NAHL enjoys banner day at the 2015 NHL Draft
June 29, 2015
It was a banner day for the North American Hockey League (NAHL) at the 2015 NHL Draft, which was held at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida on June 26-27 and hosted by the Florida Panthers. When all was said an done, seven players with NAHL ties, including five who played in the NAHL during this past 2014-15 season, were drafted by NHL teams.
The five current players selected were Topeka RoadRunners goalie Matej Tomek, Minnesota Wilderness defenseman Ivan Chukarov, Lone Star Brahmas goalie Jake Kupsky, Austin Bruins goalie Evan Smith and Johnstown Tomahawks goalie Ryan Bednard. In addition, two former players were selected in the draft, which included former Bismarck Bobcats forward Roope Hintz and former Kenai River Brown Bears goalie Kris Oldham.
Coincidentally, four of the five current players that were drafted, were also selected to play in the 2015 NAHL Top Prospects Tournament this past February in Ann Arbor, MI.
The seven players drafted is the most for the NAHL since the 2010 NHL Draft, which was the last one to feature players that had played for the USNTDP team when they were a part of the NAHL. During the 2010 NHL Draft, 16 players with NAHL ties were drafted, which included 12 from the USNTDP team.
The only other junior leagues in North America who had more players drafted in this year’s NHL Draft were the USHL, WHL, OHL and QMJHL.
“I think the results of this year’s NHL Draft are further validation that the NAHL is one of the top junior leagues in all of North America,” said NAHL Commissioner Mark Frankenfeld. “With seven players selected in the draft and over 210 players making NCAA commitments so far from this past season, there are very few leagues who can boast those kind of proven numbers in a calendar year. Heading into our 40th season, we will remain committed in our mission of continuing this type of excellence and truly being the League of Opportunity. We congratulate all those who worked hard to achieve a memorable goal of being drafted into the NHL as they take the next steps of their hockey career.”
The first current NAHL player drafted was Topeka RoadRunners goaltender Matej Tomek, who was selected by the Philadelphia Flyers in the 3rd round (90th overall). Tomek, at 6'3" and 181 lbs. was the NAHL's Goaltender of the Year, posting a record of 24-7-2 with a 1.83 GAA and a save percentage of .928% including six shutouts. The 18-year-old native of Bratislava, Slovakia is committed to play NCAA Division I hockey for the University of North Dakota this fall.
RoadRunners Team Owner Don Stone II stated, "Congratulations to Matej and his family." He would add, "Our organization exists to help players develop to reach their goals. The whole organization works extremely hard behind the scenes to promote players to the next level and watching a player reach his ultimate goal makes the entire organization extremely proud."
Topeka Head Coach and GM Scott Langer added, "He's an exceptional young man who has worked very hard to earn this opportunity. The Flyers organization is getting a solid asset, and we look forward to following his progress."
The next current NAHL player selected was Minnesota Wilderness defenseman Ivan Chukarov. Chukarov of Chicago, Illinois was drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in the 7th round, No. 182 overall.
Chukarov, 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds, had 12 goals and 37 assists in 67 games this season for the Wilderness, who won the North American Hockey League’s Robertson Cup playoff championship. The year before, Chukarov had just four goals and eight assists in 44 games for the Wilderness. He’s committed to play NCAA Division I hockey for the University of Massachusetts in the fall.
The next NAHL player selected was Lone Star Brahmas goalie Jake Kupsky, who was selected 193rd overall in the 7th round by the San Jose Sharks.
"It's very well deserved for Jake," head coach Dan Wildfong said. "The kid put in a ton of work. He's definitely an NHL prospect with his size and ability. It just shows that you can achieve your dreams if you put in the work, it doesn't matter where you're at."
