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.”

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.

Ring My Bell…

Let’s think about this one for a second.

The Dubuque Fighting Saints are in their second season and have accomplished quite a bit in that time. There’s winning last season’s Clark Cup title. There’s last season’s phenom John Gaudreau, who in a year picked up several trophies, was drafted by the Calgary Flames and is now at Boston College playing in the Frozen Four.

And then there’s players like Zemgus Girgensons (Vermont) and Michael Matheson (Boston College), who could be the USHL’s first set of non-NTDP teammates to go in the first round in quite a while.

You might think that’d be enough but you’re dead wrong. There’s another accolade this franchise is gunning for and that’s the Cowbell Cup.

No. We’re not joking. It really is called the Cowbell Cup.

We’ve seen a season where coaches have had toilets placed in their parking spots a day before they were fired by the team. So why can’t there be a team trying to become the first-ever Cowbell Cup Champs?

Dubuque sent out a release late Wednesday explaining how a win on Friday over the Waterloo Black Hawks would give them the trophy-clinching win.

“The Black Hawks and Rough Riders are our two closest rivals,” said Dubuque coach and Maine legend Jim Montgomery in a release. “Their fans come to our games, and our fans go to Waterloo and Cedar Rapids in droves when we play there.  It’s an opportunity for us to stake a claim to being the best team in Eastern Iowa.”

The Cowbell Cup Series (yeah, that thing needs a dairy farm as a sponsor) is a three-team series between Dubuque, Waterloo and the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders. Whoever finishes first between the three teams, of course, takes the cup.

For as cool as this is, it makes us wonder why aren’t there more rivalry trophies in the USHL? Just saying. If a life-sized bust of Tom Osborne went to the winner of the Lincoln/Omaha/Tri-City series, we could see some classic games.

Or not.

Either way, we’ll be back later today with a few items such as the USHL Coach of the Year candidates and some insightful stories from Popeye Jones on his son, Seth, who by all accounts could be the No. 1 pick in next season’s NHL Draft.

Until then, have a good one.

 

Price Tag…

So far, the USHL isn’t exactly being kind to the Quebec Remparts and owner/general manager/coach Patrick Roy.

It appears Roy has been turned aside for the second time in a month by a USHL-based player. The Remparts acquired the rights to Youngstown forward Austin Cangelosi on Saturday.

Though the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League-based Remparts have acquired his rights, Cangelosi will not be reporting to the Remparts this year or next year, said Youngstown media director Bart Logan.

Logan said Sunday afternoon Cangelosi, who is a junior in high school this year, would be returning to Youngstown next season before fulfilling his commitment to Boston College.

Cangelosi, 17, is one of the USHL’s top-draft eligible prospects heading into this summer’s NHL Draft. In his first season with the Phantoms, Cangelosi has scored 26 points (13 goals, 13 assists) in 22 games. He’s the team’s second leading scorer and is in the Top 20 in the league among league scorers.

He has been one of several players the Phantoms have relied upon in what has been a renaissance season. The Phantoms lost defenseman and New York Islanders draft pick Scott Mayfield, who is now at Denver, and worked past it to be the surprise of the season as they are currently tied for third in the Eastern Conference standings.

Cangelosi will be playing later this month at the first-ever USHL Prospects Game in Muskegon, Mich., a game which will feature Lincoln Stars forward Kevin Roy (Brown), who also had some dealings with the Remparts earlier in the year.

Roy, who is from Lac Beauport, Que., went home over the league’s Christmas Break and did an interview which later led to him fielding interest from the Remparts. Roy, the USHL’s leading scorer, said after the first post-break game the offer was tempting but he wanted to go to college where his brother, Derek, will join him at Brown.

Major Junior teams around this time of year are scouting and studying USHL players in the hopes of adding more firepower in the hopes of winning a league title and furthermore, a Memorial Cup.

