Maturity and skill could make NHL draft prospect Rutger McGroaty fit for Sabers

BUFFALO — A team, apparently the Montreal Canadiens, asked NHL draft prospects they interviewed at the Scouting Combine what kind of animal they would be.

Rutger McGroaty, a top winger with the United States National Team Development Program, thought long and hard about his answer. Instead of just saying he would be some kind of beast, he offered two answers based on his off-ice and on-ice behavior.

“I said I was a gorilla dad off the ice because (I) lead by example but I can also spend time with family,” McGroaty said on Saturday after undergoing fitness tests at the LECOM Harborcenter.

On the ice, however, 18-year-old McGroaty said he was tenacious like an “African hound”.

“Just because I feel like a little hound dog out there, go right after, hard forecheck, backcheck,” he explained.

Unsurprisingly, the affable McGroaty has already captained two teams, including Team USA’s recent entry into the Under-18 World Junior Championship.

“I’m the type of guy that my teammates know I want to make them better,” he said. “I bring my competition, I bring my energy to every game. I feel like a super accessible guy. If anybody’s struggling on the ice or off the ice, whatever it is , just go talk to him, hang out with him, just be there for him.

Growing up in a hockey family and leaving his home in Lincoln, Nebraska, at age 10 helped McGroaty, who will play for Michigan next season, mature quickly. He had a unique run to the NHL Draft next month.

His father, Jim, played professionally and later served as coach and general manager of the Lincoln Stars, a junior team in the United States Hockey League.

McGroaty, 6ft 1in and 200lbs, said he attended his first hockey game when he was just three days old and “just born into the sport”.

“Being a little kid from Lincoln, Nebraska, it’s a non-traditional hockey market,” he said. “With my dad having the key to the rink with the Lincoln Stars, the Ice Box (arena), I feel like I’m in that junior locker room from 5-9, I feel like I’ve matured much faster than other 5 to 9-year-olds, and I was definitely a big part of my career.

After McGroaty was scouted at the Brick Invitational, an annual tournament in Edmonton, an opportunity arose to play for the famed Honeybaked program in Detroit.

“I felt like it was the best thing for my career and my development,” said McGroaty, the 22nd North American skater in NHL Central Scouting. “Lincoln, Nebraska was a big part of me and a big part of my development. Moving to Michigan was definitely the best opportunity.

If McGroaty ever makes it to the big leagues, he would only be the fourth Nebraska-born NHL player, according to Pittsburgh Penguins winger Jake Guentzel and Winnipeg Jets defenseman Neal Pionk are the only active Cornhusker State players.

Of course, McGroaty acknowledged that it was difficult to take such a big step at just 10 years old.

“A lot of people called us crazy,” he said. “I felt like it’s definitely worked out so far, so I don’t regret it.”

He and his father, who coached his son in the Honeybaked program, moved to Michigan during the hockey season while his mother and sister remained in Nebraska.

McGroaty eventually secured a coveted spot with the USNTDP and became an elite prospect. He could be an attractive option for the Sabers, who have three first-round picks, if he’s available when they’re selected 16th and 28th overall.

He had 35 goals and 69 points in 54 games last season, including 15 goals and 33 points in 25 games played for the NTDP in the USHL.

McGroaty, who played on a line with top draft prospects Logan Cooley and Jimmy Snuggerud, likens his style to that of Calgary Flames star Matthew Tkachuk.

“His competitiveness, his energy,” McGroaty said of the similarities. “I feel like he’s a powerful striker and I consider myself the same.”

McGroaty said he hopes when teams watch him, they’ll see “that competitiveness and that energy.”

“I feel like I’m a winning hockey player and I feel like I bring it every day,” said McGroaty, who has been working to improve his skating, perhaps his biggest default. “I want to improve my teammates and I’m here for the right reasons. I feel like I like playing team games and coming to the rink every day.

“Once it comes down to the toughest times of the season, I feel like a playoff hockey player and a big boy and I can contribute.

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