TheColorOfHockey

Diversity abounds in 2016 NHL Draft class, from top to bottom

You don’t have to look very hard to gauge the depth of diversity in the 2016 National Hockey League Draft.

Players of color populate NHL Central Scouting’s  list of talented skaters eligible for the June 24-25 draft at the First Niagara Center, home of the Buffalo Sabres, from top to bottom.

Let’s start at the top with forward Auston Matthews, the draft’s presumptive  first overall pick – unless the Toronto Maple Leafs shock the hockey world.

Auston Matthews is poised to go from Arizona to Zurich to the NHL Number One draft pick.

Matthews embodies hockey’s  growing diversity – both racially and geographically. His mother, Ema, is from Mexico, and his father, Brian, from California.

Born and raised in Arizona, Matthews  got hooked on hockey watching the NHL Arizona Coyotes play. He hails from a non-traditional market and will reach the NHL via an unconventional route for a North American teenager.

After playing two seasons for the  USA Hockey National Team Development Program, Matthews skated for the ZSC Lions in Switzerland’s professional National League A in the 2015-16 season, reportedly earning $400,000.

He scored 24 goals and 22 assists in 46 regular season games for the Lions and tallied 3 assists for the Zurich-based team in four playoff games.

Matthews also suited up for United States at the International Ice Hockey Federation 2016 World Junior Championship in Helsinki, Finland in December and January. He tied for the tournament lead in goals with 7 and finished fourth overall in points with 11 in powering the U.S.to a Bronze Medal.

He’s currently playing for the U.S. at the IIHF World Championship in Russia and has 3 goals and 3 assists in seven games.

The 6-foot-2, 194-pound Matthews is a “trailblazer, in all forms of the word,” his agent, Pat Brisson, told USA Hockey Magazine. “He’s an 18-year-old who’s ready to play in the NHL.”

California-born and Arizona-raised, Auston Matthews represented the U.S. twice this season in international tournaments.

Givani Smith, a right wing for the Ontario Hockey League’s Guelph Storm, is ranked as the 54th-best North American skater by Central Scouting. He’s hoping to follow in the skates of his older brother, center Gemel Smith, who was drafted by the Dallas Stars in 2012 in the fourth round with the 104th overall pick.

Givani  tallied 23 goals, 19 assists, and 146 penalty minutes in 65 games for Guelph in 2015-16. Gemel had 13 goals, 13 assists, and 24 penalty minutes in 65 games for the Texas Stars, Dallas’ American Hockey League farm team.

Big brother Gemel has offered some sage advice to Givani ahead of June’s draft: “Don’t believe the hype – good or bad.”

Guelph Storm forward Givani Smith looks to join older brother Gemel Smith in the pros (Photo/Terry Wilson/OHL Images).

“Most of his advice has been ‘Don’t go on social media and read what people are writing about you,'” Givani told the website Hockey’s Future. “Play your game; and if you play a good game, you’ll be rewarded in the end…I have a Twitter account and I know what’s going on, but I try not to pay too much attention to it.”

Fans at OHL London Knights home playoff games weren’t showering a player with boos. They were chanting of “Puuu,” paying homage to Knights forward Cliff Pu, ranked the 75th-best North American skater by Central Scouting.

“At first, I didn’t know they were doing it,” Pu said of the special cheer to The Hockey News. “It’s pretty funny – and it’s better than them booing, so it’s all fun and games.”

The 6-foot-1, 188-pound Pu notched 12 goals, 19 assists, and 24 penalty minutes in 63 regular season games for the Knights. He became a beast in the OHL playoffs, tallying 8 goals and 5 assists in 18 games.

Size, speed, and desire are keys to London Knights’ Cliff Pu’s game – and path to the NHL (Photo/Aaron Bell/OHL Images).

“I like to use my speed and find my teammates,” Pu told The Hockey News. “But it’s all about the team and whatever I need to do, I’m down for it.”

