There have only been three players from the state of Nebraska to play in the NHL. Johnny Matz, Jed Ortmeyer and most recently, Neal Pionk of the Winnipeg Jets.
2022 NHL Draft prospect Rutger McGroarty is looking to add his name to that short list.
The Lincoln native is ranked 22nd overall among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting. Some outlets have him in the top-20, others have him being a late first or even just outside the first round. His journey, along with his skillset, has vaulted him to potentially being a first-round pick in the 2022 NHL Draft and continues to put Nebraska on the hockey map.
Hockey Was the Sport From the Start
Hockey was in McGroarty’s blood from the very beginning. His father Jim, grew up in Toronto and had a stint in the ECHL during his career. For Rutger, the love for the game came instantly.
Related: THW 2022 NHL Draft Guide
“I came to a hockey game when I was three days old, actually,” McGroarty said to the media at the NHL Draft Combine. “I was just born into the sport and I loved it ever since.”
We always hear of players getting their start in bigger name places. While Nebraska isn’t the biggest hockey market, they still had a strong minor hockey scene. McGroarty’s exposure was instilled in him thanks to his father as he was part of the Lincoln Stars coaching staff when he was growing up.
“Being a little kid from Lincoln, Nebraska, it’s a non-traditional hockey market, it was a lot of fun for me,” McGroarty said. “My dad having the key to the rink for the Lincoln Stars and the ice box, I feel like being in that junior locker room from five to nine, I feel like I matured a lot quicker than other five to nine year old’s.
“I loved every second of it.”
Although he grew in up a non-traditional market, McGroarty moved away to Michigan with his father when he was 10 years old to further his hockey career. He was scouted at the Brick Invitational to play for the Detroit Honeybaked which led to the move. His mother and sister stayed back in Lincoln during the hockey season and McGroarty and his father moved back to Lincoln for the summer.
“It was hard at 10 years old,” McGroarty said. “A lot of people called us crazy, but it’s definitely worked out to this point. I don’t regret it.
“I felt like it was just best for my career and my development. Lincoln, Nebraska was a big part for me and a big part for my development, but I felt like moving to Michigan was definitely the best option.”
At that point, his career took off. After demolishing the competition with 82 goals and 160 points with the Oakland Jr. Grizzlies in 2019-20, his path led him to the US National Development Program where he continued to shine.
Always Plays With Intensity and Compete
If there’s one thing that always stands out with McGroarty’s game it’s his intensity and high compete level. This season alone in games with the Development Program and in the USHL, he scored a combined 50 goals and 102 points. He had great production numbers according Pick224. With the USDP, he has a primary points per game average of 1.04 and an even strength primary points per game of 0.89. In the USHL, he had a P1/GP of 1.04 and an EV P1/GP of 0.76.
He displays great IQ, does a great job to protect the puck and is always able to power through the opposition. Teammate and defenseman Ryan Chesley definitely notices the impact that he has every shift.
“He’s obviously a really talented player,” Chesley said of McGroarty. “He’s good all over the ice, defensive side too. He’s obviously good offensively, scores a ton of goals. He really brings the physicality too, so I think he kind of brings everything to his game.”
McGroarty captained Team USA to a silver medal at the IIHF World U18 Championship, scoring eight goals in six games. He displayed his leadership qualities and whether it’s on or off the ice, he prioritizes being someone that players can approach if they need to.
“I bring my compete and I bring my energy every single day and I feel like I’m a super approachable guy.” McGroarty said. “I feel like if someone is struggling on the ice, or off the ice whatever it is, just go and talk to them, hang out with them and just be there for them.”
A question that was asked during the interview process was what kind of animal the player would be? McGroarty said that he was a father gorilla off the ice as he leads by example. On the ice, he describes himself as a African hunting dog due to his killer instinct and ability to play with high level of compete. It also helps that he models his game after Calgary Flames star Matthew Tkachuk as he plays with the same amount energy and exudes a strong power forward-like game.
“I feel like I’m a winning hockey player and I feel like I bring it every day,” McGroarty explained about his mentality. “I want to make my teammates better and I’m in it for the right reasons. I love playing the team game and coming to the rink every single day. Once it comes down to the nitty-gritty times of the season, I feel like I’m a playoff hockey player.”
The knock on McGroarty has been his skating and his posture as he could look to work on his first few steps. Though when he gets to top speed, he can fly. He’s putting in the work and effort to improve that with Barb Underhill as his skating coach– who has worked with Tampa Bay Lightning centre Brayden Point.
“[Barb] and I have developed a really good relationship,” McGroarty said. “She sees potential in my skating in the next three to four years. I’m really excited to keep working with her.”
During the U18 Worlds, he had more jump in his game to break away from the opposition. To say that he’s put in the work is an understatement and if he continues to improve in this aspect, he could be a player that many would not like to go up against. Being committed to the University of Michigan is definitely going to help in that regard as he joins a power house team that has produced some big names. Most recently, Owen Power, Matty Beniers and Kent Johnson.
The 2022 Biosteel All-American Prospects Game MVP will be joining the team next season with Adam Fantilli, a potential top-three pick in the 2023 NHL Draft.
Fan of the Blue and White
While McGroarty talked about his upbringing and career in Nebraska, he shed some light on his connection with the Maple Leafs as he was a fan the team as a kid. The Maple Leafs were one of the teams that McGroarty talked to during the combine.
Being a fan of the team and growing up there as well, McGroarty is excited for the opportunity if he was drafted by them as he has all the qualities that they look for in a prospect with his leadership, work ethic, shot and drive.
“I feel like I could definitely add that leadership ability,” McGroarty explained. “I could come in and bring that compete and energy. Being a kid that’s always been a Toronto fan, I’ve always been a big fan of them. And I got a lot of friends up there so I feel like I’d be comfortable in the Toronto area.”
When I asked him about the possibility of playing with Maple Leafs superstar Auston Matthews, McGroarty was excited about that chance.
“I feel like if anyone got the opportunity to play with him they would be pretty amped.
“That would be awesome.”
The Maple Leafs currently hold the 25th overall pick in the draft. Should McGroarty become available at that spot, he would definitely be an intriguing option. He can shoot, plays with that killer instinct that they’re looking for and displays a great mindset and attitude on and off the ice.
They added a strong and skilled forward in Matthew Knies in the second round in 2021, they could do the same with McGroarty’s scoring ability and relentless mentality this time around.
Statistics from Elite Prospects and Pick224.
Peter is in his third year with The Hockey Writers, covering the Toronto Maple Leafs and heading the Draft and Prospects section. He has previously interned at The Hockey News and worked on Toronto Marlies broadcasts for Rogers TV. He currently is the co-host of the podcast Sticks in the 6ix and a frequent guest on Maple Leafs Lounge. Aside from hockey, he also enjoys drumming, animation and impressions/ voices.