The North American Hockey League's eventual South Division Rookie Goaltender of the Year started the season with a 10-1-1 record, which caught the attention of Union College. Kupsky was consistently a top ten netminder statistically speaking in the NAHL despite sharing the work load with Brahmas teammate TJ Black. By the time playoffs rolled around, the 19-year-old goalie was playing some of his best hockey. Kupsky ranked third in goals against average (1.86) and save percentage (.930) while playing in the Robertson Cup Playoffs.
"Al Rooney had a lot to do with Jake's growth and handling the mental side of things, too. Jake has come a long way since his first day in Brahmaland and we are very excited for him," Wildfong said. Kupsky finished the year going 25-7-4 with a 2.07 goals against average, a .909 save percentage, and two shutouts.
The next NAHL player selected in the draft was Austin Bruins goalie Evan Smith. Smith, who is also a former NAPHL player having played for the Pikes Peak Miners prior to arriving in the NAHL this season, was selected by the Nashville Predators in the 7th round, number 205 overall
"We had a couple of hugs and ... it's just a really good feeling," Smith said by phone just minutes after being drafted. "It wasn't the most nerve-wracking thing, but I'm glad it happened. At the end of the day, if I didn't get drafted, it would've been OK. I just kind of let it play out and didn't get too nervous."
Smith (6’6/180) will likely play the 2015-16 season in the Western Hockey League, a Canadian major junior league. The 18-year-old Parker, Colo., native started last season with the WHL's Victoria Royals, playing in four games.
"It’s a pick that’s going to pay off hopefully down the road," Predators scout Ryan Rezmierski said. "He has to fill into his body and keep working on his game, but he’s got a huge upside."
Smith compiled a 16-2-2 record, with a 1.85 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage in Austin, while splitting time with Jake Kielly, who likely will play for Tri-City of the USHL next season.
"Give Evan all the credit in the world," former Bruins assistant coach Jamie Huffman said. "He's a pretty quiet kid, a good kid. He really worked to get better and, his numbers were always good, but he did a complete 180 with his play late in the year. He was a big, big part of our run down the stretch."
Former Bruins goalie coach Elliott Hogue said Smith's size and mental toughness will be his biggest assets as he progresses.
"He always knew he'd get a lot of looks (from scouts) because of his size, so I told him 'let's give them something else to look at,'" Hogue said. "He doesn't get rattled. When the pressure went up in the playoffs, his mental toughness proved to be a strength. Sometimes we'd look at him and wonder if he even had a pulse. He has great athleticism for a big guy. He's still learning to use his size, but his instincts are very good."
The final current NAHL player taken in the NHL Draft came a pick later as Johnstown Tomahawks goalie Ryan Bednard was drafted by the Florida Panthers in the 7th round (no. 206 overall).
The Tomahawks relied on Bednard early and often last season, as the 6-4, 185-pound native of Macomb, Mich., led all Johnstown goaltenders with 37 games played. As a rookie, he led Johnstown with 16 wins and posted a 2.66 goals against average with a .913 save percentage.
“He was a consistent stabilizing force for us all year long,” said Tomahawks head coach Mike Letizia. “He gave us a chance to win and provided a big jolt to our team. He has the pro look to him with his size, but it is also his composure and how he competes. He’s never satisfied and he is constantly working to improve his game. Sometimes you actually have to pull him off the ice after practice, or else he’ll just stay out there and keep working,” Letizia said.
As he was beginning his Tomahawks career in September, Bednard was also selected to play in the CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game, earning the win for his team while playing alongside the top draft-eligible American players just months after completing his final year of midget hockey in Michigan.
“It is easy to forget that he came to us right out of U-16 midget hockey,” Letizia said. “To go from that level to a top junior league, and then to be drafted to the NHL in the span of two years, that’s quite an accomplishment.”
In September, Bednard also announced his commitment to play NCAA-DI hockey at Bowling Green State University, though he is not expected to join the Falcons until the 2017-18 season, when he will join his brother and fellow Tomahawks alumni Shane Bednard on the ice for Bowling Green.
