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Class of 1996 ready to come of age

 

By Tom Lynn

Most of the amateur hockey world will be focused on the Class of 1995-born players as the NHL Entry Draft approaches this June, but it will be interesting to pay attention to what happens with the Class of 1996 as the Spring tournaments unfold. The 2014 NHL Draft will be the end-game for those born after Sept. 15, 1995, and before Sept. 15, 1996 (hence, the “Class of 1996”), but a good portion of the groundwork for those future draft picks will be laid in the Reebok High Performance U17 camps and USHL tryout camps, and the USA Hockey National Camp thereafter.

Last spring, a few Minnesota high school players emerged from local stars to national prospects. Many scouts knew Connor Hurley, but the performances of Teemu Kivihalme, Tommy Vannelli and Parker Reno being selected for Team USA for the Ivan Hlinka Tournament vaulted them onto the national stage.

This year, at least 21 Minnesota State High School League skaters look to have a strong chance to make NHL Central Scouting Preseason Watch List in the fall (goalies are treated on a separate list). Although the depth of the list is stronger than that of the Class of 1995, it is the quality of forwards that really sets the Class of 1996 in Minnesota apart. 

And this list would be even stronger, absent the high number of defections in the Minnesota high school ranks to the U.S. National Development Program, juniors and Shattuck-St. Mary’s. It is to be expected that, with the strength of this class, a number of the players discussed here will follow those players out of the MSHSL by next season.  The NHL Draft Class of 1996 from Minnesota may turn out to be one of the deepest ever, but a good portion of those players will have moved on from their high school teams before their names are called.

The forward group has a strong quartet at the top, led by the Cloquet-Esko-Carlton’s Karson Kuhlman, whose strong all-around play and leadership as a captain for Team USA in the Ivan Hlinka will already be in the forefront of scout’s minds.

Shane Gersich of Holy Family is right there, too, after being taken first overall in the USHL’s Futures Draft last year and demonstrating an inspiring mix of heels and hands for Holy Family in high school action.

Edina’s Dylan Malmquist should merit close attention, as the Hornets’ leading goal-scorer as a sophomore has carried that team at times when other top forwards were struggling (like scoring all of the team’s three goals in an overtime loss to Minnetonka).

His teammate Cullen Munson will be getting a lot of looks after helping to lead Team USA to a gold medal in last summer’s Five Nations Tournament in the Czech Republic.

Last, but definitely not least of the top five is Austin Poganski of St. Cloud Cathedral, who led the USA Five Nations entry in points and was a dominant force in the USA Hockey National U16 Camp. He seemingly came out of nowhere (according to scouts I talked to at the National Camp) to be a potential pick in the top two rounds of the NHL Draft if he can continue his performance.

There are a good number of forwards who are candidates for the later rounds. Although too numerous to discuss here, there are a few candidates who could break into the top group with a strong showing this Spring.

Steve Spinner of Eden Prairie has looked like a younger Connor Hurley at times, although not all of the time, and his team’s uneven performance this year has not helped him.

Spencer Naas has looked great in his opportunities for Benilde-St. Margaret’s, but with a top line of Besse/Labosky/Moore, those opportunities have necessarily been more limited.

Mitch Slattery took the road less traveled in returning to the high school ranks to play for Hill-Murray after leaving Shattuck. He will have to demonstrate in the next year whether he is an agitator with some skill, or a skill player with some sandpaper.

The defensive corps of the Class of 1996 in Minnesota is not deep, but has three big names at the top. Jack Dougherty of St. Thomas Academy has all of the skills, size and personality to become an all-around force on the blueline. Many felt he was Team USA’s best defenseman in the Five Nations Tournament, and if he builds on that he will be near the top of his class nationally. 

Right with him is Eagan’s huge, skilled defenseman Nick Wolff.  When you are a 6-4 and a smooth, rangy skater who likes to hit, it is hard not to get the attention. He was a dominant defenseman at the National Camp last season, and had scouts finding me in the crowd to ask who he was.

Eden Prairie’s Hunter Warner is another big body with a good skill set, although he is more raw than the first two and it remains to be seen how far and how fast he will develop those skills in tandem with his aggressive game. 

The Minnesota Wild scouting staff will be looking at some familiar faces next season. Former coaches Mike Ramsey and Matt Shaw both have sons who will be vying for spots on the draft board next year. 

Future Gopher Jack Ramsey is a big power forward for Minnetonka, while Hayden Shaw has done a fantastic job on the blueline in relative obscurity in Woodbury.

Current Wild scout Marty Nanne has another son, Tyler, who has a chance to go in the NHL Draft like his older brother, Louie, a draft pick of the Wild last June.

Outside of Minnesota, former Aeros coach Todd McClellan’s son, Tyson, will be a blue-chipper, currently playing AAA hockey for the San Jose Junior Sharks.

In all, the MSHSL will have a number of its players hear their names called at the NHL Draft in 2014.  When those names are called, and how many there are, will depend on the process that will begin to unfold this spring.

Tom Lynn of Veritas Hockey is a Saint Paul-based advisor to amateur players and agent for professionals, as well as father of five (and soon to be six) Minnesota Hockey players. He formerly served as Assistant General Manager of the Minnesota Wild and General Manager of the Houston Aeros.