Synthetica…

Days later, we’re all still looking back at what happened during the weekend’s NHL Draft trying to process it all.

Last night I was on The Pipeline Show back in Edmonton and we were doing the same thing. A point I made on radio is a point I will make right here. If you’re looking for the end-all, be-all moment for the USHL in the NHL Draft, it is a toss up between Dubuque’s Michael Matheson (Boston College) and Saint-to-be Mark Jankowski (Providence).

Part of it is that they went in the first round. The rest of it is they are Canadians who came/are coming to America and went in the first round.

Crazy as that may sound, it may be the optimal item we can take away from the USHL’s draft results.

The last year has seen the American model come under scrutiny with a massive amount of high-end players bolting to the Major Junior system for one reason or another. To say that practice will stop would be indeed foolish.

But is it foolish to think the USHL model could be a growing option in Canada?

Matheson took a chance on coming to the United States and it turned out to be a good one as he did go in the first round. It can be debated that it was Matheson who got himself into being a first-round pick instead of the USHL. Then again, can’t it be argued as a whole it is all about the kid, not the system, that can be the difference between being a first-rounder or not?

Having Matheson come through the USHL and still end up as a first-round selection was probably the best news the league received all year. Then for Jankowski to say he is coming to Dubuque only helps strengthen the league’s case for not being what Skip Prince said.

“We don’t want to be a fallback school,” Prince said last week.

Take a look around the web or a newspaper and it seems like the USHL is getting its due from large and small media outlets.

People are noticing and the following is a point that has been previously made: If you are a Canadian kid, why wouldn’t you consider the USHL given what happened this season?

Lincoln’s Kevin Roy (Brown) practically had one of the greatest individual seasons in league history and all of junior hockey this year scoring 108 points, winning a Western Conference regular season title, reaching the Western Conference finals, taking the league’s Forward of the Year Award, Player of the Year Award (maybe should have been Rookie of the Year too) and he managed to get taken in the fourth round by the Anaheim Ducks.

Roy did come into the league with talk given his impressive collection of YouTube videos but nonetheless, he still had questions to answer thus that is why he wasn’t drafted in 2011.

At the end of the day, it really comes down to the player and the route he feels is the best for his development.

Its just that the biggest difference from last year is, if you are a Canadian, you might have one more option that might be worth taking a look at.

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.”

Follow The Leader…

Thunderstorms left USHL commissioner Skip Prince stranded for hours in an airport on Friday until he reached his hotel in Pittsburgh for the NHL Draft.

Prince used every cell phone battery in reach to find out how many players in the USHL had been taken. He was talking about the league’s fruitful exhibition in the first round before talking about the second round, which starts Saturday.

“We have high hopes for those players in the second round,” Prince said. “Like Jordan Schmaltz (North Dakota). He’s a guy-”

That’s when Prince was informed Schmaltz, the Green Bay Gamblers defenseman, had been taken in the first round. Prince was blown away admitting he didn’t know Schmaltz had been taken 25th overall.

Prince chalked it up to only checking to the 23rd pick.

It was in that moment where Prince, like many, was surprised yet pleased with the remarkable night had by the USHL. A record seven USHL players/prospects were taken in the first round. Dubuque had the strongest showing of any non-NTDP team as it had three players/prospects selected.

Forward Zemgus Girgensons (Vermont) and defenseman Mike Matheson (Boston College) were the bread in the Fighting Saints’ draft sandwich. Prospect forward Ryan Jankowski (Providence) was also taken.

It was then reported by The Hockey News’ Ryan Kennedy that Jankowski, nephew of Montreal Canadiens scout Ryan Jankowski, would play for the Fighting Saints next year. Jankowski will be the second-ever first-round pick to come into the USHL and play a season.

Blake Wheeler was the first when he was drafted by the Green Bay Gamblers in 2004 when he was the fifth overall selection.

