Brandon Saad will say he doesn't think about his future. He will tell you he focuses on playing hockey. He does admit that hearing about his professional prospects drives him.
Saad, a 6-foot-2, 211-pound winger for the Ontario Hockey League's Saginaw (Mich.) Spirit from Gibsonia, will say he tries to block out the fact that he is projected to be a top-five draft pick in the 2011 NHL draft. NHL Central Scouting, a league-sponsored talent evaluation service, ranked him as the No. 2 North American prospect in the OHL, a junior hockey league, and the independent scouting service Red Line Report ranked him as the No. 5 prospect for the 2011 draft.
"You don't want to focus too much on it but to hear things like that is a great honor and motivation," he said.
Saad could become the first U.S.-born top-five pick since Zach Bogosian, whom the Atlanta Thrashers took third overall in 2008.
It is a good time to be a hockey player from Western Pennsylvania. J.T. Miller, who played youth hockey in this area and has family here, plays for USA Hockey's National Team Development Program under-18 team in Ann Arbor, Mich. The 17-year-old forward is a projected first-round pick and NHL Central Scouting's No. 2 prospect in the U.S. Hockey League. Three others from the area will either join the NHL or play major college hockey next season.
They just won't discuss it.
"We kind of really don't like to talk about the future and the draft and when I'm going to get drafted," Miller said. "We're just worried about playing good hockey now."
The Columbus Blue Jackets' R.J. Umberger, a Plum native, remains the only player from the area taken in the first round of the NHL draft -- 16th overall in 2001, by the Vancouver Canucks. Upper St. Clair's Ryan Malone and Fox Chapel's Bill Thomas play for the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers, respectively.
Forward Vince Trocheck of Pittsburgh, goalie John Gibson of Whitehall and defenseman Barrett Kaib of Upper St. Clair could join Saad and Miller in the NHL in the next few years. Kaib and Gibson play with Miller on the NTDP U-18 team and Trocheck plays with Saad in Saginaw. All five played for the Pittsburgh Hornets, the area's Tier I AAA major midget team, at some point.
"It's good to see because I like to see Pittsburgh get on the map as far as developing players to play at a higher level," Kaib said.
Saad, 18, led Pine-Richland High School to a Penguins Cup championship in his freshman year. The Spirit drafted Saad in 2008, and he was the only American player taken in the first round. Instead of joining the team that year, he played with his brother, George Jr., for the Mahoning Valley [now Youngstown] Phantoms of the USHL. In 2009, he joined the NTDP team in Ann Arbor, and signed with the Spirit in June.
Miller, 17, lived in East Palestine, Ohio, just across the state line from Beaver County, but his parents separated and his mother moved to Pittsburgh when he was in seventh grade. He attracted the attention of the USA Hockey coaches at a tournament in Minnesota and knew he wanted to join the team.
"They called me and asked me and there was no doubt in my mind," he said.
A 6-1, 193-pound forward, he was ranked the No. 14 draft prospect by Red Line Report. He committed to play hockey at North Dakota, and said he will go to college for at least a year, maybe two, regardless of his draft status. Although the OHL's Plymouth (Mich.) Whalers drafted him, he chose the NTDP program to preserve his college eligibility.
"Whatever comes after that is whatever comes," he said. "It will play its part."
Gibson, the top-ranked goalie in Central Scouting's USHL rankings, will play hockey at Michigan next year.
"I think it's a good spot for me goal tending-wise," the 17-year-old said. "They're having their starter graduate this year. Coach Red [Berenson] has always been a one-goalie guy."
Kaib, a 5-9, 182-pound 17-year-old, committed to play at Providence next year.
"They need a defenseman and I thought I could fit that role well as the player they're looking for," he said. "It was a nice school, nice town, Providence, Rhode Island, is beautiful."
Central Scouting ranked Trocheck the fifth-best North American prospect in the OHL.
The competition in Western Pennsylvania's high school hockey has not reached the level where it can challenge NHL-bound players. Saad said the high-quality high school hockey in places such as Minnesota and Boston keeps talented players around. Hockey in this area, however, has become more popular recently.
"I think hockey in Pittsburgh is definitely picking up," he said. "People from Pittsburgh are taking more of a liking to it.
"To be honest, who knows where it's going? Good players, whatever route they choose, can come out of either high school or club."
Kaib said he noticed more interest in hockey in the area.
"When I go back to the rinks I used to skate at, there's a lot more people," he said.
"I think the Pittsburgh Penguins have a lot to do with that. It's been nice to see kind of a model team behind the city when you're growing up."
On June 24, 2011, NHL teams will have a chance to select these five players. For now, they must balance busy travel schedules, practices, workouts ... and homework. Saad said that on a typical day he goes to school, takes a pre-game nap, eats and prepares for that night's game.
"It's kind of different going from school and focusing on that and going to the atmosphere of playing hockey," he said.
He doesn't focus on his draft status, so he has one less thing to worry about.
Bill Brink: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1158.