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The Continued Dominance of the United States National Team Developmental Program

For the last two decades, American hockey has been on a tear at the youth level from dominating the World Under-18 Championships, contending at the World Junior Championships, and getting guys drafted from Jack Hughes to Patrick Moynihan. Why? In six letters: USNTDP.

USA v Sweden - Bronze Medal Game - 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship
The United States flag keeps getting raised at tourneys. Thank you, USNTDP, for making it happen.
Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

Merry Christmas. While I gushed about an absolutely miraculous Division IV World Championship win by the Philippines in Mongolia back in March, this is about something closer to home. Closer to Our Favorite Team, the New Jersey Devils. Closer to America, land that I love. And closer to the Christmas season tradition in international hockey: The World Junior Championships (WJCs). Also known as the IIHF World Under-20 Championships.

The last post was about a team at very bottom of the international ladder. This post is about something far closer to the top. The stunning growth of American hockey in the National Hockey League and the game in general has been apparent for decades now. This post is about one of the key components for that growth: the United States National Team Development Program. It has been dominant at the youth level. It has been remarkably effective. It has earned all of the love that this post is about to give the program.

Before the USNTDP

For many decades, despite the National Hockey League having more teams in America than Canada, the game was largely Canadian. USA Hockey was founded in 1937 as the Amateur Hockey Association of the United States by Tommy Lockhart, who led it until 1972. The brand changed to USA Hockey in 1991. As you may be aware, American hockey did not exactly light the world on fire on the international stage. Sure, they took gold at the 1960 Winter Olympics and gold after the Miracle On Ice in 1980 in Lake Placid, New York. But those big wins were few and far between other international competitions:

  • The Americans won just one medal between 1960 and 1980: a silver in the 1972 Sapporo games.
  • The Americans won just two medals after 1980: silvers in 2002 and 2010.
  • The American squad at he World Championships took bronze in 1962, got relegated three times, and sniffed a medal game just four times before their next medal in 1996. Which was also a bronze.
  • The Americans at the U-20 level went 10 years before winning a medal in the WJCs (a bronze in 1986). It took another six before another medal at the WJCs, a bronze in 1992. They would take silver in 1997.

Keep in mind that this was happening all while hockey expanded so much in America that there were two competitive hockey leagues at one point. The game grew to attract the European player from Sweden, Finland, and the then-Czechoslovakia. The Iron Curtain would eventually fall and the Russians followed in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But what about the American player?

Well, there were some big names that came out in the 1980s and early 1990s: Bill Guerin, Brian Leetch, Keith Tkachuk, John LeClair, Jimmy Carson, Craig Janney, Mike Richter, Brian Rolston, Brian Rafalski, and Chris Chelios to name just a few. It was clear that there was talent. The issue was that it was effectively fractured across the country. The path for many American players was like so: play in your community, hope that team (e.g. high school, prep, youth team) gets the player attention from scouts, get to college, and go from there. Picking a roster for a U-20 tournament, much less a World Championship squad, was more about who you knew about than necessarily who was prepared.

With the lack of success at those levels and a 1998 Winter Olympics where NHL players were allowed to play in for the first time ever, change was needed. Per this awesome Ryan Clark story at ESPN about the history of the program, former USA Hockey president Ron DeGregorio and a recently hired head coach out of Lake Superior State, Jeff Jackson, developed a very bold plan to change things around for American hockey. It would become the United States National Team Development Program.

Clark’s article goes into the struggles and initial pushback from the Americans who did not think the old ways were so bad. Of course, those Americans were often entrenched in their local leagues and set-ups. Keep in mind that this was 1996. The USHL was around but it was mostly an amateur and senior hockey league until 1979 when it became a junior league. Even then it took a time before they would get Tier 1 status and a reputation for developing players for the pro game, not just future collegiate players. (Recent example: even Canadian starlets like Owen Power, Adam Fantilli, and 2024 top prospect Macklin Celebrini chose the Chicago Steel/college hockey eligibility over major junior._ The NAHL was also around but it was a smaller league then. And college hockey was only making strides as being a legitimate development grounds for pro prospects. Still, that was seen as the goal moreso than the NHL and what does a Minnesota high school league, a Massachusetts prep squad, or a youth squad care about the WJCs or international play?

