NHL teams again look to California to stock rosters for future seasons
Want more evidence that the development model of California youth hockey works?
Look no further than the 2019 NHL Draft, which was held June 21-22 in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Three California-born and –trained players were selected, including two in the first round, and two of the three played hockey in the state through their 16U years.
The headliner was defenseman Cam York, an Anaheim Hills native who was selected 14th overall by the Philadelphia Flyers. York became the highest-drafted Californian ever, surpassing Beau Bennett, who went 20th overall in 2010. York was joined by his longtime Anaheim Jr. Ducks teammate and fellow defenseman Ryan Johnson, an Irvine product who was taken with the last pick of the first round (31st overall) by the Buffalo Sabres.
Goaltender and Tustin native Dustin Wolf, a longtime Los Angeles Jr. King, was the third Californian taken, going to the Calgary Flames in the seventh round (214th overall).
York and Johnson are only the fourth and fifth California-born and –trained players to be taken in the first round and the first since Bennett and Emerson Etem were selected in 2010 at STAPLES Center. The first was another defenseman, Jonathon Blum, who was picked in 2007.
Different paths, same result
The trio of 2001 birth years took three very different paths before hearing their name called.
York played for the Jr. Ducks through Bantams then spent two seasons at the prestigious U.S. National Team Development Program (NTDP), where he was part of a cohort that had eight players selected in the first round – a record for one organization at the draft. He will play NCAA Division I college hockey at the University of Michigan starting in the fall.
Johnson played for the Jr. Ducks through the 2017-18 season and also played high school hockey for Santa Margarita Catholic in the Anaheim Ducks High School Hockey League, helping the Eagles win the second of their three USA Hockey national championships in the process. He then helped the Sioux Falls Stampede win the United States Hockey League’s (USHL) Clark Cup championship this spring. He will play college hockey at the University of Minnesota – the same school his father Craig starred at in the early 1990s – starting in the fall.
“We’re pretty excited – not just for the Jr. Ducks – but for youth hockey in California,” said Art Trottier, the Jr. Ducks president as well as the vice president of THE RINKS. “These are two players who started with us as Mites. Ryan stayed in California until this season, demonstrating you don’t have to leave the state to develop.
“To have two players taken in the first round of an NHL draft – who would have thought?”
Wolf, who played for the Santa Clara Blackhawks and Cupertino Cougars until his family moved to L.A. when he was a Squirt, also played through 16Us with the Jr. Kings before heading to the Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League (WHL) in 2017. He posted respectable numbers backing up current Flyers goaltender Carter Hart during his first season before enjoying a breakout season in 2018-19, leading WHL goalies who played 20 or more games with a 1.69 goals-against average and a .936 save percentage.
York lives up to the hype
York’s selection in the first round was all but a given. He was rated the No. 12 North American skater in the final NHL Central Scouting Service rankings and had been talked about as a top U.S. prospect for the past three years.
He and his NTDP cohort filled stat sheets and won games in bunches this past season. The 6-foot, 175-pound York enjoyed a breakout season with 65 points (14 goals) in 63 games with the Under-18 Team, added another 16 points in 15 international games and seven more points in 16 games against college foes. That’s 88 points in 94 games overall.
York also set an NTDP record with a seven-point game in mid-January that included a hat trick. He also helped Team USA to a bronze medal at the World Under-18 tournament, leading all defensemen with 11 points and a plus-13 rating.
“Hearing my name get called was special but spending time with all my teammates who got drafted as well, celebrating with them was probably the most memorable for me,” York said. “We worked extremely hard. To see everyone be drafted, I know everyone’s happy. To see it all pay off, it was super cool for all of us.”
York is lauded for his hockey sense, skating, passing and shot release. How does he foresee that fitting in the hardscrabble culture of the City of Brotherly Love?
“I’m super happy to be a Flyer,” York said. “I think my playing style is perfect for their system. The fans are passionate. They want to win, and they’re going to let you know how they feel. It’s exciting. I’m sure there’s a lot of obstacles, but I’m really looking forward to it.”
Johnson, whose team faced York’s this season in a USHL game, has no doubts that his longtime friend has what it takes to succeed in the pro game.
“He plays a solid game in all phases,” Johnson said. “He stood out against us. He’s a top ‘D.’”
The son also rises
Johnson was the only one of nine Americans taken in the first round who didn’t play for the NTDP. His progression during his first year of junior hockey put him squarely on scouts’ radar.
He went into the draft rated the 33rd North American skater, projecting to an early second-round selection. However, his play down the stretch, and particularly in the Clark Cup playoffs, enhanced his standing.
Johnson, who boasts exceptional skating ability and hockey sense, started the season as the Stampede’s youngest player and finished with their best plus-minus rating (plus-24) and second most points by a defenseman (25) during the regular season. He was named to the USHL’s All-Rookie First Team and then added eight points in 12 postseason games, including a goal and an assist in Sioux Falls’ decisive Clark Cup win.
