Here are six players on the USA Hockey National Team Development Program (USNTDP) Under-18 squad I believe the Philadelphia Flyers should target in the 2013 and 2014 NHL Drafts.
Thatcher Demko (San Diego, Calif.)
We will start out in net with the most impressive player on the ice for the USNTDP Under-18. Demko is still a junior in high school, but is so talented and “mature beyond his years” as Coach Don Granato puts it, that he is in an accelerated program to earn the required high school credits before heading to Chestnut Hill. It says something about the 1995 birth year that a program still sipping the sweet taste of a fourth consecutive Beanpot title, and in the midst of a NCAA title defense would covet his services with such zeal. Graduating netminder Parker Milner (undrafted) leaves an opening between the pipes that doesn’t appear to be filled by either goalie currently on the roster. Sophomore Brad Barone has yet to appear in a game for the Eagles and appears to be on the roster as a practice goalie and third-stringer. The other sophomore, Brian Billett, has logged time in 10 games for Boston College, but in his two games this year he has a 3.96 goals-against-average and a .853 save percentage. Neither of those numbers proves to BC coach Jerry York that he should take over for Milner.
That leaves the 6-foot-3, 190-pound Demko to enter as a freshman and grab stranglehold of the number one gig. The 2011-2012 campaign was a chaotic one for Demko; he started the season with the Los Angeles Jr. Kings U-16 team, then joined the Omaha Lancers of the USHL, and finally ended the season in net for the U.S National U-17 Team. That’s quite a bit of travel for a 16-year-old, but his mental toughness and preparation skills bear more resemblance to an NHL goaltender than a high-school student. This kid is a special talent and despite not being draft eligible until 2014, Flyers fans should take notice of the Boston College Eagles. Goaltending has been a question mark in Philadelphia since Bernie Parent graced the Spectrum in the 1970’s. Demko will be the best goalie to come out of the Northeast since Jonathan Quick (LAK 72nd overall ’05). The “West-Coast Flyers” took advantage and drafted the former UMass-Amherst netminder, who carried the Kings to a Stanley Cup victory last season. Can the Philadelphia Flyers storm up Chestnut Hill and come away with their own Holy Grail? Flyers fans will have to keep a sharp eye on the Eagles this upcoming season.
Connor Clifton (Matawan, N.J.)
The local product exemplifies the blanket assumption that people from New Jersey have a chip on their shoulder. This persistent defenseman will chirp from the puck drop to the final buzzer. Whether he is on the ice or on the bench, Clifton is always trying to get inside the head of his opponents. Coming up an inch short of six-feet tall and weighing just 171 pounds, one would think Clifton is a passive player without a physical side to his game. Clifton can serve to add mass to his frame, and will most likely do so in a college workout program. The aggressiveness is certainly there as Clifton has logged 97 penalty minutes so far this year.
Next year Clifton will be adding depth to the current number one team in the land, Quinnipiac University. This future Bobcat will reunite with his older brother, Tim, who he played three years with in the Empire Junior Hockey League and the Eastern Junior Hockey League with the New Jersey Hitmen. The 2013 draft eligible defenseman will already know his NHL fate by the time he steps on campus this fall. Although he has never been a big-time point producer, Clifton has displayed offensive instincts and has increasingly joined the rush as the season moves forward. With four goals and 10 assists in 48 games this year Clifton doesn’t stand out statistically, but his offensive instincts are budding as he feels more comfortable against tougher competition. Clifton is an intriguing prospect with a very high upside and will get a chance to shine among the NCAA’s elite at Quinnipiac.
Steven Santini (Mahopac, N.Y.)
Arguably the most lauded defenseman on the U-18 team, Santini is also the biggest blueliner on the team standing 6-foot-1 and weighing 208 pounds. Scouts have even gone so far as to say he might be the first member of the U-18 team drafted this summer. Forwards J.T. Compher and Hudson Fasching are debatably the top ranked players on the team heading towards the draft, but neither of them are spotlighted here. I believe the jury is still out for the future Big Ten rivals at Michigan and Minnesota respectively.
Santini will join his current teammate Thatcher Demko in Chestnut Hill next year as a member of the Boston College Eagles. Once a member of the New York Apple Core, the Empire state native grew up and couldn’t have imagined donning the orange and black. But, the Flyers could use the competitive American who is still coming into his own. Santini possesses the potential that scouts covet, flashing playmaking and scoring abilities from the blueline. Although he has yet to record a goal this season, experience outweighs statistics. Anybody who watches this kid play knows the best is yet to come and he will flourish playing for Jerry York. Boston College players have always been known for speed, quickness and agility but have usually lacked the physical measurements. Santini offers a wide frame and inevitably will develop the skating ability that NHL teams desire. His repertoire already consists of a plethora of talents, but attending York’s school of excellence will elevate Santini’s game to a new level.
Michael McCarron (Macomb, Mich.)
