Austin Wuthrich shakes hands with Capitals brass after being selected 107th overall. (AP Photo)
PITTSBURGH – In their prior history, the Washington Capitals had selected two players total from the United States Development Program. They tripled that number in rounds four through six of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft Saturday, picking four players out of Ann Arbor to help replenish their prospect pool.
Thomas Di Pauli, Austin Wuthrich, Connor Carrick, and Riley Barber all heard their names called as part of four consecutive Washington selections through the middle rounds. And for every member of that team that was present at the CONSOL Energy Center, the moment was one of almost unspeakable joy.
“Unbelievable,” beamed Di Pauli, who moved to the United States from Italy in middle school to chase his NHL dreams. “At first I didn’t hear, but my mom stood up to congratulate me. Best moment of my life. I was starting to get a little nervous and shaky, so I couldn’t believe it. Dream come true. Incredible.”
“It was just as good as I imagined,” echoed Wuthrich, his voice audibly trembling. “Great feeling, and I’m just really happy that the Caps drafted me. Right around the end of the third round, my mom started to get a little nervous, which made me nervous, so I mean it’s always nerve racking, but I’m just really happy and excited right now.”
“I guess I’m just honored,” Carrick agreed. “The Capitals are a great organization, and being among some of the names of that are getting called today, it’s pretty special. You think about something like this for a long time, and it’s been a really good experience so far.”
The selection of so many American players, particularly in a row, was a change of pace for McPhee and director of Amateur Scouting Ross Mahoney. One look at the Capitals’ lineup shows a heavy reliance on European and Canadian players, with just two Americans, Matt Hendricks and John Carlson, on the current roster. In addition, as mentioned before, the Capitals had only picked two players from the USNTDP in their history prior to Saturday – winger Greg Burke in 2008 and center Travis Boyd in 2011. But Mahoney and his staff loved what he saw this year from Ann Arbor, and the selections prove it.
“I asked them [the scouts], ‘are we drafting the whole team, I mean what are we doing here,’” McPhee said. “But they said of all the teams they’ve seen, that one was the most close knit. They really liked the team, and the way they were coached and the way they played together.”
“They’re winners, they won again,” added Mahoney. “Talking to the people in that program, they said it was the best group of kids they’ve ever had, and they’ve had some great players come through the program. We think they’re all good athletes and good players and winners.”
“It’s an elite group of players within the US. Not all of the best players from the US go there, but most years they get a lot of the good players. You’re on the ice practicing every day and you’re working out off the ice with elite athletes, which is only going to make yourself better. Then they play in the national tournaments. So I think it speeds up their development, maybe more than the other young players their age.”
While his change of pace in scouting selections was noticeable, Mahoney noted that the Capitals did not make a conscious choice to pick players from the NTDP. He just felt that great players fell into Washington’s lap at desirable positions in the draft.
“We just make our list, and take the best available players,” he said. “It just happened that this year we ended up with more than we have before.”
Despite being a haven for some of the best American players in the world, the Development Program has also grown in stature over the last few years as the league that it plays in, the United States Hockey League, has increased in stature. With the NTDP players facing stiffer competition, their draft stock has risen.
I think the league does do a great job,” said Danton Cole, who coached all four Capitals draft picks at one point over the last two seasons in Ann Arbor. “I think the coaching and the development, they’re getting better and better, and the league reflects that. I think the guys from the USHL and from the Development Team have gone on in the past and have done very well and proven it to be a good system. It’s a tough league, it’s tough to score in, it’s a mature league and they play a good brand of hockey, and that helps them out.”
“Day in day out at the NTDP we work very, very hard,” added Carrick. “It’s a very competitive environment, amongst my teammates, it really pushes guys. You’re practicing with, and playing against, and competing with guys like Jacob Trouba, and you know Seth Jones, some top round guys. If you’re not able to hold your own, they are going to be able to handle the extra ice time. You have to be able to get better or someone else will, and that’s why we are very successful.”
With the Capitals having made ten selections in this draft, as many as the last two years combined, all of the players from the NTDP are only a part of what Washington was able to accomplish, however.
But that doesn’t change the dreams of anyone. All of the NTDP players want to make an impact – and they know the work has just begun.
And maybe, just maybe, the work will pay off.
Harry Hawkings is a college student credentialed to cover the 2012 NHL Draft and the Capitals for RtR. Follow him on Twitter here.