The NHL has seen a slow but steady shift in the league’s national makeup in the last 50 years.
When the original six were first formed, hockey was very much Canada’s sport - and for the most part, it can be argued that it still is. Although there’s no longer an official majority of Canadians in the NHL - meaning that fewer than 50% of the players in the league are now from America’s hat - they still make up somewhere around 40-45% of the league on any given day.
While they still hold their place as the primary producer of top-tier NHL talent, though, America - and other nations - have been working their way into the spotlight, as well.
As we enter the 2018-19 season, the NHL will leave behind a year that saw just over 27% of the league hail from the United States. They scored 25.3% of the regular season goals last year, recorded 25.5% of the points, and tallied nearly 30% of all short-handed goals (something unsurprising, looking back at Ryan Kesler’s piece on American hockey from the Player’s Tribune back in the height of his relevancy).
There’s a lot about the United States right now that needs to be sorely fixed, and we can’t in good conscience ignore that.
For all the American-born and American-raised Avalanche fans out there today, though, here’s a look at the homegrown players that are set to take the ice at the Can come October:
Matt Nieto (F)
Long Beach, California
It’s a little-known fact, but Matt Nieto was one of the first California-raised NHLers to get drafted by his home state. He was selected by the San Jose Sharks with the 47th overall pick in 2011, heading up the coast after a lucrative development career with the USNTDP led to a spot at Boston University.
Nieto would skate for BU for three seasons before going pro with the Sharks, making the NHL lineup in his first full season on an entry-level deal after NCAA.
While he was good for 10 goals and 24 points in 66 games that first year, though - nothing to slouch at - he never really hit his stride beyond that, and the Sharks waived him in January of 2017. He’s been with the Avalanche ever since.
Luckily for Avs fans, Nieto finally had his ‘breakout’ season offensively this past year, putting up 15 goals in 74 games. Although he’s dealt with injuries in the past and his offensive talent has never quite panned out, he’s a great supplemental piece to have on the roster - and perhaps most importantly, he’s one of the league’s few players of Mexican-American descent.
Erik Johnson (D)
Low on teeth but high on talent and warm personality, Erik Johnson has become the driving force on the Colorado blue line since the deal that brought him to Denver in 2011.
Drafted first overall by the St. Louis Blues in 2006, Johnson is currently the highest-scoring defenseman in his draft class, boasting 70 goals and 262 points in 637 career NHL games. He’s the only defenseman in his draft class to pan out long-term, as the star-studded 2006 lineup was high on forward talent and low on defensive prowess (outside of Jonathan Toews and Brad Marchand, who are already some of the best two-way players in the last 20 years) - but despite a lack of competition for the spot as that year’s best blue liner, he’s still a clear positive asset to have.
He’s the first Minnesotan to go first overall in the NHL draft, the first Minnesota Golden Gopher to hold the honors, and just the fifth American at the time he was drafted; in the time since, he’s been followed up by just Patrick Kane and Auston Matthews.
The Avalanche have had their ups and downs during his tenure with the team, but he’s been both a fierce competitor and an incredible ambassador to both the community and the media.
Always quick to have a positive word about the teammates of his that maybe don’t get as much attention and easy to engage with on social media, Johnson remains one of the most valuable pieces on the Avalanche roster to this day.
JT Compher (LW)
J.T. Compher is one of just two pieces from the original Ryan O’Reilly trade that remains on the team he was dealt to - and for Colorado, the hope is that he’ll continue to round out his game and become another quality middle-six option for the team moving forward.
Compher, like the majority of players to hit the NHL after being developed in American hockey, is a product of the USNTDP.
Unlike Johnson, though, he’s not from the ‘State of Hockey’ or even from the East Coast; he’s a product of the Chicago suburbs, where a growing number of American-born players have been popping up in the last generation.
A gold medal winner at the 2012 U18 World Juniors and a silver medal winner the following year, Compher was a Hobey Baker finalist in 2016 out of the University of Michigan before going pro with Colorado two seasons ago. He’s currently coming off of his first full season in the NHL, in which he managed 13 goals and 23 points - but hopefully, as the team continues to improve, he will as well.
