Seth Jones, the projected first overall pick in the 2013 National Hockey League draft, recently had a change of heart that’s worth noting.

The 16-year-old defenceman was planning to go the U.S. college hockey route, but the more he thought about it the more he liked his other option better. So, he decided instead that he will join the Portland Winter Hawks next season in the Western Hockey League.

Stefan Matteau, a projected first-round pick in the 2012 NHL draft, also recently made the switch. Instead of U.S. college hockey as initially planned, the 17-year-old forward will play next season for the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

Jones, Matteau and Moncton Wildcats’ prospect Frankie Vatrano all played this season for the U.S. National Team Development Program and helped the Americans capture the gold medal at the 2012 World Under-18 Hockey Championship last month.

“We knew that Frankie Vatrano would have options when we drafted him (in the eighth round of the 2011 QMJHL draft,” said Moncton head coach and director of hockey operations Danny Flynn.

“He’s an offensive power forward and we thought it was certainly worth the gamble to draft him and try to recruit him to come here.”

Vatrano, 17, is a 5-foot-10, 221-pound left winger who’s projected to be selected in the 2012 NHL draft. The Hockey News ranks him as the 97th best prospect available in the draft, something that would make him a fourth-round pick.

“We’ve had ongoing discussions with his agent,” said Flynn. “I think the NHL draft may have an influence on where he ends up playing next season. He’s planning right now to go the U.S. college route, but all along he’s shown some interest in major junior.

“He played with Seth Jones and Stefan Matteau on the U.S. gold medal team at the world under-18 championship last month. These are two highly touted players that changed their mind and are now going major junior instead of U.S. college hockey. I think that’s going to prompt a lot of other top-rated players to re-evaluate which route is best for them.”

The Hockey News ranked the top 100 prospects in the world for the 2012 NHL draft. Moncton owns the rights for three players on this list — Michael Matheson, James Melindy and Vatrano.

Matheson, a 17-year-old defenceman, is No. 27 in the rankings which would make him a first-round pick. He played junior A this season in the United States Hockey League and is currently planning to pursue U.S. college hockey.

Melindy, an 18-year-old defenceman, is No. 95 in the rankings which would make him a fourth-round pick. He has shown tremendous improvement during his two seasons with the Wildcats.

Moncton acquired Matheson as part of the blockbuster trade when it shipped defenceman Brandon Gormley to the Shawinigan Cataractes in January.

Matheson was the consensus best player available in the 2010 QMJHL draft and QMJHL Central Scouting pegged him No. 1 in its rankings. But he slipped to the second round because he made it clear that he planned to pursue U.S. college hockey.

Matheson played midget AAA and junior A the past two seasons in order to maintain his U.S. college hockey eligibility. He turned down the opportunity to play this season for Shawinigan, the host team in the 2012 Memorial Cup.

There were many elements to the deal when Moncton traded Gormley to Shawinigan. Quebec-based sources say the Wildcats will receive an additional second-round pick in the 2013 QMJHL draft if Matheson doesn’t report to the club next season.

“Michael Matheson is going to be a top 30 pick in this year’s NHL draft and then he’ll have to make a decision where to go to best get ready for the NHL,” said Flynn. “We hope to meet with him and his family in the next two weeks. We want to show that Moncton is the best place for him in terms of both hockey development and education.

“I think the NHL draft could have an impact on his final decision regarding where he plays next season. Everybody I’ve spoken with says that he’s probably going to be a first-round pick.”

Within the past year, there are seven members of the U.S. National Team Development Program who have changed their mind. They were planning to play U.S. college hockey, but they’re now either in major junior or they’re going to major junior next season.

It was big news When Seth Jones, the No. 1 prospect for the 2013 NHL draft, made the switch and announced that he will be playing major junior next season. Same thing when Stefan Matteau made it known that he will suit up in major junior next season.

It was big news when Charlie Coyle left U.S. college hockey and joined the QMJHL champion Saint John Sea Dogs in the second half this season. The 19-year-old forward was a first-round NHL draft pick and he’s a top prospect for the Minnesota Wild. It says something that he made the switch because he felt he could better develop in major junior.

“These are highly touted players who were planning to go the U.S. college hockey route so I think they got the attention of everyone when they switched to major junior,” said Flynn. “They had to make a hockey decision and figure out where’s the best place for them to develop and get ready for the NHL.

“Every player is different (in determining whether U.S. college or major junior is the best option). For the top end players who will be in the NHL at 20, they will only have one or two school years under their belt before turning pro. They won’t even be close to getting a degree.

“A lot of the top end guys now are playing major junior. It’s an NHL style schedule, you play against the best players in your age group in the world and you can still pursue your educational goals (with schooling costs covered by the league). We strongly believe that major junior is a great option for both hockey development and education.”

–  Neil Hodge is a Times & Transcript sports reporter who covers the Moncton Wildcats.

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