NTDP trio Jacob Trouba (Michigan), Brady Skjei (Minnesota) and Stefan Matteau rounded out the seven picks from the USHL to go in the first round. For those wondering, that’s 23 percent or nearly a quarter of the entire first round having ties to a league constantly jockeying against a Major Junior model which is often billed as the faster track to a NHL future.

It is a dominant figure for the QMJHL, which only had one first-round pick this season after having five last season. Werger said this year’s first round surpasses the previous high of four taken in the opening round.

“It is a lot of hard work,” Prince said. “The programs we are talking about needed to be a lot more soundly promoted and delivered to high-end prospects. We think there were others we lost in the last years or so. And hopefully, one of these players taken tonight can show the next 200 or 300 players out there the USHL isn’t the equivalent of the safe school but a power to be reckoned with.”

Prince said repeatedly he hopes what happened Friday is the latest step in showing that the American development model does have its positives.

Depending upon the source, the American development model has had its critics on both sides of the spectrum. Proponents believe the model can compete because it allows players a chance to develop and spend more time in the weight room along with playing against competition which could be anywhere from three to five years older.

Opponents, on the other hand, have said the model should be used for talents who need longer to develop and that the Major Junior model is a more affective plan given its history of producing major stars and the willingness of NHL teams sending their players to junior programs.

“We knew from the beginning of the year this was going to be a strong round for us,” Prince said.

It appeared the USHL could have a strong year as it had a plethora of players listed on NHL Central Scouting’s pre-season watch list with a number which matched that of the OHL, WHL and QMJHL.

Then there was the profile of existing and arriving players.

Girgensons, Schmaltz and Fargo Force defenseman Brian Cooper (Nebraska-Omaha), a likely late second or early third round pick, were billed as the three players to watch in the latter half of the 2010-11 season by NHL Central Scouting’s Jack Barzee.

The NTDP, a hotbed for first-round picks, were already being considered to have numerous picks given its reputation and the players it already possessed.

Yet the league received a serious jolt when Matheson, a native of Point-Claire, Que., opted against the QMJHL to come to the USHL, a move which was seen as the American model working its way into French Canada.

And of course, came the story of the season when fellow Quebecois Kevin Roy (Brown) chose the Lincoln Stars and went on to have a 108-point season defying the status of the USHL being a defensive-minded league where a 50-point season was considered a success.

Roy is also slated to be taken on Saturday.

“I love what this league stands for,” Prince said. “But like every good Broadway show you need first-and second-rounders who bring sixth-and seventh-rounders in and kids who won’t get drafted but will sign a free agent contract. Today is one of those good days.”

That Heat…

Just a few minutes ago, I was going through some old notes when I noticed something which happened a year ago today.

What happened was Jason Herter leaving the Fargo Force for Minnesota-Duluth to become an assistant. Herter’s departure opened the door for John Marks, who led the Force to a second-round playoff appearance.

And of course a year to the day, the Indiana Ice hire a new head coach, Ron Gay.

Pretty interesting given what’s gone on in the last year with USHL coaches. Let’s use May 22, 2011 as a starting date. Since then, 12 of the league’s franchises have replaced their head coaches.

No joke. Here’s the proof of what every team has done with its coaching situation.

In the Eastern Conference:

-Green Bay Gamblers: The Gamblers replaced Eric Rud, who left for his alma mater, Colorado College with Denver assistant Derek Lalonde. Lalonde, in his debut season, leads the team to one of the USHL’s greatest ever seasons and a Clark Cup title.

-Indiana Ice: Technically, they’ve gone through three coaches and four coaching changes in the last year. Charlie Skjodt was the team’s head coach when the season ended before he returned to the front office. The Ice hired Yale assistant Kyle Wallack, who was fired shortly before the playoffs. Skjodt returned to the bench and then the team hired Gay.

-Dubuque Fighting Saints: Former Maine great Jim Montgomery remains the team’s head coach. But here’s where it’s really interesting. He just finished his second season and he’s already the third most-tenured coach in the league. Interpret that one however you want.

