On Wednesday, June 14th, the St. Cloud Norsemen participated in the 2023 NAHL Draft and made eight selections. All NAHL teams were required to submit a list of protected players composed of returning veterans and players they have signed tenders with by Monday, June 12th and then were permitted to draft as many players as they had slots remaining. Teams can reach a maximum of 28 players combining their draft picks, tenders and returning protected veterans. All amateur hockey players born January 1st, 2003 or after and who were not on a team’s protected list were eligible to be drafted in the 2023 NAHL Draft.
Unlike professional drafts where all the players selected are trying to get to the same level, junior hockey drafts, particularly in the NAHL, can be challenging to navigate. It’s a balance of not only drafting talent but finding players that are looking to or are open to playing in the NAHL, willing to move to the geographic location of the franchise and won’t end up viewing another league or organization as a better situation.
St. Cloud Norsemen Head Coach Corey Millen talks about his overall thoughts on the draft and alludes to some of the difficulties. “It’s always a little interesting and you never know how things are going to end up, but essentially we thought that we got players that we were looking to get. So from that perspective it was pretty good,” admits Millen. “But you just never know at the end of the day how it’s going to shape up until a year or so down the road.”
There were several recurring themes of the Norsemen draft including youth, defense and geography. Of their eights picks, St. Cloud drafted two forwards, three defensemen and three goalies, they drafted three 2004 birth years and five 2005s, and three Minnesotans with three other players born elsewhere in the Midwest. 2003 birth years were eligible but none were selected by the Norsemen, so three of their picks would come in with the ability to potentially play two seasons in the NAHL with the other five selections having three years of eligibility remaining.
Millen notes that with the inability for teams and coaches to know how players will develop and when they might go to another league or off to college, while the Norsemen went on the young side of the draft, time and again it wasn’t a conscious effort but simply the result of taking the best player available to them. “That’s one of those things that had more to do with what was available and what we thought would help,” Millen explains. “There’s a little bit of that (youth) but in this league, you don’t know how things are going to shape up day-to-day or year-to-year for sure.”
The St. Cloud Norsemen used their first pick of the draft, the #17 selection overall in Round 1, on defenseman Drew Belleson. An ’05, Belleson hails from Champlin, MN and put up 8-16-24 in 27 games for Champlin Park High School. He finished first in goals scored and second in assists and points by a defenseman for the Rebels and he captained the squad for his senior season.
In Round 2 the Norsemen traded with the Odessa Jackalopes to acquire the #45 pick and selected a goaltender who is also from the Twin Cities but played last season in Canada. 2004 birth year goaltender Ryan Manzella is from Eagan, MN andplayed last season in the Alberta Junior Hockey League for the Bonnyville Pontiacs and then the Sherwood Park Crusaders, combining for a 3.41 goals against average, .893 save percentage and a 17-8-0-2 record with 4 shutouts. Manzella spent the prior four seasons playing for the Sioux Falls Power AAA program.
St. Cloud continued with the defensive trend in the 4th Round taking blueliner William Moloney #117 overall. Moloney is from Plainfield, NJ and in three years, his freshman, sophomore and senior seasons at Morristown-Beard School, he tallied 9-53-62 in 67 games. The ’04 has played his entire hockey career on the East Coast competing for the New Jersey Rockets AAA program in his home state, Salisbury School and the Yale Jr. Bulldogs in Connecticut and last season in the NCDC for the Utica Jr. Comets in New York where he went 3-4-7 in 29 games.
The Norsemen rounded out their last pick in the first five rounds once again looking to keep the puck out of their own net with goalie Max Weilandt being selected in Round 5 #145 overall. Weilandt played for the Chicago Reapers 18U AAA squad and had a 25-10-0 record with a 1.73 goals against average, a .930 save percentage and 8 shutouts last season while also playing in a pair of games for the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the United States Hockey League. Weilandt is an ’05 birth year.
Coach Millen admits that selecting two goalies and two defensemen with their first four draft picks, despite a team dressing more forwards than the other positions combined each game, was a combination of team need and best player available. “We needed to get some goalies for sure, some quality guys, and we think that we got some guys that can do the job,” reasons Millen. “Certainly ‘D’ was another situation where there were a couple guys that we identified that we thought would help us. That’s kinda how that happened. We certainly can use some help up front as well but you never know who you’re gonna get back or who you’re gonna have, so it’s a little bit of an unknown.”
St. Cloud selected their first forward in the 6th Round with the #177 pick Payton Mithmuangneua who was over a point-per-game player for the Burnaby Winter Club U18 Prep. The Aldergrove, BC native put up 14-21-35 in 30 regular season games for Burnaby. He also suited up for the Cranbrook Bucks for a pair of games, scoring a goal in his two contests.
The Norsemen selected ‘05 born forwards with back-to-back selections when they took Chanhassen, MN native Jack Christ who played center for Chanhassen High School. Christ was second in goals, second in assists and tied for first in points for the Storm scoring 20-25-45 in 28 games during his junior campaign, his second varsity season. Christ also scored 6-6-12 in 19 games for Team SIT Financial Services in the Upper Midwest High School Elite League Hockey.
Jan Kasal, another ’05, was selected in the 8th Round for the second time this summer after being selected first by the Sioux Falls Stampede in the USHL Draft. He was also taken in the same round, #241 overall by the Norsemen in the NAHL Draft. The goaltender was born in Hinsdale, IL but the Czech/American dual citizen has played back in Czechia, more commonly known in English as the Czech Republic, the last several seasons. Kasal played 40 games for Mountfield HK U20 with a 2.58 goals against average, a .929 save percentage and 2 shutouts with a 17-20-0 record.
St. Cloud rounded out their draft with their last selection in Round 9 #273 with a player familiar to the organization from the NA3HL. Williston, ND native Jackson Ekblad is a 2004 born defenseman who put up 0-5-5 in 13 regular season games for the Alexandria Blizzard and also competed in four NAHL games for the Bismarck Bobcats, including two against the Norsemen. St. Cloud’s coaching staff clearly saw something they liked out of Ekblad in those contests as well as heard good things from the Blizzard coaching staff as the Norsemen, Blizzard and Willmar Warhawks all work together in the NAHL and NA3HL.
Anyone else not previously protected or selected by an team in the NAHL Draft would be eligible to be invited to the St. Cloud Norsemen Main Camp, which begins later this month in Andover, MN, so the coaching staff knows they need to get out and communicate with some undrafted players and look to put together the best roster possible for the 2023-24 season and beyond.
When asked if they still have their work cut out for them, Millen answers without any hesitation. “Absolutely. It never ends, for sure. There are a lot of quality players that didn’t get drafted for some reason or another or there’s guys that were just unknown,” Millen points out. “There’s a lot of good players out there so it never ends. We’re gonna continue to try and build and get good players.”
Camps for the St. Cloud Norsemen will end the month with Goalie Camp taking place Tuesday, June 28th and Wednesday, June 29th, with that rolling into Main Camp which will take place the 29th through Sunday, July 2nd. This particular camp is invitation only and will be held at the Andover Community Center.