Line charts for tonight's game between Team Grier and Team Olczyk have been released. Download each chart below.
You’ll have to forgive Jeremy Bracco for sporting a Cheshire cat grin Thursday morning as he hit the ice for practice at the First Niagara Center.
After getting his first look at the line chart and seeing he was playing with Jack Eichel (North Chelmsford, Mass.) and Kyle Connor (Shelby Township, Mich.) during the CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game, the Freeport, New York, native must have felt like he had drawn hockey’s version of Willy Wonka’s golden ticket.
For a player who has made his mark at the National Team Development Program as a celebrated playmaker, skating on a line with two A-rated players is like going on a blind date with Kate Upton.
“I don’t know how I ended up on a line with them,” said Bracco. “I guess I picked the right ticket."
“They’re definitely known for their goal-scoring abilities. They both had great years last year and they will both be picked high in [next year’s] draft so it will definitely be fun to play with them.”
But don’t kid yourself. It will be a treat for two established goal scorers like Eichel and Connor to be paired with such a prolific playmaker. Last season Bracco set the NTDP single-season assist record with 58 helpers, shattering the mark set by Patrick Kane during the 2005-06 season.
“Honestly, it’s truly a testament to the boys I play with,” said Bracco, who added 16 goals with the U.S. Under-17 Team. “It’s them that help me do that. They’re doing everything night-in and night-out to grind guys out, which gives me the opportunity to do things.”
While he has never played with Connor and Eichel, who were teammates on last year’s U.S. Under-18 Team at the IIHF Under-18 World Championship, Bracco plans on playing to his strength by getting the puck to his talented linemates.
“I’ll do my best to get them the puck,” said Bracco, “and hopefully they can bury it."
One combo of forwards that might have a chemistry advantage tonight is Tom Novak (River Falls, Wis.) and Brock Boeser (Burnsville, Minn.), who were linemates at the 2014 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup this summer along with fellow Team Olczyk teammate Dennis Yan (Troy, Mich.).
Novak and Boeser will be on a line tonight in Buffalo. Novak said he's looking forward to lining up with his familiar linemate again.
The line of Novak, Boeser and Yan was one of the top producers for Team USA at the Ivan Hlinka tournament. Novak finished as the tournament's leading scorer, Boeser was the top goal scorer and Yan finished tied for the second most points and scored the clinching goal in the third-place game.
"In a game with so many talented players, a spark of line chemistry could help create space," said Novak.
"It's a big advantage that me and Brock (Boeser) have played together several places," he said. "(Other) guys are coming in with unfamiliar faces."
For hundreds of thousands of youth hockey players, the Toyota/USA Hockey Youth National Championships are the crown jewel of their hockey experience. The same holds true for many of the players in tonight's game.
Six players have claimed national titles and more than half of the players participated in a national tournament.
Nick Boka (Plymouth, Mich.), Kyle Connor (Shelby Township, Mich.), Tory Dello (Crystal Lake, Ill.), Christian Fischer (Wayne, Ill.), Tanner Laczynski (Shorewood, Ill.) and Brendan Warren (Carleton, Mich.) all won national titles during their youth hockey careers. Connor, who won a 14 & Under championship with Belle Tire, said the experience still sticks with him and helped prepare him for games like tonight's showcase.
"(Youth Nationals) is the big prize at the end of the year, it's what you work so hard for," said Connor. "Like Nationals, tonight's game is a big stage, everyone is watching you and you are hoping to play your best."
Eddie Olczyk had a few simple pointers for the players he will coach tonight during the CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game.
“Just breathe, in your nose, out your mouth,” said the 49-year-old former head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins. “That includes the coaches, too.”
For many of the 42 players who will be suiting up tonight for Team Olczyk and Team Grier, this will be the biggest stage they have ever played on. In addition to an expected sizeable crowd inside the First Niagara Center, the game will also be broadcast live on the NHL Network.
“A lot of these kids have never played in a building like this or in an environment like this. That’s a fact,” said Olczyk. “They may try to make an extra pass or make a fancy play. Just go out and do what you do best.”
Other than that, both Olczyk and Mike Grier will do little more than open the door and let their players show what they can do.
“There’s a lot of talent on both teams. It’s a pretty impressive group of kids and it should make for a fun game tonight,” said Grier, who spent parts of four seasons in Buffalo with the Sabres.
“It’s great for me to be around the kids. They’re excited to be here. And it’s great to be around the locker room again. It’s been fun.”
With each team having only 30 minutes together during a morning skate, the idea is to keep things simple and not get bogged down with X’s and O’s.
“There’s only so much you can do in a short period of time,” said Olczyk, who is familiar with many of the players because they have competed against his own sons in the past.
“All these kids play in different leagues and with different teams that have different systems. We’re just try to give them paint-by-number, really easy stuff that allows them to go out there and play to their strengths. We want these kids to feel comfortable.”