-Youngstown Phantoms: Curtis Carr left the team late in the summer to become an assistant at Merrimack. Days later the team promoted assistant Anthony Noreen, who led the Phantoms to fourth in Eastern Conference.

-Cedar Rapids RoughRiders: Here’s the second team which hasn’t made a coaching change. It may never look that way either as Carlson has been there for 12 seasons and has a partial stake in the team’s ownership. Carlson, a former Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick, has won everything imaginable from the Clark Cup to the Anderson Cup to the USHL’s Coach of the Year during his time in Cedar Rapids. He also led this year’s team to the playoffs, something he’s done every year he has been in the league.

-NTDP: USA Hockey lost Ron Rolston last season to the Rochester Americans (AHL), which is an affiliate of the Buffalo Sabres. It resulted in the team hiring Don Granato. The NTDP also lost Kurt Kleinendorst and replaced him with Danton Cole. The program made the USHL Playoffs for a second straight season.

-Chicago Steel: The 2010-11 season wasn’t kind to the Steel, as the franchise suffered through a 9-43-8 season, easily one the worst in any realm of junior hockey in the last few years. It’s what led to the dismissal of Jon Waibel and the promotion of Scott McConnell. McConnell was made the team’s full-time head coach last summer. In his first full season, he led the Steel to a 25-31-4 mark and were just three points out of the playoffs.

-Muskegon Lumberjacks: Former Wisconsin assistant Kevin Patrick was among the 2011-12 season’s first coaching casualties. The team hired former NHL toughman Jim McKenzie, who had no previous junior experience. McKenzie and the Lumberjacks, despite improvement, still finished last in the Eastern Conference.

 

In the Western Conference:

-Lincoln Stars: Another weird case of the fluidity of this league. Stars coach Chad Johnson just finished his second year and he’s No. 4 in the league among tenured coaches.

-Omaha Lancers: Omaha got the trend going early in the 2011-12 season when it fired longtime USHL coach Bliss Littler. He was replaced by Mike Aikens, who led the team to a second-place finish during the regular season. Aikens signed an extension during the season.

-Waterloo Black Hawks: Behind Carlson, P.K. O’Handley is No. 2 when it comes to tenured coaches. He just finished this 10th season with the Black Hawks leading them to a Clark Cup Finals appearance. Like Carlson, O’Handley has won virtually every trophy a coach could win and when it comes to wins, ranks in the Top 10 all time.

-Fargo Force: Hiring Marks gave the Force their fourth coach in as many seasons. Marks, who is the sixth-most tenured coach in the league, already said he will stay this season and looks forward to a second year in Fargo.

-Sioux City Musketeers: Larson is technically the man who started the trend. He was hired May 22 by the Musketeers. He was at Minnesota-Duluth as an assistant. His departure resulted in the Bulldogs hiring Herter and the Force hiring Marks.

-Tri-City Storm: The team replaced Drew Schoneck with Josh Hauge during the middle of the year. Hauge led the Storm to a first-round appearance where they lost to eventual Western Conference champs, Waterloo. Even with an early exit, Tri-City returns all but six players and has what could be considered the strongest affiliates list in the USHL.

-Des Moines Buccaneers: Turmoil more or less blanketed the Bucs this season. Off-ice issues coupled with losing is what led to Regg Simon being fired. He was replaced in the off-season by Gamblers assistant Jon Rogger.

-Sioux Falls Stampede: Maybe no team has undergone more changes in the off-season than the Stampede. They fired longtime head coach Kevin Hartzell and in the span of a week, hired former North Dakota assistant Cary Eades. Eades oversaw the team’s Entry Draft and heads into next season with at least 15 returning players from the 2011-12 team.

Take It There…

Sure the Fargo Force appeared to have done well in the USHL Futures Draft on Tuesday but so did a few hockey players across the state of North Dakota.