Fortunately, USA Hockey, Jackson, and DeGregorio had the foresight that such a shake up in American hockey was needed. The fractured systems needed some kind of unity. The prospects with the brightest futures needed to be the ones to be pulled to not only help them out, but help USA Hockey get some results abroad in youth tourneys. The current ways before 1996 were not working. Yes, there was plenty of gnashing of teeth and many complaints were lodged as some organizations lost their starlet players to the USNTDP. Especially in the early years of the program when there was no IIHF World Under-18 Championship tournament yet and the WJCs, being a U-20 tournament, would mean some time before the NTDP squads would actually be ready for it. The plan would work out - bold as it was.

The Objective & the Approach of the USNTDP

The objective of the USNTDP seems simple. It is a program that brings in the best young American hockey players together. They have two age group teams: the Under-17s and the Under-18s. Their end goal is two-fold: put together teams that can compete and eventually get medals for USA Hockey and develop hockey prospects for the pro game - even before college.

Their approach is also two-fold. The first is the easier part to understand: identifying and bringing players together. By bringing top prospects from across the country and putting them in roles, teaching them skills on and off the ice, and building cohesion together for a year or even two years, the end goal is to have a more unified squad when international tournaments that mean something happen.

Truth be told, this is always a challenge as players get invited for the program but not always get selected. Or someone develops later and would be worthy - but after the teams have been formed. Or someone just does not get the opportunity that they may get. In time, this does work itself out at the U-20 and above levels. Plus, the USNTDP’s player identification results speaks for itself.

Many get the bringing all these kids together part. It is not at all easy or even tenable in other countries. I cannot see a OHL team giving up their starlet Canadian prospects or a Swedish organization sending their best homegrown players away to any other team, much less a national team. But it is easy to get: bring top prospects together. Many miss the equally important part of the method of the program: to bring the best together and absolutely challenge them over and over and over.

Clark’s article references the early days when the U-18 team would scrimmage against OHL teams filled with older, stronger, and meaner players. This article about the program by Gare Joyce at Sportsnet goes into more detail about how the USNTDP does business today. The U-17s largely play in the USHL - it used to be the NAHL but they switched to the ‘U’ in 2009 - and the U-18s scrimmage against college teams (Division I and Division III) and other youth national teams. As Joyce’s article points out, the USNTDP teams do not just not win most of those games. They often get humbled in these games. Which is actually the point. The objective is not to win the Clark Cup or show up a Division I school. It is to prepare for tourneys and prepare players.

And throwing those teams into games against older, stronger, more physically and even skill-developed players has multiple effects. It teaches the younger prospect that the game really is that harder when the players are just a year or two or three older, much less when the players are pros. It takes a possibly arrogant kid and reminds them that they are not so good all the time, which is valuable for young athletes at that level. It forces prospects to figure out new ways to utilize their skills or even learn a new role so they can compete. It can lead a prospective player to accept that they are not going to be a top scoring winger but they can be a very good checker or special teams performer. Perhaps most of all, these tough games and tougher losses-by-design removes a lot of the potential intimidation factor when the U-17 or U-18 teams and their alums go play in international tournaments.

For the USA Hockey administration, they can monitor who is performing well and adjust their coaching and work outs accordingly. They can identify who is thriving and adjust their usage. When they age out of the program, they know what they have in the player and keep them in mind when they put together that U-20 camp roster for the WJCs. Or have an idea of what a player did for the national team in the past when the IIHF World Championships come along.

This is the part of the program’s method that is both controversial and why you have not seen other nations try to repeat it. It seems backwards to put a roster of 16, 17, and 18 year old players and have them develop by getting worked over night-in and night-out. Wouldn’t the losses demoralize them? Wouldn’t they struggle? Truth be told, some would, have, and did. Getting over that is part of the development process too. Who would sign up for that? Well, I will get to that in a bit.

