I recently was able to have a discussion with Chris Peters, writer and owner of the definitive United States’ hockey website: The United States of Hockey.

He has covered the USNTDP for years and he has seen more of the draft eligible Americans like Grimaldi, Gibson, Saad, Miller and Biggs than almost any human alive.

He was gracious enough to answer some questions for Jesse Marshall and I, both Penguin related and general draft questions as well.

Q: You’re somewhat of an expert on American hockey. Who in this coming draft has the best chance to succeed at the NHL level?

A: Of the American kids in the draft, I think the safest bet to have success at the NHL level is probably Brandon Saad. He’s physically strong and a gifted scorer. He’s probably got some of the strongest legs in the draft. I wouldn’t say that he flies, but he skates with such power that he blows by defenders. He had a groin injury in the middle of the year, and when your legs are your best asset, an injury like that will slow you down. That may be why his stock has dropped. To be honest, though, there’s a lot of high-end American talent in this draft. Still, Saad just seems like the safest bet to me.

Q: The The Pittsburgh Penguins have a tendency to draft big, draft American, and draft NCAA under GM Ray Shero. In fact Jesse here recently said:

“You get a guy that’s at least 6’0 tall, 185+ lbs, responsible at both ends, a product of the NCAA/CHL, solid build, good family roots, with a proto-typical “North American” approach to the game. You could literally write that about every single prospect in the system regardless of offense or defense.”

What do you see the Penguins doing on draft day considering some intriguing American born players will likely be available when they pick at #23?

A: There’s probably going to be a few players the pens can select from. Saad actually might still be there at 23 because teams are scared of his bad second half. If he’s available at 23, I don’t see how the Pens could pass him up. Saad fits that description to a T. He’s a heard working kid who does his best work on the offensive side, but doesn’t have any sever defensive deficiencies.

If they’re looking for high-upside, longer-term project, Scott Mayfield could be available and he’s got a lot to like about his game.

Q: Would Rocco Grimaldi’s size prevent the Penguins from drafting him? Other than his size, Grimaldi’s work ethic, character, offensive potential, and attention to detail fit the Penguins mold perfectly. You have him as your top ranked American forward. Will he make a team like the Penguins happy to draft him?

A: Grimaldi’s size shouldn’t prevent anyone from drafting him. He’d make any team happy. It appears that a lot of Grimaldi’s detractors have not seen him play live. He is absolutely one of the most skilled players available in the draft. That’s not bias on my part either, as I’ve talked to several other people in the scouting business that agree. His speed, stick handling, shot, work ethic and toughness are all pro-ready. People will think I’m nuts for saying this, but I wonder if he spends more than two years at North Dakota. I truly feel he’s not far away from being an NHL forward. Once you get past the height, you see a potential star.

Q: Who are some Americans expected to go in the later rounds that could surprise some folks in a few years?

A: I think Reid Boucher is a kid who should go earlier than he probably will. He’s one of the absolute purest goal scorers in the draft. Not just American, everyone. He’s got the nastiest release I’ve seen and his shot has serious zip on it. He’s a little undersized, but has underrated strength. With the right center, Boucher’s got 30-goal potential in him.

Going even later there’s Zac Larraza who has improved a lot over the last year. He’s a great two-way forward that has some decent offensive upside. I think he’ll end up in the late third or early fourth, but could sneak into the early third. He’s got great size and was a beast at the U18 World Championship.

I also like Green Bay Gamblers defenseman Andy Welinski. He came on strong over the course of this season. Lastly, a guy who might go all the way in the seventh round is USHL Rookie of the Year John Gaudreau. He’s very small, but is incredibly gifted offensively. He has tremendous hands, vision and scoring ability. He’s a long way away, but he’s worth a seventh-round flyer. His skill just stands out.