A few USHL players have been added to Major Junior teams this year and the most recent was Lincoln Stars prospect Alex Schoenborn. The 6-2 Minot, N.D. native said through his Facebook page on Friday he was signing with the Portland Winterhawks in the Western Hockey League.

Though the big name who didn’t go to the WHL this year was Dubuque Fighting Saints forward Zemgus Girgensons (Vermont). Girgensons’ CHL rights are owned by the Kelowna Rockets and the team’s general manager, Bruce Hamilton, made comments about Girgensons’ future igniting a very public battle between him and Dubuque head coach/general manager Jim Montgomery.

Hamilton said during the summer his goal was to get Girgensons, the USHL’s top draft-eligible prospect, to come to Kelowna following the U-20 Championships where Girgensons played for his native Lativa.

Montgomery, who played at the University of Maine, said Girgensons was not going to Kelowna. Girgensons during the team’s only visit to Fargo said months ago he was not going to the CHL and his plans were to finish the season at Dubuque before attending Vermont next season.

Girgensons, who leads Dubuque with 27 points (13 goals, 14 assists) in 24 games, returned to the team this weekend. He scored a goal in the team’s 5-3 series-opening victory against Cedar Rapids.

 

To Be Young…

With it being the Christmas Break and all, figured this would be a good time to break out the power rankings for the week.

Some have been nice and will probably get a nice gift in the rankings. Others have been playing like they have lumps of coal in their skates and they may not like where they are at.

Here it is:

1. Green Bay Gamblers (20-4-1): They lost. They actually lost a game. It means this team is human. It means Derek Lalonde should be looking for a new job. This means chaos. Not really. It just means Green Bay was really good and further proved they are the best team in the league without question. They have more road wins (13) than 10 others teams in the league have total wins. LW: No. 1

2. Youngstown Phantoms (16-6-1): When you get a four-game winning streak and in the process beat Green Bay, it’s impressive. We’ve said it all year long. People need to pay attention to Youngstown. If you haven’t already, you’re not extremely bright. Also, let the Matthew O’Connor (Boston University) for Goalie of the Year or Player of the Year talk begin. Yeah, he’s been that good. LW: No. 4

3. Lincoln Stars (15-8-2): Lincoln and Omaha both put up a decent fight for third. Difference is Omaha lost to stronger competition (Green Bay and Dubuque) this week where as Omaha got drubbed by Fargo before returning home and beating last place Sioux Falls. Something says Lincoln and Omaha will be leap-frogging each other all season. LW: No. 2

4. Omaha Lancers (15-9-2): They’ve still won five of the last six games but giving up seven goals to Fargo wasn’t pretty. Omaha looked pretty lifeless considering it gave up three goals on two shots in the first. There’s having a bad game, but this was beyond bad. It was ugly. LW: No. 3

5. Dubuque Fighting Saints (16-7-1): Right now, they’re like an extremely less arrogant version of Cobra Kai. They’re off in the corner waiting for the time to strike hard and strike fast. When they do, have fun. Funny. This team has two, high-profile draft eligible players (Zemgus Girgensons-Vermont and Michael Matheson-Boston College) who really haven’t hit their stride yet. Soon Jim Montgomery (minus the horrendous haircut) will give the OK to sweep the leg. LW: No. 6

6. Indiana Ice (14-7-4): Call it harsh, but the Ice missed out on a golden chance to really climb the standings last weekend. They lost two of their three games. One was to Chicago and the other to Muskegon, both are in the bottom two of the East. If Indiana wins at least one of those games, then they’re in second place in the East. And maybe the power rankings. LW: No. 5

7. Waterloo Black Hawks (11-8-4): Spoke with defenseman Ian McCoshen and forward Taylor Cammarata (Minnesota) a few days ago. Both understand the Black Hawks are in a position to really make waves and climb the standings. They also agreed on how the team needs to win more games in the second half. Everything is there. They just need to do it. LW: No. 7

8. NTDP (11-10-3): Here’s the big winner of the week. They’ve jumped four places in the power rankings. They’ve been winning on the road and they’re starting to close in on what was once a sizable margin in goals scored and goals allowed. LW: No. 12

