The U.S. National Team Development Program, or USNTDP, is a system that allows American Hockey to retain control over the development of their best young players. While some prospects still escape their nets despite the scouting and tryouts that constitute the selection process, most of the country's elite talent spends some time in the program.
This year's edition of the U-18 group is exceptionally strong. The early arrival of 16-year-old Jack Hughes plays a part in that, but the prospects eligible for the 2018 draft look to be very promising as well, drawing scouts from all over the NHL.
And at the center of the attention is Oliver Wahlstrom.
Place of Birth: Yarmouth, ME, USA
Position: Right Wing
Weight: 205 lbs.
Wahlstrom is putting up numbers rivaling some of the best that have preceded him in the USNTDP. With an exceptional season of 46 goals, he is one of the best scorers that the team has ever seen, trailing only Auston Matthews and Kieffer Bellows in terms of single-season scoring.
His production is driven by his exceptional shot, one of the best in the draft. He is also a volume shooter, putting up more than four shots per game during his time with the U-18 team.
With quick and powerful wristers, Wahlstrom is able to pick corners while situated anywhere from the slot all the way to the offensive blue-line. He easily finds lanes to shoot in and, even when facing heavy traffic, can thread the needle through multiple bodies. Leaving him with a look at the net with the puck on his stick is generally a bad idea.
Wahlstrom can also fire effective one-timers. He is not one to unleash everything he has on slap-shots, but instead always looks to release the puck with a balance of strength and precision.
But even if Wahlstrom is defined by his shooting ability, he is more than simply his team's cannon. He has very skillful hands, enabling him to play keep-away from defenders for a long time on the Junior stage - and he doesn't shy away from displaying this ability when the situation calls for it.
Wahlstrom is a creative player in how he constantly finds ways to keep possession under pressure. He isn't as shifty as some of the other players in the draft, but he never loses track of the puck, even while surrounded. By using the full extent of his reach and his ability to stickhandle very close to his body, he makes it hard to take away the puck from him in tight quarters.
His dangling prowess also creates space for him to unleash his shot, leading to some highlight reel goals like the one he scored against the Michigan Wolverines, Quinn Hughes' NCAA team.
The speed at which he can transition from shuffling the puck to releasing it has goaltenders guessing as to when and where he will shoot, leaving them barely any time to adapt when he decides to launch the puck at the top of the net.
But, despite his identity as a goal scorer, Wahlstrom can set up others just as well, and has a great vision of the ice. He sees plays develop quickly and can slide the puck over to his teammates for tap-ins after having attracted defenders. He is also able to circumvent closed passing lanes quite easily with his puck handling abilities.
The above clip is also another good example of how impressive Wahlstrom's hands are. Here, he sees the defender approaching quickly, realizing that a toe drag wouldn't work due to his proximity to the opponent.
So, while being almost on top of the puck, he brings it across his body, sliding his bottom hand down his stick to follow the movement of the puck freely to the other side while avoiding an inevitable stick lift from the defender. After pulling off this great move, Wahlstrom then finds Jack Hughes for the goal with a behind-the-back hook pass.
It's clear Wahlstrom's skills are on another level compared to most of players in the draft. And while his top speed could still improve in order to give him the ability to waltz through defenders off the rush more often, his great acceleration makes his stickhandling very effective in the offensive zone.
Wahlstrom also has strong balance. He gets low with possession and opens up his legs to protect the puck, giving himself a chance to quickly change direction with the speed he’s previously generated.
His defensive game, while it isn't a weakness, still remains a work in progress. He could be more involved defensively, but has shown that his ability to read the game can translate well to his play away from the puck.
ISS Hockey: #5
Future Considerations: #8
McKeen's Hockey: #7
NHL Central Scouting: #7 (NA skaters)
Despite being often listed as a center, Wahlstrom's place at the professional level is very likely on the wing, mostly due to his playstyle and the fact that, for the most part, it is the position he has been developing in.
The prospect is committed to Harvard University next season, but seems to still be considering other options. The Cape Breton Screaming Eagles own his CHL rights, representing another, although unrealistic, possibility for him next year.
No matter what he chooses, Wahlstrom will need some seasoning in lower leagues before he is ready for the NHL. He has to continue to work on his skating and, with his 6'1” frame, he has showcased at times that he is capable of bringing a greater physical edge to his game, another tool that, when added to an already full kit, could turn him into an incredibly dominant player at the next level.