It isn’t taking long for the mission of the U.S. Junior Developmental program to realize its intended purpose.
USA Hockey created the long-needed program last year, and immediately did the right thing by naming former Lake Superior State two-time national champion head coach Jeff Jackson as its director. Not only did this create the first permanent head coach for the World Junior team — which immediately paid dividends with a second-place finish — but more importantly, it created a home for 40 of the nation’s best underage juniors.
From the home office in Ann Arbor, Mich., the 40 players are broken up into two teams, coached respectively by Greg Cronin, former assistant and interim head coach at Maine, and Bob Mancini, former head coach at Michigan Tech.
The program gives players a home where they can play highly competitive hockey without having to head to Canadian major juniors. This allows players to maintain their U.S. collegiate eligibility.
The beneficiaries are the college programs, and one hopes, of course, the athletes themselves. Instead of having to make a decision at 16 years old about college or major juniors, they can go to Ann Arbor and delay the decision, and not have to lose anything hockey-wise.
Already, the U.S. squads are 0-0-3 against major junior teams this year, having played Sarnia, Kitchener and Plymouth of the Ontario Hockey League.
Taking a look at this year’s early signees, we see evidence of the program’s benefits already:
Five Minnesota kids committed from the U.S. junior team during the NCAA’s early signing period, but interestingly, the Gophers only landed three of them. Surprising many, defenseman David Tanabe and forward Matt Doman opted for Wisconsin.
Tanabe has a lot of skill and is still learning to play tougher defensively. Doman should make an immediate impact for the Badgers, with good hands around the net and NHL potential because of his strength and grit.
Minnesota, of course, still landed three prizes. Like Tanabe, Jordan Leopold is a smooth and highly-skilled defenseman with a need to learn to play tougher. Goaltender Adam Hauser is set to be the heir apparent to Steve DeBus, and some say he’s the missing link to a Gopher national title. The third is forward Doug Meyer, a big, strong winger with good hands and a good shot.
Lake Superior State landed one of the top potential pro defensemen in Will Magnuson (no relation to Keith, the former NHL’er who played for Denver and already has a son in U.S. college). Magnuson, from Anchorage, Alas., is a defensive defenseman who has a lot of work to do, because he’s never played at this high a level. But his upside is huge, due to his size and strength.
A trio of Michigan natives — Adam Hall, Andrew Hutchinson and Jon Insana — selected Michigan State as their future home.
Hall is a prototype power forward in the John LeClair mold and an early favorite for the 1998-99 CCHA Rookie of the Year. Hutchinson is a defenseman who handles the puck well and has good ice vision. Insana, like Hutchinson, still has work to do defensively, but is a future power-play quarterback for the Spartans.
The only early signee coming East is the only one from the East, Massachusetts native Doug Janik, who will attend Maine.
Janik could be poster boy for the way in which the program helps American players, since was headed for major juniors before the U.S. junior program snared him. He’s the most-highly touted of all the defensemen, smooth and skilled but with a mean streak when needed.
Maybe Paul Mara, an NHL first-round pick from Belmont Hill, Mass., whose brother Rob plays for Colgate, would have chosen college had the junior program been an option.
There were a number of other players looking at U.S. colleges who didn’t commit during the early signing period. The best of them is Barrett Heisten, who is still weighing his options. Heisten is a forward and is, by all accounts, the best player in the U.S. junior developmental program. He is considering Maine, Colorado College and Michigan, but is also thinking about jumping to major juniors. He could score in college right now, as a 17-year old.
Others, along with position and schools under consideration, are:
Look for more news from Ann Arbor as the World Junior Tournament approaches at the end of December.