9. Cedar Rapids RoughRiders (9-9-7): Quite a bit of youth and its showing having lost three of the last four games. With the NTDP catching up in the standings and Muskegon having played four fewer games, it could get eerie real quick. LW: No. 9

10. Fargo Force (9-12-3): Before you start roasting us like chestnuts over an open fire, hear us out. They’ve won four of the last five and really it should be a five game winning streak. Look at the bottom half of the Western Conference and they’re playing just as well if not better than anyone else. LW: 11

11. Des Moines Buccaneers (10-11-1): Des Moines’ last weekend pretty much summed up the season to this point. There were good things. There were bad things. But the thing that matters most is: What kind of team will this be? LW: No. 8

12. Sioux City Musketeers (11-14-0): Sioux City has gotten things back on track given the way the season has started. But they’ve cooled off a bit. It isn’t all bad, its just right now Des Moines is playing a bit better and Fargo’s more consistent. LW: No. 10

13. Tri-City Storm (9-16-0): They’ve won three in a row since firing coach Drew Schoneck and they appear to be heading in the right direction. They are three points out of sixth in a conference where jockeying for position will be a constant theme. LW: No. 15

14. Muskegon Lumberjacks (9-12-0): They beat Indiana and almost knocked off Team USA. Maybe things could turnaround for the Jacks. They’ve got enough talent to make a run at being in the Top Six. LW: No. 14

15. Chicago Steel (8-15-1): It’s not like they’ve lost five in a row or something like that. LW: No. 16

16. Sioux Falls Stampede (8-12-1): Now they HAVE lost five games in a row. Two weeks ago they were No. 11 and now have dropped to last place in the rankings. They’ve allowed the least goals in the Western Conference with 65. They’re a young team. They just need scoring. Once again, has anyone made a phone call to Penticton lately? LW: No. 13

The Small Print…

Whether it be Dubuque Fighting Saints head coach/general manager Jim Montgomery or his Kelowna Rockets counterpart, Bruce Hamilton, they’ve both had something to say about Zemgus Girgensons’ future.

Girgensons, who is in his second season in Dubuque, also had something to say about his future: It doesn’t involve going to the Kelowna Rockets or any other team in the Canadian Hockey League.

“You know, first of all I don’t see my future in the CHL,” Girgensons said after his team’s 4-1 win in Fargo. “I talked with other CHL teams that were interested in me. I thought about The Q (The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League) and the Quebec Remparts, but (Kelowna) drafted me and didn’t say anything to me about it. After that, I felt they disrespected me a little bit. They pushed it a little bit onto my adviser and I don’t think he really liked it.”

The 17-year-old Latvian forward came into the season as the top NHL Draft-eligible prospect in the United States Hockey League.He had five points (3 goals, 2 assists) over the weekend and has 13 points (6 goals, 7 assists), one point shy of the league lead.

NHL.com recently added Girgenson’s photo to it’s main 2012 NHL Draft Page, something usually reserved for players expected to be selected in the first round.

Girgensons attracted attention scoring 49 points (21 goals, 28 assists) in 51 games last season on a line with now-Northeastern forward Vinny Saponari (Winnipeg) and current Boston College forward John Gaudreau (Calgary) en route to helping the Fighting Saints win the Clark Cup Championship in the franchise’s first season.

He was drafted in June by the Rockets during the CHL Import Draft with the 45th overall pick. It led to Girgensons’ future coming into question over the summer following comments made by Hamilton in DubNation, a blog covering the Western Hockey League.

“His agents think (Dubuque) is where he should be playing and he’s very loyal to that program. But I know as soon as he’s drafted, the NHL team’s not going to want him in Dubuque and they’re not going to want him going to the University of Vermont, either,” Hamilton said. “We’ll have a real good opportunity to have him here for sure next year, and potentially after Christmas this year. When the Latvian team plays in the world juniors, we’ll be very aggressive again there.”

