A New Way Forward for USA Hockey: Improving NTDP’s NHL Draft Performance

Disclaimer: Let us start this article by saying that the current system works, the current system was created by some of the brightest minds in youth hockey and every year despite economic cycles, USA hockey grows its base not only throughout the NHL but in youth hockey as well. Therefore, we are not coming from a perspective of knowing more than USA Hockey or claiming to have a “better” idea. Some of the ideas explained here are far more complex than they appear on the surface; however, we thought it would be interesting to share an alternative approach to the current system if nothing more than to spark a conversation.

 

On the evening of Friday June 23rd Neutral Zone President watched the NHL Draft at their headquarters in Vermont. “I was excited to see Mittelstadt go so high in the draft, especially after we had the chance to interview him earlier in the year about his return to his hometown high school in Minnesota,” said the NZ President. “However, I was a little dissapointed about the US performance in the first round. Over the next few days we spoke to NHL scouts, NCAA coaches and hockey administrators as to what the problem was and nobody had a clear answer.”

So Monday morning Steve called a meeting with his analytics team and Director of Scouting to work together on a potential solution to the problem.

“This type of project requires people who are actually in the rinks and seeing the different leagues and it requires analysts who understand the bigger picture.”

Steve wasn’t wrong, USA Hockey saw a dip in the number of American born players drafted in the NHL this year. The average for the past 7 years has been just under 58 players per year. This years draft saw only 48.

 

2017: 48 US Players Drafted

2016: 54 US Players Drafted

2015: 56 US Players Drafted

2014: 64 US Players Drafted

2013: 56 US Players Drafted

2012: 56 US Players Drafted

2011: 59 US Players Drafted

2010: 59 US Players Drafted

It is only one year and the decrease isn’t so dramatic as to sound the alarm bells; however, it’s enough to make USA Hockey administrators pause and take a step back. USA Hockey has the second largest number of hockey participants in the world with over a half of a million registered players. If you added the next highest participant populations in Russia, Finland, Sweden and the Czech Republic combined you’d get just over 300,000. However, the US born players only accounted for 22% of the draft this year. Over the past 10 years the percentages haven’t been much better. The average percentage of Americans drafted has mirrored the total percentage of players in the league, which hovers around 25%.

It is worth noting that 50 years ago there far less Americans playing and the US player population in the NHL has increased each year since. However, when looking at the ratio between number of registered players in a country and the number of players Drafted in the NHL, the US does not look as good.

 

2016 IIHF Survey on Hockey Participation in the World and the 2016 NHL Draft:

Country Registered Player NHL Draft Picks

Ratio

Sweden

 60,408 25  2,416
Russia  102,179 17

 6,011

Canada

 639,500 87  7,351
United States  543,239 54

 10,060

Finland

 174,150 15  11,610
Swiss  26,898 2

 13,449

Czech Republic

 109,103 4

 27,276

 

The United States ranks 4th among the leading 7 producers of NHL talent in the number of registered players to NHL Draft Picks; roughly 1 in every 10,060 registered players was drafted in 2016.

 

National Training Development Program  

In 1996 USA Hockey developed what is now called the National Training Development Program (NTDP). The purpose of the program was to evaluate the top players in the country, put them under one roof and give them the best coaching, training and competition they could find. This team would go on to produce NHL caliber talent and compete in international compeitions (World Juniors, Olympics, etc). Over time the NHL started to notice the success and novelty of the idea and currently funds the program.

We compiled the last 5 years of NHL Drafts and looked at the results of NTDP U18 players being drafted. The turn “alumni” refers to players who played on the team but were drafted a year or two after while they were on different teams.

Year

Round 1 Round 2 Round 3 Round 4 Round 5 Round 6 Round 7 Total Current Alumni

Top Pick

2017

2 2 3 1 1 0 3 12 9 3 19
2016 7 2 6 0 2 1 1 19 13 6

1

2015

5 3 1 1 2 2 0 14 11 3 2
2014 3 4 2 2 2 1 2 16 13 3

15

2013

3 2 2 3 3 3 0 16 13 3

4

 

Over the past 5 seasons 77 players have gone from the NTDP U18 team to being drafted in the NHL.  That equates to an averge of 15.4 players per year. Even more impressive is that nearly 43% of those players were drafted in the first two rounds. However, those figures include several NTDP alumni, so the true number of direct movement from NTDP to NHL Draft is an average of 11.8 players per year. That is roughly half the team.