Three North Dakotans were taken in the Futures Draft, which allows USHL teams to take the top 16-year-old players in the United States. The Force got things rolling when it drafted Minot’s Mason Morelli with the third overall pick.

Morelli said by phone his father, Matt, texted him during school today and hoped he’d be taken by the Force and stay in his home state. The 5-11, 185-pound Morelli is the grandson of Reg Morelli, a member of the 1958-59 North Dakota national championship hockey team. Morelli’s father also played four seasons at UND and his uncle played at Concordia.

Morelli played this past season at Minot High School before playing in the NAHL with Minot’s recently-created franchise.

He became the second North Dakotan as many years to be taken in the first round of the Futures Draft. Lincoln drafted fellow Minot product Alex Schoenborn, who signed a contract to play with the Portland Winterhawks in the Western Hockey League forgoing his college eligibility.

The Force finished out the draft by taking forward Michael Booth, defenseman Sal Filice, forward River Rymsha and defenseman Steven Quagliata with the last pick.

Grand Forks Red River winger Jake Benson was taken in the fifth round by the Dubuque Fighting Saints, which won the Clark Cup title last season.

Fargo South’s Andrew Blumer was then taken in the sixth round by the Sioux Falls Stampede, which had its pick a few spots before the Force’s. The 6-5 Blumer attracted attention early with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program scouting him during the season.

Blumer was taken by the Stampede, an organization which has created local ties with Moorhead players such as current forward and former Spuds center Eric Brenk.

The South defenseman was actually playing in a doubleheader on Tuesday night as he was drafted by the Stampede.

 

Read more in Wednesday’s Forum about the draft.

Cinema…

By now you’ve heard about Dubuque losing forward Zemgus Girgensons (Vermont) for the rest of the Clark Cup Playoffs with a fractured jaw.

So what does all this mean? Well, that’s where we went out and found an expert. That just happens to be Jim Leitner, who is the sports editor of the Dubuque Telegraph Herald and is the beat writer for the team.

Jim was gracious to give us a few minutes of his time to ask him about what Girgensons’ injury means going forward for the Fighting Saints.

Here’s our Q-and-A session with Jim:

 

Q: Take us to the play when he hurt his jaw. Was it apparent then something happened or did he not really show it until later in the game?

A: The hit happened near the penalty box across from the Saints’ bench. Zemgus got up and skated gingerly across the ice to the bench, where the trainers checked him out. They went back to the dressing room for a few minutes, but he only missed a few shifts. He played most of the second period, too, but he did not play in the third. He actually assisted on a goal after the injury. It was typical Zemgus, trying to make something happen. He got a shot on goal while being knocked to his knees, and Jono Davis slammed home the rebound.

 

Q: What did he look like after the game? How did he feel after the game? Could he even talk?

A: Didn’t see him.

 

Q: People think he’s out and feel their chances may be out the door. Give us three reasons why they’ll win the Clark Cup or give us three reasons why they won’t?

A: The Fighting Saints are playing exceptionally well right now, probably the best hockey they’ve played all year. Zemgus was a big part of that. They were a little inconsistent for most of the second half, but they really turned on the jets in the final three weeks or so of the season. They have a great group of veterans who know what it takes to win playoff hockey games, and the  younger guys have adapted well to the intensity of the postseason.

Green Bay has been the favorite to win the Clark Cup since Christmastime. The Gamblers haven’t lost back-to-back games the entire season, which has to be a first in the Tier I  era of the USHL. No matter how well any other team in the league is playing, Green Bay is still the favorite.

Q: Who do you think are the players the Fighting Saints will need (don’t say John Gaudreau) will need to rely upon to repeat as Clark Cup champions?

A: When the Fighting Saints are at their best, it’s really hard to single out one or two players who stand out. Tyler Amburgey, Tyler Lundey, T.J. Moor, Matt Morris and Shane Sooth were all integral parts of the Clark Cup championship team last year, and they set the tone in the first playoff game while the newer guys got their feet wet. By the middle of the first playoff game Monday night, it seemed like all 20 guys were in sync.

