Recruiting Grounds: NAHL

The North American Hockey League (NAHL) is the considered the second-best Junior "A" hockey league in the United States behind the USHL, but it has developed a wealth of talent for college hockey over the years, especially goaltenders. Michigan Tech has had great success with finding talent blossoming in the league just before the recruits move on to the USHL or other more highly-regarded leagues. The diversity of where players end up is even better than the BCHL. All 60 teams have a player currently on their roster that has played in the NAHL, and there are over 500 players committed to or currently playing for a Division I team.

Michigan Tech has had a long history with the league including former Huskies currently working hard in the AHL to get back to the NHL like Chris Conner, Tanner Kero and Pheonix Copley. More on that later.

Speedster Chris Conner played two years in the NAHL (Photo courtesy of Michigan Tech)

Speedster Chris Conner played two years in the NAHL (Photo courtesy of Michigan Tech)

Talent Throughout College Hockey

Some very special players have honed their skills in the NAHL over the years including current NHL players, former NCAA All-Americans, Hobey Baker Award finalists and even two Hobey Baker winners.

Current NHL Skaters:

  • Andy Greene (New Jersey Devils, C)
  • Matt Moulson (Buffalo Sabres)
  • Drew Miller (Detroit Red Wings)
  • Thomas Vanek (Detroit Red Wings)
  • Nic Dowd (Los Angeles Kings)
  • Andrej Sustr (Tampa Bay Lightning)
  • Christian Folin (Minnesota Wild)

Current NHL Goaltenders:

  • Al Montoya (Montreal Canadians)
  • Ben Bishop (Tampa Bay Lightning)
  • Keith Kinkaid (New Jersey Devils)
  • Connor Hellebuyck (Winnipeg Jets)
  • Ryan Miller (Vancouver Canucks)
  • Scott Darling (Chicago Blackhawks)
  • Anthony Stolarz (Philadelphia Flyers)

Former American Hockey Coaches Association NCAA All-Americans since 2005 (First and Second Team):

  • Sean Collins (New Hampshire-2005)
  • Charlie Cook (Cornell-2005)
  • Jason Guerriero (Northeastern-2005)
  • Matt Moulson (Cornell-2005)
  • Peter Harrold (Boston College-2006)
  • Brad Flaishans (New Hampshire-2008)
  • Josh Kassel (Army-2008)
  • Erik Condra (Notre Dame-2009)
  • Pat Nagle (Ferris State-2011)
  • Keith Kinkaid (Union-2011)
  • Stephane Da Costa (Merrimack-2011)
  • Chad Billins (Ferris State-2012)
  • Connor Hellebuyck (UMass Lowell-2014)

Hobey Baker Award finalists since 2005 (*- also All-Americans):

  • Dov Grumet-Morris (Harvard-2005*)
  • David McKee (Cornell-2005*)
  • Andy Greene (Miami-2005*)
  • Chris Collins (Boston College-2006*)
  • Eric Ehn (Air Force-2007*)
  • Jacques Lamoureux (Air Force-2009*)
  • Cody Reichard (Miami-2010*)
  • Carter Camper (Miami-2011*)
  • Shawn Hunwick (Michigan-2012)
  • Nic Dowd (St. Cloud State-2014*)
  • CJ Motte (Ferris State-2014)
  • Tanner Kero (Michigan Tech-2015*)
  • Cody Wydo (Robert Morris-2015)

While neither Hobey Baker award winner was all that recent, the league has produced two award winners including one guy who is still in the NHL. Ryan Miller won the award 2001 as Michigan State's backstop. The product of Michigan Tech Assistant and former Soo Indians Head Coach Joe Shawhan, Miller lead the NCAA in wins, winning percentage, save percentage, goals against average and shutouts that season. The other award winner was Bowling Green's Brian Holzinger. He played center for the Falcons for four years including his award-winning senior year where he scored 35 goals and 69 points in 38 games while BGSU finished second in the CCHA. He went on to have a 12-year career in the NHL, playing more than 500 games and scoring 93 goals plus 145 assists over that span.

Current College Hockey Players

As mentioned earlier, the NAHL has always been a great place for developing goaltenders. Over a third of the goaltenders with a save percentage of at least 0.910 so far this season (including 4 of the top 10 goaltenders) , cut their teeth in the league (Leading number is national rank through December 13, 2016):

  • 3-Michael Bitzer (Bemidji State)
  • 5-Charles Williams (Canisius)
  • 8-Stefanos Lekkas (Vermont)
  • 9-Justin Kapelmaster (Ferris State)
  • 14-Jake Kielly (Clarkson)
  • 15-Jack LaFontaine (Michigan)
  • Jason Pawloski (Minnesota State)
  • Colin DeAugustine (Mercyhurst)
  • Merrick Madsen (Harvard)
  • Ryan Wischow (Massachusetts)
  • Rob Nichols (Connecticut)
  • Chris Truehl (Quinnipiac)

The league has also done well developing defensemen. Beyond those already in the NHL (Greene, Dowd, Sustr and Folin) there are quite a few defenders currently in the college ranks making an impact now and expected to help at the next level. Matias Cleland (New Hampshire), Lester Lancaster (Mercyhurst), Dylan Zink (UMass-Lowell) and Daniel Brickley (Ferris State) are all top-ten scorers nationally. Brickley is building on his all-rookie team selection from last year and the other blue-liner on that team, Wyatt Ege, will be expected to help Ohio State following his sit-out year after transferring from Alaska-Anchorage. Over the last several years, NAHL alums have become early departure targets for the pros too:

