USA Hockey: NAHL Top Prospects another success
by Dan Scifo, usahockey.com
The North American Hockey League touts itself as the “League of Opportunity.”
The NAHL, the only Tier II junior hockey league in the United States, gave ample opportunity to some of the best young players in the country during the recent NAHL Top Prospects Tournament, which took place at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania.
“The level of play was really good and the competition was very good,” said Mark Frankenfeld, the NAHL commissioner and president. “We felt it was very successful and it will end up being very beneficial for the players who competed.”
The Top Prospects Tournament featured 80 NAHL players, and 120 total, spread across six teams. Hundreds of scouts also attended the event, including representatives from almost every NCAA Division I school and nearly every NHL team.
The event is unique in the fact that it is almost solely designed for uncommitted players, as the top goal of playing in the NAHL is earning players an NCAA commitment. That said, several younger, committed players also competed, giving the NHL’s Central Scouting department an opportunity to see standouts that are on its radar.
“You want to create an event that attracts a lot of attention,” Frankenfeld said. “For us to showcase 80 non-committed, top-end NAHL players was really important. There were a ton of NCAA and NHL scouts.”
This was the 15-year anniversary of the NAHL Top Prospects Tournament. In 2020, the event took place two weeks before the season was paused and eventually canceled due to the pandemic. Last year, the event was moved from its traditional February spot to June in cooperation with the season-ending Robertson Cup Championship.
Frankenfeld was excited to hold the event in February this season, back where it belonged on the league’s calendar schedule.
“When we build these events, we’re trying to do them for the right purpose, during the right time of year, in the right location with the right players to gain that attraction,” Frankenfeld said. “In February, it’s the end of the college season, players have developed and colleges have a better feel of what they’re looking for.”
The two-day tournament featured four divisional teams — Central, Midwest, East, South — in addition to a fifth NAHL Selects team and the United States NTDP Under-17 team. The NTDP finished the tournament 2-0, while the NAHL Selects, Central, Midwest and South all went 1-1 overall.
“The play on the ice was awesome and the event went very well,” Frankenfeld said. “We were really happy, we thought it was a really successful event and we’re looking forward to the success that our players will achieve.”
Two days after the tournament, Lone Star Brahmas and South Division forward Jack Collins committed to UMass-Lowell. Additional commitments are expected to follow.
Several alumni of the event have gone on to great success. Jack LaFontaine, a Carolina Hurricanes goaltender, played in the 2016 NAHL Top Prospects Tournament. Christian Folin played seven seasons in the NHL with four teams and competed for Sweden in the Olympics. He played in the 2012 NAHL showcase, along with Anaheim Ducks goaltender Anthony Stolarz.
The NTDP was also part of the event in 2014 and 2015, and those teams featured Auston Matthews, Caleb Jones, Jordan Greenway and Matthew Tkachuk. Los Angeles Kings forward Blake Lizotte also played in the 2015 event.
Jakov Novak, the 2018 Top Prospects leading scorer, was drafted by the Ottawa Senators and now stars at Northeastern. Carson Briere led the 2019 event in scoring and is among the leading scorers on his team at Mercyhurst.
“Everything we do counts to build exposure and provide opportunities for players to move onto Division I hockey,” Frankenfeld said.
Frankenfeld also credited the NAHL owners, who didn’t shut their doors during the ongoing pandemic.
“They kept the play on the ice and that’s so important to these young guys and their opportunities,” Frankenfeld said. “The risks they take and the opportunities they provide, I think that’s important, too. We’re glad to be on the other side of things and get back to what we’re supposed to do and that’s giving players a chance to play in college.”