Trouba Leads Next American Wave

Trouba (left) celebrates his second consecutive gold medal at the U-18 World Champsionships in April.

Jacob Trouba likes to emulate his game after Shea Weber.

Who wouldn’t?

“He’s just a big mean physical defenseman,” said the 6’2″, 190-pound blueliner in a phone interview Wednesday.  “No one likes to play against him. I admire that.  He’s the captain and a leader and a big shot on the back end, and I can just relate to how he plays.”

Trouba, 18, is a player who possesses a tremendous array of hockey talent.  Viewed as a top prospect for more than two years in a deep draft class for defensemen, Trouba is expected to be, at worst, a top 12 selection in June’s NHL Entry draft at the CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh.  Some scouts have him going as high as third or fourth overall.

It’s all for good reason.  Trouba is, arguably, the best defenseman to come out of the National Team Development Program since Jarred Tinordi was taken 22nd overall in 2010 by Montreal.

In addition to being the highest-rated player out of the USNTDP in this year’s draft, Trouba also has a chance to make some history in Pittsburgh.  Should he be selected in the top ten picks, he would become the first USNTDP player to do so since 2007, when James van Riemsdyk was taken second overall by the Flyers.  He would also only be the fourth to be taken in the top ten in the last ten years, rarefied air indeed.

Trouba, however, is familiar with such accolades and being the cream of the crop.  This past winter, at the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships, Trouba was the only skater eligible for this year’s draft, the only 17 year-old, and the youngest player to make the American team.  Though the United States came up short of expectations, the experience was invaluable for a player who has continually stepped up his game in big situations.

“That tournament really helped me a lot, and it opened my eyes to a lot of things,” he said.  “I mean that’s the first time I’ve ever been on that big of a stage, playing for something, with so many people watching.  Up in Canada, it’s a pretty big deal.  To be able to play how I did, play at that level, and really prove to myself and to other people was great.  I think that’s something I’m very capable of and I’m glad I had the opportunity to do that.”

Read more about Trouba and his career path by clicking here.

One of the things that has enabled Trouba to compete at such a high level is his participation in the National Team Development Program, located in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  Participating in the United States Hockey League, the USNTDP is a collection of some of the finest hockey players that the country has to offer. The program has seen players like Ryan Suter, van Riemsdyk, and Jack Johnson pass through on their way to successful NHL careers, which helped draw Trouba, a Michigan native, to go play in Ann Arbor.

“Seeing the guys that have gone through there [the USNTDP] in the past, and where they are now, it’s proven that it’s a great place to play.  They get people to the next level and that’s where I want to go.”

That, and the thrill that comes with donning the red, white, and blue every day.

“Of course the aspect of representing your country on an international level is pretty cool thing, a big deal,” he added.  “That’s something I’ve always wanted to do, it’s been a dream of mine.  So these last two years have been really cool, being able to play in some of the international tournaments overseas and representing your country.”

Besides being a place for some of the best young players in America to hone their games for the next level, Trouba also thinks that the creation of the program is linked to the growth of the game in his home country and the improved results USA hockey has been seeing in recent years.  This includes a silver medal at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, a gold medal at the World Juniors in 2010, and four consecutive gold medals in the U-18 World Championships.

“I definitely think one of the biggest things is when they started the program out in Ann Arbor,” said the two-time U-18 gold medalist.  “I think that really turned it on, that hockey was a big sport in this country, and that we had caliber players to play against those countries that you named [Russia, Canada, Sweden].  I think we’re starting to prove that, and I think it’s only going to get better.”

Despite his status as an elite prospect, Trouba turned heads earlier this year when he announced that he was going to play in the NCAA with the University of Michigan instead of the Ontario Hockey League’s Kitchener Rangers, who had drafted his rights in the OHL’s bantam draft earlier.

Americans, particularly USNTDP grads, playing in the NCAA instead of the CHL has become more frequent in recent years, such as van Riemsdyk playing at New Hampshire.  Still, a reality of the Canadian Hockey League is that they are always a danger to sign players from the United States who would otherwise play in the NCAA, such as Trouba’s teammate in Ann Arbor, Seth Jones.  And despite his verbal commitment to Michigan, Trouba says that playing for the Rangers was never off the table.

“Kitchener was always an option,” he concedes.  “I narrowed it down to Kitchener, Michigan, and Notre Dame, and I went and visited them all last summer, and saw what I liked best. I just think Michigan is the right place for me and I’ll fit in the best there. It’s always been a dream of mine growing up here to go to Michigan, and to get that education is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing.”

And although Trouba, like any player, wants to make the NHL, he also realizes the importance of that education.  That’s something a lot of hockey players his age, including those that go to the CHL, don’t get the opportunity to receive, and Trouba is willing to whatever it takes to complete his degree, no matter what his NHL future holds.

“My goal is to play in the NHL, that’s where I want to be.  But getting an education at this point is really important too, because one day, hockey is going to end.  If I have the ability to, and I’m ready to make that jump to the NHL, I’ll gladly do it.  If it means going back in the summer [to complete his degree], if I’m that fortunate, than that’s what I’m gonna do.”

As the draft nears, now precisely four weeks away, Trouba is looking forward to all of his hard work paying off when he hears his name called by Gary Bettman.  But he knows that being drafted is just the beginning of an odyssey that will shape his entire life – and that constant improvement, preached to him every day in Ann Arbor, is what ultimately matters.

“It’s more of, ‘this is day one,’ you know, for my dreams,” he said about how he expects to feel when he gets selected.  “Getting drafted is cool and it’s going to be a fun experience, but you’re not getting any better of a player when that happens.  I’m still going to be the same player, and getting drafted is less important than improving as a player.”

“My goal is to play in the NHL and win the Stanley Cup.  So whether I get drafted 5th or 25th, it doesn’t really change anything about me.”

At this point, it’s clear that Trouba is the total package – skill, size, brains, humility, and work ethic.

Sound like a player you want your team to draft?

Harry Hawkings is a college student who is credentialed to cover the Capitals and the 2012 Stanley Cup Final for RtR.  Follow him on Twitter here.