Detroit — The decision of prospect Dylan James to play college hockey at North Dakota was roundly given a big thumbs-up by the Red Wings.
In a way, it’s easy to understand. As Kris Draper, assistant general manager/director of amateur scouting, said after the Wings drafted James last year, there’s simply a limited number of things to do in the winter in North Dakota.
James, who attended the Wings’ development camp earlier this month, basically agreed with Draper. North Dakota isn’t exactly a land of excitement.
But if you’re into hockey, there’s few places better than attending or playing at North Dakota.
“Even before warm-ups there are about 5,000 students across the ice, waiting for you to come out,” said James, with his smile growing wider. “It’s crazy. Every game I looked up and looked at the students. They’re so passionate, it’s so cool.”
Sometimes in the rush to analyze and dissect all of the Wings’ recent draft picks, for whatever reason, James can be lost in the mix.
But James, 19, showed during his freshman season glimpses of why he’s a legitimate prospect.
Playing for one of the nation’s best programs, James had 16 points (eight goals, eight assists) in 36 games and was playing on special teams and late in games as the season progressed.
The 6-foot, 180-pound winger wasn’t overly thrilled with his season. James didn’t like his start to the season and was surprised the transition to college hockey was so bumpy.
But if you ask Dan Cleary, the Red Wings’ director of player development, he felt James did just fine.
“He had a good season, the opposite of what he thinks,” Cleary said. “He came in (to North Dakota) and had to find his way. He made some freshman mistakes and had to sit, but that’s all part of it. At the end of the day, I always look at where you are at the end of the season, (and) he was trending upwards.
“Out there in the last minute, I was in Omaha watching and he scored a great goal shorthanded. He’s playing in the regionals as an important player. … That’s what I look at.”
What Cleary likes, possibly as much as the versatility and two-way game James has shown, is the passion James has for the game.
Cleary recounted a story during the development camp of seeing James still milling around Little Caesars Arena near the Wings’ training area, long after most players had left.
“He doesn’t leave,” Cleary said. “Everybody might have been gone by 1 or 2, but he was here until 4:30. I asked him, ‘What are you doing here?’ He said looking at sticks, messing around. He just doesn’t like to leave.
“I liked him a lot. He’s a legit rink rat.”
Going into his sophomore year at North Dakota, James feels more comfortable and confident. He’ll be counted on for more offense and should be taking on greater roles on special teams and as a leader.
James felt the tide turning late last season under North Dakota head coach Brad Berry.
“Coach started to trust me at the end,” said James, who feels his biggest area of improvement needs to come offensively. “Just being able to get into scoring opportunities better, and that comes with my skating. I had a different role (last season). It was hard to score goals. Hopefully I’ll get that opportunity (this season).
“It was hard a freshman. You have to gain the trust of your coaches. You usually start at the bottom of the lineup, and I was completely fine with that.”
Cleary had one distinct impression of the young players at this month’s camp.
“It’s one of the more mature groups of kids (the Wings have had),” Cleary said. “We went and played paintball, a fun thing to do. But it really shows you what kind of kids you have. When they say go, certain kids go. Some methodically think, ‘Where should I go?’ Some kids stay back and wait.
“It was a fun process to see. We have great character kids. Through the year it’s been fun working with these guys.”
The Wings provide education on nutrition, finance and sleeping habits, among other topics. Cleary singled out Lisa McDowell, the Wings’ performance dietitian and director of nutrition/lifestyle medicine, as an important part of the program.
“A lot of these kids don’t know how to cook or grocery shop,” Cleary said of the 18-to-20-year-olds. “They think what they’re eating is good. But Lisa is great on educating these kids and giving them different recipes they can cook and learn.”