By Kirk Luedeke
It isn’t often that you see one prep team with three potential NHL draft selections all in the same year, but the Kimball Union Wildcats boast an impressive trio with big-league upside. With the playoff tournament around the corner, Tim Whitehead’s squad was looking to get a big boost from this group.
Tyler Bird, J.D. Dudek and Dom Franco hail from three different New England states but are unified in their quest to lead the Meriden, N.H.-based power to a prep title this month. The Wildcats’ draft depth would be even more impressive if not for A.J. Greer’s late ’96 birth date, which makes the Montreal native ineligible for the 2014 NHL lottery.
“We’ve got such a deep team of good players who are also good guys,” Franco (Scituate, R.I.) told New England Hockey Journal recently. “We have 23 players who are all committed to being the best they can be and who are all about making the hockey program here the best. It’s a great situation to be in.”
Franco might be the draft’s longest shot of the three, but with his size and work ethic, he has long-term pro potential, even as he remains uncommitted to an NCAA program at present.
Dudek has been on NHL radars for a while, having teamed with 2013 Washington Capitals second-rounder Zach Sanford to lead Pinkerton to a New Hampshire state championship and also making an impact on the international stage. Although an upper-body injury suffered during the Frozen Fenway series put him on the shelf for January and into early February, KUA will look for the captain and all-around center as the catalyst for its title hopes.
“We talked about it as a team,” Dudek (Auburn, N.H.) said of KUA’s elimination early in the 2013 prep tournament. “We’re not last year’s team. We have a lot of new faces and we all made a decision together to put what happened out of our minds and focus on winning the championship this year.”
Bird (Andover, Mass.), who like Franco transferred to KUA this season, has been a revelation in leading the Wildcats in goals (23 in 30 games) while playing a premier power and high-energy game. The former SJP standout already has NHL-caliber tools and is backing up his raw potential with production.
“It’s been awesome,” Bird said of the move. “It’s the best decision I could’ve made. At first I was nervous because I was leaving a lot behind in terms of the captaincy and so many good friends and teammates, but right from the start, I’ve been a part of a great team under Coach Whitehead.”
With the NHL draft looming in late June, these players are focused on the unfinished business of winning a prep championship. Yet, in the back of their minds, they understand that the time to make one last positive impression for league scouts is now.
By the numbers:
Tyler Bird | RW, 6-foot-2, 200 pounds; Born: Aug. 14, 1996; Shoots: R
Previous minor teams: St. John’s Prep, Pro Ambitions Hockey
J.D. Dudek C, 5-foot-11, 185 Born: Jan. 29, 1996 Shoots: R
Previous minor teams: Manchester Flames, Exeter Freeze, Valley Jr. Warriors
Dominic Franco | C, 6-foot-3, 200; Born: Jan. 7, 1996 Shoots: L;
Previous minor teams: Pomfret School, Providence Capitals, Team Mass
All in the family: Dudek’s father played briefly in the NFL for the Denver Broncos and still holds the NCAA record for most career touchdowns and 100-yard rushing games as a halfback with Plymouth State College in the mid-’80s. Younger sister Taylor also inherited the athletic talent that runs in the family, excelling in both hockey and lacrosse.
Favorite NHL team, players growing up and players admired today: Bird: Boston Bruins; Joe Thornton, Rick Nash, Wayne Simmonds, Milan Lucic; Dudek: Bruins; Sergei Samsonov, Patrice Bergeron; Franco: Bruins; Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand
Pop Culture Corner
Favorite movie seen recently (Bird): Lone Survivor
Top-3 iPod playlist (Dudek): “Trophies,” Drake; “Sunny & 75,” Joe Nichols; “Night Train,” Jason Aldean
Favorite TV shows (Franco): “Entourage,” “Prison Break” and “The Walking Dead”
Bird: Power winger who drives the net hard and has a wicked release on a heavy, accurate shot. Uses his body effectively out front and in the corners; working on improving quickness in his first three steps, but has impressive NHL upside. Brown recruit, as yet unsure whether he’ll play there next fall or in 2015.