  • Ruslan Pedan (HC Sochi-KHL)
  • Christian Folin (Minnesota Wild)
  • Casey Nelson (Buffalo Sabres)
  • Paul LaDue (Los Angeles Kings)
  • Nolan Valleau (Chicago Blackhawks)
  • Ralfs Freibergs (Montreal Canadians)

Previous Recruits

Since the early 1990s, Michigan Tech has recruited some of the fans' favorite players during some rather dark years. From Jim Storm all the way to current Huskies like Reid Sturos, Michigan Tech has more than 25 years of recruits from the league. In the middle, there were Bret Meyers, Tom Kaiman, Cam Ellsworth, Chris Conner, John Scott (who's book, A Guy Like Me, is due out in less than a week), Lars Helminen, Pete Rouleau, Ryan Bunger, Mikael Lickteig (the subject of last week's Alumni Update: From Houghton to Hamar), Carl Neilsen, David Johnstone, Pheonix Copley and Tanner Kero.

Chances are that if you followed the team, at least one of those guys was your favorite player at some point. Maybe it was watching Ellsworth stand on his head making one of his team-record 3,510 saves to steal some points, seeing Chris Conner score a shorthanded goal (also a team record with 15) or screaming "Bunger!" to celebrate his game-winning goal to clinch Michigan Tech's first WCHA playoff series win and Final Five appearance in over 20 years.

Reid Sturos spent time with the Alexandria Blizzard (NAHL) before joining the Huskies (Photo Credit: Ryan Johnson).

Reid Sturos spent time with the Alexandria Blizzard (NAHL) before joining the Huskies (Photo Credit: Ryan Johnson).

Beyond Sturos, there are Chris Leibinger, Mark Auk, Ray Brice and Devin Kero. Chris Leibinger and Mark Auk are prototypical examples of MTU success in the league. Both committed to the Huskies while playing in the NAHL and then got their chance to play in the USHL. Sturos has been one of the big heart/effort players this season, doing many of the small things right and getting rewarded with 10 points thus far. It's still to be seen what Brice and Kero will bring to the team. If Redmond keeps up his play, Kero may not get another chance to show he's better than what he showed at the start of the season. Brice has been injured but will likely get a chance at some point if others can't get healthy.

The Future

The Huskies recently doubled the number of recruits they have currently playing in the NAHL with the commitments of teammates Aleksi Poikola and Seamus Donohue. The Huskies already had commitments from Travis Brown (Minnesota Magicians) and Tristan Rostagno (Minnesota Wilderness). Both players committed so long ago that since Brown has not yet officially signed, THG has left him off a few articles and only recently added him to the recruiting grid. The same recruiting services, NeutralZone, that ranked Poikola (96th) and Donohue (173rd) among the top 200 junior players born in 1996 also ranked Brown and Rostagno. Both were given 3.5 stars and ranked in the 60s overall with Rostagno (63) slightly higher than Brown (69).

Rostagno signed last year and had really taken this last year of development in stride, with big improvements in decision making and puck movement. One scout said the 6'3" blue-liner was dominant along the wall with his reach and positioning, and he had a little offensive flair on the power play. He has strong hands and an NHL-type shot including an excellent one-timer. On the other side of the puck, he needs to work on his gaps but still plays defense very well and will be a good Division I defender. Rostagno was given an A- grade during the NAHL showcase and has done well this season, scoring 5 goals and adding 10 assists through 30 games. 

Tristan Rostagno plays for the Minnesota Magicians (Photo Credit - Terry Norton)

Tristan Rostagno plays for the Minnesota Magicians (Photo Credit - Terry Norton)

Brown was recruited based on his play for Rogers High School and in the Upper Midwest Elite League. Since then, he's played in in the NAHL. He finally turned a corner last season scoring 9 goals and 22 points before really taking another step forward this season with 7 goals and 21 points through 30 games. A scout called him controlled and poised. He used his body well to defend and protect the puck. He doesn't have great speed but he does well with changing direction for his size (6'2"). He can dominate opponents physically and is capable with the puck. He has offensive upside and should be an excellent Division I player.

Summary

Michigan Tech has recruited both players that both come straight from the NAHL to college and those that move on to either the USHL or BCHL. With the relatively short drives for recruiting trips to Cloquet, Minn.; Richfield, Minn.; Austin, Minn.; Janesville, Wis. and La Crosse, Wis., it seems obvious that the Huskies will continue to target underappreciated players or late bloomers in the league. Maybe Poikola can be a slightly taller Chris Conner or maybe Rostagno and Brown can step right in and replace Cliff Watson and Shane Hanna. The league has quality and there are definitely overlooked recruits that have excelled and are excelling throughout college hockey right now.

Recruit of the Fortnight

Cliff Watson's younger brother, Cooper—not to be confused with the even younger Carver Watson, has been on fire over the last two weeks. He's tripled his goal total (from 1 to 3) and more than doubled his assist total (6 to 13) in just six games. He's also gotten on the score sheet in all 6 games over that same stretch. His biggest game of the last two weeks was a 2G-1A-3P performance that included two power-play tallies and recognition as the game's first star in a 6-2 win over Jagger Williamson and Trail. That outing paired with two other games with points and a total line of 2G-4A-6P last week earned him BCHL Player of the Week:

Feature image of Travis Brown courtesy of Nick Wosika