Individually, defencemen Jack Dougherty, Jack Glover, Jonathan MacLeod and Ryan Collins did well for the United States National Team Development Program Under-18 team this season.
Together, they elevated each other and capped their season with a gold medal at the 2014 IIHF World Under-18 Championship.
That togetherness carried them through a stressful time that saw them under the microscope of NHL scouts.
"It's always fun to have teammates around," MacLeod said. "Gives you a little bit of reassurance that you got some buddies here to support you and you support them."
Each of the four brought something different to the table.
Dougherty made the biggest impression in the quickest way, going from St. Thomas Academy in his native Minnesota to a huge part of the USNTDP blue line. In 55 games the 6-foot, 184-pounder had six goals and 22 points. At the World Under-18s he had two goals and four points in seven games, and his plus-7 rating was tied for first among all defencemen at the tournament.
NHL Central Scouting put him at No. 30 in its final ranking of North American skaters for the 2014 NHL Draft.
"Jack is a strong skater who moves well in any direction," Central Scouting's David Gregory said. "When he's being quick with his feet he is much more effective defending and with his gap control. He makes good decisions with the puck and is a very good passer off the rush. … He will probably need to be a little more physical at the next level, but that will certainly come as he gets stronger with age."
Most players who go through the USNTDP do it for two seasons, allowing the group to bond on and off the ice. Dougherty, though, didn't need long to become a key piece in the lineup.
"His learning curve was pretty steep," USNTDP U-18 coach Danton Cole said. "He brings a good element of offence to him. We relied on him defensively as well. He's a real well-rounded player. … We expected that he'd contribute. He was on our top power play and he also got a lot of defensive responsibility. He did a good job. That's what we expected of him."
Dougherty felt an immediate kinship with the rest of the group on and off the ice.
"All the guys were great," he said. "I felt like I was a part of the team right from Day 1 and that made it a lot easier."
It helped that he allowed his natural persona to show.
"Dougherty is a goofy kid," MacLeod said. "He's funny. He's always in a good mood."
MacLeod would know; he and Dougherty developed a bit of a comedic routine after wins.
"Me and Johnny used to re-enact a SpongeBob scene," Dougherty said, "the one where they're going and selling chocolates. We just go back and forth with our voices trying to sound like them. It's pretty funny."
When Dougherty wasn't making jokes, teammates were watching him for inspiration for their own game.
"Dougherty, the way he thinks the game, his offensive instincts, that's the thing that stuck out from him for me," Glover said. "It's something that I've enjoyed watching this year. I've tried to learn what I can from him, incorporate some of the stuff he does well into my game."
Glover has done just fine with his skill set. The 6-3, 190-pounder had 28 points in 59 games this season, and four points and a plus-2 rating in seven games at the World U-18s. He's No. 38 on Central Scouting's list.
"Jack has a pro style, especially when he's being physical," Gregory said. "He does a good job at letting the play develop and moving the puck to the correct man. He competes hard and he's tough to play against on almost every shift. Has lots of pro potential, especially as he gains experience at higher levels."
Cole said the biggest development in Glover's game was learning when to go for the big play offensively and when to hold back.
"One thing that he's improved an awful lot at is just figuring out that that play is not always there," Cole said. "Really good defencemen, a guy like Nick Lidstrom, they hit a lot of singles and once in a while there's a home run. I think the young guys that have that offensive gift sometimes think everything should be a home run. There's a subtlety to the game sometimes."
Another subtlety to Glover's game is his deviously quiet locker room mannerism.
"Jack Glover, he's always pretty sarcastic, especially around the guys," MacLeod said. "He always says those little things … I sit next to him in the locker room and you'll hear him say something under his breath and it'll be hilarious. Everyone's looking at me and saying, 'Why is MacLeod laughing?' No one hears Glover say the joke."
There's little to joke about with MacLeod's game. The 6-2, 200-pounder is the most physical of the foursome. He had five goals and 11 points in 51 regular-season games, and two goals, three points and a plus-4 rating at the Under-18s. He earned the No. 44 spot on Central Scouting's rankings.
"John plays a very physical style of game," Gregory said. "He is a very powerful hitter. When he does this he can dominate, especially in the defensive zone. It gives him lots of space to make a solid play with the puck."
The key for MacLeod is toeing the line between smart, physical play and being reckless. He had 70 penalty minutes in the regular season, but none in seven games at the U-18s.
"He likes playing [physical]," Cole said. "He's learned a lot about it; when to incorporate it and not taking penalties, having more of a controlled aggression. He's come a long way. For as physical as he played at the [Under-18s] he didn't take one penalty. But he certainly had the other teams aware of him on the ice. That's how you want to play and that's how you win championships with guys like that."
MacLeod understands how important it is for him to find that line and stay on the right side of it.
"It's about experience," he said. "I think when I first started doing it I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off. I was trying to take anybody who had the puck and kill them. As you get older and learn more about the game and how it can affect your [defence] partner, leaving him with a 2-on-1 if you step up on a guy. It's all about experience. You have to learn if you're going to do that, you have to make sure there's not going to be an odd-man rush behind you, so it's just experience."
Also still learning on the job is Collins, a 6-5, 202-pounder ranked No. 57 by Central Scouting.
"Ryan obviously has very good size," Gregory said. "He learned to use it to his advantage more as the season progressed. He's especially effective with his reach and mobility to be a good defender. He makes a deliberate first pass out of the defensive zone. He showed a good ability to carry the puck at times as well."
Collins had seven points in 59 games, saving his impact for the defensive end.
"He's a guy that we put in a lot of tough situations, most of the time against the other team's top lines or first guy out on the penalty kill," Cole said. "He started to really learn how to use his size and trust in his feet, because for a big man he's a real good skater. When he got comfortable in closing his gaps and playing tight coverage, he's real hard to get around and a bear to play against."
Collins said he looked at the trust the coaching staff had in him as a statement toward where he is in his development.
"Everyone has their role," he said. "When you find your role like that and you can do it well, it's always a compliment. It's something I embrace."
Next for Collins is the University of Minnesota, where he'll be joined by Glover. Dougherty is committed to the University of Wisconsin and MacLeod next will play at Boston University.
Though the foursome will separate for a while, it's likely they'll all see each other again in the NHL at some point.
"I think these guys are going to be good, consummate pros," Cole said. "They're going to find their way. … I think there's a lot more from all of them."
Author: Adam Kimelman | NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor
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