“He’s extremely talented, extremely skilled. When we played him, you could tell that,” York said. “He moves the puck really well, he’s a really good skater, he has what it takes to play at the next level. I’m really excited to see what he does next year.”
Johnson’s selection also gave him family bragging rights – should the soft-spoken defender ever resort to that tactic – over his father, who was taken 33rd overall by the St. Louis Blues in 1990. Ironically, that draft also was held in Vancouver, though Craig Johnson did not attend the event.
Johnson, who fashioned a 14-year pro career – mostly with the Los Angeles Kings – for many years was known as one of the players L.A. received back from the Blues when they traded Wayne Gretzky in 1996. He has been the Jr. Ducks’ director of coaches and, along with Scott Niedermayer, the coach of the 2001 birth year team. He also is a player development coach for the Kings.
“I was incredibly proud to watch Cam and Ryan get selected in the first round,” Craig Johnson said. “The boys grew up playing together on the same teams. It was definitely a special night.”
Added Ryan Johnson: “The whole weekend was exciting. Just being able to be there was special. Being able to share with my family made it extra special. Cam and I ran into each other multiple times. He was excited, too, and enjoying it with his family.”
One howl of a season
When Wolf would be drafted was open to a bit of debate. His numbers suggested at least a mid-round pick, and he entered the draft as the 12th-ranked North American goaltender on the heels of his lights-out season for the Silvertips.
“I had more of an opportunity,” Wolf said. “I took it and ran with it. I tried to improve every aspect of my game.”
But scouts apparently were drawn to another measure: 6 feet. In a landscape increasingly inhabited by giants in the crease, Wolf got overlooked.
“It was definitely a crazy week and weekend,” he said. “Going into Day 2 of the draft, my agent and I suspected I could go anywhere from Rounds 2-5. After that, I wasn’t feeling so hot, and it got nerve wracking.
“By the middle of the seventh round we were asking, ‘What’s going on?’ I guess every team wants a 6-foot-3 goaltender.”
Four picks from the end of the draft, Calgary called, and Wolf was delighted an NHL team was willing to take a chance.
In addition to substantial production, the Flames also got a supreme competitor.
“My competitiveness is through the roof,” Wolf said. “I take everything seriously, which helps in most things. Well, sometimes it’s a downfall in golf.”
Wolf, who knows York and Johnson well from years of CAHA battles and offseason hockey teams, said he wouldn’t be where he’s at without the coaching he received while at the Jr. Kings.
Just as York and Johnson benefited from playing for ex-NHLers, Wolf primarily played for Nelson Emerson, Rob Blake and Pat Brisson.
“I played for some great coaching staffs throughout my six or seven years with the Jr. Kings,” Wolf said. “I had a great opportunity to get better. The Jr. Kings have a strong track record with players going to juniors, college and the pros.”
Red, White and Blue history
All three have competed internationally as well.
In addition to the World Under-18 Championships, York in 2018 helped Team USA claim silver in the Under-18 Men’s World Challenge, leading all defensemen in the tournament with six assists. He has helped the U.S. to gold at the Five Nations Cup, the Four Nations Cup and the World Under-17 Challenge.
Johnson also has represented Team USA on multiple occasions. He was part of the U.S. team that won gold at the Five Nations Cup in the summer of 2017, and he also won gold at the World Junior A Challenge in Bonnyville, Alberta, this past December.
Wolf was a member of the 2018 U.S. Under-18 Men’s Select Team that competed in the Hlinka Gretzky Cup last summer.
“That was a great experience,” Wolf said. “It really started what has been an incredible year.”
Two other defensemen who played a season of Bantam for the Jr. Kings also were selected in the second round.
Jackson Lacombe was selected 39th overall by the Anaheim Ducks, while Drew Helleson was picked 47th overall by the Colorado Avalanche.
Lacombe, a Minnesota recruit, spent the past four seasons at Shattuck St. Mary’s Prep in his native Minnesota, putting up 89 points in 54 games last season.
Helleson, who will play at Boston College, was an NTDP teammate of York’s the past two seasons after two seasons at Shattuck. He had 26 points in 71 games this past season.
A sixth player with ties to California, left wing Nick Robertson (pictured above), who was born in Arcadia and played for the Pasadena Maple Leafs as a Mite and Squirt, also was taken in the second round (53rd overall) by Toronto. Robertson had 55 points in 54 games for Peterborough of the Ontario Hockey League.
All six players were also among the 44 invited to USA Hockey’s World Junior Summer Showcase from July 26-Aug. 3 in Plymouth, Mich. This is the first step in the process of selecting the U.S. National Junior Team that will compete in the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship in the Czech Republic at the end of the year.
Johnson & York photo/DJ Harris/THE RINKS; Robertson photo/Terry Wilson/CHL Images
— Chris Bayee
(Aug. 20, 2019)