As for why it has not been repeated, other nations would need to allow a national team to go out and get bodied by other squads. In America, hockey has the benefit of both college hockey programs that can, have, do, and will develop players for the pro game (minor and major) as well as a junior ‘A’ type league that has grown by leaps and bounds in the USHL. To implement this in another country would be far more difficult. They would need to be able to secure games against tougher non-professional opponents to make it work or pro squads closer to a level where there is a faint shot of winning. They may not be available in other countries, or willing if they are. This unique situation for the United States made the USNTDP more effective as an approach.

Not that it was anything close to easy to do so. Clark’s article at ESPN pointed out how challenging it was for USA Hockey to get it off the ground. Again, this was in a country that did not have a lot of success or pedigree in the sport. A country who can walk into any tournament and be a contender like Canada or Russia may not need an upheaval of their national team process like America did. So I can see contemporary names wonder why other countries just copy the USNTDP, but it is far from simple to do. When the program did get off the ground, they needed successes to justify its efforts and expenses.

Like a Rolling Stone at the International Level

When the USNTDP was founded in 1996 and started playing in 1997, there was no World U-18 Championship to prepare for every year, the eventual 1998 Olympic roster was going to be filled with NHLers that could not have possibly been through the USNTDP, and the success was fleeting. Sure, America took bronze in the 1996 World Championships and silver in the 1997 WJCs, but again, that was not a result of the USNTDP. And when the World Under-18 Championships began in 1999, America was not on the medal podium for the first three years. What was the USNTDP even doing?

Developing. The breakthrough would come shortly after 2001. And once it did, the wins kept on coming.

First off: the World U-18 Championships. The USNTDP Under-18 team had something to play for and they would get their first medal in 2002: a gold medal as they won the tournament. While Zach Parise - outside of the USNTDP - was a stand out, players from the program like Patrick O’Sullivan (2000-01), Patrick Eaves, David Booth, Ryan Kesler, Brett Sterling, and Jimmy Howard were also standouts.

That gold was followed up by a fourth place finish in 2003, which meant they played and lost for the bronze. That would be the last time until 2021 that the Americans would not medal in this tournament.

The World U-18s is not just a showcase for that year’s NHL Draft, it has been the stomping grounds of an American squad heavily influenced by the USNTDP. They have the most gold medals (11) and total medals (19) in the history of the tournament. They owned it most from 2005 to 2015 when they won it all eight out of eleven times. Are they done now? Absolutely not. They just won gold last year. Will they win it again in April 2024 in Finland? I do not know but you can bet that this year’s U-18 squad is going to contend. While also impressing some pro scouts for their final time prior to the draft in June.

Second off: the World Junior Championships. Prior to 1997, the Americans had one (1) silver, two (2) bronze, and three (3) fourth place finishes since the tourney began in 1977. Since then, the Americans have won the WJCs five (5) times, took silver two (2) times, took bronze seven (7) times, and finished fourth five (5) times. America has been more ever present in playing for and taking medals in this tournament since the USNTDP was active. Their breakthrough came in 2004 when many of those 2002 gold medal winners at the World U-18s led the way, such as Eaves, O’Sullivan, Kesler, Booth and more - along with stud non-NTDP products like Parise. (Aside: USA Hockey will include a top non-NTDP product if the player is worth bringing in for the WJCs. It is not common but they have done it with Parise, Jason Robertson, and Arthur Kaliyev among others.)

Now the program continues to be a consistent threat at WJCs year-in, year-out. Take this year’s team that will begin play against Norway tomorrow. Whereas most countries have one or maybe one-and-a-half first-line caliber lines, the Americans arguably have three. They can mix and match guys like Ryan Leonard, Rutger McGroaty, Gavin Brindley, Cutter Gauthier, Issac Howard, Will Smith, Gabe Perreault, Oliver Moore, and Frank Nazar III all because their past time in the USNTDP. The defense is loaded with the Devils’ own prospect Seamus Casey, Lane Hutson, Drew Forescue, and Ryan Chesley. Goaltending is a question mark for most teams. Not the Americans who know exactly what they are getting from Trey Augustine and Jacob Fowler. The Americans took bronze last year. They could win it all this year on the international-size rinks in Sweden and no one will be all that surprised. The work these guys put in at the U-17 and U-18 levels are coming to fruition now that most have been drafted and have stepped up on other teams.

