Making the Grade: An exclusive look inside USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program

By Neutral Zone staff with support from Ryan Hardy, NTDP Director of Player Personnel

Neutral Zone staff recently attended USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program Evalutation Camp held in Plymouth, Michigan, and along with getting to see how roughly the top 50 ‘2000 birth year players in the U.S. – with a few exceptions – stacked up against each other, we were also able to connect with NTDP Director of Player Personnel, Ryan Hardy, to go behind the scenes and explore exactly how players are evaluated and selected for the prestigious program.

Hardy, who previously served as a regional amateur scout for the NHL, as an assistant coach at the Division 1 and Division 3 levels in the NCAA, and as a coach and general manager in the NAHL, is responsible for leading all identification, evaluation and recruitment efforts for the NTDP, as well as the planning and implementation of the annual NTDP Tryout Camp.

Since its inception in 1996, the NTDP has produced over 250 NHL draft picks including 58 first round selections and 10 top-5 picks. Additionally, 53 NTDP alumni were named to NHL opening night rosters to begin the 2015-2016 season.

Notable graduates of the program include current NHLer’s Patrick Kane, Jack Eichel, Dylan Larkin, Erik Johnson, Ryan Kesler, Phil Kessel, Kevin Shattenkirk, Patrick Eaves, Ryan Suter, Colin Wilson and James van Riemsdyk, among others.

Below is a full transcript of our discussion with Hardy, one which provides unique insight into the NTDP process and serves a valuable resource to amateur hockey players, and their families, across the United States.


NZ: Can you explain the process of how players are invited, and at what point does the NTDP start evaluating players? 

Hardy: Jeremiah Crowe and our bantam scouts start the process at the beginning of the Bantam Major year.  Jeremiah travels the country and builds our initial list while getting to know the players and their families.  Obviously, we want to cast a wide net as we try to account for the undeniable fact that every player is on a unique development path.  We utilize the long-term athlete development principles that are the foundation of USA Hockey’s American Development Model, and try and gauge where each player is at in respect to the puberty process.  At the Select 15 festival, Jeremiah will present on every player in the camp as well as some others who are not in attendance.  We also invite the team leaders at the camp into a meeting where they speak on some character observations that they have made during the week.  This seems like a small component, but it is actually an essential piece in our process.  Following the Select 15 festival, Jeremiah essentially hands off the group to myself and our staff of ten regional scouts which is comprised of full-time NHL scouts, former college coaches, as well as several up and coming hockey people.  We then spend the season evaluating the players on and off the ice before settling on our camp invitations.


NZ: Is the team selected or built for a specific purpose? Are you selecting players you think will have NHL careers, players who will get drafted high, players who will win at world juniors, etc.? Do you pick the best players and make a team out of them, or are you selecting players to fit certain roles for the team?

Hardy: Everybody who has sat in this chair has a somewhat different opinion on this, but I believe it is a total balance.  All of the things that you mention are heavily weighed.  The overarching goal of the NTDP is to ensure that players are prepared when the United States calls on them for international competition, whether that be U18, U20, Men’s Worlds, Olympics, or World Cup.  Obviously, for those last three or four, being an NHL player/prospect is essential, so that is certainly a big part of the process.  In the NHL Central Scouting Mid-term rankings, I believe eight of the top 30 North American players (which doesn’t even include Auston Matthews) are from this program.  8 percent of the NHL is comprised of NTDP alumni.  There is no denying that the NHL process is a big component of what we are trying to do.

In building the team, there are certain metrics to me that aren’t negotiable: hockey sense is paramount, and a burning desire to be a hockey player – and put in the work required to do so – is essential.  At the end of the day, hockey sense and competitiveness translate to any level.  This is a very demanding place and is not for the faint of heart.  The players have to be smart, competitive, and have the character to be able to overcome adversity.  From there, we want to take the players that have an elite attribute that separates them from the competition, whether it be having dynamic hands, being creative, having a pro release, being physical, possessing great vision, etc.

The “new” NHL is very friendly to undersized players and that has allowed us to no longer have to make a decision on NHL potential vs. win in the next two to four years.  Patrick Kane’s dominance in the league right now, and the success that players like Clayton Keller have had in recent years in our program, certainly highlight that fact.  That being said, we also want to have a mix of big players, undersized players, and players that are somewhere in the middle from a physical standpoint.

To answer the last part of your question, I don’t believe in a “ghost roster” or filling roles.  The player pool dictates the type of team we build, and we try to select players who have a true identity.  If a player has a true identity, and knows his true identity, he can work to reach his potential.  Often players in our game think they are one thing and everybody else thinks they are another.  That never works.


NZ: How many players are good enough to be at this camp? Obviously you only get to invite a certain number of players, but are there 20 more who are good enough, or is there a drop-off after the last kid selected here? When you refer to “tough decisions,” are you talking about a handful of kids or many players?