 

Q: How much does his injury change or maybe even not change their playoff hopes?

A: Zemgus was absolutely dominant the last few weeks of the season and in the game Monday night against Team USA. During last year’s run to the Clark Cup, it seemed like a different guy stepped up every game. This team is starting to develop that same feel to it. No question, it’s a big loss for Dubuque. But, if you look at the teams who have won the Clark Cup over the years, they’ve done it with balance.  The team that wins the Clark Cup this year will be the same.

 

Q: Finally, you’ve seen him more than anyone. How would you describe him when he plays a game and way from the ice whether be during interviews or other off-ice encounters?

A: Zemgus is the most-competitive, most-driven and toughest athlete I’ve had the opportunity to cover in any sport in the 24 years I’ve been here at the Telegraph Herald. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen him take a shift off in a game, and he’s as competitive in his own end as he is in the offensive zone. I love the way he hustles back on defense when the play is going the other way. Off the ice, he’s a private person, but once you get to know him, he’s really funny and outgoing. When I first interviewed him two years ago, I got the impression I was talking to a 30-year-old man, not a 16-year-old kid. We’re going to miss him here in Dubuque, but it’ll be fun watching him on TV.

Stress…

Anyone watching to catch Zemgus Girgensons (Vermont) during these playoffs might want to look back at some old highlights.

That’s the closest thing you’ll see of Girgensons in any postseason run. The Dubuque Fighting Saints announced Thursday morning Girgensons would be out for the rest of the Clark Cup Playoffs with a fractured jaw he suffered in a Game 2 playoff win over Team USA on Tuesday.

Girgensons, 18, by many accounts is arguably the best player in the United States Hockey League and is projected to be taken in the first round of this summer’s NHL Entry Draft.

The Fighting Saints said Girgensons suffered the injury on his very first shift of the game and continued playing with the injury until it became too much.

Girgensons opened the best-of-three series in dominant form scoring three points (2 goals, 1 assists) in a 6-3 win. His lone assist contributed to Dubuque sweeping the series with a 7-3 win in Game 2.

Playing without Girgensons, though not warranted, shouldn’t be too much of an adjustment for the Fighting Saints.

Girgensons suffered through an injury earlier this year leaving him out of the line-up. He also represented his native Latvia in the U-20 World Junior Championships giving the Fighting Saints another stretch where they had to play without their captain.

Dubuque still posses defenseman Michael Matheson (Boston College), another player projected to go into the first round along with fellow blueliners Matthew Caito (Miami (Ohio)) and Michael Downing (Michigan). The team also still has assist Shane Sooth (Northern Michigan) along with the team’s leading goalscorer in Tyler Lundey (Ohio State).

Girgensons, when healthy, showed why he’s one of the more sought-after players in the upcoming draft. He scored 55 points (24 goals, 31 assists) in 49 games this year along with providing his perfunctory two-way role helping the Fighting Saints, which statistically rank as one of the best defense in the entire USHL.

He was part of last season’s title run playing on a line with now-Winnipeg Jets draft pick and Northeastern forward Vinny Saponari and Calgary Flames draft pick/Boston College hero John Gaudreau.

Dubuque, which finished third in the Eastern Conference in the regular season, will opens the second round at Indiana, which had a first-round bye. The best-of-five series begins Friday.

A Little Deeper…

Now that the playoffs are close, it officially closes the books on the USHL’s regular season.

It now means six teams have to use to the rest of spring and summer to think about what could have been. The rest of the league can still decide its fate but there’s no doubting there will be another four teams who will soon join the ranks of those not playing.

But here’s something we can all agree upon. This season showed us quite a bit and with that, here’s what we learned from each team this season.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

-Green Bay Gamblers: That if Derek Lalonde and that front office is really good at dominating the USHL on and off the ice, we’d sure hate to make them mad in a game of ‘Risk’ and/or ‘Battleship’.

