When NHL scouts look at Jack Peart, they see a ton of potential in the 2021 draft prospect. The Fargo Force defenseman may not have the biggest frame at 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, but his tools are incredible and the kid still has so much more potential to unlock as he matures. He's about to start a Clark Cup final series with Fargo against the Chicago Steel (who feature their own smart blueliner in fellow 2021 prospect Ryan Ufko) and based on his early playoff production, Peart is ready for the showdown. Not bad for a player who only had five games of service for the Force last year and spent the middle of this season playing Minnesota high school hockey.
"When he left after his first 16 games, at that point in January I think a lot of people considered him one of the top – if not the top – defensemen in the league at the time," said Fargo coach Pierre-Paul Lamoureux. "And all you have to do is look at our record with him in our lineup. Even last year, we went on an eight-game winning streak at the end of the year and he was part of that."
Indeed, with Peart in the lineup to start 2020-21, the Force went 11-5. Once he left, Fargo went 16-14 before he returned in early April. So why would he leave in the first place? For the uninitiated, players hop mid-season from the USHL to their high school teams every year. Minnesota high school hockey is practically a religion and even future NHL picks want to win that state title. Peart's Grand Rapids Thunderhawks were a strong contender this season but even with him in the lineup, they were upset in the regional final by Andover. Nonetheless, getting one more season with the Thunderhawks was worth it for him.
"Those are my high school buddies," Peart said. "I grew up playing hockey with them on the outdoor rink every day since I was about three. I wanted to go back and finish what I started with Grand Rapids. We got pretty close, but getting the community back into hockey and boosting the youth program there was really good for us this year."
Making the transition back to the USHL from the less competitive and more free-wheeling high school ranks was a challenge for Peart, but Lamoureux credits his defenseman with settling down again after a half-dozen games (this also happens a lot – Lamoureux recalls Dallas Stars first-rounder Riley Tufte going on an awful skid upon returning to Fargo from his high school team).
Playing against better competition in the USHL has obviously been great for Peart's development and having the support of the Force organization with him has been a boon.
"It's been awesome," Peart said. "Ever since I went there in September, I've felt like I'm so much better than before I got there. There are so many tools in place to make the players better in the USHL and I thank everyone in Fargo for everything they've done for me. It's a great spot."
Peart is the type of player perfect for a spot like Fargo: The world is in front of him, but he is still at the beginning of his journey. As good as he is at hockey, Peart was also an outfielder in baseball and only stopped playing that sport seriously a little while ago.
"There's a lot of room to grow, no question," Lamoureux said. "He's always been a seasonal athlete. This was the first year where hockey was his dedicated full-time sport in terms of day-in-day-out, getting the practice time and touches, lifting weights and training for the first time under a regimented program. That's why we saw such an impact player early on for us. And he's only going to continue to grow in that area."
As for the thinking side of the game, that's where Peart has always been a natural.
"The only player we've had in Fargo that challenged his hockey sense is Blake Lizotte from the Los Angeles Kings," Lamoureux said. "Jack is the smartest player and defenseman we've had since this staff has been here. His hockey sense and anticipation are definitely strengths for him, which projecting long-term is going to allow him to play as a medium-sized defenseman."
In the short term, Peart's challenge is to win that USHL championship. The Steel will be a formidable opponent, but Peart is not alone: fellow 2021 draft prospect Tristan Broz has been an offensive weapon for the Force, while NHL prospects Aaron Huglen (BUF) and Austin Wong (WPG) bring experience, not to mention skill and physicality, respectively.
Once Peart is done in the USHL, the next step will be college, where he is slated to join St. Cloud State. In the meantime, you'll likely hear his name called in the second round of the NHL draft – and that will likely make at least one of that franchise's scouts very, very happy.