Gone Gone Gone…

Talking about the people his hockey club put in place, Brad Kwong knew this particular blueprint could work.

He just didn’t see it working out this well.

For a league which promised multiple first-round draft picks, the USHL delivered during last Friday’s first round of the NHL Draft. The league had seven players taken and of those seven, the Dubuque Fighting Saints had three players in forward Zemgus Girgensons (Vermont), defenseman Michael Matheson (Boston College) and forward Mark Jankowski (Providence), a prospect who said repeatedly he would be playing next season in Dubuque.

Three first-round selections comes in Year 2 of a franchise which made its way into the league winning a Clark Cup in its inaugural season. Kwong, one of the team’s principal owners, said there was a plan but even now, what has occurred with the Fighting Saints has gone well beyond what was expected.

“I think it was surprising and we didn’t expect to win Clark Cup in the first year,” Kwong said. “We had a good sense with the hockey people and staff we had that we’d be successful.”

When it comes to those “hockey people” the first place to start should be with Kwong and the rest of the ownership. Kwong was a former hockey player at Harvard while the rest of his fellow owners Philip and Mark Falcone, brothers who are part of the Minnesota Wild’s ownership group along with Peter Chiarelli, the general manager of the 2011 Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins.

The group returned a USHL team to Dubuque following a 10-year hiatus and made hires which they believed could have a major impact. The franchise hired up-and-coming executive Adam Micheletti as its director of hockey and business operations. Former Maine great Jim Montgomery was then hired as head coach along with hiring Bobby Kinsella as an assistant and Joe Coombs, as an assistant and director of scouting.

All four worked together in the franchise’s first year to bring a Clark Cup and this year surpass whatever NHL Draft expectations there might have been.

“If you would have asked (about three first-round selections) four months ago…we had a good sense (Girgensons and Matheson) would go in the first round,” Kwong said. “When all those different names went up we thought Mike was going to go down and when it happened, it wasn’t a total shock. Jankowski was a surprise and we’ve heard a lot of great things and we’ll see what kind of player he is.”

USHL commissioner Skip Prince, who said he has known Kwong for 20 years, said when the two talked about bringing a team to Dubuque, Kwong’s group had an idea.

The philosophy was to take what had been done in the NHL in terms of the quality of items such as marketing and scouting then applying those ideals to work on a smaller scale to work within the USHL’s parameters.

It has turned into an organization which has used the draft to get players who had an impact with Dubuque and in the case of some, beyond. The Fighting Saints took the promising yet high-risk project that was Vinny Saponari and got him back into college hockey at Northeastern and scored 23 points in 34 games.

They helped John Gaudreau go past being a 5-6 forward into being a Calgary Flames draft pick who might have been the most impressive freshman in the nation last year at Boston College.

Maybe the success wasn’t expected this quickly but Kwong’s ownership has put together a successful model which could continue to have strong results.

“We know it is ultra-competitive and we know going on with only six or seven returnees, we are going to be a new team,” Kwong said. “That first part of the season – in the fall – there is going to be a lot of learning to be done with the talent we have coming. With Jim and his guys coaching, we are confident we can make a good run at it.”

Dirty Water…

Take a look at the Dubuque Fighting Saints and you’ll see that even out in Iowa, Hockey East’s death grip even extends out there.

It starts with the man that more or less put the team together in Adam Micheletti, who is the team’s director of hockey and business operations. Micheletti’s a Boston College graduate and the son of former NHL player and coach Joe Micheletti.

Micheletti was the architect who was hired by the team’s ownership group in 2009 to construct a team that could win immediately. Doing that meant hiring former University of Maine hero Jim Montgomery to coach the team. Montgomery is Maine’s all-time leading scorer and helped the program win its first national championship in 1993 alongside Paul Kariya.

“To a certain extent, I guess I grew up in St. Louis and my dad had ties in St. Louis and when I was around, Jim Montgomery’s name came up and he was a perfect candidate,” Micheletti said. “Jim and his staff was able to recruit the Northeast very well and convincing the kids with college deals to leave home and come here.”

The biggest catch was 5-6, 141-pound John Gaudreau. Gaudreau, who is a Northeastern commit, has made Montgomery and Micheletti look brillant having scored 36 goals and 36 assists for 72 points as a rookie in the United States Hockey League.

Gaudreau was the team’s leading scorer and was the league’s second-leading scorer behind Indiana’s Blake Coleman, a Miami (Ohio) commit.

Gaudreau’s monster rookie campaign has made him a frontrunner for the USHL’s Rookie of the Year Award along with being in contention for the league’s Best Player and Best Forward awards.

“You know, we thought John was going to be this good already,” Micheletti said. “We just didn’t think he’d have this kind of season until next year.”

Hockey East ties don’t end there. Dubuque has goaltender and Maine commit Matt Morris, who many in the Pine Tree State are hoping can right the ship between the pipes. Morris, like Gaudreau, enjoyed a more-than-solid rookie season by going 23-8-4 with a 2.17 GAA and .921 save percentage.

Then there’s Vermont commit Zemgus Girgensons who scored 49 points (21 goals, 28 assists) for the Fighting Saints. Know this about Girgensons, he’s kind of a big deal and he’s part of a Vermont recruiting class that just looks better and better.

Girgensons along with Force defenseman Brian Cooper (Nebraska-Omaha) and Sioux City defenseman Jordan Schmaltz (North Dakota) were highlighted as the three USHL talents to watch in regards to the 2012 NHL Draft.

Joining those three are defenseman and Vermont commit Nick Luukko, who had two points including the game-winning goal in the Fighting Saints’ 2-1 playoff victory over the Force in Game 1 on Wednesday.

There’s also UMass commit Shane Walsh, who is a 5-11, 175-pound forward that’s pretty much been one of the better two-way players for the Fighting Saints this season. Walsh is a Massachusetts kid and there are some people in Amherst that are pretty excited about his arrival because of what he can add to a team.

The last player with Hockey East ties to the Fighting Saints is Vinny Saponari, who played a season at Boston University before being dismissed from the team. When Dubuque was last in Fargo, Gaudreau said playing with Saponari has really helped him adjust to USHL lifestyle along with what he needs to do to play college hockey.

Girgensons also said the same thing about Saponari, who finished in the Top 10 in scoring this season. Saponari, a Georgia native, is an Atlanta Thrashers draft pick hasn’t said what route he’ll take next season.

Micheletti said having so many people with Hockey East ties wasn’t planned, but it turned out to be something that has generated success and some jokes too.

“John Gaudreau got excited when Northeastern beat BC earlier in the year,” Micheletti said. “Then I asked him where Northeastern was in the NCAA Tournament. He really can’t come back with a response. Not just with the players, but with our hockey operations, we have a very good relationship and a family environment.”