And what is more amazing is that there may not be much of a drop off in the next year, which could feature Cole Eiserman, 2025 prospect James Hagens, a returning Zeem Buium (he’s on the current U-18 team), Cole Hutson, EJ Emery, and more. The Americans may have not turned the WJCs into their own stomping grounds like the World U-18s, but they have become a force to be reckoned with. 2024 is just another year where they can do it and those in the know are not going to be surprised about it.

Third: the World Championships. This part has not been so successful. This is due in part of the WC rosters usually consisting of players who did not make the NHL playoffs or got eliminated early and are able to play for their country in an annual tournament that does not really add much here. Still, there have been gains since the start of the USNTDP. From 1920 to 1997, the Americans took gold twice, silver 9 times (all from 1956 and earlier), bronze four times, and finished fourth seven times. Since then, the Americans have yet to win it all. They remain gold-less since 1960 when the Olympics replaced the WCs that year. They have also remained silver-less since 1956. Yet, they have taken bronze five times (most recently in 2021) and finished fourth five times (most recently in 2022 and 2023). Even with weaker rosters and less of a push to perform in this tourney than the U-18 or U-20 tourneys, the Americans have been fighting for at least a part of the podium a bit more often. Even if it is for third place instead of first. It is a small gain.

By the way, by my eye, the 2023 World Championship roster had ten USNTDP products. (Commesso, Luke Tuch, Kleven, Farrell, Thrun, Bjork, Grimaldi, Alex Tuch, Hutson, and Gauthier) Including two 19-year olds in Lane Hutson and Cutter Gauthier, who are both going to representing the Red, White, and Blue tomorrow in the WJCs. That is not a coincidence even with players opting out or unable to play in the annual international tournament. Of course, that is a result of perhaps the biggest accomplishment of the program.

USNTDP = Draft Picks

Recall that one of the key objectives of the USNTDP is to develop the American player for the pro game. Despite the criticisms of the approach, the whinging of power being taken away from some local youth/amateur organizations, and the inherent issues of trying to identify talent across the country at a wildly varied age of development, the USNTDP has been utterly fantastic for development.

You know about the big names from the program. Rick DiPietro (YES! Ricky D! He was one of the earliest success stories of the USNTDP), Erik Johnson, Patrick Kane, Auston Matthews, and “The Big Deal” Jack Hughes all went first overall in their draft years and were a part of the USNTDP. James van Reimsdyk, Matt Tkachuk, Brady Tkachuk, Matty Beniers, Clayton Keller, Jacob Trouba, Trevor Zegras, Logan Cooley, Cole Caufield, Brady Skjei, Dylan Larkin, Alex Tuch, J.T. Miller, Luke Hughes, K’Andre Miller, and Joel Farabee are some of the more contemporary names to have gone in the first round out of the USNTDP. The 2019 NHL Draft alone was a hallmark year for the program with The Big Deal, Alex Turcotte, Zegras, Matt Boldy, Spencer Knight, Cam York, Caufield, and John Beecher going in the first round and the majority of the U-18 squad being drafted at all.

That is where the real value of the program is at. Of course someone on the level of the Hughes brothers or the Tkachuks would get drafted and drafted high without the USNTDP’s existence. For the players who are not stand out scoring machines or not immediate talents, the program helped them get to get drafted at all or have a career in pro hockey at all. Look at the players who came out of the program beyond the first round. There have been some wild successes like Adam Fox, Justin Faulk, Jason Zucker, Bryan Rust, Troy Terry, and John Gibson who were all USNTDP products but picked outside of the first round. There have been others who have stuck in the league more than a couple of years beyond what you would expect based on where they got picked like Will Butcher, Connor Clifton, Tyler Motte, or Travis Boyd. And the list of alums keeps growing as more and more get their NHL careers going like Josh Norris, Cooley, Turcotte, and more. No, not every Case McCarthy or Patrick Moynihan will make it but they at least had a shot that maybe they would not get if they stayed local and ended up in college somewhere. Need a number? The USNTDP site lists 380 total draft picks and counting and 217 of them coming in the first three rounds.

