While North Dakota-bound defenseman Charlie Pelnik is still leading the race to become the first North Carolina-trained player to be drafted by the NHL, Josh Wesley isn't far behind.
The 15-year-old son of former Hurricanes defenseman and current front-office executive Glen Wesley will become the first North Carolina player to join USA Hockey's National Team Development Program next fall, yet another milestone for the growth of hockey in the Triangle.
“It’s a huge honor for me, just growing up looking at the USA Hockey magazines and being a kid, looking at Team USA,” Josh Wesley said. “It’s always been a dream of mine to be there. It’s a huge honor for me.”
The NTDP, a residential program in Ann Arbor, Mich., designed to groom 16- and 17-year-olds for international play, attracts the top American players from across the country, at least the ones who aren’t lured away by the financial offers from Canada’s junior leagues.
College and NHL scouts alike swarm over the NTDP, looking for the blue-chip recruits and first-round draft picks of the future. The NTDP, meanwhile, provides the backbone of the U.S. under-17 and under-18 teams that compete internationally.
Wesley is eligible for the 2014 NHL draft. By then, an NHL team may already own Pelnik's rights. Red Line Report, an independent scouting service, has Pelnik ranked in the 70-90 range for 2013, but chief scout Kyle Woodlief said with a good season, Pelnik could move into the second round.
"He’s got the size and enough puck skill to believe he could rise up into the second-round range if he comes on next year," Woodlief wrote in an email. "The downside at this point is still his decision making -- he tends not to make his decisions quickly enough, and when under forechecking pressure can throw the puck away."
Two USHL players from North Carolina -- forward Bryan Moore (Matthews) and defenseman Trevor Owens (Raleigh) -- have an outside shot in June's draft. Both were on the NHL’s preseason watch list for June’s draft, but weren’t ranked among the top 210 North American skaters at midseason.
Wesley was one of three Triangle players who were invited to tryout for the NTDP, joining forward Laythe Jadallah, who played at a prep school in Connecticut this season, and goalie Logan Halladay, a Junior Hurricanes teammate from Holly Springs.
“People up north try to brainwash these parents, telling them, ‘You got to get out of there, you got to get to Detroit, you have to leave,’ ” said Colin Muldoon, the director of player development for the Junior Hurricanes program. “It’s nice to show these guys, it’s not where you’re from, it’s what you do.”
The odds were stacked against all of them, with the vast majority of NTDP players historically coming from the 3Ms -- Minnesota, Massachusetts, Michigan. As the geographic diversity of American hockey has grown, so has the national representation on the NTDP. Wesley always thought he could get North Carolina onto the list.
“Honestly, I believed I could,” Wesley said. “Hockey’s growing here in North Carolina, slowly, but surely. It’s been great.”
A 6-foot-2, 175-pound defenseman who will turn 16 next week, Wesley hasn’t decided whether he’ll go the college route or play junior hockey like his father, the third overall pick in the 1987 draft.
Glen Wesley isn’t really thinking about his son’s hockey future right now, other than being proud of the way it’s developing. The family still has to sign the paperwork, which is why USA Hockey hasn’t announced Wesley’s addition.
“To be able to have him grow with his peers and be able to get some international experience and also play with the U.S. program, I think that’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Glen Wesley said.