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UND freshman Owen McLaughlin sees the game different, former coach says

Colten St. Clair, the alternate captain on UND's 2015-16 team, believes the incoming rookie can impact games with his vision.

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Sioux City Musketeers forward Owen McLaughlin skates with the puck in a game during the 2021-22 season.
Sioux City Musketeers
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GRAND FORKS — Colten St. Clair was a member of the 2015-16 NCAA national championship team, so he doesn’t make any comparisons to Nick Schmaltz lightly.

But St. Clair says when it comes to seeing the ice, UND has someone with a similarly unique ability.

Freshman forward Owen McLaughlin was a dynamic setup man for the Sioux City Musketeers last season, leading the franchise to its first Clark Cup championship in 20 years. He finished with 28 goals and 72 points. Only two UND commits have tallied more points in the United States Hockey League in the last two decades.

Whether it’s spotting a player on the back doorstep for a tap-in goal or finding a defenseman trailing the rush, McLaughlin has a knack for distributing the puck to open players.

“He finds ice better than anyone I’ve ever coached,” said St. Clair, the associate head coach and assistant general manager in Sioux City. “He plays very free in a good way. He goes where the open ice is, and he’s always got what I call ‘early eyes.’ Before he gets the puck, he’s always looking. He knows what kind of hole he can jump into, and he attacks it.”

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McLaughlin is one of four freshmen on this year’s UND squad. All of them are forwards. All of them are NHL Draft picks.

Dylan James is a second-round pick of the Detroit Red Wings (No. 40 overall). Jackson Blake is a fourth-round pick of the Carolina Hurricanes (No. 109). Ben Strinden is a seventh-round pick of the Nashville Predators (No. 210). McLaughlin also is a seventh-round pick (No. 206) of the Philadelphia Flyers.

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McLaughlin’s draft status may have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. He was not a USHL regular before going into the NHL Draft.

Had he slipped through 20 more picks and gone undrafted in 2021, he likely would have been picked in the top two rounds this summer, multiple scouts told the Herald.

McLaughlin, who centered a line with James last season, has already been making an early impression with the Fighting Hawks and should be a contender to play center on the top two lines.

"When young guys come in and jump from juniors to college, there will be some nervousness or guys that mishandle pucks being a little tight," UND coach Brad Berry said. "There's no tightness in his game. He's confident with the puck. He knows the next play. He finds the open guy all the time. He's just a smart, smart player."

St. Clair, who arrived on campus in 2011, said the only player he’s seen at UND with McLaughlin’s vision is Schmaltz.

“Those guys are it,” St. Clair said. “Those are the two best guys I’ve seen. They just see it different.”

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Schmaltz, a first-round draft pick of the Chicago Blackhawks, has gone onto a good NHL career. Now with the Arizona Coyotes, Schmaltz is entering the fourth year of a seven-year, $41-million deal.

McLaughlin has some work to do to get to that level.

“Nick’s second year, he was like plus-34,” St. Clair said. “That’s unheard of. Owen won’t be a plus-34 in his first year, but he could get there (later in his career). They’re very similar types of players.”

Although passing is the hallmark of McLaughlin's game, Berry said he's been encouraging McLaughlin to shoot more often.

"He distributes the puck very well, but one thing people don't know about him is that he has a great shot — an accurate shot with a quick, hard release," Berry said. "He loves passing the puck and moving the puck. He's a dangerous threat when he gets to that scoring area."

Blake, who won the 2021 Clark Cup with the Chicago Steel, also is noted for his vision.

“We plan on trying to put them with a couple of older players on a line instead of putting them all together early on,” Berry said of McLaughlin and Blake. “I go back to the time when we won the national championship. We had Drake Caggiula, Brock Boeser and Nick Schmaltz together. They all brought something different to the table. You want to do that.

"Both (McLaughlin and Blake) are good distributors. You probably want to put them with a Riese Gaber or Matteo Costantini or someone who can finish some plays. We have a bunch of guys who can finish. Gavin Hain is another guy who was being really productive before his injury.”

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Time will tell how quickly McLaughlin and Blake can adjust to the grind of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. But once they do, they should be big producers for the Fighting Hawks.

“They are smart players and they know the next play,” Berry said. “They have a high-end ability to do that.”

Schlossman has covered college hockey for the Grand Forks Herald since 2005. He has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors as the top beat writer for the Herald's circulation division four times and the North Dakota sportswriter of the year once. He resides in Grand Forks. Reach him at bschlossman@gfherald.com.
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