By Matt Williams
---- — J.J Layton loves seeing his teammates from the 2009 Peabody West team that made an unforgettable run to the Little League World Series making their presence felt on high school diamonds all over the state.
As for Layton, he’s always felt most comfortable wearing two skates on a sheet of ice. Like his Peabody West compatriots, he’s evolving into one of the top players in his chosen game.
The latest step in Layton’s hockey development was a selection in “Phase 2” of the United States Hockey League draft last week. The 16-year-old freshman at Austin Prep was nabbed by the Omaha Lancers with the 382nd pick.
“It’s a big stepping stone for me,” said Layton, a defenseman. “I went to a combine for the league last weekend and their coach told me he liked the way I played. I was a little nervous as the draft went on, but I’m pretty happy.”
Layton was one of 11 players with ties to the North Shore selected. The USHL is a junior league based in the Midwest that essentially acts as a feeder system for college hockey. It allows players to compete at a high level while, unlike in Canadian Major Junior hockey, retaining their NCAA eligibility. For example, Will O’Neill of Salem and one-time St. John’s Prep standout John McCarthy each played in the USHL after high school before playing in Hockey East.
At Layton’s age, his plans are to stick with Austin Prep for the forseeable future. It’s great news, and a sign of his stock in the hockey world, to be considered for the future, however.
“I’ll go to their training camp in June and see what I can learn, how I can compete,” Layton said. “It’s really one step at a time and see how things pan out. I’ve been in touch with a few colleges, and one of the coaches recommended the USHL combine. It’s a better stepping stone to get ready for college after high school.”
St. John’s Prep senior Brian Pinho was the highest Massachusetts player selected in Phase 2 of the draft, going sixth overall to Indiana. Having completed his senior year and helping the Eagles reach the Super 8, Pinho plans to play for Indiana next year before joining Providence College for 2014-15.
“It should be a lot of fun and the USHL is a great place for young players to develop,” said Pinho, who is from North Andover.
The Eagles Tyler Bird, who is committed to Brown, was selected by Tri-City. Peabody native Colin MacGillivray was chosen by Youngstown, Boxford’s Jack Adams was drafted by Chicago. Layton’s AP teammate Nolan Vesey and Catholic Memorial star Liam Coughlin were picked by Dubuque, a team with ties to Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli.
To be included in that sort of group is a strong sign of what could be in Layton’s future. The number of players selected with ties to public high school hockey in Massachusetts is also a point of pride for many of the players.
“People are always talking Minnesota and comparing us to Minnesota kid, and seeing all these kids get picked it great. Everyone knows its great competition in high school here,” said Layton, who grew up playing in the Jr. Warriors program. “It is a confidence boost, especially for a young kid like me playing against older guys.”
Playing in the 1997-age group, Layton was also chosen to attend a USA Hockey player development camp being held in Buffalo in July. His freshman season at Austin Prep was a successful one; he had two goals and six assists and as a rear guard helped the Cougars record one of the best team goals against averages in the state.
“I feel like I’m a pretty neutral defenseman,” said Layton, who is now 5-11, 180 pounds. “I take the puck when I need to and I start being physical when I have to be too. I play offensive when I have to and I know when to buckle down in the defensive end.”
Playing for coach Louis Finocchiaro at AP helped Layton develop, as did playing with a talented group that included Vesey and recent Boston University commit Bobo Carpenter (son of St. John’s legend Bobby Carptenter). The Cougars reached the Super 8 final at TD Garden, even upsetting North Shore rival St. John’s Prep in the semi’s along the way.
“A lot of our guys have played together since we were younger and the captains had been to the Super 8 before, so they led us into it,” said Layton. “We weren’t sure we’d get as far as we did, but once we started playing and getting confidence we got the wins.”
AP fell to Malden Catholic in the Super 8 final, though the experience of playing the championship game at TD Garden was immense, “I can’t explain it. It was incredible to see everybody there to see us play,” Layton added.
Like most of his hockey loving peers, Layton will spend the summer working out to build strength and power, and skating to hone his skills. If the way he’s developed over the last year is any indication, his sophomore season in high school cold be even better.
“It’s a mission for us. We only lost two seniors, so we want to show it was no fluke. We want to get back there,” said Layton.