The day the Minnesota North Stars bolted his home state for Texas was the day a young A.J. Thelen stopped worrying about where he might play some day in the NHL. All he began to care about was getting there.
“I have no real favorite now,” said Thelen, a standout defenseman for Michigan State. “Once the North Stars left, I started following other teams. My goal is to play in the NHL. It doesn’t matter where.”
One of the top rookies in the CCHA last season and the only freshman nationally to be named an All-American, Thelen will move a giant step closer this weekend, when he is expected to be a first round pick in the NHL Entry Draft.
Thelen is one of two Spartans ranked among the top North American skaters eligible for the draft. Rated No. 11, he is regarded as the top CCHA player and second-best collegian (behind North Dakota’s Drew Stafford) available to be selected.
MSU forward David Booth is listed 27th among North American skaters in the final NHL Central Scouting Service rankings.
Thelen said that being a No. 1 draft pick would be an acknowledgement of his abilities, but he said he recognizes that it does not guarantee his future. What he does next season at MSU — he plans to return for his sophomore season — and in subsequent seasons will determine that, he said.
“The draft is the day you put on a jersey,” he said. “Overall, you get picked and put on a team. But then you have to work to get there.”
A member of the CCHA all-Rookie Team, Thelen became the first Spartan also to be named to the all-CCHA First Team. He was named a Second-Team All- American and a member of the USCHO.com national All-Rookie Team. He finished second among CCHA defensemen and fifth nationally with 29 points. Five of his goals came on the power play, and he led the Spartans with 10 power-play points.
Booth was named to the CCHA all-Rookie Team two seasons ago when he collected 36 points (17 goals, 19 assists) in 39 games. His point production slumped last season — he accounted for 18 points (eight goals, 10 assists) in 29 games — but he missed eight games early in the season with a knee injury. He did return to action in time to help Team USA win the gold medal at the World Junior Championships.
“The draft is a great opportunity, because it’s the first step toward reaching your goal,” Booth said. “It’s good to know that someone is interested in you and respects your abilities, but I’m not worried about where I’ll get picked. What matters is how much you develop after you’re picked.”
Though both Thelen and Booth would like to be selected by a team that plays a style that suits their abilities, the two say they can and will adapt to help any NHL team. Booth said he has had to adjust his style every time he changes teams, as he did last season between MSU and Team USA.
Thelen agreed: “I prefer being really offensive, but if a team wants me to focus more on playing defense, I’ll do it to get to where I need to go.”
Neither Spartan said he has been distracted by draft speculation. Both are focusing on summer classes and conditioning.
“It’s not a distraction because, even if you get drafted, you haven’t made it yet,” Booth said. “So many guys who get drafted never play (in the NHL). Only a small percentage do. Once you get drafted, it’s more incentive to work harder. You want to make an impression, so you have to work on it.”
(This article originally appeared in this month’s edition of USCHO Magazine.)