Like many a top hockey prospect, Dylan Samberg is headed to Chicago with his family this weekend to hear his name be called at the NHL Draft.
Unlike the vast majority of prospects, he will be less than two weeks removed from his high school graduation.
“I’m really excited for it, obviously,” said Samberg, who graduated from Hermantown (Minn.) High School on June 11. “Really looking forward to getting down there.”
This year, Samberg, an American Family Insurance ALL-USA First team selection, took home the Reed Larsen Award, given to top senior high school defenseman in Minnesota. He was also a finalist for Minnesota’s Mr. Hockey Award, awarded to the top high school player in the state. That honor went to Eden Prairie’s Casey Mittelstadt, who is expected to be a top-10 pick Friday night.
Draft prognosticators have the 6-foot-3, 211-pound Samberg going anywhere from the second round to the fifth round. Not that he could have told you any of this would be happening a year ago.
“Truthfully, I never kind of expected it to be like this,” Samberg said Wednesday from Minnesota-Duluth, where he is getting ready for his freshman year suiting up with the Bulldogs. “Before the year I talked to some people, and they said if you have a good year, you’ll have the opportunity to get drafted. So take advantage of this time.”
Samberg is ranked No. 67 among North American skaters in the final 2017 draft rankings by NHL Central Scouting after being No. 43 in the mid-term rankings. Behind Mittelstadt (No. 3 among North American skaters), though, Samberg is the highest-ranked U.S. public high school player. Some are raving about Samberg’s potential.
“I love the kid,” one NHL scout recently told The Hockey News. “He’s a 10-year NHLer for sure. Size, reach and plays with an aggressive mindset. He’s an effective skater, but not a pretty skater. Once he’s in flight, though, he looks like Bret Hedican.”
Lofty prognostications aside, like Mittelstadt, Samberg’s participation in public high school hockey this season makes him a bit of an anomaly among potential NHL draft picks. And it also might be a reason he is seen by scouts as more of a mid-round pick than a top prospect.
In the seven rounds of the 2016 draft, only six players who skated for U.S. high schools or prep schools in 2015-16 were selected. The highest was Casey Staum, a defenseman from Hill-Murray in Minnesota who was chosen in the fifth round (No. 124 overall) by the Montreal Canadiens.
This winter, Samberg led his team to the Class A state championship this season, posting 11 goals and 23 assists in the Hawks’ 31 games.
“I take a lot of pride in being from here and playing here,” Samberg said. “Minnesota’s a great state that has been producing a lot of good hockey players through the years, and I’m honored to be looked at with some of those great players.”
The biggest goal Samberg scored at Hermantown came in his final high school contest, as dramatic a moment as a high school hockey player could imagine. With just 20 seconds remaining in double overtime of the Class A state final against Monticello-Annandale-Maple Lake, Samberg scored on a wrist shot through traffic, clinching the team’s second straight state title at St. Paul’s jam-packed Xcel Energy Center with a 4-3 victory.
As memorable as the goal was, it is Samberg’s goal celebration that also will go down in history in Hermantown lore. He celebrated with a perfect snow angel. According to the Duluth News Tribune, it was a tribute to Hermantown native Kyle Schmidt, who celebrated in similar fashion in 2011 when Minnesota-Duluth beat Michigan in overtime at Xcel for the program’s only NCAA title.
“Truthfully, I don’t celebrate that much, but at that point in time, I thought about doing that even before the faceoff,” Samberg said. “It was the first thing that came to my mind.”
Only a few days after leading Hermantown to the title, Samberg started a short stint in the United States Hockey League (USHL), playing six games for the Waterloo (Iowa) Black Hawks. The team had asked him to come to the team before the season, but he decided to remain at his high school.
In six regular-season games with Waterloo, he had a goal and an assist. In eight playoff contests, he had a goal and two assists, bringing his 14-game total to two goals and three assists. The level of play was a far cry from what he saw while helping lead Hermantown to a 29-1-1 record and a state title, but closer to what he will see going forward in his hockey career.
“It was pretty different,” Samberg admitted. “I had to get used to the pace of play, guys being stronger, faster, and transitions were a huge part of the game. I had to get used to it with timing. Once I played more games, I felt confident and that helped me play better.”
Samberg is already spending time in Duluth, doing early morning workouts with his future team. The campus is but a 20-minute drive from his family’s home.
As much of an honor as it will be to hear his name called at the draft, playing for the Bulldogs and head coach Scott Sandelin (a former NHL defenseman) will be a dream come true, Samberg said.
“Ever since I was little, growing up watching a lot of games, I’ve wanted this,” Samberg said. “Being a hometown kid, knowing the coaches very well and that they all played defenseman at a high level. I knew that they’d have insight, and that it’s been a very successful program. It all added up.”
Aside from his hockey and snow angel skills, Samberg is also an impressive golfer. A lefty shot in hockey, he has a lefty swing on the links. A “3 or 4” handicap, as he estimated, Samberg had to sit out golf this spring with all the buildup to the NHL Draft and his Minnesota-Duluth career. Last spring, as a junior, Samberg won the Class 7AA as an individual while his Hawks team took the class title as well. The team ended up taking third at states, with Samberg finishing 12th in the state individually.
Any time to get in 18 amid the draft craziness?
“It’s been pretty busy, but I sneak in a round when I can,” Samberg said.
This spring, his time has largely been devoted to hockey, a devotion that has included meeting with prospective future employers at the NHL Combine (26 in all). After growing up a Wild fan, Samberg became a St. Louis Blues fan several years back and enjoys watching St. Louis winger Vladimir Tarasenko. Not that he has any preference as to which team selects him.
“It’s been pretty cool to be interviewing with teams,” he said. “Just to be able to get that kind of recognition and to meet with a lot of the pro teams, it’s an honor.”
An honor that will likely be punctuated with a jersey and a cap, less than two weeks after he donned a cap and gown.