-Indiana Ice: That Daniil Tarasov really DID score 88 points and it won’t be remembered because of what some guy in Lincoln did this year.

-Dubuque Fighting Saints: Two projected first-round picks in Zemgus Girgensons (Vermont) and Michael Matheson (Boston College) help. Talent and depth have certainly defined the defending Clark Cup Champs. So did winning the Cowbell Cup. That also helped.

-Youngstown Phantoms: They proved you can recruit to Youngstown and furthermore, you can win there. It also showed a continual theme. Returning experienced players gives you a chance at winning. Youngstown certainly has shown that to be true with how it has been good all long. And its also showed that this Austin Cangelosi (Boston College) might be something special.

-Cedar Rapids RoughRiders: That even without experience or even the best players for his system, Mark Carlson might have had one of his best seasons as a head coach.

-Team USA: They’ve shown this nation’s best hockey talent keeps improving.

-Chicago Steel: They will be next year’s Youngstown. They have a coach in place who wants to work and a ton of returning talent. Next year will be the year in Chicago.

-Muskegon Lumberjacks: Year 1 brought playoffs. Year 2 brought dread. What Year 3 will bring is anyone’s guess.

 

WESTERN CONFERENCE

-Lincoln Stars: They’ve shown us that between Kevin Roy (Brown) and Ralf Freiburgs (Bowling Green), it might be a good idea for the USHL to open up that import rule to a few more players.

-Omaha Lancers: That if you make the right moves and draft smart, you can rebuild and reload in one season.

-Waterloo Black Hawks: We saw this on a message board, so there’s a chance it could be wrong. The post said Taylor Cammarata (Minnesota) was the first 16-year-old in league history to score 60 or more points in a season. If that’s true, what he does next year could be scary. If its not true, what he could do next year could be scary.

-Fargo Force: Losing 13 of your first 15 is no need for people to panic about a coach and blaming it on the fact he’s 64 years old. Its proof things really can turn around if given a chance. Oh and as for that coach he feels its, “letting people know Zane Gothberg (North Dakota) is the best goaltender in the USHL.”

-Sioux City Musketeers: You don’t need a superstar, first-round projected defenseman to go far. That you can parlay that into getting more pieces, fighting in a tough division and then coming out with equally or even maybe a better chance at going far in the playoffs.

-Tri-City Storm: That if its possible, clone Adam Wilcox (Minnesota) for next season and pair him with the incoming talent to make them the deadliest force imaginable.

-Des Moines Buccaneers: You can’t go home again as Regg Simon learned the hard way. Oh and toilets are the new pink slip.

-Sioux Falls Stampede: Remember what your team did to them this year. Because next year, it’s not happening. They’ll be more experienced and with Charlie Lindgren in net, it won’t be easy.

The Start of Your Ending…

Just in case you needed a reminder, the USHL Playoffs are here.

First-round action kicks off tonight while the second round will start later this week.

Playoff runs are dictated by the best team but having one player could make the difference between your team trying to grow a patchy playoff beard or your team taking an earlier-than-expected team golf trip.

Here’s the list of the 10 players to watch this postseason:

-Nolan LaPorte, forward, Green Bay (Western Michigan): LaPorte was extremely good for the Gamblers when they reached the Clark Cup Finals last year. He scored eight points in 11 games and has continued to prove his postseason performance was not a fluke. LaPorte and the phalanx that is Green Bay have just hammered opponents up front. He’s led the way scoring 70 points (36 goals, 34 assists) this season. Add LaPorte to the list that reads “Embarrassment of Riches” that someone is probably jotting down about the Gamblers.

-Jon Gillies, goaltender, Indiana: Gillies with his large frame (6-5, 215 pounds) and 31 wins this season has been a wall at so many points and it should continue to be that way. Maybe we’re over analyzing here but getting the No. 2 seed could benefit Gillies quite a bit. He’ll get some days off to rest while others have one day off between the end of the regular season and start of the playoffs. Maybe that gives Gillies an edge of what could be some weary forwards and if that’s the case, good luck. Remember. Gillies did lead the league in minutes played and saves. Time off could help him and possibly make him harder to beat.