Q: You have local Pittsburgh guys Brandon Saad and John Gibson ranked very highly in your USA Draft Rankings and you tweeted today that “Though his stock has fallen, I’d bet Brandon Saad will be a guy that makes GMs sour that they passed on him in a few years.” What can you tell us about these guys and what makes you believe in Saad when he was once considered a top 10 pick and is now being rumored to fall out of the first round?

*A:*Well I covered Saad a little bit earlier, but just to reiterate a bit I think he’s a very gifted player. If a team has done their homework and looks at Saad’s body of work over the last two seasons, they’ll see a player with potential. I think his top ceiling is as a Top 6 guy, though he’d easily fit into a third-line role if necessary.

Gibson, in my opinion, is easily one of the best American goaltending prospects to come along in a while. Between him and Jack Campbell last year, you’ve got a formidable duo. There is so much to like about Gibson’s game. I can’t find many holes with him. He’s also the most laid-back player I’ve seen. Never dwells on a goal or a misplay. He’s always the same. No doubt he’ll be a pro.

Q: I am interested in hearing specifically more about J.T. Miller and Tyler Biggs. What can you tell me about them from someone who has seen them play more than most?

A: It’s no secret that I’m a fan of both players. I think Miller projects as the more dynamic of the two so I’ll start with him. J.T. Miller is strong as a bull, tough and really difficult to play against. His one problem is inconsistency, and that lies in his inability to figure out what kind of player he’s supposed to be. Sometimes he runs around a little too much and makes poor decisions. However, when he’s focused, there are few better than he. He can score goals, he’s got good enough vision to set up teammates and he can bury an opponent with a crushing check. When he plays smart, he’s a great prospect. He’ll need a team that will be patient with him and allow him to grow into that player.

Biggs is very interesting, because he’s not your prototypical first-rounder. He’s not the best offensively, but his toughness, work ethic, and character have a lot of scouts excited. He plays a fearless brand of hockey and can physically over match opponents. He’s a tremendous fighter as well. Still there’s at least some element of offense to his game. He doesn’t have the best hands and doesn’t make the best passes, but he has a very underrated and accurate shot. He scored the game-winning goal against Canada at the World Under-18s to go to the gold-medal game and it was a beauty of a shot. He plays big in big games and he’s the type of guy teams want in their dressing room.

Q: What is the deal with the USNTDP schedule of games and such? Who did they play this year, what tournaments/games do they participate in to tune up for the U-18’s and U-20’s?

A: The NTDP is split into two teams, the U17s and U18s. The U18 team plays 26 games in the USHL, 20 or so against NCAA Division I and III schools (played Minnesota, Minnesota Duluth, Cornell, North Dakota and Maine, just to name a few) and three international tournaments a year, while the U17s play against the USHL and have three international tournaments of their own.

The two big events for the NTDP are the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge for the U17s and the IIHF World Men’s Under-18 Championship for the U18s. Those are very similar to the World Juniors in structure. The goal of the NTDP is to prepare players for the pros, but also for future U.S. National Teams like the World Junior Championship, Men’s World Championship and the Olympics. It’s a terrific program that has seen a ton of alumni drafted into the NHL... notably Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, Ryan Suter, Ryan Kesler, Erik Johnson, Jack Johnson and Cam Fowler.

Q: Beau Bennett is a pretty big deal in Pittsburgh. We have an interview with him coming up soon and his freshman season at Denver is pretty much what most expected from him. What have you seen from Bennett, either in tournaments, in USA hockey camps, or at Denver? Is it a big deal that he was not invited to the USA Hockey National Junior Development Camp when Penguins’ 2010 3rd and 5th round picks Bryan Rust and Kenny Agostino were invited to participate?

A: I actually haven’t seen too much of Bennett over the last year, but I know a lot of people are high on his offensive game and his skating. Penguins fans shouldn’t fret about Bennett not making the World Junior camp, as he is too old to compete this year. He’s a late 1991 birth date, and the players must be born in 1992 or later to play in this year’s World Junior Championship