Pu , whose parents came to Canada from China, gained a lot of attention in January by celebrating a goal in an unusual fashion in today’s game – with a handshake.

Peterborough Petes center Jonathan Ang is North America’s 95th-best skater, according to Central Scouting, up from 137 in the mid-term rankings. A  Canadian of Malaysian descent, he finished fourth on the Petes in scoring in 2015-16 with 21 goals and 28 assists in 68 games.

Jonathan Ang of the Peterborough Petes (Photo/ Aaron Bell/OHL Images).

Ang led the Petes in playoff scoring, tallying 3 goals and 6 assists in seven games with one playoff  game-winning goal. In an OHL coach’s poll in March, Ang tied for second as the league’s best skater.

Like Ang,  defenseman James “J.D.” Greenway has moved up in the draft rankings – from 128 at mid-term to 121 in Central Scouting’s final report.

A member of the USA Hockey National Team Development Program Under-18 squad that competes against United States Hockey League, collegiate, and international teams, Greenway scored 5 goals and 23 assists in 64 games.

J.D. Greenway wants to play in the NHL – after college.

The Potsdam, N.Y., native is hoping to continue the family draft tradition. His brother, Boston University left wing Jordan Greenway, was chosen by the Minnesota Wild last year in the second round with the 50th overall pick.

Like his brother, J.D. is going the NCAA Division I route before turning pro. The 6-foot-4, 205-pound D-man recently committed to play for the University of Wisconsin.

It looks like Yushiro Hirano’s decision last year to pay his own way to travel from hometown Sapporo, Japan to Youngstown, Ohio, is paying off. Hirano, a 20-year-old right wing for the USHL’s Youngstown Phantoms is ranked as the 184th-best draft-eligible player in North America.

Hirano – whose first name is sometimes spelled Yushiroh – came to the U.S.to catch the eyes of professional scouts. The 6-foot, 200-pound winger scored  24 goals and 22 assists 54 regular season games in 2015-16.

“I hope to grow the game in Japan and make everybody proud,” Hirano told me last year in an email exchange. “I also want to play well enough to get to the professional ranks here in the United States.”

Yushiro Hirano’s decision to relocate from Japan to Ohio to play hockey might pay off at June’s NHL Draft (Photo/Bill Paterson).

Right wing Daniel Muzito-Bagenda is another import, from the land of Volvos and Saabs. The Swedish Muzito-Bagenda is a high-scoring forward for the OHL’s Mississauga Steelheads and the 205th-ranked player in North America available for the draft.

He had 20 goals and 17 assists in 63 regular season games for the Steelheads and 6 goals and 4 assists in seven OHL playoff games.

A product of Sweden’s storied Modo hockey program, Mississauga Steelheads’ Daniel Muzito-Bagenda hopes to hear his name called at the NHL Draft (Photo/Aaron Bell/OHL Images).

One player who didn’t make Central Scouting’s cut but still could draw interest in later rounds is defenseman Jalen Smereck of the OHL’s Oshawa Generals. Born in Detroit, Smereck  was the 299th overall pick of the 2013 OHL draft.

He signed with Oshawa in summer 2015 and was pressed into heavy minutes on the Generals’ blue line throughout the 2015-16 season. He responded by scoring 5 goals and 20 assists in 63 regular season games and 1 goal and 4 assists in five playoff contests.

“For a team that was certainly rebuilding, he was a stalwart on defense,” hockey blogger and researcher Margann Laurissa told me recently. “Jalen played in all situations for the Gennies and there is no reason why the Detroit native should not get consideration.”

Oshawa’s Jalen Smereck isn’t ranked by Central Scouting but some hockey folks think he has the skills to crash the NHL draft party Photo/(Ian Goodall/Goodall Media Inc.)

The hockey blog OHL Prospects wrote that Smereck made a pretty seamless transition into Oshawa’s Top 4 defense rotation.

“With his average size, the development of his offensive game will be key to him becoming a serious NHL prospect,” according to the blog which concludes that “he could be worth a look.”