The faces have changed, but the venue remains the same for the 2015 CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game as many of the top American-born prospects for the 2016 NHL Draft will go head-to-head at First Niagara Center in Buffalo, New York this evening.
Last year’s game, which also took place in Buffalo, featured at least one player with some star-power heading into last season, current Buffalo Sabres draft pick Jack Eichel. Eichel, who attended Boston University last season, went on to become the second overall selection at the 2015 NHL Draft, landing in the city that started him on his way through his draft season.
The player considered to be the top prospect for the 2016 draft, forward Auston Matthews, is American, but the Scottsdale, Arizona native elected to take his game to Switzerland to compete for the ZSC Lions. While hockey fans may be disappointed at missing a chance to view a top hockey talent, Matthews absence allows the spotlight to shine on other players that may have otherwise been overshadowed.
Each event features notable former players as head coaches for the two squads, with one coach having ties to the host city. Buffalo has hosted the All-American Prospects Game three of the four years it has been held, with former Sabres defenseman Phil Housley doing the honors in the inaugural game in 2012, and Mike Grier standing behind the bench at last year’s game.
For the 2015 edition of this prospects game, the former Sabre tapped to coach one of the squads is Derek Plante, who played for that team from 1994 to 1999. Plante hasn’t been to Buffalo often since moving on, but he was obviously happy to have the chance to take part in this event in a city that still remembers his days with the Sabres.
“It’s awesome, it’s fun,” said an obviously enthused Plante. “I come back to Buffalo with my memories of being here as a player..I can do nothing but smile. It was a lot of fun when I was here, and when I come back, people treat me real well. It’s fun, it’s just exciting to come back here.”
The coach opposite Plante is former NHL star forward and current NBC hockey analyst, Jeremy Roenick. Roenick had wanted to take part in this event last year, and jumped at the chance to do so this time around.
“They asked me last year, a little bit too late, but with all my NBC stuff I couldn’t do it,” said Roenick. “But they asked me last year if I would do it this year, and I said ‘Yes’. But it’s not just this game – it’s great being involved with a lot of the youth. I’ve been so impressed with how kids have developed over the past 10 years, and USA Hockey has a lot to do with that.”
Below is a preview of some of the more notable players taking part at this year’s CCM/USAHockey All-American Prospects Game.
Leading the way for Team Plante is a solid forward unit that includes London Knights winger Max Jones, who is currently considered to be among the top prospects for the 2016 draft. Jones, one of five Knights taking part in this year’s game, is a power forward in the making.
With Drake Rymsha on Team Plante and three more Knights teammates on Team Roenick, Jones was obviously excited to be a part of this event.
“Obviously, it’s an honor,” said Jones. “We’ve got five London Knights here, so that just shows we’ve got a good team in London, so we’re expecting a lot of the team. It’s just cool, we’ve got five other teammates here, so we get to bond with them, and meanwhile, you get to play against some of them.”
Along with Jones, a first line that includes National Team Development Program (NTDP) forward Clayton Keller between fellow national team forward Kiefer Bellows and Erie Otters winger Alex DeBrincat should be an offensive threat each time they hit the ice.
When asked about coaching the son of a player he had played against in his NHL career (Brian Bellows), Plante, who coached at the University of Minnesota-Duluth from 2010 through this year, preferred not to focus on just one prospect competing at this event.
“Coaching college hockey the last few years, it’s amazing how many players’ kids are playing, and it’s kind of fun to see how their kids actually play a lot like the dad a lot of times,” observed Plante. “Marty McInnis’s son’s is out here, too, a couple more, Tkachuk’s kid. So, it’s a neat deal – those guys were all good players, and a lot of times their kids are good players. Like all the kids – they’re all good players, it’s not necessarily Kiefer that I’m more excited about – they’re all good kids, and they’re all good hockey players.”
The defensive group is a solid one that includes a top pairing of NTDP defender Ryan Lindgren and Boston University’s Charlie McAvoy. Both players are early favorites to be chosen somewhere in the first two rounds of the draft. Adding some heft to Team Plante’s defensive group is NTDP defender J.D. Greenway, whose brother Jordan took part in last year’s game before later being chosen by the Minnesota Wild at the 2015 draft.
The goaltending tandem for Team Plante features Tri-City Americans netminder Evan Sarthou, who is one of seven players taking part in this game that were a part of Team USA’s gold medal-winning squad at the 2015 U18 World Championship. Sarthou is joined on Team Plante by Madison Capitals goaltender, Ryan Edquist.
Another London Knights player heads the forward group competing for Team Roenick. Winger Matthew Tkachuk, one of several players with NHL bloodlines taking part in this year’s All-American Prospects Game, will play on a first line that also features University of Wisconsin forward Luke Kunin and NTDP forward Joey Anderson.
Tkachuk is a player that Roenick is very familiar with coming into this game.
“I was there when Matthew was born,” said Roenick, who is a friend of former NHL forward Keith Tkachuk, Matthew’s father. “I watched him grow up, and then I saw his name on the list, and then made a couple of phone calls to make sure that he was on my team. And Keith said, “you better play my kid a lot, he’s going to be drafted high.”
NTDP forward and Florida native Nick Pastujov and Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds winger Tim Gettinger should aid the offensive attack for Team Roenick.
Pastujov, who is from Florida, gives a great deal of the credit for his opportunity to play in this game to his time with the national program, a program that is obviously front-and-center at the All-American Prospects Game.
“The program has done more than I can say for my game,” said Pastujov. “It really focuses in on improving players skills, on and off the ice – its tough to explain – but I really matured more than I would in a junior league. You’re playing with the same people for two years, and that really helps to all go through the same thing together, so we can build off of each other and work together.”
At defense, Team Roenick features the top defensive prospect taking part in this contest, NTDP defender Chad Krys. The smooth-skating Krys will be paired with fellow national team defenseman Adam Fox. While the duo isn’t necessarily the most physically imposing – Krys is 5’11” and Fox is 5’10” – they should be able to spearhead a solid offensive attack for Team Roenick.
NTDP defender Griffin Luce brings a local flavor to this squad as he is from the Buffalo area and is the grandson of former Sabre Don Luce. Given his local ties, Luce is expecting a sizeable contingent of family to be in attendance.
“Family-wise, I’ve got 25-plus people coming, so it’ll be fun,” said Luce.
Two OHL goaltenders will man the pipes for Team Roenick. One is Tyler Parsons, yet another player that will suit up for the London Knights in 2015-16, while Niagara IceDogs netminder Stephen Dhillon will split the time with Parsons. Like Luce, Dhillon is also from the Buffalo area.
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