League executives often preach how important it is to draft smart and cultivate continuity because it’s an important step towards winning.
Unless it’s the Omaha Lancers. Omaha (26-15-3) heads into this weekend as the top team in the Western Conference and in the process defying certain ideals on what it takes to build a championship contender.
Six of the Lancers’ leading scorers are in their first season with the team and half of them were acquired by trades. Furthermore, the Lancers only have four returning players from last season’s team.
“It is a little surprising,” said Lancers forward Tanner Lane (Nebraska-Omaha), who was traded earlier in the year from Fargo. “We’re playing together like we’ve been playing with each other for the last two or three years. We just have to continue working hard.”
Omaha was one of the top teams in the USHL last season finishing second in the Western Conference to eventual Clark Cup champions, the Dubuque Fighting Saints. Teams such as Omaha, Cedar Rapids and Sioux Falls dominated the league last season.
Cedar Rapids and Sioux Falls have not been able to repeat the same success due to losing players to college and Major Junior, which is common in junior hockey where turnover coupled with developing inexperienced players could be considered the toughest road blocks.
Omaha used the USHL Futures Draft and the USHL Entry Draft to supplement its losses by getting the team’s second-leading scorer, Casey Bailey (Penn State), in the third round of the Entry Draft. Greg Gozzo (Harvard), the team’s third-leading scorer, was taken in the second round of the entry draft.
The Lancers also traded the rights of forward A.J. Reid (Army) to Fargo in exchange for Jimmy Murray (St. Cloud State) during the draft. Reid spent the season with Fargo but is now with Austin (NAHL) while Murray is second in the league in assists.
It can be argued, although new, Omaha’s system appears to be battle tested in a variety of ways.
Omaha survived a slow start marred by low offensive production and held on when it fired coach Bliss Littler earlier in the season.
Yet it was around this time when the Lancers were getting the final pieces it needed before overtaking the Western Conference. The Lancers traded for Lane and also got first-year defensemen Kevin Schulze (Wisconsin) from Muskegon and Player of the Year candidate Nolan Zajac (Denver) from Cedar Rapids to form one of the more talented bluelines in the league.
“We have a strong team offensively and defensively,” Murray said. “We also have one hell of a goalie (Alex Lyon (Yale)) and that has also helped us.”
Murray also represents how Omaha’s success has been powered by players who were castoffs from other franchises.
Fargo had Murray last season and sent him off to the NAHL before his rights were traded later in the spring.
Lane, who played alongside Murray in Fargo, was traded after the team felt it needed to add a more physical edge.
Then there’s Zajac. Zajac spent last season with Cedar Rapids and admitted to having difficulties playing in the system there. Both parties felt it was time for a change and he was sent west.
“As a coaching staff they let us play here,” said Zajac, who leads all league defensemen with 31 points in 45 games. “I haven’t been used to that in my career. I feel it has allowed us to be so successful.”
Funny how that works.
Omaha came into the season answering questions about how it would deal with not having experienced players to showing that a team filled with veteran castaways and first-year players can actually mesh.
With the way the season is going, Omaha is showing its players can do more than just mesh.
Maybe, just maybe, they could make a deep playoff run with this group too.
“It is really funny to be honest with you,” Murray said. “I think all of us aside from Zajac have proved how badly we wanted to be in the league and how badly we wanted to win.”