-Matthew Caito, defenseman, Dubuque (Miami (Ohio)): For one, Caito has been on fire lately scoring five points in his last eight games. Caito has been a major part of Dubuque’s defense which ranks third in the USHL in goals allowed and ranks first in the penalty kill. This defense has been consistent all year long and there’s no reason to think that would change. And one more note on Caito. Scoring five points in five games isn’t a fluke. He’s been chipping in on that end too scoring 26 points in 59 games. Between Caito, Michael Matheson (Boston College) and both Downing boys, this defense is nothing nice.

-Mike Ambrosia, forward, Youngstown (Princeton): Youngstown has quite a bit of talent but Ambrosia stands out because of his vision. He finished third in the USHL in assists with 47 helpers. Ambrosia plays on arguably one of the best lines in the league with Austin Cangelosi (Boston College) and J.T. Steinglein (UMass-Lowell) who each had 50 or more points this season. That’s a line that could do some serious damage. If it does, expect Ambrosia to be the one setting it all up.

-Ian Brady, defenseman, Cedar Rapids (Nebraska-Omaha): Brady has already turned things around from last season. He had five points in 46 games last year and finished this season with 25 points. Offense aside, he’s helping Cedar Rapids get hot at the right time having won four of its last five games. That and he’s been solid on the power play with 12 assists on the one-man advantage. This was a young team who earlier in the year struggled on offense and even lost six in a row. But things have turned around as of late. Question is: How will that momentum carry over into the playoffs?

-Bryn Chyzyk, forward, Fargo (North Dakota): Chyzyk might be one of the more complete forwards in the league. When it comes to the penalty kill, he’s one of the reason’s why the Force are No. 2 in the league. Chyzyk, on multiple occasions, has pilfered the puck when it gets to the point on the opposition’s power play turning it into a breakaway chance. Not too many guys can turn defense into offense that quickly. And when he does get on the offensive side, be careful. He has 28 goals this season and has scored five points in his last five games.

-Kevin Roy, forward, Lincoln (Brown): When you score 100 points, score 52 goals, dish out 48 assists and lead the league in points, goals, assists, plus/minus and domination, you’d be on a FBI-like watchlist let alone a USHL Playoff watchlist. Kevin Roy doesn’t just beat people, he destroys them.

-Jimmy Murray, forward, Omaha (St. Cloud State): Take Roy away from this for just one minute. Maybe no forward has impacted a team in the Western Conference this season like Murray has with Omaha. He was told he could be the guy in an offense needing a playmaker and has lived up to it. Murray, who finished second in assists, finds ways to get open and pick apart a defense. But there are times where he can take over a game. Just ask his old mates, the Force. They’ve seen it happen…twice.

-Taylor Cammarata, forward, Waterloo (Minnesota): Anyone wondering if Cammarata, a rookie, would be slowing down doesn’t need to ponder. He’s scored four points in his last two games and appears ready to take on the postseason. Cammarata has lived up to the billing that has come with being the first overall pick in last season’s USHL Futures Draft. Most guys in the Entry Draft either have a bit role or aren’t even playing in the league yet. Then there are some guys like Fargo’s Gabe Guertler (Minnesota), who was No. 2 last season, who have played a whole year and have contributed. Then there’s Cammarata who makes every defense aware of what he can do, how he can do it and how you might not be able to do anything about it. Nabbing 69 points in as a 5-6, 145-pound rookie is pretty special. Cammarata can only enhance his reputation with a solid playoff performance.