While the 2019 NHL Draft was a highlight where nearly the entire U-18 team was drafted, it is common to see 5-10 drafted players from the USNTDP per year. And that can be seen at the WJCs, where the recently drafted make up most of the teams. Remember that 2024 WJC roster that I gushed about earlier? Almost everyone on that team was drafted in 2022 or 2023. From the depth guys to the top guys, almost everyone is a part of an organization. Only Zeev Buium and goalie Sam Hillebrandt are undrafted and that is because they are eligible for the 2024 NHL Draft. (Aside: And Buium may be the best defenseman among a draft class teeming with d-men.)

Will all of those players on the WJC roster make it? Will everyone who was a part of the 2022 or 2023 USNTDP Under-18 roster make it? Likely not, but the majority of them will have a chance as the majority of those rosters are scouted, they are regarded well by the pros, and they get picked. This has had the effect of the USNTDP being successful of developing players. Which makes younger prospects want to get that USNTDP invite, their parents to support them if they do, and other organizations support those looking to be a part of that program. Getting top American prospects to commit to a unified team to get wrecked by older and better teams was an issue back in the infancy of the program. Now, it is the opposite. Being a part of the USNTDP can make someone a top prospect in time. It is a goal for the American prospect to strive for - which only makes it easier for the USNTDP to keep icing rosters loaded with talented players who have a future in pro hockey to go out and win youth tourneys and, hopefully, adult tourneys for their nation.

One more thing: the USNTDP could arguably be a development ground for coaches. One of the program’s founders, Jeff Jackson, eventually made it to the show as an assistant for the Islanders for a season. Their head coaching history includes the likes of Mike Eaves, David Quinn, John Hynes, Ron Rolston, Don Granato, Kurt Kleinendorst, and John Wroblewski. All of those names, regardless of how you feel about them (like Hynes and Kleinendorst), have made it to the bench in the AHL and/or NHL. It is also worth noting that, similar to the players, the coaches do not stay in the program for a very long time. So their accomplishments at the USNTDP have helped them in their careers take steps forward. It is not an aim of the program but it is yet another success out of the program.

The USNTDP Dominance Continues

Tomorrow begins the 2024 World Junior Championships in Sweden. It is a short tournament where a lot can change quickly. Tourneys can be decided on a thin margin like a hot/cold goalie, an undisciplined moment(s), and the never-trustworthy concept of luck that is inherent in hockey. Of all of the nations tomorrow, the American team is the best suited. They know what it takes. They know what could go wrong and go right. They have a roster of familiar faces, talent in all aspects, and a wealth of experience in these situations. We here will be especially interested in Seamus Casey’s performance (and, if he plays, maybe goalie Sam Hillebrandt) as he is a future Devil. A medal will not change his projection but it would be an accomplishment to go with his continued work at Michigan.

Whether Casey is a stand out at the tourney or not is immaterial to the United States. If not him, then there are others. And, thanks to the USNTDP, the United States will keep marching on beyond this year. The seeds for 2024’s WJC are already planted. Some of this team will return due to age and their hockey situation. Buium and Hillebrandt can return after being drafted. Those expected draftees from the Under-18 team like Cole Eiserman, Cole Hutson, EJ Emery, Kamil Bednarik, Max Plante, and Brodie Ziemer may draw in. There can even be some 2025 draft eligible players; namely James Hagen who nearly made the 2024 WJC roster as a young 17-year old. This is the strength of the USNTDP. They reload year after year to keep competing abroad and keep getting American players picked by NHL teams. Tomorrow could be the start of another run at WJC Gold. Should they fall short, then they will be among the contenders in 2025. That is not a prediction, that is a spoiler. And it continues to be the result of the efforts of the United States National Team Development Program. Just like the last post about the Philippines’ national team, success is the result of a lot work.