So, we took the direct movement of NTDP players and compared that to the other Americans in the NHL Draft. It was clear that they account for about 20% of the US Draft pool so they are a significant piece of the puzzle.

2017:     48 – 9 = 39

2016:     54-13 = 41

2015:     56-11 = 45

2014:     64-13 = 51

2013:     56-13 = 43

Over the last 5 years, there have been 219 American players drafted from outside of NTDP.  18 of those players have played on NTDP U18 at one time, so  in subtract those 18, the true number is 201. That is still an average of just over 40 players each year drafted from outside of NTDP. Simply put, there are 40 players each year that are better (in NHL terms) than the bottom half of the NTDP roster. How? Why?

After the first two rounds of the NHL Draft this year, 10 Americans were drafted. Only two of them were directly from NTDP and another two were alumni. Therefore, the majority of the top US talent came from elsewhere.  In the middle rounds (3-5) of the draft, 20 Americans were drafted. Of those 20 Americans only 5 came from NTDP. The other 15 came out of the USHL (8), OHL (3), NE Prep School (3), Minnesota High School (1).  So again, let’s recap; if we take the top 30 American players drafted in the NHL Draft this past year, only 7 come directly from NTDP with 2 additional players having played there the year prior. Looking at the later rounds there were an additional 17 players drafted from the US.  The breakdown of where they came from was Minnesota High School (5), USHL (5), NAHL (2), NTDP (2), OHL (1), WHL (1), NE Prep (1).

Overall, 48 players were drafted from the US and only 9 came directly from NTDP and 2 were NTDP alumni. That’s 11 of 48 or roughly 22%. More than half of NTDP’s U18 roster went undrafted. For a team being financed by the NHL, we’d expect more draft picks.

Let’s dive into this a little deeper. Looking at the draft results some of these players came from the CHL, some of these players were offered spots on NTDP and chose not to play and some of the players are over-agers (too old to player on NTDP U18). So, of the average 40 American players being drafted outside of the NTDP on average only 50-70% would actually be available to NTDP. Nevertheless, the non-NTDP players in the US as a whole, are outperforming the bottom half of the NTDP roster in the NHL Draft.

Minnesota High School produced 8 NHL draft picks this year to NTDP’s 9. If we include both of their alumni, then Minnesota High School has more NHL picks than NTDP. Let us repeat that for the many people out there who believe you have to play junior hockey to make it to NCAA/CHL or NHL. Minnesota High School produced more players in this years NHL Draft than the United States Development Program.

Is there a solution?

 

To begin our analysis of NTDP, we must make the assumption that the primary goal of NTDP is not to win world juniors or olympic golds or prepare players for NCAA/CHL careers; but rather to produce future NHL players. We make this assumption based on the funding coming from the National Hockey League and not USA Hockey or the NCAA or CHL or even the Olympic Committee.  It is likely safe to assume the NHL isn’t funding NTDP out of charity; it is a development path to the NHL just like their partnerships in the CHL.  While the goals of NTDP are numerous; prepare players for World Juniors, Olympics, NCAA, CHL and NHL; the NTDP’s success is ultimately judged on Draft Day.

Currently there are two teams; a U17 team and a U18 team. The only playes who are eligible for the NHL draft are on the U18 team. So, the purpose of the U17 team would be to lead to a better and more prepared U18 team. However, can we prove that NTDP’s U17 is accomplishing that?

We have analyzed non-NTDP U17 players performance versus NTDP U17 players and the results are all over the map. We see that the top performers on the U17 team performed better in U18 than middle or low performers; but that was the only statistically significant correlation we found. The success of non-NTDP players versus the NTDP U17 players was random, sporadic and showed no real patterns to analyze.

