Matt Kiersted remembers his NHL Draft day well.
It was June 25, 2016. He held his high school graduation party at his home that afternoon.
Kiersted was following the draft, but not extremely close.
“I knew there was an outside chance I would get picked late, but I wasn’t really preparing or planning on being picked in the NHL Draft,” he said. “When my name didn’t get called, it wasn’t a super big shock to me or my family. We all kind of saw that coming.”
Was it discouraging?
“Yeah, for sure,” Kiersted said. “I guess as an 18-year-old kid, you see all your buddies and guys you played with get drafted, and then you don’t, it’s not a good feeling in ways. But I guess there’s nothing you can do about it. I mean, there are guys who don’t get drafted who play in the NHL all the time, so you’ve just got to move forward.”
Kiersted was technically draft eligible the next two years, too.
But he suffered a season-ending injury during the first half of the season in 2016-17 with the Chicago Steel in the United States Hockey League, and was buried in a deep defensive unit at UND as a freshman in 2017-18.
So, he went undrafted again and again.
How did Kiersted handle it?
“I don’t know if I can say this,” Kiersted said, “but being pissed off about it. . . not happy. . . using that as motivation to get in the gym and be better and make sure teams realize they missed out.”
That realization is happening.
NHL teams have started trying to lure Kiersted, who is now considered a free agent with the ability to sign wherever he chooses. Although he had multiple offers over the summer, Kiersted decided to return to school for his senior year.
That news came to UND’s delight.
Kiersted enters the season as arguably the best defenseman in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference and one of the best in the entire country.
Only one returning blue liner in the nation had more points last season than Kiersted -- Boston University’s David Farrance, who was a Hobey Baker Award finalist.
Kiersted finished the season with six goals and 29 points in 33 games. His final point of the season was the primary assist on Shane Pinto’s overtime, Penrose Cup-clinching goal against Western Michigan in Ralph Engelstad Arena.
“When we recruited him, we saw a very intelligent defenseman that went back and got pucks, broke out pucks efficiently tape-to-tape, that was a very smart player who knew the next play,” UND coach Brad Berry said. “His body didn’t really develop until juniors, past high school. And then, unfortunately, he had that injury that set him back half the year.
“He’s a young man who has patience in his day to day, knowing that it took some time for his body to grow and develop. Now you’re seeing him flourish and develop into probably one of the top-end D-men in the country this year.”
A path that’s been traveled
Kiersted’s development path is not uncommon at UND.
Several former UND players, who were thought to be draft prospects but were passed over, have come through the program and left with NHL contracts in hand.
Two notable examples are Drake Caggiula and Troy Stecher, who were both passed over in the draft three times. They helped UND to the 2016 NCAA national championship, then turned pro. They’re both still in the NHL today.
“We get all types,” Berry said. “We get the drafted players and we get the undrafted players -- the Jordan Kawaguchis, the Matt Kiersteds, the Drake Caggiulas, who come through the program. That’s the beauty of it. Everybody’s got a different timeline. But I think it’s one of those things where you have to invest in yourself on a daily basis. Matt does that.”
Like Caggiula and Stecher, Kiersted had to earn his playing time.
As a freshman, the 6-foot, 175-pound blue liner from Elk River, Minn., was a healthy scratch multiple times.
“I know as a freshman, I really didn’t play that much the first half of the year,” Kiersted said. “I was kind of in and out of the lineup. As a freshman here at the University of North Dakota, it’s a great hockey program, and it’s hard. It’s not going to be easy just to come in and step into a role. I think just doing whatever things you need to work on.
“Say you need to get stronger, you spend extra time in the gym or go in later in the afternoon and get a weight lift in or shoot some pucks. The coaches are great, too. Any time of the day, if you go knock on the door and ask if you can go do skills on the ice, they’ll pop out there with you. Just being dedicated and working on your craft.”
As a sophomore, Kiersted became an every day player, tallying 18 points in 36 games. Last season, he became a second-team All-NCHC defenseman and was named a finalist for the league’s top offensive defenseman award.
NHL scouts flocked to see him play and filed reports with their general managers. When the season came to an unexpected end, several tried to sign him.
“There was a decision to make, but I think the decision I made is one I’m sticking with and I’m happy about it, especially the way things are getting going now,” Kiersted said. “We have a plan to play. And at the next level, I’m not sure what they’re doing yet.”
Returning to make a run at the NCAA national championship with his classmates was another big draw.
“I think definitely the way the season ended last year, with how good the team was, and not being able to go to the national tournament and do anything there (played a role),” Kiersted said. “Also just the other guys that are deciding to come back and seeing the commitment from them. I think that was a big role, too.
“We decided to come back and try to finish off what we ended on last year.”