The best draft USA has ever had was in 2007 when Patrick Kane went first overall and was immediately followed by James Van Riemsdyk. Two years prior was close, when Bobby Ryan went second overall behind Sidney Crosby and Jack Johnson was taken third overall.
But if current trends continue for the next two seasons, the 2016 draft will put the rest of those in their dust in terms of producing high-end players trained in America. Not only is it a good bet USA will produce its seventh first overall pick – unless Jack Eichel is taken first overall in 2015, in which case it would be USA’s eighth – but there’s a chance the top five could be chock full of American talent.
A lot can change in two years, particularly when it comes to players at such a critical point in their developments. There’s a chance some kid nobody’s even heard of will emerge as the best NHL prospect 24 months from now. But from all current projections, 2016 could very well be the Year of the American.
Not only that, it could very well be the Year of the Sun Belt. Two of the top prospects for 2016 at the moment are Auston Matthews, a hulking right winger with the U.S. National Development Program and Jakob Chychrun, a defenseman whom the Sarnia Sting picked No. 1 overall in the 2014 Ontario League draft.
Matthews, who is from Scottsdale, Ariz., grew up watching the Phoenix Coyotes and playing minor hockey in Arizona until he joined USA’s under-17 team last season. He broke his leg early in the season, but returned in time to salvage his season, then dazzled at the Under-18 World Championship for the Americans. He continued his fine play at USA’s World Junior camp this summer and could very well be part of their team in December.
Chychrun, the son of former NHLer Jeff Chychrun, is a man-boy who has a lethal slapshot, one that was developed in Boca Raton, Fla. Like Matthews, Chychrun played most of his minor hockey in the Sun Belt, leaving only two seasons ago to play midget hockey in Detroit. Chychrun has dual citizenship and has yet to decide whether he’ll play for Canada or USA internationally, but he did play for Ontario’s team at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenged, a non-sanctioned event.
Thanks to the boldness of the Windsor Spitfires, two of the top American prospects for 2016 will be playing for them the next two seasons. And neither of them was drafted by the organization. Luke Kirwan joined the Spitfires after his rights were traded from the Guelph Storm for two second-round draft choices. Kirwan is a late 1997 birthday who misses the 2015 draft by only a week. Then the Spitfires nabbed Logan Brown, the 6-foot-5 son of former NHLer Jeff Brown, who this summer was hired as the head coach of the Ottawa 67s, from the Niagara Ice Dogs.
Rychel paid a huge price to get Brown, a total of six draft picks in the next four years with five of them in the top 60. In addition, the Ice Dogs get the seventh overall selection in 2015 to compensate for losing Brown, in addition to their own first-round pick.
“Really high hockey IQ,” Spitfires GM said of Brown. “We needed to bring in some skill and this kid gives us that. I think it will take both Brown and Kirwan a little while to get adjusted, but down the road I think they’ll both be outstanding players for us. (Brown) will have to pick up his pace. He’s like a lot of other kids who don’t realize how good this league is until they get here.”
Another American who could challenge for No. 1 overall in 2016 is Max Jones, a standout for the juggernaut Detroit Honeybaked midget team last season who was taken in the first round by the London Knights. Rounding out the American contingent is Sean Day of the Mississauga Ice Dogs, who was granted exceptional status to play major junior hockey last season. Day was actually born in Belgium and lived briefly in Singapore before his family settled in Detroit. Day, though, intends to play internationally for Canada, since both his parents are Canadian and he has dual citizenship.