Matt Grzelcyk was in a good spot. In 2009-10, the Charlestown native was a sophomore at Belmont Hill, one of the country’s top prep schools.
USA Hockey’s invitation was too tempting to ignore.
In 2010, the National Team Development Program invited Grzelcyk to join the Ann Arbor-based organization for the following two seasons. It would mean moving to Michigan and away from good friends such as Jimmy Vesey, his longtime buddy and Belmont Hill teammate.
John Grzelcyk, the defenseman’s father, believed staying at Belmont Hill was the better alternative. The son’s decision, however, was the one that counted. The teenage Grzelcyk wanted to prove he was among America’s best and not regret a declined invitation.
“I just needed the off-ice,” Grzelcyk recalled. “My first year there, I was able to put on about 30 pounds. That was the main attraction and just getting the international experience. I think that helped going forward — making the World Junior team, stuff like that. I just wanted to challenge myself. Going out there, getting away from home a bit, helped me grow up a little bit and mature off the ice.”
Whether the NTDP has improved the overall development of America’s young players is up for debate. Today’s public high school teams, Catholic programs, and prep powerhouses no longer claim the country’s top players as their own. Bruins assistant coaches Joe Sacco (Medford High), Jay Pandolfo (Burlington High), and Kevin Dean (Culver Military Academy) secured Hockey East scholarships and advanced to the NHL just fine when the NTDP was not even a consideration.
Whether the NTDP has produced elite talent, however, is not debatable. Jack Eichel, Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, Dylan Larkin, Auston Matthews, Charlie McAvoy, and Zach Werenski are just some of today’s players who rolled through Ann Arbor. Generating the depth and breadth of American talent was the mandate in 1996 when the NTDP was launched under the watch of Ron DeGregorio, former USA Hockey president. Jeff Jackson, now Notre Dame’s coach, was the man behind the U-18 bench.
“We felt going forward, given what could be the growth of the game in our country, our population in this country, the fact that hockey had so much headroom to grow, that we should have a much higher percentage of Americans in the league,” said Dave Ogrean, former executive director of USA Hockey. “Now we do. It’s dramatically more than it was 10-15 years ago. Now to see a lot of these guys out there today like Jack Eichel, Patrick Kane, and Auston Matthews, it’s extremely exciting. It’s not just the number of players. But the number of impact players.”
For a teenager such as Grzelcyk, joining the NTDP did not require much debate. It wasn’t always this way.
In 1997-98, the NTDP’s inaugural season, the program did not attract America’s best and brightest. Ex-Bruin Jeff Jillson, for example, did not join other 17-year-olds in Ann Arbor. The native of North Smithfield, R.I., saw no reason to leave Mount St. Charles, the high school powerhouse that helped the defenseman land a scholarship at the University of Michigan. Following his freshman year, San Jose drafted Jillson 14th overall in 1999.
USA Hockey landed gems such as Rick DiPietro, the Winthrop goalie who would be the No. 1 pick in 2000. But of the 1997-98 class, the player who would play the most NHL games was Ron Hainsey. The former UMass Lowell defenseman remains a good player who won a Stanley Cup last year. But the Connecticut native does not qualify as one of the standouts of his generation. At the time, USA Hockey was just starting its process of encouraging top teenage talent to leave their comfort zones.
“This was not the most immediately accepted, popular concept,” said Ogrean. “A lot of people thought it was too radical, too expensive, too East German, too different. But we were tired of losing in the crossover games and not playing the last weekend in international tournaments. We knew we should be better. We had to try something different. We had great confidence in what the NTDP would ultimately do, which was give us more success internationally, more players in the NHL, more opportunity to increase our medals in international competition.”
Year by year, the NTDP gained more traction. It attracted other high-end coaches: Danton Cole (now at Michigan State), Greg Cronin (New York Islanders), John Hynes (New Jersey), and David Quinn (Boston University). The NTDP drew players out of traditional proving grounds. By 2011-12, Grzelcyk’s U-18 teammates included future first-rounders Seth Jones, Jacob Trouba, and Brady Skjei.
It wasn’t easy. Most 16-year-olds need time to figure out living away from home.
“It was really tough at first,” said Grzelcyk, who lived with a billet family with current Bruins teammate Frank Vatrano. “Especially being from around here, everyone’s close-knit. I never experienced anything like that. Up until my first break around Thanksgiving, it felt like it was two years right there. That was tough. But it ended up being two of the best years of my life.”
In 2017, Team USA won the World Junior Championship with 16 NTDP alums. In 2016, nine ex-NTDPers were picked in the first round of the NHL Draft.