Hamilton’s comments were noticed this summer considering the number of high-profile players opting out of the USHL/college hockey path to choose Major Junior.

The remarks weren’t too well-received by Montgomery, who played college hockey at the University of Maine.

Here is what Montgomery told Slightly Chilled a few months ago:

“First of all, I was wondering how he could be tampering with a player that plays with another junior team in the middle of the season. I was also wondering about his ethics and why would you want to try and approach someone trying to win a gold medal for his nation. Being a Canadian, he should know how important it is to win a gold medal. If junior hockey is coming to this type of level where you’re going to bother someone while they’re trying to win a gold medal for his country speaks volumes about the integrity of some of the people in junior hockey. I know for a fact that (Girgensons) hasn’t spoken to an adviser and (Girgensons’ adviser) hasn’t spoken to the kid either. He’s defending his draft pick and that’s why he’s putting a positive spin on it as possible. Really, he’s making himself look like he’s unethical.”

Girgensons said he was aware of Hamilton’s comments and didn’t agree with them.

“I don’t think it was a great move by them,” Girgensons said about Hamilton’s comments. “If they had said ‘We support his decision to go to Vermont’, that would have been fine but they said I should not go there. They disrespected my thoughts and I felt like they didn’t even trust me.”

In addition to being drafted by Kelowna, Girgensons was taken in the second round of the KHL Junior Draft by HC CSKA Moscow.

“The KHL came out of nowhere,” Girgensons said. “That was not even close that I’d go there. I keep my plans straight. I don’t have a Plan B because it would distract me from Plan A. The plan has always been to go to Vermont. That’s been Plan A. There’s never been a Plan B.”

Girgensons was named Dubuque’s captain to start the season and he said it is a role he’s really enjoying.

He said learning under Saponari and T.J. Schlueter, who is now at Ferris State, really helped him prepare for what it would take to be a leader.

Montgomery said during the summer Girgensons’ work ethic and his mental approach to the game are just a few of the qualities, which makes him an integral part of Fighting Saints. He said Girgensons’ work ethic is similar to former NHL star Rod Brind’Amour and the way he thinks about the game is similar to another former NHL star in Paul Kariya, who Mongtomery played with at Maine.

All of these things – plus Girgensons’ offensive numbers – have helped Dubuque to a 7-2 record, which is tied for the best in the Eastern Conference and the USHL along with the Green Bay Gamblers.

“We won the cup last year and I noticed what Vinny and T.J. did last year,” Girgensons said. “I just want to keep things going like they did, let guys do their thing, put the team first and good things should come from that.”

When The Saints Go Marching In…

Today’s third installment of the 2011-12 season previews is none other than the defending Clark Cup Champions, the Dubuque Fighting Saints.

Previous previews on Cedar Rapids and Chicago can be found by clicking the links if you want to take a look. Now here’s what’s going on with the Fighting Saints:

Dubuque Fighting Saints (2010-11: 37-14-9; won Clark Cup Championship)

Coach: Jim Montgomery

Who’s gone: John Gaudreau (Boston College), forward; Vinny Saponari (Northeastern), forward; Riley Barber (NTDP), forward; Joakim Ryan (Cornell), defenseman.

Who’s back: Zemgus Girgensons (Vermont), forward; Matt Morris (Maine), goaltender; Shane Walsh (UMass), forward; Shane Sooth (Northern Michigan), forward.

Who’s new: Michael Matheson (played last season at Lac St. Louis/committed to Boston College), defenseman; Max Gardiner (played last season at Minnesota); Michael Downing (played last season at Detroit Catholic/committed to Michigan)

What’s going on: Remember Ducktales and how Scrooge McDuck would swim laps in his pool of gold coins because he had so many riches? Well, now you know what Jim Montgomery and the rest of the Fighting Saints front office has been doing this offseason. OK, not really, but the point is the defending champs are looking good again this season. Dubuque, to a degree, came out of nowhere early on and managed to win the Clark Cup in the team’s first season. This year, Dubuque will be in the Eastern Conference switching places with Waterloo, which is heading to the Western Conference. Dubuque only played in the Western Conference last year because the league did not want one conference to have the two expansion franchises in Dubuque and Muskegon.

