Austen Swankler could reopen Western Pennsylvania’s NHL Draft stream
When Vince Trocheck, Brandon Saad, J.T. Miller and John Gibson were chosen in the first three rounds of the 2011 NHL Draft, it looked like Western Pennsylvania was establishing itself as a breeding ground for top hockey talent in the United States.
While the region has continued to provide a steady supply of players to college and junior hockey teams, the NHL Draft stream has slowed to a trickle.
A local player hasn’t been picked since the Vancouver Canucks chose defenseman Miles Liberati, a Cheswick native, in the seventh round in 2013.
North Huntingdon native Austen Swankler might be the player to end the drought.
A 16-year-old University of Michigan recruit, the 5-foot-11 Swankler has caught the attention of scouts with his skating, skill and especially his strength and competitiveness on the puck. He could be chosen in the 2019 NHL draft.
“I haven’t really thought about it yet. It’s far ahead,” Swankler said. “I’m taking the small steps right now. Eventually, that’s the goal. It would be an amazing feeling. I couldn’t put it into words.”
A product of the Penguins Elite youth hockey program, Swankler took a big step in his development as a player last year when he moved to Michigan to play midget hockey for the Oakland Jr. Grizzlies U16 team.
It wasn’t an easy move, but it paid big dividends. Swankler put up 101 points in 63 games and began to open eyes all over the hockey world.
He thanked his parents, billet family, coaches and advisers for the opportunity.
“My parents moving me up there was a big sacrifice,” Swankler said. “My little brother Noah, I can’t imagine how he felt with me leaving. He’s only 8.”
Swankler was drafted by teams in all the top junior hockey leagues in the country over the past two years — Waterloo in the USHL, New Jersey in the NAHL and Syracuse in the USPHL. He was even taken by Ottawa in the third round of the OHL draft in Canada.
There were any number of paths he could pursue.
“It’s awesome,” Swankler said. “Seeing teams recognizing how I’ve been working real hard to get there is an amazing feeling and seeing they have faith in me.”
Swankler decided to pass on the OHL route because of his desire to get a college education. At first, he decided to go to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., then changed his commitment to Michigan.
“It was a tough decision,” Swankler said. “The coaching staff at RPI was an amazing coaching staff, but the hockey path of Michigan, all the history, (Montreal captain Max) Pacioretty going there, them having a great coaching staff, Mel Pearson being there. They’ve had a lot of players go to the NHL.”
Swankler will join the Wolverines in 2020, so he has two years of junior hockey ahead of him first. He is planning to attend a 30-man camp at Waterloo in August to try to make the USHL squad.
“They have an amazing organization and coaching staff and everything like that,” Swankler said. “A lot of NHL players like (Vancouver’s) Brock Boeser came from that organization.”
Before Swankler takes his next step down the hockey road, he has a busy summer ahead of him.
Next week, he’s headed to Buffalo for a U16 national team camp. He’s also working on some individual development at Center Ice Arena in Delmont.
“I feel like your skating can never get too good,” Swankler said. “You can always develop more. I can tell over the years that my skating has gotten better, either my stride or stops and starts.”
Swankler said he’s had conversations with Liberati, who played the past two seasons with Allen in the ECHL, and Alex Gritz, a Cranberry native who played last year for the Erie Otters in the OHL, about the road that lies ahead of him.
“I think it’s getting more serious in the developing and working out part,” Swankler said. “You want to still have fun, but it’s getting way more serious with all the other kids working hard also and them trying to beat you to your spot. You have to work even harder.”