“A lot of people felt threatened because it was change. People are resistant to change even if it’s sensible,” Ogrean said. “You had coaches that were opposed to it. You had parents. A lot of parents didn’t like the idea of a 16-year-old leaving home. Some did to play junior hockey at an early age. But it wasn’t immediately accepted. We didn’t get every kid we recruited early on to come to Ann Arbor. It was a process of evolution and persuasion over a period of time, even with our board. There was some discussions of, ‘Boy, this is an expensive program. Should we be spending this much money on 44 players?’ But I think that quieted down. Success has been there. Other people are basically underwriting the program. It’s become a huge success.”
Bruins have pair of targets
When the holiday freeze lifts on Wednesday, the Bruins will have a little less than two months to acquire players before the Feb. 26 trade deadline. According to team president Cam Neely, they have two items on their wish list: a right wing and a left-side defenseman.
It’s possible Anders Bjork will gain some traction. But until the rookie develops consistency, the Bruins will hunt for a first- or second-line right wing. It would give them the option of rolling a power line with Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak. Or they could drop Pastrnak to the No. 2 line with David Krejci to spread out their offensive firepower. They would prefer to keep David Backes on the third line.
The Bruins project Bjork to be a top-six fixture once he gains experience. As such, they could accept a short-term fill-in at right wing. Thomas Vanek, on a one-year deal in Vancouver, would fit the profile of a preferred target. Through 36 games, Vanek had 10 goals and 12 assists.
The left-side upgrade would be more of a long-term investment.
Neely emphasized the team’s interest in re-signing Zdeno Chara. Even if the Bruins extend their captain, they still have a need for a shift-gobbling defenseman to share time with Torey Krug and Matt Grzelcyk. Jeremy Lauzon and Jakub Zboril are left shots. But they are first-year pros who will need more experience. Ideally, the Bruins would like a left-shot version of Brandon Carlo.
“We’ve talked about if we could ever find a guy that could eat up some minutes,” said Neely. “Move the puck well, skate well, but not necessarily have to be that offensive defenseman.”
The Bruins are unique in that they have depth on the right side: Carlo, Charlie McAvoy, Kevan Miller, and Adam McQuaid. It’s usually the other way around because of the prevalence of left-shot defensemen. McAvoy is untouchable. Neither Miller nor McQuaid have high trade value. The 20-year-old Carlo, due for a raise after 2018-19, would net the most considerable return.
The Bruins have always thought highly of Norwood’s Noah Hanifin, one of their preferred 2015 targets when they traded Dougie Hamilton and Milan Lucic. Carolina has already invested heavily in Justin Faulk, Jaccob Slavin, and Brett Pesce. Hanifin is restricted at season’s end. But because of Hanifin’s potential, the Hurricanes would demand Carlo plus futures, either via prospects or picks.
More reasonable targets would be Alec Martinez, Jonathan Ericsson, or Brendan Smith: experienced left-side defensemen but not cheap in terms of salary. The Bruins are carrying a prorated $2.775 million of Matt Beleskey’s average annual value. They are also paying Dennis Seidenberg and Jimmy Hayes a combined $2,733,334 not to play for them this season.
Team USA has question in net
Team USA will have weapons at forward and defense in the Olympics, both in the pro and amateur category. Four-year Yale forward Mark Arcobello, 29, is doing well in his second season in Switzerland. Bruins prospect Ryan Donato is leading Harvard in scoring as a junior. Matt Gilroy, 33, is scoring as usual as a fourth-year KHL veteran. Jimmy Schuldt, an undrafted junior at St. Cloud State, has five goals and 14 assists in 15 games.
Goaltending could be an issue.
It’s been a position of strength in previous international tournaments. During the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, Team USA could choose between Jonathan Quick, Cory Schneider, and Ben Bishop. Fellow Americans Connor Hellebuyck and John Gibson served as Matt Murray’s backups for Team North America, the 23-and-under roster of Yanks and Canadians.
But all are ineligible for the 2018 Olympics. Unlike other federations, the US does not have many professional puck-stopping options. Ryan Zapolski is the only American goalie in the KHL. David Leggio and Jerry Kuhn are the two netminding Americans in Germany’s Deutsche Eishockey Liga. There are no American goalies in the Swedish Elite League, Finland’s SM-Liiga, or Switzerland’s National League A.
It leaves Team USA to consider NCAA goalies such as Notre Dame’s Cale Morris, Boston University’s Jake Oettinger, and Boston College’s Joseph Woll. It’s a big ask to expect young goalies to backstop an Olympic roster. In comparison, Hockey Canada could call upon ex-NHLers such as Ben Scrivens and Justin Peters, who are playing in the KHL.