Dudek: Cerebral pivot is known best for the P-word: poise. Nearly everyone who scouts him raves about his composure and willingness to hold onto the puck that extra second to make the play. A silky smooth passer, but can score goals too. Working on adding strength and mass to his lean frame and is rounding out his game. Boston College commitment for 2015 and undecided between Middlesex IHC (USPHL) or Dubuque (USHL) next season.
Franco: Rangy, versatile center who creates space for himself and linemates with his big body and ability to shield the puck. Working on his foot speed and rapid direction change, but has pro potential if he can add more speed when he fills out. He is currently uncommitted, but looking at several NCAA options.
In their own words…
- “(Dudek) has been an important player for my development this year because he has such unbelievable poise with the puck. I’ve learned so much just by being around him.” — Bird
- “To me, (Bird) is the ultimate power forward with the way he fights his way to the net and has the skill to finish plays off. When he goes into the corner and wheels out with the puck, it’s usually in the back of the net.” — Franco
- “(Franco) is a real good teammate. He’s a guy who puts in a ton of effort, does whatever Coach (Tim) Whitehead asks of him and makes us so much deeper and dangerous with his size and ability.” — Dudek
Did you know?
Dudek did not play organized hockey until the advanced age of 8, then suffered a horrific severed tendon injury when someone stepped on his right big toe with a skate. The wound took more than 100 stitches to close, costing him a year off the ice but creating in Dudek a real passion for the game. ... If Bird is drafted, it will mark the fourth consecutive year that a St. John’s Prep product has had their name called by an NHL team. Shane Eiserman (Newburyport, Mass.) would make two former SJP Eagles players picked for the first time in that stretch.
“Dudek, Bird and (A.J.) Greer are about as dangerous a line you will find at any level. The three have real chemistry, bringing an impressive blend of skill and power to the mix. You wonder if one puck is enough for the three of them, but they find a way to feed off of one another and are unselfish in terms of how they go about each shift. How that top line goes, so goes KUA.”
— NHL scout, Eastern Conference team
1. Ryan Donato, C, Dexter School (H.S.-Mass.) – 6-1, 180 (Scituate, Mass.); CSS midterm: 54
Great season keeps getting better, as the Dexter captain already has passed the 30-goal mark (a new personal best) with more games left to play.
2. Shane Eiserman, LW, Dubuque (USHL) – 6-1, 200 (Newburyport, Mass.); CSS midterm: 39
Scoring touch is heating up at precisely the right time, as the Fighting Saints prepare their USHL title defense in coming weeks.
3. Beau Starrett, LW, South Shore (USPHL) – 6-4, 195 (Bellingham, Mass.); CSS midterm: 83
With immense (pun intended) potential and a high ceiling, watch for someone to jump on the junior standout well ahead of where most public lists project him to go.
4. Johnathan MacLeod, D, U.S. NTDP (USHL) – 6-1, 200 (Dracut, Mass.); CSS midterm: 44
Won’t win style points, but when it comes to mobile, rugged, disciplined defenders who can do it all, there aren’t many better than this future BU Terrier.
5. Miles Gendron, D, Rivers School (H.S.-Mass.) – 6-2, 178 (Shrewsbury, Mass.); CSS midterm: 85
The area’s premier risk-reward draft option at any position, but has missed action and working his way back from injury.
6. Max Willman, LW, Williston-Northampton (H.S.-Mass.) – 6-0, 175 (Barnstable, Mass.); CSS midterm: 177
With 19 goals in 20 prep games, the kid can flat-out play and impresses scouts with his blend of skill and consistency.
7. J.D. Dudek, C, Kimball Union Academy (H.S.-N.H.) – 5-11, 175 (Auburn, N.H.); CSS midterm: 157
8. Tyler Bird, RW, Kimball Union Academy, (HS-N.H.) – 6-2, 205 (Andover, Mass.); CSS midterm: 123