Dylan James is UND's top NHL Draft prospect
The freshman forward is expected to go in the second or third round of this week's NHL Draft.
GRAND FORKS — Dylan James admits he was a bit nervous before the 2021-22 hockey season.
In the previous 18 months, James barely played any hockey.
He got in just seven games during 2020-21 due to coronavirus pandemic restrictions and shutdowns in Alberta. Then, the UND commit attempted to make the jump to the United States Hockey League, a big step up from his previous spot, the Alberta Junior Hockey League.
"I didn't know how I was going to do," James said. "It's a harder league than the AJ. I came in and worked hard. That was my main point. I thought the success would come from that."
James quickly worked his way onto the top line, first power-play unit and penalty kill for the Sioux City Musketeers. He played an integral role in leading the franchise to its first Clark Cup in two decades.
Along with that, James climbed up NHL Draft boards.
The Calgary native earned an invite to the NHL Combine, where he interviewed with 23 teams. On Friday, he's expected to go in the second or third rounds of the NHL Draft, which will be held in Montreal's Bell Centre.
"His stock kept climbing higher and higher throughout the year," an NHL scout said. "He was at his best in the playoffs and a major factor in Sioux City winning a championship. He's a really hard-working, high-character, reliable and consistent player."
James, who will be a college freshman this fall, is expected to be UND's first player off the draft board. Defenseman Jake Livanavage, who is entering his high school senior year, is expected to be next.
Then, there are several prospects who are on the bubble, including forward Ben Strinden , defenseman Tyler Dunbar, forward Bowden Singleton, defenseman Abram Wiebe and goalie Hobie Hedquist. Only Strinden will be coming to campus this fall out of that group.
A year ago, James probably wouldn't have been penciled in as UND's best draft prospect. In fact, UND's coaching staff wasn't sure he would be coming to Grand Forks in 2022.
"I thought I started the year a little slow," James said. "Starts of the year are usually pretty tough for me. After Christmas, I had a little burst there. I started getting confidence, getting used to my teammates, the coaches, the area. . . once that happened, I started to do really good. I had two great linemates that helped me individually. I feel like from start to end, my structure got really good. The coaches pounded that really good."
James played left wing on a line centered by fellow UND incoming freshman Owen McLaughlin, a Philadelphia Flyers draft pick.
"He and McLaughlin were a great pair this year, because Dylan would work hard to recover pucks and extend plays for McLaughlin," an NHL scout said. "(James) would go hard to the net to score."
Scouts see James as a potential third- or fourth-line player in the NHL because of his speed and tenacity.
"His NHL projection is good because he is a player who knows what he has to do to help his team win games and he plays to that identity consistently," an NHL scout said. "Realistically, he will be a valuable checking-line winger in the NHL with PK value. He could go as high as the second round. He won't get out of the third."
At UND, he will be more than that.
"He will contribute at North Dakota immediately and his contributions go beyond the stats," an NHL scout said. "He is excellent on the forecheck, backcheck and penalty kill."
James will likely attend an NHL development camp after the draft. Then, he'll come to UND and start to get ready for the 2022-23 season.
"I'm pumped about it," James said. "I committed to this school very early. There were lots of reasons why. Now, I get to live that dream, be there and embrace the moment."
Size: 6-0, 181.
Previous team: Sioux City (USHL).
Current team: UND.
Draft projection: Second or third round.
First round: 6 p.m. Thursday, ESPN.
Second-seventh rounds: 10 a.m. Friday, NHL Network, ESPN Plus.
Where: Bell Centre, Montreal.