This is not proof that NTDP staff is not preparing its players and its not proof that they are picking the wrong players. We believe the issue is in the model.

The Model:

In the current model the NTDP U18 program is not selected at the beginning of the season among all the best players in the country. On the contrary, the U18 is essentially picked two years prior, after the NTDP Evaluation Camp held in Plymouth, MI in April. Here the staff selects a team from a pool of appoximately 50 of the nations top 15 and 16 year olds. While there are early departures and players who are not invited back; most all of the players on the U17 Team go on to play on the U18 team the following year. It is here where we think the major problem lies.

NTPD is being tasked with the nearly impossible task of projecting NHL Draft potential out of a pool of 15 and 16 year old players. Even NHL scouting staffs, who have the best resources in the world of hockey, have a batting average of about .250 in projecting future career NHLers. This is not because they are doing a poor job; it is simply a measurement of the difficulty they face having to project 17 and 18 year olds for a career several years away. NTDP is showing a similar problem.

As a result of this model, there are very few instances, if ever, where an NHL scout could make the argument that the 20 best players in the country are on the NTDP U18 Team. This year was a prime example, Casey Mittelstadt was not on NTDP and he was clearly the best US player going #8 overall in the draft. Did NTDP make a mistake two years ago by not selecting him?

No; and there lies the point. At 16 years old Casey Mittelstadt was a 5th round USHL Draft pick and wasn’t really on NTDP radar. While the top players in his age group played for the U17 team, he stayed home and played Minnesota High School hockey with his hometown friends. His development took off at a level and pace that nobody could have predicted, far beyond his peers on the U17 team. The point is a lot can happen over the course of one season, and the best players a year ago are not the best players today.

This again is not to say that NTDP is not a great program and that it isn’t serving its purpose. With the exception of this year, the best player from the US has always come from the NTDP team. The best Americans in the NHL are nearly all from NTDP as well; players like: Jack Eichel, Patrick Kane, Auston Matthews, Phil Kessel, Noah Hannafin, Dylan Larkin and Seth Jones to name a few. Not only that, but last year’s US World Junior team, which was comprised of all but 6 players from the National Program, won gold. To say the program is failing or not living up to its expectations would be unfair and unfounded. However, most believe it could be improved.

“The clock isn’t broken, but it’s outdated. The US performance at the NHL Draft both overall and from the National Program could be and should be better than it currently is,” remarked Wilk.

After much debate, deliberation, brainstorming and analytics; the team unamiously agreed to a two-part strategy that is both connected and seperate. There were several other ideas that had similar outcomes, but they were either unrealistic, unfeasible or too complex to set into motion.

.NZ Proposal:

  1. Eliminate the NTDP U17 Team and have the NHL funding (if allowed) distributed equitably throughout the USHL. Allow those blue-chip prospects to be drafted in the USHL like their peers and let the NHL investment into USA Hockey prospects be felt by more players.
  2. Eliminated 20-year-old players from the USHL and put a cap on 19 year olds (our model suggests 10-11). As a result, the majority of the league would be made up of 17 and 18 year olds with the occassional 16-year-old top eschlon players.

Doing away with the U17 team would allow the U18’s to be a one year program. This has two primary advantages; first a one year contract could be more attractive for the players and secondly, it allows the scouts the proper time to evaluate the talent pool. A lot changes from 16 to 17 and the best 16 year olds are not always the best 17 year olds. It also gives the scouts and coaches the opportunity to see these players in higher, more competitive leagues instead of having to judge their performances in U16 and even Bantams.

One of the problems the NTDP U17 team encounters is that a number of players on their team simply are not ready to play a USHL schedule at 16/17 years old. This can also be evidenced from USHL Tender history where alarmingly high number of USHL Tenders go undrafted in the NHL Draft only two years later. Forcing players to play at levels they are not physically, emotionally or mentally ready goes against everything USA Hockey’s player development model stands for.

