Commentary

Ann Arbor could yield more young NHL-caliber stars at 2009 draft

Updated: December 5, 2008, 6:09 PM ET
By Gare Joyce | Special to ESPN.com

ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Talent goes in cycles. From one season to the next, one league swings up and one league trends down. Same goes from team to team, program to program. This winter, USA Hockey's under-18 development team is one of those trending up.

The talent on the U.S. under-18s rosters has made Ann Arbor a destination for NHL scouts in recent years, and it will be an important one this season. The 2005-06 team gives you an idea of the top end of the talent. Core players from that team -- Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, Peter Mueller, Jack Johnson and Erik Johnson -- were first-hour selections in their respective draft years and are already emerging NHL stars.

You can look down the roster and find other high draft selections, including defenseman Chris Summers (first-rounder to Phoenix in 2006), center Ryan Stoa (second-rounder to Colorado in '05) and goalie Jeff Frazee (second-rounder to New Jersey in '05).

[+] EnlargeJeremy Morin
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesJeremy Morin could be one of a handful of American prospects selected in the 2009 NHL draft.

Granted, that was a loaded year -- probably the strongest in the program's history -- but the impact of the USA Hockey development program on the NHL draft goes beyond the 2005-06 squad. In the 10 years of its existence, an average of 15 players per draft has played for the under-17 or under-18 squads.

NHL scouts believe this will be a significantly better year for the U.S. under-18s than last year, when the first player drafted directly from the program was Danny Kristo (second round, 56th overall, to Montreal). This season, the betting is at least two players out of the USDT will go in the first round.

You don't need to even see Jeremy Morin play to know why he's a priority for scouts. The native of Auburn, N.Y., leads the team in goals (14) and penalty minutes (62) after 17 games. If the 17-year-old could boost his assists, he'd be in line for the Gordie Howe hat-trick season. Still, Morin's numbers so far this season tell you what you need to know about his game: He finishes chances and he's fiercely competitive. He has a heavy right-handed shot; if other players are working with 3-irons, he's using a driver. The line about assists is an inside joke for those who have seen him play or play with him: He has a goal-scorer's approach to the game and couldn't become a pass-first guy for a shift.

At 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, he's not quite a power forward; more of a cruiserweight than a heavyweight, but not hard to push off the puck. And to get room to score, he'll carve out his own space on the ice rather than leave it to the team's designated tough guys. All parts of Morin's game were on display against Marquette in a North American Hockey League matchup at the national team's home rink in Ann Arbor.

In addition to international tournaments and exhibitions, the U.S. under-18s play a full schedule in the NAHL, and last weekend, the team played back-to-back games against the Marquette Rangers. Morin picked up a power-play goal in the opening game Friday night, a 4-2 win for the Rangers that featured a chippy third period and guaranteed a boil-over in Game 2.

A few shifts into the game Saturday night, provoked more by trash talk and a dirty look than anything, Morin dropped the gloves with a Rangers sparring partner and earned a draw. That's more impressive than it sounds, because he was thoroughly sweatered (his sweater was pulled over his head so all he could see was red, white and blue and not the guy punching him).

Morin was having a decent game through regulation, but was held off the score sheet until overtime. A couple of minutes in, he came down the left wing in what looked like a harmless one-on-one with a Marquette defenseman who had a comfortable cushion. Too comfortable, as it turned out. At the top of the circle, Morin curled to the center and wired a wrist shot that the Rangers' goaltender could only wave at.

Morin, who played in USA Hockey's under-17 program in Ann Arbor last year, was picked up by the national team that played in the world under-18s in Russia in April.

Morin hasn't made a verbal commitment to a U.S. college yet, and his rights are owned by the Kitchener Rangers, the defending champions of the Ontario Hockey League and one of the more respected programs in the major-junior ranks. There was some talk last winter that he'd opt out of Ann Arbor to play in Canadian junior hockey, but his father Steve told reporters there was "no chance" of landing him early.

"We made a two-year commitment, and he's going to live up to it," Steve said.

NHL scouts believe Jeremy Morin will land in the major-junior next season after making a stop on the stage on the Friday night of the NHL draft in June.

One player who will go the NCAA route is Morin's teammate Drew Shore. A native of Colorado, Shore has already committed to play at the University of Denver next season. "Ann Arbor and then the NCAA, those have always been the goals for me," Shore said.

That's not to say Shore is looking to stay close to home to advance in his hockey career. He has already spent seasons playing in the Honeybaked program in Detroit, and in Junior A in British Columbia. One scout in Ann Arbor this weekend summed up Shore's game like this: "He's a big center who isn't flashy and has decent skating and always seems to get where he has to go. You have to project where he'll be when he grows into his frame and fills out."

Another factor for scouts to weigh: Shore lost the second half of last season to mono. "I came down with it the day after the Under-17 Challenge over the holidays," he said. If he had stayed healthy, Shore probably would have been a safe bet to be called up to the U.S. under-18 program last year.

Shore isn't a pretty player, but he's pretty effective, as he showed Saturday night. Midway through the second period, he got the puck in heavy traffic in the high slot and wired a shot just under the crossbar glove-side. Though Shore has eight goals in 20 games this season, scouts project him less as a pure scorer and more as a playmaker and two-way forward.

Other names on the U.S. under-18 roster will be called at the draft in Montreal:

Scouts are keeping tabs on, among others, winger Kyle Palmieri, a native of North Jersey, who plays beside Shore and complements him nicely with slick puck skills and hockey sense. As an underage call-up, Palmieri scored a hat trick against the host Finns to win the Five Nations tournament in February. Earlier this month, he was just as clutch in the under-18 Four Nations tournament, scoring what turned out to be the gold medal-winning goal against Finland. He also scored the shootout winner against the Finns in the round-robin. Palmieri has committed to Notre Dame for next year.

Palmieri will likely be joined at South Bend by perhaps the best pro prospect on the U.S. under-18 roster: Cam Fowler, a defenseman from Farmington Hills, Mich. Fowler is a already a pro size (closer to 6-foot-3 than his listed 6-foot-2) and possesses excellent mobility, though at this point, he's more a stay-at-home defender than a power-play firestarter. With a late '91 birthday, he isn't eligible until the 2010 draft. Fowler's major-junior rights are owned by Windsor, the top-ranked team in the Canadian Hockey League, and rumors persist that he won't end up at Notre Dame but will commute through the Detroit Tunnel to games.

Gare Joyce is a regular contributor to ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com.

Gare Joyce is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine.