The United States National Team Development Program has established itself as one of the top NHL player factories in the world. Last year was a bit of an anomaly with just a couple of high-end entrants for the draft, but 2022’s class once again features several players near the top of the list.
The development system brings together the top young players in the U.S. and develops them through a series of levels as they progress toward the professional game. Occasionally there are players who prove to be too strong for their assigned section, and that was the case last season for a 16-year-old Isaac Howard.
Scoring 27 goals and an equal number of assists at the under-17 level, he earned some time with the under-18 squad. Goals were harder to come by among the more advanced players, but he still managed to be a point-per-game player, and that really put him on the map for the 2022 NHL Draft.
Birthplace: Hudson, Wisconsin
Date of birth: March 30, 2004
Position: Left Wing
Weight: 183 lbs.
Team: U.S. National Team Development Program
Another year of maturity allowed him to lead the under-18 team in points this season with 82 in 60 games, and he eclipsed the point-per-game mark while with the under-20 squad in 27 USHL games, topping that group in points as well. His year-to-year progression was apparent at the recent World Under-18 Championship, where his name was once more found in the top spot on the team leaderboard with 11 points in six games. Four of his six goals came in the opening game versus Team Canada, a performance that piqued the interest of scouts and analysts.
What observers saw from the eventual silver medalist at the tournament was the exceptional skating ability that his game is built around. His mobility is among the best to be found among the 2022 crop of prospects, both in sheer speed and his agility when changing directions. Good balance in his 5’10” frame keeps him stable enough to get a powerful shot away after a quick cut.
That makes him hard to defend, so he’s been able to drive right to the net throughout his Junior career. He launches a lot of shots, and they come from close range leading to plenty of goals or at least rebounds off a goalie given little time to react.
When he’s not the one holding the puck himself, he’s very good at getting into position to accept a pass for a shot, not unlike the way Cole Caufield used to do with the program. He stays in motion to keep passing lanes open, finding an area that gives him space to work with.
In the defensive zone, he’s always looking for ways to get the puck and sprint up ice with it on his stick, usually by intercepting passes. He’s described as a competitive off-puck player who’s constantly trying to win possession, however, as the microstats show, he wasn’t that successful at turning that effort into impact.
When he does wrest control of the puck from an opponent, it can quickly turn into a goal at the opposite end, but while he does prefer to grab the puck and race away, his other transition abilities aren’t nearly so effective. He is sometimes too eager to show off his speed and races down the ice before a teammate actually has possession. When skating the puck over the blue line isn’t an option, he has trouble connecting on a pass.
That lagging ability to include his teammates in the play is seen in all three zones; in his low exit and entry success rates as he attempts to cross blue lines, and also in his shot-assist number that is significantly below his own shooting rate.
For some players you could blame that on not having linemates who can keep up with their play, but that doesn’t apply in this case. He spent the full season — at the three levels he competed in — on the wing of Frank Nazar, who may be an even better skater than Howard is.
It’s not apparent in his high assist totals, but the tracked data paints a picture of a player who is not a strong passer. He’s overly focused on doing all of the work himself. and his ability to make use of his teammates is significantly behind his other talents.
Elite Prospects: N/R
Hockey Prospect: #20
Bob McKenzie (TSN): #15
NHL Central Scouting: #9 (North American skaters)
Corey Pronman (The Athletic) #12
Scott Wheeler (The Athletic): #23
Debating how those top-tier skills weigh against his weaknesses can be seen throughout his rankings, as some outlets have him going in the top half of the opening round, and others have him much farther down the list — or not on the list at all.
The main question for teenagers entering the draft is: Can the abilities that worked well versus young peers translate to the NHL level? In Howard’s case, with a lot of his success relying on his speed, there’s some doubt about his ability to adapt to better defence at higher levels, especially when he has trouble deferring to others even now. He can be a good finisher for a great playmaking centre like Nazar, but right now he requires that linemate to do the brunt of the work creating the plays.
Does he just not have the vision and awareness to be as good a setup man as a finisher, or is it just that he’s always had so much success using just his speed and shot that he didn’t have to really flesh out his playmaking and passing games? He does have a good understanding of how to make himself the option for his teammates, and now needs to realize that his linemates are trying to do the same for him.