-Adam Wilcox, goaltender, Tri-City (Minnesota): There’s debate to whether you could choose Wilcox or Fargo’s Zane Gothberg (North Dakota) for the USHL Goaltender of the Year. What cannot be debated is how Wilcox isn’t exactly someone you want to face in a short series. Wilcox has the tools needed to steal not just a game but maybe even a series. If a team were to make a mistake leading to a goal, it makes getting past Wilcox an even more daunting task. But he has looked shaky have only grabbed one win in his last five starts. Which Wilcox will show up? The one we’ve seen lately or the one most teams don’t want to see?

He Got Game…

NHL’s Central Scouting released this morning its final rankings of North American skaters, a list which features six Fargo Force players.

There are 29 listed players from the USHL but the number might be higher when adding players like the Force’s Jay Dickman and Indiana’s Boo Nieves (Michigan), who are now playing in the league after playing for their high schools earlier in the year.

Defenseman and team captain Brian Cooper (Nebraska-Omaha), to no surprise, was the highest-rated Force player checking in at 68th overall. The 5-10 Cooper was touted last season by Jack Barzee, now formerly of Central Scouting, as a player to watch in the USHL this season.

Cooper, 18, has scored 23 points in 54 games while leading the Force to what appears to be a fourth-place finish in the Western Conference.

Forward Austin Farley (Minnesota-Duluth) is listed at 112th overall. Farley exploded this season as he was on a pace to break every team single-season scoring record until suffering a foot injury. The injury left him out for a month. He has scored 10 points in 12 games giving him 58 points in 49 games.

Fellow Bulldog commit Alex Iafallo came in at 133rd overall. Iafallo was drafted nearly a year ago by the team and made the squad out of camp. Iafallo along with linemates, Dave Gust and Gabe Guertler (Minnesota), have formed a partnership that has given the Force a secondary offensive threat to Farley’s line. Iafallo,who has four points in four games, has scored 31 points in 56 games this season. He will play next season in Fargo before going off to college.

Defenseman Justin Wade (Notre Dame) came in at 144th overall. Wade, in his second season, has been living up to the promise of being a shutdown defenseman. He’s been one of the reasons why the Force are statistically the second-best defense in the entire USHL. Wade’s punishing checks, annoying pokechecks and stay-at-home style has made him one of the league’s best shutdown defenseman. He’s also been able to contribute on offense picking up seven points in 55 games. He’s also a plus-17 on the year. Wade will be back with the team next season before going to Notre Dame.

Five spots after Wade was forward Dominic Toninato (Minnesota-Duluth), who has played the last few weekends with the Force. Toninato played high school hockey at Duluth East this season which went 27-1 heading into the Minnesota state hockey tournament but left with a consolation tournament trophy. Toninato scored his first goal on Saturday in the Force’s 5-1 win over Sioux Falls. Toninato, who wore No. 9, will be with the Force next season.

Forward Jay Dickman, who was still listed under St. Paul Johnson, rounded out the Force’s list at 203. Dickman has five points – all assists – in 11 games with the Force but made his name in high school. Dickman scored an impressive 45 goals this season to become Class 2A’s leading goal-scorer. At 6-5, 228 pounds he has been described as a draft dark horse. Ryan Kennedy, of The Hockey News, tweeted that an NHL scout said Dickman was built like an all-state wrestler but had soft hands to go along with his game.

NTDP defenseman Jacob Trouba (Michigan) was the league’s highest rated player nine while Dubuque’s Zemgus Girgensons (Vermont) was rated at 18.

Lincoln phenom Kevin Roy (Brown), who has 100 points this season, was rated 78th.

Former Force forward Ben Johnson was rated at No. 52 on the list. Johnson had a short stint with the team playing in five games. He returned to Calumet (MI-HS) where he was Michigan’s Mr. Hockey. Johnson then left high school signing with the Windsor Spitfires in the OHL.

Johnson is one of three former Force players to play or intend on playing with a Major Junior team in the last three years. Blake Clarke, who played with the Force earlier in the year, was taken 15th overall by the Brampton Battalion on Saturday in the OHL Priority Draft.