The United States Premier Hockey League held its National Collegiate Development Conference Futures Draft for players born in 2005 and 2006 on Sunday.

The Twin City Thunder selected three 2005-born players who will be eligible to play junior hockey next season: forwards Ryan Leonard, Spencer Hirsch and goaltender Hayden Rising. The Thunder’s other pick, 2006-born Aiden Pisano, can begin his junior hockey career in the 2022-23 season.

“You always try to get the best player that will fit in your organization,” Twin City Thunder co-owner and head coach Dan Hodge said. “You are obviously projecting a few years down the road. You never know. I want to get players from good programs, No. 1, and are doing well in their programs. Their advisers had reached out and sent us video.”

Leonard, of Pope Francis Preparatory School (Springfield, Massachusetts), is an NCAA Division I-caliber player and one of the top 2005-born players in New England. As a freshman last season, 5-foot-9 forward tallied 24 goals and seven assists.

He’s on the radar to be part of the U.S. National Team Development Program’s U-17 team next year in Plymouth, Michigan, which plays in the Tier I United States Hockey League.

“You never know. It’s a situation where we want to develop players to the highest level,” Hodge said. “If we can have a small part of his future, great. He’s a kid we saw and we liked, and he was available, we took him. I had a couple of conversations with him. He’s a really nice kid, a good young man. At the end of the day, we do hope he reaches that goal (to play on the U-17 team), but we would love to be a stepping-stone for him, in a way.”

Ryan Leonard’s brother, John, made his NHL debut with the San Jose Sharks this season after playing the previous three years at the University of Massachusetts.

Hirsch, the other forward selected by the Thunder, turned 16 last month. He has 22 goals and 15 assists in 35 games with the Boston Hockey Academy 15U team.

Rising is a 15-year-old from Fond du Lac Springs High School (Wisconsin). The 6-foot-1, 180-pound netminder has a 21-2-0 record with a 1.35 goals-against-average and a .922 save-percentage.

Hodge said both Hirsch and Rising are also on the radar of Division I schools.

Meanwhile, Pisano has spent time with the Springfield Pics organization’s 15U and 16U teams this season. He has scored four goals in 11 games for each team, while recording four assists for the 16U squad and two helpers for the 15U team.

Hodge was told Pisano has skating abilities similar to American International College commit Matus Hadusovsky, a former Thunder tender who played for the Pics last year. Hadusovsky couldn’t come to North America this season from his home in Slovakia because of the coronavirus pandemic travel restrictions.

“There’s a very high upside with him, I believe,” Hodge said of Pisano. “He’s obviously playing really well down there. He’s really fast. Talking to (his) coach, he compared (Pisano’s) skating style to Matus Hadusovsky. That’s pretty good company to be in.”

In the two previous Futures Drafts the Thunder have participated in, only one player has ended up suiting up for the organization: 2019 draftee and Colorado College commit Owen Paskowski, a defenseman who joined the team in November.

In last year’s draft the Thunder took Lewiston native Brock Bergeron, who helped Lewiston High School win the 2020 Class A state championship. Bergeron is currently playing for Winchendon School in Massachusetts.

THUNDER TENDER DEFENSEMAN

Over the weekend the Twin City Thunder announced that they signed their first 2021-22 NCDC tender, defenseman Laz Kaebel of the Tampa Bay Juniors of the USPHL Premier League.

The 6-foot-2, 201-pound 19-year-old has nine goals and 14 assists in 35 games this season.

The Prior Lake, Minnesota native played three years at Prior Lake High School, as well as two games with the Minnesota Magicians of the North American Hockey League last year.

Hodge played with Kaebel’s father and uncle in the minors.

Kaebel has able to practice with the Thunder while they have been playing in Wesley Chapel, Florida. The Tampa Bay Juniors’ home rink is the Advent Health Ice Center, where the USPHL’s Hub City is taking place.

“One of the good things, being down there, we (are) able to watch teams play that we probably wouldn’t be able to see play — like the Tampa Bay Juniors, we play in their rink,” Hodge said. “You kind of see kids in a game setting, and he came out and practiced one day and did a good job. Watching him play he’s a very smart hockey player and comes from a hockey family. He’s a kid I am very excited about for next year.”

THIBEAULT JOINS THE THUNDER

Tristan Thibeault of the Maine Nordiques charges after the puck during a 2019-20  game against the Northeast Generals. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Former Maine Nordiques forward Tristan Thibeault  joined the Thunder in Florida on Monday. The 19-year-old had three goals and four assists in 23 games with the Nordiques last season. He also appeared in eight games (goal, assist) with the Maine Nordiques Development Program’s 18U team and six games with the Seacoast Spartans 18U team in 2019-20.

Thibeault’s former Nordiques coach Cam Robichaud, who now is an assistant coach with the Thunder, helped bring Thibeault in.

“He was looking for a team, he has a big body and Cam knows him, it’s a good fit,” Hodge said. “He played the other day; he’s trying to get his footing and we will see where things go.”

Thibeault becomes the third former Maine Nordiques player to suit up for the Thunder this year, joining Alex Rivet and Sergei Anisimov, while former Nordiques defenseman Derek Hessinger had a tryout with the Thunder at beginning of the season but was not signed. Hessinger has since joined the Worcester Jr. Railers of the Eastern Hockey League and has committed to play at Colby College next year.

The reason for the recent influx of roster additions the past week for the Thunder, which also includes the signings of defenseman Eamon Doheny and forward Timur Alishlalov, is that the deadline for the 24-man playoff roster is Feb. 10.

With most Junior A leagues in Canada not currently playing, there have many been players still looking for homes or new opportunities.

“There so many players available, I get emails daily from players saying, ‘I want to join your team,’” Hodge said. “You can ask anybody, I am sure the Nordiques (coaching staff) gets it every day, we get it every day, every team in our league gets it every day.”

HODGE RETURNS HOME

Hodge hasn’t been behind the bench since Jan. 22 because he returned to Maine to help his wife, who is in nursing school, take care of their three kids.

Thunder Premier Team coach Alex Drulia has been running the NCDC bench in Hodge’s absence. Drulia has been helped by assistant coach Caleb Labrie. Robichaud, who also runs PucDevelopment in Lewiston with Labrie, will make his way to Florida later this week and be another coach for the NCDC team.


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