Bull in a china shop. McCarron is a prototypical power forward and at just 17 years old, already towers over peers at 6-5 and weighs 229 pounds. This kid has grown up quickly and, even more impressive, is that he already filled out his massive frame. The Western Michigan commit has NHL general managers charting his progression while always keeping his “A+” physical measurements in close thought. McCarron originally committed to Michigan State but de-committed in the spring of 2012. Many insiders thought the Macomb native was going to commit to Cornell where his older brother John (EDM 153rd overall ’12) plays, but McCarron decided to stay in state and committed to the Broncos.
Despite the changes in mind about which school he wanted to attend, I don’t expect McCarron to ever make it to Kalamazoo. A college letter of intent does not have an effect on CHL teams and their vulture-like tendencies to pluck top-tier talent out of the grasp of hungry universities. The Broncos will do everything they can to woo their stallion on campus, but the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League will be pressing hard from greener pastures. The Knights traded for McCarron’s OHL rights on June 27 last year from the Belleville Bulls. London gave up a fifth round pick in the 2015 OHL Priority Selection and a conditional pick contingent on McCarron playing for the Knights. That’s not a bad haul for Bellville, which drafted the American 107th overall in the 2011 OHL Priority Selection. On the other end, London would not be pleased with losing a fifth round selection if McCarron went the college route.
There will be a large focus this summer on the decision the power forward will make between the NCAA and the CHL, but joining a team that is the favorite to win the OHL will be a nice incentive to head north. McCarron has the size NHL teams covet because offense skills can be developed and honed in the minors, but size cannot be taught. The massive Michigan kid has shined this year with the U-18 team and in the CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game. In 40 games this year with the U-18 program McCarron has scored 8 goals and added 15 assists. The big winger leads the team with 142 penalty minutes, but also showcases his offensive talent by scoring 5 power-play goals, tying him for the team lead.
In the Prospects Game McCarron was a force offensively, playing a “crash and bang” style down low in the corners. The dirty areas are where this gritty player dominates by using his frame to control the play along the boards. He consistently comes away with the puck and displays solid playmaking skills by finding open teammates in the slot for a scoring opportunity. NHL Central Scouting listed McCarron as a ‘B’ prospect in their preliminary rankings. I can see the talented winger going safely in the top 60 picks of the 2013 NHL Draft, and could jump into the top 45 if he continues to develop his scoring game. A team could fall in love with his size and skill combination, maybe even the Broad Street Bullies. This kid certainly fits that mold.
John Hayden (Greenwich, Conn.)
Greenwich, CT is twice the size of Manhattan, yet has one million less residents than the densely populated New York borough that houses 1.6 million people. However, that hasn’t deterred some notable people to come out of the southernmost town in Connecticut. Current St. Louis Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk (COL 14th overall ’07), Columbus Blue Jackets forward Cam Atkinson (CBJ 157th overall ’08), and Nashville Predator Colin Wilson (NSH 7th overall ’08) all were born in the historic hollow of Connecticut. John Hayden will be the next name to add to the list of Greenwich natives who made it to the NHL.
The 6-foot-3, 210-pound Yale commit is a hard-nosed player with the physical measurements to play in the show. Like his teammate, McCarron, Hayden plays a power forward style, focusing on banging bodies and grinding hard in the corners. The offensive game is developing with Hayden, and in time he can be a dangerous two-way forward. In the USHL Top Prospects Game Hayden took center stage in more than one way. He scored the only goal for Team East late in the game to cut the deficit to one, giving his squad a chance to get the equalizer. Hayden also took the spotlight in a tougher way, getting into a fight in the second period. At the time his team was down two goals and needed a jolt of momentum. Even in a showcase game, Hayden played with relentless energy ending up in a couple categories on the score sheet. That’s always the sign of a true gamer.
Tyler Motte (St. Clair, Mich.)
Motte is the second Michigan native on this list and played for Honeybaked just like teammate, Michael McCarron. Motte was on the U-16 team in 2010-2011 and missed playing with his current teammate who was bumped up to the U-18 team that season after impressing the coaches on the U-16 squad the previous year. Motte is the opposite of McCarron and Hayden; standing 5-10 and weighing just 165 pounds, generously, the speedy little forward has the wheels to compensate for his lack of size.
The University of Michigan commit exploded offensively displaying smooth hands and a high hockey IQ. Motte scored 25 goals and added 16 assists last season for the U-17 squad while displaying his tenacious side accumulating 62 penalty minutes. The future Wolverine has continued to pile up the points this year, scoring 17 goals and dishing out 11 assists. Joining Motte next year in Ann Arbor will be teammates J.T. Compher and Evan Allen. That will be a scary trio teaming up together to provide the maize and blue with a quick-strike, potent offensive attack.
Motte can afford to add weight to his frame without losing any agility or quickness. He will need to add about 20 pounds before he could be considered NHL-ready. Adding weight and filling out his frame will add a power element to Motte’s game. This element can provide him another weapon in his arsenal of moves. The shifty forward has great body control along the boards and wins many of the one-on-one battles he gets into. He is a solid offensive threat and when his physical, defensive game develops, Motte could be a steal in the 2013 NHL Draft.