively about that kind of play, saying, “Bracco was excellent. He’s one of those guys who knows how to slow the game down, make plays happen.”
After putting up two goals and finishing plus-3 for the night, Jack Eichel admitted that he was pleased with his gameplay but still needed to “shake off some rust”. “Found myself open a few times in front of the net, with a lot of time. I think one time I had too much time, and I lost the puck.” Eichel was named Player of the Game and has also been slated by experts as a potential first-overall pick next summer.
Olczyk had high accolades for Eichel’s style of play, comparing him to Mario Lemieux in his frame and ability to see plays down the ice. “It’s like a 747 going up the ice,” he remarked about Eichel’s long arm span and reach.
Another player to watch, according to Grier, is Boston University’s Jordan Greenway. “Greenway made a lot of the goals happen. He probably won’t get some of the credit, but he did a lot of the dirty work: the forechecking, and getting first man on the puck.”
With the game being broadcast on television for the first time, via the NHL Network, fans in Buffalo and all across the U.S. and Canada had the chance to get a glimpse at some stellar prospects in advance of next year’s draft. For the players who seemed to be bursting with excitement no matter the final score, performing on such a large stage proved to be a night to remember. “Great atmosphere! All the fans and all the lights. It’s awesome!” exclaimed Moynihan. Eichel added, “It was an overall great experience and I’m glad I got to take part in it.” Alec Baer, of the WHL’s Vancouver Giants, said, “I didn’t really know what to expect, but I had a lot of fun. Very fast and there’s obviously a lot of good ’97-borns that are here in the U.S.”
Now these young stars head back to their respective teams to focus on the season ahead. When asked if being marked as a top prospect in the draft affects the mindset of Boston College defenseman Noah Hanifin, he replied, “I’m always trying to get better and as of right now I’m just going to keep working hard until June.” It was a sentiment widely echoed among a group of young men hoping to make a name for themselves in the NHL, but for now they’ll concentrate on playing their best season to help pave the road to Sunrise, Florida.
For Habs fans in particular, the All Habs team was there to capture two particularly interesting moments with these young prospects:
1. Connor Moynihan plays with Zach Fucale in Halifax and said this about his goaltender: “He’s a great guy. He likes to talk a lot, I’ll tell ya. He’s funny!” He added, “He’s (Fucale) really smart, one of the smartest on the team. His (hockey) sense is unreal.”
2. Boston University top prospect Jack Eichel was quoted by a Canadian main-stream media organization in which he admitted that, despite being a Boston fan, he had an appreciation for the Montreal Canadiens. Our team asked Eichel to elaborate in the post-game scrum and he replied that he is a Boston fan first and foremost but added, “The Canadiens have a great tradition. When I was younger I became a fan. There’s so much passion there.”
Photo credits: Rocket Sports Media, Inc. Be sure to check out our full photo gallery below!