Americans front in center at AAPG in Buffalo

Special To FC2015 Draft Center, International Events

The Jack Eichel show was in town as he and 41 other draft eligible prospects took part in the third annual CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game in Buffalo, NY.

The next generation of future stars took to the ice in front of 7,310 fans, 200 scouts, and nearly 100 members of the media. The excitement was in the air long before the puck dropped as fans got their first look at a majority of these players who made up Team Grier and Team Olzyck. Team Grier came out victorious, beating their counterparts 6-3.

The fans were noticeably excited about the idea of having Eichel in the building as he received the biggest roar of the night when he was introduced before the game. The Boston University freshman is neck and neck with Connor McDavid to be selected first overall in 2015. Both labeled as generation talents, it will be a battle to the finish for the two young phenoms.

Fans can still be excited with the likes of Noah Hanifin, Paul Bittner and Zach Werenski, too. Their talents were on full display as they looked to make a name for themselves and prove they should be in the same conversation as Eichel and McDavid.

These future stars proved that USA Hockey is doing a remarkable job developing their players across the country. While there were no big, hard checks being tossed around, the players focused on showcasing their skill and determination to make the right play. To think that states such as Texas, Georgia, and California were represented goes to show that hockey is booming in the American south and the world needs to take notice.

So who impressed?

After a rocky first period, nerves began to settle and the game got more exciting, but it was a showcase of the goalies and defenseman to kick things off.

Wisconsin commit Luke Opilka (USNTDP) showed off his glove hand on a few occasions and displayed his innate ability to read developing plays and beat the pass to square up the shooter. He allowed one goal – one goal that he cannot be faulted for as he was tripped up by his own defenseman in the crease.

Bittner used his 6-foot-5 frame to his advantage as he outworked and outmuscled defenders to create plays in the offensive zone. After a slow start, he came out flying in the second period and showed his sheer determination on the wall and on zone entries; his size was no match for some defenders. Entering his third season with the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL, Bittner will be looked upon to use his size and smarts to jolt Portland back in to the WHL Finals.

Hanifin, a Boston College freshman, displayed tremendous confidence with the puck and was one of the most impressive players on the ice. He carries the puck with a ton of poise and makes pinpoint accurate passes on the breakout. One head scout of an NHL team told TSN’s Bob McKenzie that he skates like Scott Niedermayer.

There is no denying this whatsoever; Hanifin comes around the net with the puck and sees every inch of the ice in front of him. He plays a heads up game and makes the right pass every time. If he doesn’t like his options, he waits and waits until he finds the perfect passing lane. On a number of occasions he gave the attacking forward too much of gap to work with, but this will come in time as he has the offensive instincts and game breaking ability to be an elite defenseman.

Two New York natives on the blue line for Eddie Olczyk’s squad showed that they are deserving of some mentions with their strong play.

Steven Ruggiero, a Providence College commit, displayed a strong mind for moving the puck up ice and his confidence in entering the offensive zone on his own if he has to. He picks apart passes and turns the puck around while moving well laterally. Look for him to take his game to another level at the USNTDP.

Joseph Cecconi, a native of nearby Youngstown, showed off his shutdown power on the back end. He has a low center of gravity and is very mindful of the gap as he drives attackers to the outside. The hometown hero had much to prove as he gets set to embark on his first full season with Muskegon of the USHL.

This section wouldn’t be complete without a mention for the winning side, Team Grier. A future franchise cornerstone, Eichel had the attention of scouts and fans all night. While Eichel wasn’t overly dominant, he still showed that he is an exceptional player and possesses elite puck skills and hockey sense. He pounced on loose pucks and turnovers, dished perfect passes, and set up Jeremy Bracco backdoor before scoring the game winner. In all alone in front of the net, Eichel received a pass from Jordan Greenway and put it home with ease.

The NTDP’s Bracco showed that regardless of his 5-foot-9 height, he is a player to watch. He may lack high-end speed, but he makes up for it with great puck skills and a scoring touch. He undressed Cecconi on a penalty kill early, before scoring two more, one from backdoor and other with a nifty forehand to backhand breakaway goal beating Ryan Larkin five-hole. This game meant a lot to cementing his name in people’s minds with the season about to get underway.

Alec Baer of the Vancouver Giants opened the scoring as he directed a floating pass from Ryan Smith on goal. Baer too has a lot to prove only being 5-10 but showed well as he held his own and chipped in offensively. His linemate Karch Bachman was also impressive despite being 5-11 and being the only player invited from a US High School. Bachman, a Miami University commit, did a remarkable job of gaining the zone and drawing the defense to the wall before making a clean pass to the slot on a few occasions.

There was no shortage of talent on display in this year’s event that will surely make this year an important one for players and scouts. The next generation of American talent is here and will make USA Hockey strong for years to come.

Article by Daniel Deschenes