The Fighting Saints lose a lot of scoring power from last season with Gaudreau and Saponari both leaving for college. They were paired with Girgensons, a potential first-round pick for the upcoming draft, and if it isn’t for the Ice’s line of Blake Coleman, Daniil Tarasov and Brian Ferlin, an argument could be made it was the best line in the league last season. Another loss for the Fighting Saints was forward Riley Barber, who went to the NTDP this season. What could be considered an alarming departure could be the defense. The Fighting Saints only return one defenseman from last season’s team in Tyler Amburgey. In all, the Fighting Saints have eight returning players. One of those eight is Maine commit Morris, who put up one of the best seasons a goaltender could have last year in the league.

Now here’s where people may not need to feel so bad for Dubuque. They’re loaded. Like Scrooge McDuck. The big name coming in this year is Matheson, who opted to not play in the beloved QMJHL and head south to Dubuque. Matheson was the crown jewel among Quebec midget players last season and is being considered to be a first-round pick along with Girgensons in the upcoming NHL Draft. Having Matheson, who is offensive-minded, will give the Fighting Saints a quarterback and a trigger man on the power play. Downing is another defenseman, who could complement Matheson. The 6-3, 180-pounder had 23 points (7 goals, 16 assists) in 26 games for Detroit Catholic. He was the Fighting Saints’ third overall pick in the Futures Draft and he’s also a Sarnia Sting (OHL) draft pick too. Should Matheson and Downing mesh, it could result in one of the league’s best defensive partnerships.  Another guy to watch is Gardiner, who could very well be like Saponari in regards to being an older guy who could mentor some of the younger players. That and the St. Louis Blues draft pick could also be one of the league’s best threats. Speaking of offense, the Fighting Saints took a chance on former Force/Steel forward Garrett Allen but on Sunday, a source confirmed that Allen was released by the team. Allen suffered some injuries last season and was going to use this season to rehab until Montgomery and his staff invited him to camp. The plan was to get him into shape and see if he can return to the form of his rookie year. Now, it remains to be seen what will happen with Allen.

All that being said, look for the Fighting Saints to compete in the east against perennial powers like Green Bay, Indiana and Cedar Rapids. Also, don’t be too shocked if they have another deep playoff run that ends with getting a heavy trophy at the end.

Monday’s preview: Green Bay Gamblers

Last Call…

USHL teams usually just don’t find a Denver commit just hanging out, but the Dubuque Fighting Saints got that with Garrett Allen.

Fighting Saints coach and general manager Jim Montgomery said Allen, a former Fargo Force forward, would be in camp this year with the team. Allen split last season with the Force and the Chicago Steel. During his time with the Steel, he suffered a hamstring injury limiting him to 25 games. His last game was in early March, about a month before the regular season ended.

“You know, we were just doing our research and saw he wasn’t on any of the (training camp) lists,” said Montgomery, who won the Clark Cup in his first season last year. “We contacted Denver and we spoke with Garrett. He has some issues with his hamstring and lower back but we’re hoping to get him back to the tremendous year he had with Fargo.”

Allen burst onto the scene as a rookie scoring 42 points (24 goals, 18 assists) in 60 regular season games helping the Force advance to the Clark Cup Finals.

His second season, however, didn’t go as planned. Allen scored three points (all goals) in 14 games and wasn’t shooting the puck much as he only had 13 shots. Though he was part of the US’s World Junior ‘A’ Challenge win, he was traded to the Steel a few weeks later for Ian Young (Colorado College).

Allen arrived in Chicago where he scored nine points (5 goals, 4 assists) in 25 games and as was earlier stated, had to shut it down due to injuries.