“I truly think the best is yet to come for him,” Letizia said. “This is something that is extremely special. It’s an honor as his coach to have had a small part in his career, but all the credit goes to him. There’s no question that he earned this opportunity, and can’t wait to see how he runs with it.”
Tomahawks general manager Rick Boyd said the selection is not only a testament to Bednard’s talent, but also his character and work ethic.
“He’s a very deserving player, but he is also a great person who comes from a great family,” Boyd said. “We’re so happy to see good things happen to good people, and hopefully he’s just the first of many players to be drafted and to find their place in hockey through the Tomahawks organization.”
Bednard, who entered the draft as the 22nd ranked North American goaltender, said he learned about the selection while watching draft coverage on television with his family in Michigan.
“I was prepared for it to go either way – I could be drafted, or I might not. Whatever happened, I was going to use it to motivate me,” he said. “When I saw it on TV, it was just surreal. I was so excited, and it hasn’t fully sunk in yet.”
Bednard credited the Tomahawks organization for playing a key role in aiding his development. “I was definitely raw coming in, and I just needed to play. That’s always the most important thing for goalies, and playing in Johnstown was great for me because I got the right kind of exposure and support. They let me go through the process and gave me the playing time I needed to get better.”
Bednard also thanked the Tomahawks fans and Johnstown community for making his time in Johnstown a memorable experience. “Thanks to the whole community,” he said. “Johnstown was a great place to play, and I’ll miss it and the people there.”
Hintz didn’t have to wait long on Day 2 to hear his name called, as the former Bismarck Bobcats forward was drafted in the 2nd round, 49th overall by the Dallas Stars. Hintz spent an early portion of the 2012-13 campaign with the Bobcats, before departing at Christmas to play professional hockey for his hometown club of Ilves, where he has played the last three seasons.
“It’s really an amazing feeling to be drafted,” gushed Hintz, who watched the Draft from home in Tampere, Finland. “It’s such an honor and I am so excited to be a part of the Dallas Stars [organization].”
At 49th, Hintz becomes the highest-selected Bobcat in franchise history and is also the earliest selection for a former NAHL skater since 2011 (Adam Clendening, 36th). The last time a Bobcat alum went in the Draft was 2001, when Bismarck native James Massen (1998-99) went in the fifth round to the New Jersey Devils.
“As an organization, we are very, very proud of Roope,” extolled Bobcats head coach and general manager Layne Sedevie, who traded for Hintz in the fall of 2012. “We were only able to work with him for a short time but even then his talent was very apparent. More importantly than that, though, he is a fine young man who remains in contact with our staff to this day.”
“It was great to play in front of a full rink in Bismarck,” recalled Hintz, who was just 16 years old when he joined the Cats, “which was a great experience for me. It was also very helpful for my development to be able to compete against North American players and see how good they are over there.”
The final player with NAHL ties that was selected was former Kenai River Brown Bears goalie Kris Oldham, who was drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 6th round at #153 overall.
Kenai River Brown Bears head coach Geoff Beauparlant exchanged several texts with Oldham on Saturday.
“He’s excited and obviously happy going to an organization like Tampa Bay, which has proven it can develop players,” Beauparlant said. “The big thing for him is he knows there is a lot of work ahead, but he’s been taking the right steps throughout his entire career.”
Oldham, who is 6-foot-2, 203 pounds, made his debut for the Bears at the age of 15 on March 15, 2013, in a 7-5 victory over the Wenatchee (Washington) Wild, back when the Bears were coached by Oliver David. He would join the club full time the next season in 2013-14 and go 11-6-2 with a 3.17 goals-against average and a .901 save percentage.
“It’s always been there,” Beauparlant said of Oldham’s talent. “He always had potential and I think we saw that at an early age, I know Oliver saw that as well and tendered him prior to my coming here. He was mature for his age and had a great presence in the net, not just in stature but in his demeanor.”