When talking about the Canadian Hockey League going head-to-head with college hockey, so often it’s about a top American player heading to the CHL ranks. It’s much rarer when a top player might be coming the other way. Rarer still when that player’s hockey citizenship could hang in the balance.
According to a source with knowledge of the proceedings, the National Team Development Program is actively recruiting Daniel Audette, who has been in the conversation as the No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming QMJHL Priority Selection Draft. Currently playing AAA hockey in Quebec, Audette has dual-citizenship, having been born in Buffalo while his father, Donald Audette, was playing for the Sabres.
According to the source, Daniel Audette is exploring his options for junior hockey, which now includes the NTDP.
Audette is widely considered one of the best 1996-born players in Quebec, having posted 60 points in 39 games for Collège Esther-Blondin Phénix in QMAAA.
Up until speaking with my source, I had no idea Audette was a dual citizen. In fact, earlier this year, Audette participated in the World Under-17 Hockey Challenege as a member of Team Quebec, one of the few 15-year-olds invited to participate for a Canadian team. That he would go anywhere besides the QMJHL never really dawned on anyone.
That’s what makes this recruiting battle so intriguing. The NTDP is often battling with the CHL over certain players, but not often have we seen something quite like this.
The closest example is when the NTDP extended an invitation to Stefan Matteau. The son of NHLer Stephane participated in the NTDP’s tryout camp, was offered a spot and accepted. Now he’s turned himself into a consensus first-round pick for the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.
Matteau, also a dual citizen, was being pursued by the QMJHL at the same time. Stefan was born in Chicago while Stephane was playing for the Blackhawks, spending much of his youth between the U.S. and Quebec, until he went off to Notre Dame in Saskatchewan.
When the younger Matteau chose the NTDP, his father was actually “sanctioned” by Hockey Quebec and was not allowed to coach in their youth programs. Apparently Hockey Quebec wasn’t happy that Matteau would allow his son to play for the U.S. program.
Later, the elder Matteau was hired by the QMJHL’s Blainville-Boisbriand Armada as an assistant coach, and the younger decommitted from North Dakota in order to sign with the Armada upon the conclusion of his NTDP career.
Audette’s case is interesting. He’s one of the top players in Quebec, but he’s small, at 5-7, 160. His elite offensive game would likely translate at the QMJHL level, but 16-year-old players, particularly ones that aren’t as physically developed, tend to struggle at the outset of major junior.
What likely makes the NTDP intriguing for Audette is the strength program, and more of a focus on development as opposed to winning at all cost. The NTDP also has had several smaller players stand out and see success in recent years like Rocco Grimaldi who earned a second-round selection in the NHL Draft despite his 5-6, 170-pound frame. Audette is clearly a special talent, but perhaps a few years of seasoning before going the major junior route wouldn’t be the worst idea.
What complicates matters for the Audette Family is that Donald was named by Hockey Quebec as the head coach for Team Quebec for the 2013 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge earlier this week. Daniel would have been a shoo-in for the team anyway, but having his father behind the bench has to be alluring.
According to the source, this recent development hasn’t changed much. Daniel is still considering the NTDP as an option. The World Under-17 Challenge lasts a week and has minimal impact on a players’ development, so looking at the big picture is important.
This is the third straight year the NTDP has been in a head-to-head battle with the QMJHL. Two years ago it was over Stefan Matteau. Despite all of the turmoil his decision may have caused temporarily in Hockey Quebec, Matteau is showing that he probably made the right decision as he’d developed into a bona fide first-rounder.
Last year, Brandon Shea, a Massachusetts native had signed a player agreement to be part of this year’s U.S. National Under-17 Team at the NTDP. Later in the summer, he backed out on the commitment to join the Moncton Wildcats. It looked like a victory for the QMJHL, but as Shea’s ice time dwindled, the player became increasingly frustrated and he left Moncton. Since the trading deadline had passed, Shea could not be moved to a new team. Shea has been sitting at home since February, not playing hockey. A year of development essentially lost and he’s down to one option: going back to the Q.
Now it comes down to Audette. The scoring phenom, born in Buffalo, raised in Quebec, has to weigh all options. It seems like going to the QMJHL would be the easy decision. It’s probably what everyone expects him to do. Going to the NTDP is rife with many implications from player development to which country Audette would prefer to represent in international competition.
I have been a proponent of American players keeping their options open until at least their 17-year-old season. It is simply making sure a player has all the appropriate tools to make a decision. There is far less certainty for a 16-year-old, in terms of how he’ll pan out in the long term, than there is even at 17 and 18. That one year of development makes a world of difference.
By playing in a league in which college eligibility remains untainted, a player gives himself more options for longer. If Audette chose the NTDP, he keeps two doors open, essentially. He can choose the college route or he can choose the Major Junior route, but in both cases, he might be in a better position to choose the right course because he’d know more about where he stands as a prospect at 17 or 18 than he does at 16.
That said, despite his size, Audette has clearly become a highly coveted player. Most players would probably kill to have the two opportunities he has to choose from. Now the ball is in his court to make the final decision.
Whatever Audette decides, this is still one of the more unique recruiting battles we’ve seen in this Major Junior vs. College/USHL/NTDP debate, with so many different implications for both the player and the future of this recruiting war.
At the center of it all, however, is just one player with an incredibly difficult decision to make. What implications this has on the recruiting battle is irrelevant to Audette, which is so easy to forget. Each individual can only do what is best for them and not worry about the rest. As long as the player is comfortable with his choice, that’s all that really matters in the end.