For U.S. development program, hockey business is grooming

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In the interview room at Consol Energy Center on Day 2 of the NHL draft last month, Thomas Di Pauli and Austin Wuthrich shared a hug and brief congratulations. Taken seven picks apart, it was fitting that the teammates with the U.S. National Team Development Program got to see each other in matching Washington Capitals jerseys.

In total, the Caps took four players from the U.S. development team based in Ann Arbor, Mich., later adding defenseman Connor Carrick and right wing Riley Barber.

“I asked [our scouts], ‘Are we drafting the whole team? What are we doing here?’ ” general manager George McPhee said jokingly. “But they said of all the teams they’ve seen, that team was the most close-knit. They really liked the way they were coached and the way they played together.”

Like fellow USNTDP product Travis Boyd, who was a standout last year, Di Pauli, Carrick and Barber will try to impress this week at the Capitals‘ development camp, another step on the road to the NHL.

That weekend in Pittsburgh was a banner couple of days for the program. Ten U.S. Under-18 national team players were taken in the draft, including three in the first round.

“Obviously, the under-18 world championship is our big goal as a team, but once that’s over then the guys kind of turn to the draft,” said Danton Cole, who coaches all four Caps picks with the Under-18 team. “That’s every young man’s dream is to get drafted and then hopefully play in the NHL. For us, it’s just fun watching the guys, watching them get drafted. They’ve earned it, and I think it validates the work that they’ve put in for a couple years and their efforts.”

The Caps didn’t go in specifically targeting USNTDP talent; it just worked out that way. But it was no accident that Di Pauli, Wuthrich, Carrick and Barber were popular among the team’s scouting staff.

“They’re winners,” director of amateur scouting Ross Mahoney said. “Talking to the people in that program, they said it was the best group of kids they’ve ever had, and they’ve had some really good young men come through that program. We think they’re all good athletes and good players and plus, they’re winners.”

Di Pauli, Carrick and Barber were on the Under-18 team that won the Four Nations Cup in Switzerland in November and the Under-18 world championships in the Czech Republic in April.

It’s highly competitive just to make the U.S. team. Di Pauli called just earning a USA jersey “the first step to accomplishing one of my dreams.” But the battles for ice time and prominent roles helps, too.

“You know you’re obviously phenomenal players, you play with them all year long,” Carrick said. “But the hard work is paying off.”

The Capitals and other NHL teams notice. Cole said the U.S. program is “probably overscouted” and most teams see the players a lot. It’s a chance to watch a lot of draft-eligible talent in one place.

“It’s almost like an elite group of players within the U.S.,” Mahoney said. “You’re on the ice practicing every day and you’re working out off the ice with kind of an elite group of athletes, which is only going to make yourselves better. And then they play in the international tournaments. I think it speeds up their development as compared to maybe some of the other young players their age.”

The U.S. National Team Development Program has produced the likes of Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane, Toronto Maple Leafs forwards James van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel and Anaheim Ducks defenseman Cam Fowler. With 21 players selected in the past two drafts, more prominent names are sure to be added to the list of those who make it to the NHL.

Doing so with the Caps would be a dream for Di Pauli, Wuthrich, Carrick and Barber.

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