Dominic Toninato (F)
Another product of the State of Hockey, Dominic Toninato joined the Avalanche after four years at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where he was fortunate enough to play college hockey in his hometown.
The 24-year-old forward never played for the US National Development program, instead skating for the USHL’s Fargo Force before hitting the NCAA in 2013. Although he had a fairly productive collegiate career, though, he found himself an unrestricted free agent last summer after the Toronto Maple Leafs - who drafted him in the fifth round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft - found themselves unable to sign him due to contract limits.
An HR Management major in college, Toninato joined the Avalanche on an entry-level deal last August with plans to develop him into a quality defensive forward for the team.
Although he hasn’t managed to hit his stride in the NHL just yet, though, expect him to compete for a roster spot once again this coming fall.
David Warsofsky (D)
A former Boston University standout who stayed home to play college hockey, David Warsofsky never fully panned out at the NHL level - likely due to his size, standing at just 5-foot-9 and 170 lbs.
The 28-year-old defender was highly touted out of high school, where he gained notoriety playing for the famed Cushing Academy team before heading to the USNTDP in his draft-eligible season. After the St. Louis Blues picked him up 95th overall in 2008, though, his rights were moved to the Boston Bruins in the Vladimir Sobotka trade during his college career. He spent three years developing with the AHL’s Providence Bruins before moving on, and has now appeared in Pittsburgh and New Jersey’s system before heading to Colorado last year.
Although he’s likely to stay in the AHL for the majority of the year, Warsofsky is always a decent call-up option to have on board.
Joe Cannata (G)
Once described as the kind of person who would ‘stop in the kitchen and make himself a sandwich’ on his way out of a burning house, Cannata has brought his relaxed demeanor from high school hockey in Massachusetts all the way to the AHL during his career so far.
Drafted 173rd overall by the Vancouver Canucks in 2009, Cannata was considered a promising prospect in Vancouver’s pipeline until he was ultimately overtaken by Thatcher Demko’s arrival and moved out of the system two years ago.
When he arrived in Colorado last summer, he was coming off of a subpar minor league season marred by multiple moves and underwhelming numbers. He managed to step it back up once he joined the ECHL’s Colorado Eagles, though, and helped the team to a Kelly Cup before re-signing as a free agent on July 1st.
Although he isn’t likely to hit the NHL any time soon, he’s become a reliable minor league depth option and poses a threat to overtake Spencer Martin in the depth chart if the latter doesn’t improve his game this year.
Colin Wilson (F)
Another Boston University standout, Colin Wilson was drafted seventh overall by the Nashville Predators in 2008 before getting moved last summer for inconsistent offensive results during his time in Music City.
Two years spent in the USNTDP program saw Wilson go from a kid who put up just 10 goals in 34 games to one who managed 24 points in 15 appearances the following year, and he followed that up with a stellar two-year career at Boston University before going pro in 2009.
Although he had managed unbelievable numbers during his developmental years, though, Wilson only hit the 20-goal mark in the NHL once and started to quickly regress in the three seasons immediately following. He hit his lowest points totals last year, boasting just six goals and 18 points in 56 regular season games - but at just 28, there’s still the hope that he’ll eventually manage to get at least some of his original spark back somewhere along the way.
Ian Cole (D)
Ann Arbor, Michigan
In true Colorado Avalanche fashion, the team added blue liner Ian Cole in free agency this year to make him the third American-born former Blues draft pick in the system alone.
The only Michigan native of the bunch, Cole was yet another product of the USNTDP before heading to Notre Dame in 2007 following his selection as the 17th overall pick by St. Louis that summer.
He spent three years playing college hockey before going pro in the spring of 2010, joining the St. Louis system for the first five years of his career. He was then moved to Pittsburgh in 2015 as a part of the deal that sent Robert Bortuzzo to the Central Division, and managed to win a casual two Stanley Cups before getting moved first to Ottawa, then Columbus in the shady trio of deals that brought Derick Brassard to the Penguins at this year’s trade deadline.
Cole isn’t going to shoot often, but he has a reasonably decent shooting percentage when he does; he can play in a decent middle-pairing role and hold his own in shooting metrics without needing to be very sheltered. For Colorado, the hope is that he’ll bring some veteran stability to the blue line next year, which was sorely needed.