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KUA Players Attract Attention From NHL Scouts

  • Kimball Union Academy forward Dominic Franco, center.<br/>Dave Arnold photograph

    Kimball Union Academy forward Dominic Franco, center.
    Dave Arnold photograph

  • Kimball Union Academy forward Tyler Bird.<br/>Dave Arnold photograph

    Kimball Union Academy forward Tyler Bird.
    Dave Arnold photograph

  • Kimball Union Academy forward J.D. Dudek.<br/>Dave Arnold photograph

    Kimball Union Academy forward J.D. Dudek.
    Dave Arnold photograph

  • Kimball Union Academy boys hockey coach Tim Whitehead, left, and forward J.D. Dudek show off the WIldcats' Piatelli-Simmons small school championship trophy.<br/>Dave Arnold photograph

    Kimball Union Academy boys hockey coach Tim Whitehead, left, and forward J.D. Dudek show off the WIldcats' Piatelli-Simmons small school championship trophy.
    Dave Arnold photograph

  • Kimball Union Academy forward Dominic Franco, center.<br/>Dave Arnold photograph
  • Kimball Union Academy forward Tyler Bird.<br/>Dave Arnold photograph
  • Kimball Union Academy forward J.D. Dudek.<br/>Dave Arnold photograph
  • Kimball Union Academy boys hockey coach Tim Whitehead, left, and forward J.D. Dudek show off the WIldcats' Piatelli-Simmons small school championship trophy.<br/>Dave Arnold photograph

Meriden — Having observed it from both the college and professional angle, Kimball Union Academy boys hockey coach Tim Whitehead sees positives and negatives to one of his charges attracting the NHL’s scrutiny.

Three of his Wildcats have done just that in the past few months, and a fourth could be on the way in the next year. Forwards Tyler Bird, J.D. Dudek and Dominic Franco all landed on NHL Central Scouting’s mid-term prospects report in January; Whitehead expects forward A.J. Greer to receive similar notice when he becomes draft-eligible next winter.

There’s the plus of knowing someone in professional hockey thinks you have a future in the game. The reality, however, is that if a teenager such as Franco or Dudek is chosen, they’re still looking at several years before even sniffing an NHL game.

So Whitehead’s role as a coach turns to that of an advisor, balancing a likely college present with a not-guaranteed professional future.

“I don’t think it’s a responsibility, but it is one piece of the puzzle,” Whitehead explained this week. “As far as loyalty to those kids and parents that have potential, it’s part of the process. …

“KUA has been successful the last five or six years with hockey and attracting some elite players. They are going to get pro attention because of the younger draft age in hockey. … It’s exciting for them and their families, but I’ve been through it many times. It’s an interesting process: You have to be careful because when you’re ranked by Central Scouting, the tendency for some people is to move things faster than they should be moved.”

Hockey players must have been born by Sept. 15, 1996, to be eligible for this year’s NHL draft, which is scheduled for June 27-28 in Philadelphia. Eighteen-year-olds not selected last year may also remain draft-eligible this time around.

A 6-foot-1½, 202-pound forward, Bird is the highest-ranked Wildcat on the mid-term report at No. 123 out of more than 200 North American prospects. Dudek, knocking on the door of 6 feet, checked in at No. 157, while Franco — a 6-foot-3 junior who will return to KUA next winter — was No. 183.

Dudek, an Auburn, N.H., native and former Pinkerton Academy forward, isn’t letting the NHL’s attention go to his head.

“I see that as quite an honor, taking the time to look at me, but at the same time I’m not letting it get to me,” said Dudek, the son of 1980s Plymouth State Heisman Trophy candidate Joe Dudek. “It’s a huge honor to be on that list. I have to keep working hard and doing things off the ice that get noticed.”

Even though the NEPSAC hockey season ended with KUA’s third Piatelli-Simmons small school championship in five years last month, the Wildcat prospects still have on-ice options for scouts to attend.

Dudek, Bird, Franco and Greer joined Kimball Union teammate Jack McCarthy for the Beantown Spring Classic in Marlborough, Mass., two weekends ago. The quintet skated for a team coached by Los Angeles Kings scout Bob Crocker. Such events aren’t uncommon once the prep season concludes.

Neither are the chances to link with coaches or trainers in hockey-specific workout scenarios. While on his spring break from KUA, Dudek has been traveling from his home to nearby Salem to work with Proform Development, getting on- and off-ice attention.

“Two main things I need to improve on is what everyone needs, staying in the gym and getting stronger and working to get quicker on the ice,” said Dudek, a Boston College-bound senior who will play junior hockey next winter. “Each level is about development and getting faster. A personal thing for myself is probably shooting the puck more. I’m a little too selfless instead of selfish. It’s good to mix it up.”

Likewise, Franco is trying to keep the NHL’s notice in perspective.

“I talk to people who know and see what they think,” the Scituate, R.I., native said. “I’ll keep tabs on it, but I don’t if I’m going to watch the whole (draft). … I’m more inclined to work toward college rather than pro, because it’s a long way out.”

A veteran of NCAA Division I coaching at Maine and UMass-Lowell as well as a former scout for the Vancouver Canucks, Whitehead has the benefit of seeing a player getting the NHL’s attention from both sides.

The one-time college coach in him rules his views these days. Comparing hockey to baseball, which also permits the drafting of high school-age athletes, Whitehead believes teenage prospects would be better served by an older draft age, because it would alleviate a little bit of the uncertainty of projecting a player’s progress over so many intervening years.

“Obviously, it would increase the chances of making the right selection,” Whitehead said. “The older they are, the easier it is to predict. For now, it’s where it’s at.”

The NHL will produce a final prospects list this spring. Making it is no guarantee of being drafted: The CSB ranks some 500 players between North American and European skaters and goaltenders, with just 210 slots available for the 30 NHL teams come draft day.

Whitehead’s advice?

“Keep it in perspective; it’s difficult to do that,” the KUA coach said. “My advice to them is let’s not worry about that; it’s getting the cart ahead of the horse. Keep doing what you’re doing.

“It’s exciting to be recognized as a potential pro player, but it’s so far down the road. You have to resist the temptation to get caught up in it, look at the draft list and imagine where you might be drafted. Because it may never happen.”

Ice Chips: The mid-term rankings included Canaan’s Gavin Bayreuther, a freshman defenseman at St. Lawrence, at No. 115. Bayreuther, who once skated on Hanover Hockey Association youth teams, wasn’t on the NHL’s mid-term report but made the final list last year (at No. 186) and wasn’t drafted. He didn’t hurt his prospects this winter, leading the ECAC in assists (27), ranking second in the nation in points per game by blueliners (0.95) and making the all-league second team and all-rookie team. He was named ECAC co-rookie of the year with Quinnipiac’s Sam Anas on Friday. … Bird is bound for Brown University, coached by former Dartmouth assistant Brendan Whittet, in the fall. … Franco said he’s yet to seriously look at his collegiate future. … Whitehead said Greer, a junior, is fast-tracking his studies so he can graduate this spring before joining KUA graduates Doyle Somerby and Nick Roberto at Boston University. … Somerby is KUA’s last NHL draft pick. A 2013 graduate, the 6-foot-5 blueliner was chosen in the fifth round of the ’12 draft by the New York Islanders. Somerby had four points in 34 games as a freshman this season at BU, which went 10-21-4 and will miss the NCAA tournament.

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.