There's something cooking at the U.S. National Team Development Program's training center in Ann Arbor, Mich., and the main ingredient is high-end defensemen. There are seven of them -- but most notably five with 1992 birthdays projected to go in the top two rounds of the June 25 NHL draft.
They are Derek Forbort, Jon Merrill, Stephen Johns, Jarred Tinordi and Justin Faulk. (The under-agers, eligible for the 2011 draft, are Adam Clendening and Frankie Simonelli.) Collectively, they're a hulking group of diversely talented blueliners with the size and skill coveted by NHL teams. Instead of going the junior hockey route, they each chose to hone their skills playing the development program's grueling schedule against older, stronger college teams, and to participate in its rigorous off-ice training program.
The 6-foot-4, 195-pound Forbort, of Duluth, Minn., is ranked No. 11 overall by NHL Central Scouting. He is a detail-oriented, two-way defender, always spot-on with his stick position, reach and angles. He had five goals and 23 assists in 65 games this season.
The 6-3, 205-pound Merrill (No. 20) plays the point on the power play and uses smarts and great on-ice vision to slow the play and control the transition game. The Brighton, Mich., native tallied five goals and 27 assists in 56 games this season.
The 6-3, 220-pound Johns, of Wampum, Penn., (No. 35) is outstanding on the rush and is likely the strongest player, pound-for-pound, in the program. He's a physical presence on the penalty kill and had three goals and 19 points in 62 games.
The 38th-ranked Tinordi, son of former NHL D-man Mark Tinordi, is 6-4 and 205 pounds. He's known for on- and off-ice leadership and is a tough, stay-at-home backliner who finishes his checks in the corners. Tinordi had 17 points and 105 penalty minutes in 65 games this season.
The 56th-ranked Faulk is, at 5-11, the shortest in the group, but at 200 pounds, he's right there with the others in the muscle category. The South St. Paul, Minn., native, known for his heavy shot from the point, is the most offensively gifted defenseman in the program. Last season, he set an NTDP season record for defensemen with 21 goals in 60 games, besting the mark of 16 set by St. Louis Blues defenseman Erik Johnson.
Ryan Rezmierski, the program's director of player personnel, insists there was no great shift toward defense that led to the development of this year's defensive class. "The moons just aligned for us," he says. "Defensively, this draft class was exceptionally deep across the United States. And let's face it, these guys all have what the NHL wants: freakish -- and I mean that in a most endearing way -- physical tools."
Scouts agree. "It's just a cluster, one of those cyclical things," says one Western Conference scout. "Every draft is unique. Some are deep on goalies, some have lots of centers, this one has a lot of defensemen, and the U.S. program gets to invite all the best kids to play. Based on their ability and their athleticism, all five of them have a chance to play in the NHL."
The NHL was always a dream, but none of the five believed he could actually make a living in the NHL until this season. Scouts flocked to games and the U.S. won its second consecutive gold at the U-18 World Championships, raising each's draft stock.
"I never even thought about the NHL being a reality until this year, and even now it's crazy to even think about," says Merrill. "I knew I was going to play in college, but I hadn't figured anything else out yet. I thought I might be a fireman. But then, my coaches told me if I kept working hard, I could make a career out of hockey."
Tinordi agrees. "Everything happened really quickly for me this year," he says. "I'm from an area that's not highly regarded for hockey. I wasn't even the best kid on my team growing up. But this season with the national team, I realized I might be able to play in the NHL one day."
In the immediate future, all five will look to make an impact with their chosen college programs -- Forbort at North Dakota, Faulk at Minnesota-Duluth, Merrill at Michigan, Johns and Tinordi at Notre Dame -- regardless of where they are chosen and who they are chosen by in the draft.
"I don't care where I go," says Tinordi. "As long as I get drafted, I'll be happy." And so will the NTDP.