How a Sidney Crosby hockey school grad could accelerate Red Wings’ rebuild

Detroit News

The irony won’t be lost on Detroit Red Wings’ fans.

It’s possible Detroit’s next building block from the 2022 NHL Draft on July 7-8 in Montreal will have a close connection to arch-nemesis Sidney Crosby, the youngest captain in league history to win the Stanley Cup at age 21.

Thirteen years after Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Red Wings 2-1 in Game 7 of the 2009 Cup final at Joe Louis Arena, USA Hockey center Logan Cooley, the most famous graduate from the first year of Crosby’s Little Penguins Learn How To Play Program in Pittsburgh, is on the verge of NHL stardom and could wind up in Detroit if the Red Wings have better luck in the draft lottery and move up to the top of the draft.

Ranked second overall behind center Shane Wright of the Kingston Frontenacs in the midterm Central Scouting rankings of North American prospects, Cooley grew up in West Mifflin, a suburb south of Pittsburgh, and learned how to play the game at Crosby’s inaugural school for players between ages five and nine in 2008-09.

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“I was able to get free equipment and enjoy the game,” said Cooley, whose older brothers Eric and Riley also played hockey. “It’s really cool what Crosby did and still does. Hockey is a pretty expensive sport and he’s been able to help grow the game.”

The 17-year-old Cooley calls Crosby “the best all-around player in the world” and still watches video of the three-time Cup champion and learns “how to grow your game individually and what you can do to help the team.”

When asked about Cooley’s ascension to the No. 1 American NHL prospect, the 34-year-old Crosby told nhl.com that it’s “awesome to see that he (Cooley) fell in love with the game and has obviously done really well.”

After moving up the ranks in Pittsburgh and spending five years with the Penguins’ Elite program, Cooley made the move to Plymouth under coach Adam Nightingale with the National Team Development Program in 2021.

After recording 32 points in 28 games with the under-17 team last year, the 5-10, 178-pound Cooley doubled his output with 64 points in 43 games with the U18 team this year and heads into the world U18 championships in Landshut and Kaufbeuren, Germany from April 23-May 1 with a chance to win a gold medal with Team USA.

“It’s not fair to compare the two players,” said Nightingale, who was an assistant coach with the Red Wings from 2017-2020 and compares Cooley more to Sebastian Aho, the smooth-skating Finnish center who leads the Carolina Hurricanes in scoring with 69 points in 67 games this year.

“Crosby is one of the best all-time players. What I do see with Logan is a low-maintenance high performer who wants to do it the right way. That’s why his teammates wind up respecting him so much because this isn’t the Logan Cooley show. He works, he competes and he’s a big part of our team.”

Cooley says Nightingale has “really preached to move the puck, don’t be selfish and work on give-and-go plays.” Every NTDP practice begins with puck-possession and compete drills and Cooley says that “team game has allowed him to develop scoring chances from all that practice.”

As for captain Crosby reaching a historic team goal at age 21 (Steve Yzerman was just 21 years old when he was named the youngest Red Wings’ captain in team history in 1986 and it took the high-scoring center 11 years to win the Cup in 1997), Cooley says “it’s hard enough just to get to the NHL” but he says winning a Stanley Cup is “always in the back of your mind.”

The odds of Cooley landing in Detroit and being part of Yzerman’s rebuild with captain Dylan Larkin and NHL rookie-of-the-year candidates Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond aren’t very good. According to tankathon, Detroit has a 5.4% chance of winning the lottery and a 5.8% chance of picking second.

Heading into Wednesday’s game against the Winnipeg Jets, the Red Wings (27-34-9) are tied for the eighth-worst record with the Buffalo Sabres. A new NHL rule in 2022 prohibits a team from jumping 10 spots in the lottery.

“Being in Michigan the last year and a half, it would mean a lot to be drafted by the Wings,” Cooley said. “I was fortunate enough to go to a Wings game recently and it was one of the best games I’ve ever been to. I wouldn’t take for granted playing for an Original Six franchise. It would be pretty cool.”

The U18 world championships could be Cooley’s coming-out party just as Wright stole the show at last year’s year tournament in Texas when he led Canada to the gold medal with 14 points in only five games.

While the first round of the 2022 NHL draft is a veritable United Nations of prospects, including fast-rising Slovak winger Juraj Slafkovsky and at least seven of Cooley’s U.S. teammates, the race to No. 1 is expected to be between Wright and the first graduate of Crosby’s hockey school.

“It’s not something we talk about at all,” Cooley said. “Personally, being No. 1 would be a dream come true but you need to leave it up to the GMs. Let them do the talking and figure things out.”

Next year, Cooley and his U18 linemate Jimmy Snuggerud will attend the University of Minnesota, which will face Minnesota State in the Frozen Four at TD Garden in Boston on Thursday at 8:30 p.m. The winner will play in Saturday’s final against the winner of the Michigan-Denver game at 5 p.m.

Before then, there’s also the rescheduled U20 world junior championships at Rogers Place in Edmonton from Aug. 9-20. In the U.S.’s only game before the tournament was cancelled on Dec. 29, 2021 because of COVID-19, Cooley had an assist in a 3-2 win over Slovakia in Red Deer.

“I want to continue to get stronger, to fill out my body, to improve my shot and accuracy,” Cooley said. “But first we’re going overseas to play the best countries. It’s also a business trip. We’re going there to win gold and I think the way we’re playing, we have a good shot of doing that.”

mfalkner@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @falkner

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