The past, present and future of the Dubuque Fighting Saints all took a turn in the spotlight at the National Hockey League Draft on Saturday in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Five players with ties to Dubuque heard their names called on the second of two days at the draft, matching a franchise record set in 2016. The Saints extended their streak of having at least one player selected every season since returning to the United States Hockey League in 2010-11.
The Saints’ big day started with incoming goaltender Erik Portillo being taken in the third round, No. 67 overall, by the Buffalo Sabres. Tyce Thompson (New Jersey Devils), Matias Maccelli (Arizona Coyotes) and Ryder Donovan (Vegas Golden Knights) all heard their names called in the fourth round, and Braden Doyle (Los Angeles Kings) went in the fifth.
“Having an alumni of our program, two current players and two future players drafted shows you how good a job (general manager) Kalle (Larsson) is doing in terms of getting quality players to Dubuque,” Saints coach Oliver David said. “But a main point is that development doesn’t come without these guys learning what it takes to compete.
“They all had a different timeline that led to today. They all took a different route. But what they’ve done here is discover what it takes to grow their game. That’s something all of us associated with our club should be proud of. Portillo is coming here for that reason, to be pushed to grow his game.”
Portillo, a 6-6, 207-pound goaltender from Goteborg, Sweden, starred for the Frolunda Indians and posted a 1.99 goals against average and .931 save percentage in 26 games. The second-year draft eligible goalie led the Swedish Super Elit League in goals against average and save percentage before being selected by Dubuque at No. 5 overall in the USHL Draft. Portillo will play at the University of Michigan following a season in Dubuque.
Thompson, a 6-foot, 165-pound center from Milford, Conn., recently completed his freshman season at Providence College, where he tallied eight goals, 25 points and 20 penalty minutes in 42 games. He helped the Friars reach the Frozen Four.
New Jersey selected him 96th overall in his third season of draft eligibility after he added 15 pounds to his frame in the past year.
“The last two years, I really thought I’d get drafted, but it didn’t happen,” Thompson said. “So, going into Providence this year, I felt like I had something to prove to everyone. I played with a little more motivation to prove everyone wrong, so to speak, and that helped me play better. It helped that I was in a good position to do that at Providence.”
Thompson played one full season and part of another with the Saints. He tallied 12 goals and 32 points in 63 USHL games.
“I loved every moment of playing in Dubuque with such a great organization and being around such great people,” he said. “The USHL is such a great league, and Dubuque does an awesome job of developing players. I think that gave me a leg up on going to Providence.”
Maccelli, the Saints’ leading scorer this season, went two spots after Thompson.
“I was starting to get a little nervous in the third and fourth rounds, so it felt really good to hear my name called,” Maccelli said. “It’s an honor to be a part of the Coyotes organization. I talked to them quite a bit during the season and felt comfortable with them, so it was a relief to have them call my name.”
A second-team all-USHL selection in his first full season with the Saints, the 5-foot-11, 170-pound left wing from Turku, Finland, tallied 31 goals and 72 points in 62 games to tie Erik Haula’s record for most points by a Finnish-born player in the USHL. (Haula now plays for Vegas in the NHL.)
“Without Dubuque, I don’t think I’d be here today,” said Maccelli, who finished with 40 goals and 99 points in 109 games, including playoffs, the last two seasons. “All the fans, coaches, teammates, my billets … they helped me develop as a player and as a person the last two years. Dubuque was huge for me.”
A slick playmaker, Maccelli has signed to play professionally with Ilves in the Finnish Elite League next season.
“It’s going to be tough, because I’ll be playing against men, and it’s pro hockey,” Maccelli said. “But I’m looking forward to it. It’ll be great to stay home in Finland and play pro hockey. But I know I have a lot of hard work ahead of me.”
Donovan, a 6-3, 183-pound center from Duluth, Minn., went 110th overall to the Golden Knights. He led Duluth East to the state high school tournament the past two seasons and he tallied 12 goals and 37 points in 23 games as a senior.
“I had a really good feeling about Vegas, so I was really happy to be drafted by them,” Donovan said. “They were my favorite interview, by far, at the NHL Combine. Everything was just so positive every time I talked to them, even during the season. When they called my name, it was a relief.”
Donovan will play at the University of Wisconsin in the fall. He played a total of 24 games, including playoffs, for the Saints the past two seasons after his high school seasons ended.
“Obviously, I was only there a little bit, but I learned so many different lessons in my time in Dubuque,” Donovan said. “Facing a little adversity is only going to prepare me for Wisconsin. It was good for me to be around such good players and learn what it takes to earn playing time. The USHL is such a great league, and it was important to see that level before going on to college.”
Doyle, a 6-foot, 168-pound left defenseman from Lynnfield, Mass., went 157th overall to the Kings. In 28 games for Lawrence Academy, he tallied five goals and 29 points.
He had been ranked as high as No. 40 among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting.
“I thought I might go higher, but that doesn’t mean that much to me,” Doyle said. “I was starting to get a little nervous at the end, but it was nice to have my family around to support me through the whole process. The most important thing is I was drafted by a really good organization in the Kings.”
The Boston University recruit played five games as a Saints affiliate this season and notched an assist. He will play a full season in Dubuque before moving on to the Terriers.
“I really need Dubuque,” Doyle said. “I’ve been with the organization (as an affiliate) the last three years, so I know everyone there. It’s a great community and a great organization with a great facility. I really like the playing style the coaches teach, so it will be an important step in my development before I go to BU.”