Color of Hockey: Mbereko hoping to be picked at 2021 NHL Draft

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Kaidan Mbereko didn’t exactly enjoy hockey at first.

His parents placed him and his older brother, Zak, in a beginner’s hockey program in Aspen, Colorado, when Kaidan was 5 years old, and he quit the sport soon after he started playing it.

“I didn’t like skating around, learning how to stickhandle, shooting,” Mbereko said. “That really wasn’t my cup of tea, I guess.”

All that changed a few months later when a friend showed Mbereko a set of goalie pads and suggested that he try the position.

“I thought, ‘I might give this a chance,'” he said.

Now the 17-year-old goalie from the USA Hockey National Team Development Program Under-18 team is hoping that an NHL team gives him a chance and selects him in the 2021 NHL Draft.

The draft will be held virtually, with the first round July 23 (8 p.m. ET; ESPN2, SN, SN NOW), and rounds 2-7 on July 24 (11 a.m. ET; NHLN, SN, SN NOW).

Mbereko is No. 20 in NHL Central Scouting’s final ranking of North American goalies.

“I don’t care where, what team,” Mbereko said. “Just, hopefully, a team picks me. I’m telling myself not to get too excited about it or too low about it.”

Mbereko was 13-5-2 with a 3.01 goals-against average, .885 save percentage and one shutout in 25 games with the NTDP U-18 team and also played three games with NTDP U-17 team.

He had a standout run at the IIHF Under-18 World Championship, held April 26-May 6 in Texas. He was 2-1-0 with a 2.85 GAA and .927 save percentage in three games as the United States finished fifth.

Mbereko’s high point at the tournament came in a 2-1 shootout win against the Czech Republic in a preliminary-round game April 29. He made 30 saves, exited for 10:57 in the third period because of cramps in his left leg, then returned to play the final 6:16 of the third period, the five-minute overtime and then stop all five shots he faced in the shootout.

Central Scouting’s Al Jensen said Mbereko (5-foot-11, 182 pounds) has an upside that could make him attractive to NHL teams.

“There’s a lot to his game that’s really good,” Jensen said. “He’s quick, he’s a gamer. One of his strengths is his positional play. He reads the plays well. He’s out challenging properly. He has some qualities in his game that are better than some of the bigger goalies.”

NTDP goalie coach David Lassonde said Mbereko initially reminded him of Vegas Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.

“He’s got a style that’s athletic, it’s explosive,” Lassonde said. “He’s become more efficient in the way he plays the position. There were times when he chased the game a little bit with his stick, his butterfly. He’s learned that it might give you some short-term success but not long-term success.”

Lassonde said Mbereko’s willingness to make adjustments in his game and his demeanor make him a joy to coach.

“He has an infectious personality,” Lassonde said. “He’s always smiling, laughing. He’s just fun to be around and fun to coach.”

The next step in Mbereko’s development could be Lincoln of the United States Hockey League, which selected him with the No. 6 pick of the 2021 USHL draft. After that, he hopes to play NCAA Division I hockey.

“I haven’t been able to get out and see schools because of the pandemic,” he said. “I want to get an education and play college hockey too.”

Mbereko likens his game to Nashville Predators goalie Jusse Saros, who also is 5-11.

“He’s super-athletic in his game and he’s so technical, he moves so well,” Mbereko said. “He tracks pucks, he fights for his crease and that’s something I really want to model myself after.”

Mbereko also has a role model in his father, Isaac, who was a professional rugby player in his native Zimbabwe and a member of that country’s national team before the family settled in the United States.

The elder Mbereko helps coach and train his son, which required him to learn more about hockey.

“He really had to learn from watching the NHL on TV and stuff from YouTube about the game,” Kaidan said. “Today he kind of coaches me, more mental training and off-ice stuff. But he knows enough about the game where he can relate to my position. It’s second nature for him to talk about hockey now.”

It also has become second nature for Mbereko’s family in Zimbabwe, which faithfully watches Kaidan’s goaltending exploits online, his father said.

“They now, all of a sudden, are talking hockey,” Isaac Mbereko said. “They’ve been soccer fans all their lives and now here comes this sport they know nothing about. There are more eyes on the game now.”

Kaidan Mbereko’s next chance to display his talents will come at the World Junior Summer Showcase. The annual event, which will be held at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, Michigan, from July 24-31, is the first step toward the United States selecting its team for the 2022 IIHF World Junior Championship, which will be held Dec. 26-Jan. 5 in Edmonton and Red Deer, Alberta.

Mbereko is one of four goalies invited to the event, which will feature practices and games against Finland and Sweden.

“I get another opportunity to represent the USA, our country, you can’t be more proud of that,” he said. “You don’t get those chances often, so I want to make the most of it.”

Photos: Rena Laverty / USA Hockey National Team Development Program

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