USA Hockey's National Team Development Program (NTDP) has been a factory for NHL prospects for years now, building up from nothing in the late 1990s to a juggernaut that saw eight players taken in the first round and 17 overall in the 2019 draft, led by first overall selection Jack Hughes.
From Auston Matthews and Jack Eichel to Seth Jones and Quinn Hughes, the NTDP has been a magnet for talent. Now, the program needs to find two new coaches in a very short amount of time.
The NTDP fields two squads every year; an under-17 team and an under-18 team. The coach of the under-17 squad will typically follow the same cohort of players to the under-18s the next season in order to have maximum cohesion. But in the past few weeks, the NTDP lost both of its head coaches to the pro ranks: John Wroblewski is the new bench boss for the AHL's Ontario Reign (farm team to the Los Angeles Kings), while Seth Appert takes over the whistle with the AHL's Rochester Americans (the Buffalo Sabres affiliate).
Now, the NTDP is not your average coaching position. The mission of 'The Program' is not to rack up as many wins as possible, but to develop and hone the elite talents that come through its doors in Plymouth, Michigan. Strength and conditioning is a big part of the ethos, as are practices.
To that end, the two teams play very interesting schedules that test the players at each phase. The under-17s typically start off by playing NAHL teams or squads in the Minnesota Elite League before jumping in to USHL games, where they face older and stronger competition. There is often a lot of losing early on in those USHL contests and the kids have to get used to it. There are international tournaments after that, where the Americans are usually favored (or at least near the top) and by the end of the season, the NTDP kids are playing the same USHL teams a lot tougher than they did before all the strength training they got during the season.
As for the under-18s, they play a schedule that includes USHL games, international play and games against top-notch NCAA programs (this season included dates with Wisconsin, North Dakota and Boston University). Naturally the college programs are the hardest opponents, as some of the NCAA players are 23 or even 24 years old, with all the strength and experience that goes with that.
So the coaches for both NTDP teams have to be motivators and they have to be patient. They need to be teachers and they need to run effective practices.
We've seen a lot of good minds come through The Program already and that was actually part of the reason the NTDP took off in the first place: past bench bosses include NCAA legend Jeff Jackson and current NHL coaches David Quinn and John Hynes, among others.
Who should the NTDP be looking at now? One of the most prominent candidates just came onto the market in Dan Muse, who was relieved of his duties as an assistant coach with the Nashville Predators this week. Muse has also coached at the NCAA and USHL levels, while working with USA Hockey in the past as video coach for two world junior squads, including in 2013 where he won a gold medal.
There's also J.D. Forrest, who played for one of those early NTDP squads as a defenseman and has spent the past four seasons as an assistant coach with the AHL's Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Forrest also has USA Hockey ties, as a former assistant coach with the NTDP, among other posts.
Speaking of in-house candidates, former NHLer and Stanley Cup winner Dan Hinote would be an option for promotion, since he's already an assistant coach with The Program, not to mention Nick Fohr, who has been with the NTDP since 2011.
Another name to consider is Detroit Red Wings assistant coach Adam Nightingale - he's an up-and-comer who has also worked for the Buffalo Sabres and Michigan State, plus he was a video coach for the 2015 U.S. world junior squad.
There's also NCAA coaches such as Michigan assistant Kris Mayotte or former Miami head Enrico Blasi to consider.
Whichever way the NTDP goes, the USA braintrust will have to be fairly quick with their search: the plan is for kids to show up on Aug. 31 for orientation in Michigan, with the schedule to follow (though the pandemic has that in flux right now). It's an exciting time for The Program - but the clock is ticking.