By eliminating the U17 team, it would allow the most elite players to be drafted in the USHL and play the same schedule they had with NTDP; therefore not taking a step back in competition. The other players, which some years is 5-10 and other years 10-15, who are not ready to play a USHL schedule are not forced to play up, but rather can play at their local midget programs, high school programs or prep school programs. This elevates the competition at those levels and makes for a more balanced talent pool country wide.

While some scouts may differ on this point, we feel the inclusion of these young, high end prospects in the USHL would actually make for a more skilled and more exciting product.

“There are several ways to do this model,” remarked President Wilk. “We just felt that this altenrative approach accomplished our three main objectives; more accurate player selections on NTDP, not forcing youth players to play beyond their ability and making the USHL more available to the best 16 and 17 year old players like the CHL.”

  1. Eliminating the U17 Team gives the NTDP Staff another year to evaluate the players, track their growth or digression and pick the best players available. This should yield a higher percentage of NHL Draft prospects on NTDP.
  2. Eliminating the U17 Team would not force at least half of the team to play in league that is beyond their grasp and therefore potentially harm their development curve. Those players could stay in school in their hometowns or bording schools and play high school or midget hockey. This is more in line with USA Hockey’s model of multi-sport student athletes who can develop at their pace, get more ice time and puck touches.
  3. Eliminating the 20 year olds from the USHL and putting a cap on 19 year olds will allow the league to be more accessible to younger players. Right now, the best 16 year olds in Canada are making impacts on CHL clubs. The USHL is older, bigger and stronger with a very defensive minded focus where younger players struggle. In one sense, the USHL is almost too competive right now for its own good. The older, tougher, more structured style is making it difficult for NHL Draft prospects to stand out the way they do in the CHL or other leagues in North America.

Not only would NTDP and the USHL benefit, but the trickle-down effect of this change would improve the balance of junior hockey in the US and elevate midget, high school and prep school hockey as well. If the top 20 year olds are no longer allowed in the USHL; those players would be disperesed to other junior leagues like the NAHL or NCDC. These leagues would become more competive. If the 10-20th best players no longer play on NTDP and go home and play in their youth programs or high school programs than it raises the caliber of player there as well.

With that being said, like any change, there could be negative reprucssions as well. These were not lost on the NZ team who came up with the strategy. There are a multitude of arguemnts against, but after speaking with NCAA, CHL and NHL scouts and coaches these were the most present.

Arguments Against:

  1. Eliminating the NTDP U17 team could hurt the success of the NTDP U18 program. Under the current system, players at the U17 level get into the school system, get adjusted to the training schedule, the practices and the billet families for a full season before their NHL Draft year. By eliminating the U17 team, players would have to go through an adjustment period during their draft year which could result in worse performance than the current model.
  2. Eliminating 20 year olds from the USHL could hurt the competitiveness of the leauge. NCAA and NHL coaches love the USHL because it is so difficult to play in. The old addage “if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere” holds weight and that could be harmed by this change.
  3. Assuming this rule change was made then think of this scenario from a parent or teacher’s perspective. If the best player in the country were on Phillips Exeter Academy’s prep team as a freshman, he would spend his sophomore year in the USHL after being drafted first overall in the Futures Draft. Assuming he maintained his top ranking, he would then spend the following season on NTDP U18 team. Assuming he had a great season with NTDP he would spend his next season on a college hockey team. That would be 4 different schools and 4 different places to live in 4 years. That is a lot to put on a kid from the ages of 15-18.
  4. NTDP players have the highest rate of success in the NCAA and NHL compared to all other American players (Neutral Zone analytics team can back that up). The top US born players in the NHL have gone through the current system, so it has a proven, lasting track record.

 

While the USA Hockey model has many feathers in their cap they also have holes. The US hasn’t won an Olympic Gold since the 1980 Miracle on Ice and only 25% of the NHL, which is prodimately played in the US, are American.

“We don’t have the ego to believe we have solved this complex problem with a simple two-part alternative model,” admitted Wilk.  “We are simply trying to spark the discussion from a neutral, unbiased, analytics-driven perspective.”

 

Photo Credit: Dan Hickling/Hickling Images