“We don’t need a good goalie,” said Ben Smith, director of player personnel. “We need a goalie to be good.”
USA Hockey will announce its Olympic roster during the Jan. 1 Winter Classic. The names of the goalies may not be very familiar.
Sikura still in the mix
The Karjala Cup did not work out for Dylan Sikura. The Northeastern senior, one of two collegians selected for the November tournament, was a late scratch because of an injury. But the Blackhawks prospect was tabbed by Hockey Canada for the Spengler Cup, another international tournament, as part of the federation’s evaluation of potential Olympians. Sikura will be joined by fellow Husky Jeremy Davies (3-13—16 in 17 games), who’s been lighting it up on the blue line for coach Jim Madigan, and Boston University stay-at-home defenseman Brandon Hickey (3-2—5 in 14 games). The tournament once counted Patrice Bergeron and Tyler Seguin among its participants during the 2012-13 lockout. This year, the Canadians will kick off the tournament on Tuesday against Mountfield HK of the Czech Extraliga. Old friend Chris Kelly will also play for Team Canada after being granted his release from Belleville, Ottawa’s AHL affiliate. The ex-Bruin appeared in nine games for the AHL team.
Ideal move for the Islanders
Brooklyn will not be the Islanders’ permanent home. Last Tuesday, the Belmont Park Redevelopment Selection Committee awarded the team the right to design and build an arena in Elmont, N.Y. The 18,000-seat facility will be the centerpiece of a parcel that will include a hotel, office space, retail buildings, and dining. The Islanders’ new home will be approximately a 30-minute drive from Northwell Health Ice Center, their practice facility in East Meadow. Players will no longer have to commute to Barclays Center — train inbound, car service outbound. The move is a critical step in convincing John Tavares to re-sign with the club instead of testing unrestricted free agency in July. The 27-year-old is in position to seek an eight-year maximum extension north of $10 million annually. For evidence of Tavares’s value, his camp will only have to underline the stat lines of Josh Bailey (10-35—45) and Anders Lee (21-15—36), the captain’s wingmen. They’re good players, but first-liners only because of how Tavares makes them better.
Fresh start for Oleksiak
In some ways, Pittsburgh was an unlikely landing spot for Jamie Oleksiak. The left-shot defenseman, the No. 14 pick in 2011, does not fit the Penguins’ preferred profile for blue liners. Both general manager Jim Rutherford and coach Mike Sullivan like quick, mobile, and up-tempo defensemen. The 6-foot-7-inch, 255-pound Oleksiak does not fit into this bucket. But the Penguins believe the one-year Northeastern defenseman has more to offer than what he gave the Stars: one goal, two assists, and 15:00 of average ice time in 21 appearances. Pittsburgh needs right-side help behind Kris Letang and Chad Ruhwedel because of Justin Schultz’s absence. Oleksiak has experience playing his off side.
Four forwards preferred on PP
If all his players are healthy, Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy would prefer to use Charlie McAvoy as the lone defenseman on his No. 2 power-play unit to complement David Krejci, David Backes, Danton Heinen, and Jake DeBrusk. The Bruins stack four forwards on their first unit: Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, and Ryan Spooner. But Cassidy has to look at the clock before he makes his decision. If his first unit fails and eats up three-quarters of the power-play time, Cassidy is mindful that the opponent could kill the penalty before his second group takes care of business. So if time is short and odds are in the penalty kill’s favor, Cassidy sends Matt Grzelcyk out with McAvoy for a two-defenseman setup. Like most coaches, Cassidy does not want to get burned with just one defenseman to fend off an even-strength rush following a successful kill.
On the same day the Penguins acquired Oleksiak, they added goalie Michael Leighton for depth. The 36-year-old appeared in five games for Chicago, Arizona’s AHL affiliate, and posted a .869 save percentage. Leighton will play for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Pittsburgh’s farm club. But he could be recalled to back up Matt Murray if the Penguins want to give 22-year-old Tristan Jarry some AHL reps. Jarry, Pittsburgh’s second-round pick in 2013, needs playing time . . . Surprise, surprise: a teammate mixed it up with agitator Andrew Shaw during practice. That Joe Morrow was the aggrieved party, however, raised eyebrows. Morrow is a calm person. But even the mellowest dude can snap when Shaw is doing his thing.
Sabres owners Kim and Terry Pegula announced their acquisition of the NWHL’s Buffalo Beauts on Dec. 21. The NWHL owns the other clubs: Boston Pride, Metropolitan Riveters, and Connecticut Whale. It is the fifth pro franchise bought by the Pegulas, joining the Sabres, Bills (NFL), Rochester Americans (AHL), and Bandits (National Lacrosse League).