Hardy: When we are evaluating the final spots in camp, we look at the core of the group and say, ‘Ok, what does the nucleus of this look like?’  Once we identify that, we look to bring in players who compliment that nucleus and could prove themselves worthy of a spot with a good showing at camp.  The argument can be made by probably 10 to 15 players who aren’t at camp that ‘I’m better than this guy, or I’m better than that guy,’ and the fact is that they may be right.  That said, if we have, for example, what we believe to be the five most skilled undersized forwards already in the camp, then the sixth one can argue that he’s better than another player in the camp who was selected for a different reason.  He could be right, but we already have what we think are the five best players with that identity, of which we are probably only taking 2 to 3 to begin with.

The reality is that there are a ton of good American hockey players and my sincere hope is that players who feel they were snubbed at the camp use that as motivation to realize their dreams.  I would love to see kids who don’t make this camp make the World Junior Championship team in a few years. That means the entire system is producing players, and not just one entity.


NZ: This being your first full season as Director of Player Personnel, how has the year been so far? Is this a unique experience having seen a lot of these players as bantams in your previous role? Do you notice much change from what you thought would be the list from their bantam year to now? 

Hardy: The first year in this position has been an unbelievable experience.  A lot of people ask me about the stress or the pressure, but I don’t really feel that at all.  Really, I’m just excited.  The NTDP is a special, special place that is unlike anywhere I’ve ever been in my life.  To reflect on the fact that I have been given the privilege of working here and having some small part in helping young hockey players chase their dreams is a remarkable thing.  The only downside to this job is that in a week I have to look some kids in the eye – kids who I believe in as players and as people – and tell them that they didn’t make the team this time.  That will be really hard and probably emotional.  I’m not looking forward to it.

As far as a change in the players, this group is actually eerily similar to what we thought it was a year ago, though there are certainly some players who have emerged, and some players who have fallen off.  I think that is a testament to the quality of the guys on our staff.  They do a tremendous job.


NZ: There is a debate among hockey people that if you’re a top 6 forward or top 4 defenseman then accepting a spot with the NTDP is a no-brainer. However, some argue that the bottom 6 forwards and bottom 2 defenseman would be better off playing elsewhere where they can have the puck a lot and be the top guy. Where do you weigh in on that?

Hardy: I don’t subscribe to this theory at all, mostly because I’ve seen this process play out with my own two eyes.  Looking at it from an outsider’s perspective, I can see how people draw that conclusion, but it just isn’t based in fact. The players change significantly over the two years.  If you have the right amount of skill, hockey sense, competitiveness and willpower, you can become a world-class player regardless of where you start in the lineup.  Matthew Tkachuk, for example, is the number one rated North American player by NHL Central Scouting.  In his U17 year, he was, at times, the 4th left wing on the depth chart.  Because he’s a competitive kid and wants to be an elite player, he just worked his tail off to reach his potential.  He’ll now be chosen in the top-5 of the draft.  Similarly, Dylan Larkin was a 3rd/4th line center in his U17 year.  He worked hard, absorbed all the information that he could, and three years later he’s a 20-goal scorer in the NHL, an NHL All-Star, a World Cup selection, and will be a finalist for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.  That’s pretty good.

If you are what we thought you were from a scouting perspective and you come in here, work your tail off, absorb the information and translate it into your game, the sky is the limit for any and every player.  This isn’t exclusive to us, either.  For any player that reads this, the process isn’t really complicated.  If you start above the threshold of talent, work hard, are humble, and are driven to pursue your dreams, you can accomplish them.


NZ: Some of the players at camp, without mentioning names, are being heavily pursued by CHL teams. Is that something the NTDP has to factor in or gauge when selecting the team? Will there be players you select that either decide to stay home or go to the CHL, or is that something you try to  figure out before camp starts?

Hardy: In this camp we have assembled what we believe are the best prospects for our team.  All of these players are elite talents and are being heavily pursued by USHL and CHL teams.  They all have options.  That is the nature of the beast and it is something we are completely comfortable with.  Quite frankly, we don’t spend very much time concerning ourselves with any of this as it is outside of our control.  The United States National Team Development Program is an incredible thing to be a part of.  This is – without question – the best full-time, amateur hockey team in the world.  All of the resources are here for the players to take advantage of, and the competition in practice and in games is remarkable.  On top of all of that, you get to represent your country every single day.  To me, and I’m obviously biased, there is simply nothing that comes close to this place and there is no greater honor than being bestowed the privilege of representing your country.

It is very hard for a 16-year old to play in the USHL or the CHL.  It’s big boy hockey.  If I was a CHL team, I would actually want prospects to come here, develop, and then they can come in and be impact players like a Patrick Kane, a Matthew Tkachuk, or a Seth Jones, as opposed to being in and out of the lineup every night.  The reality is that there are about a handful of U.S. players that have an impact in the USHL or CHL as 16-year olds every year, and there are a lot more that struggle mightily.  Over the past few years there have been some sad examples, and you never want to see that happen to a kid who is trying to chase their dream.  There is no reason for players to rush the process and, in my personal opinion, there is no reason for a player to rush out of the United States.  Not every player can make the NTDP, and the USHL is a world-class league.  This isn’t to take anything away from the CHL, because it is a great league with a long, successful history, but the USHL/NCAA model gets better every year.  For an American kid, there is no denying that is a first rate path on their quest to reach the National Hockey League if they want it bad enough.