“We think he is going to add a lot,” Montgomery said. “I saw him play that year for Fargo in the Clark Cup Finals and he was playing 20 minutes a game. His ability to kill penalties was great and it is another element we’d like to add.”

Montgomery said that the Fighting Saints haven’t had a chance to evaluate Allen. He added that it is going to be a “wait-and-see” process in regards to how quickly he can recover from his injuries.

Montgomery said Allen is excited about coming to Dubuque and getting to know the town and players following the setbacks he suffered last season.

In case you haven’t heard by now, Dubuque is kind of loaded heading into next year. They’ll feature potential first-round draft picks in forward Zemgus Girgensons (Vermont) and defenseman Michael Matheson (Boston College.) On top of that, they return nine players including Girgensons and goaltender Matt Morris (Maine).

“Right now, I think he’s just excited to come back,” Montgomery said. “I think he’s excited to get back on the ice and start playing the way he did two years ago.”

The Only One…

Dubuque Fighting Saints head coach Jim Montgomery says he frequently gets texts or emails regarding his star forward Zemgus Girgensons.

He definitely got a few of them not too long ago after a report came out in DubNation, a WHL blog, regarding Girgensons. Girgensons, who is slated to be a first-round pick in the upcoming NHL Draft, was taken in the CHL Import Draft by the Kelowna Rockets.

Dubuque’s management has said multiple times Girgensons will play this season in Iowa and then go onto Vermont next season. Yet Rockets general manager, Bruce Hamilton, indicated the chances of the Rockets getting Girgensons was very much alive.

Here’s what Hamilton said to DubNation about Girgensons:

“His agents think (Dubuque) is where he should be playing and he’s very loyal to that program. But I know as soon as he’s drafted, the NHL team’s not going to want him in Dubuque and they’re not going to want him going to the University of Vermont, either. We’ll have a real good opportunity to have him here for sure next year, and potentially after Christmas this year. When the Latvian team plays in the world juniors, we’ll be very aggressive again there.”

Montgomery was given the chance to respond on Wednesday to what Hamilton said and here’s what the former University of Maine great had to say.

“First of all, I was wondering how he could be tampering with a player that plays with another junior team in the middle of the season. I was also wondering about his ethics and why would you want to try and approach someone trying to win a gold medal for his nation. Being a Canadian, he should know how important it is to win a gold medal. If junior hockey is coming to this type of level where you’re going to bother someone while they’re trying to win a gold medal for his country speaks volumes about the integrity of some of the people in junior hockey. I know for a fact that (Girgensons) hasn’t spoken to an adviser and (Girgensons’ adviser) hasn’t spoken to the kid either. He’s defending his draft pick and that’s why he’s putting a positive spin on it as possible. Really, he’s making himself look like he’s unethical.”

The battle for Girgensons is just another footnote in the long chapter of Major Junior vs. NCAA/USHL this summer. Tri-City’s Daniil Zharkov on Wednesday became the fifth player set to play in the USHL this summer to jump to Major Junior.

On the other hand, the USHL has retained four players from joining Major Junior teams this summer including Girgensons.

Montgomery, who is heading into his second season at Dubuque, said that he’s not really worried about the threat of Girgensons leaving. Dubuque director of player operations Adam Micheletti said a few weeks ago that the Rockets were not a major threat in regards to Girgensons leaving and that his one concern was Dinamo Riga (KHL) would offer Girgensons, a Riga native, a contract.

“He’s a loyal and intelligent young man. He’s not your normal 17-year-old. He’s the kind of kid who looks five years down the road,” Montgomery said. “I tell people that I email with the kid back and forth and we’ve talked about him being a force to be reckoned with in the USHL. If he’s going anywhere he’s pulling the wool over my eyes.”

The Stein Song…

Barely 20 minutes passed after Jim Montgomery won the USHL’s Clark Cup championship and the talk already started.

Fire Timmy. Hire Jimmy.

Those not familiar with that term, it has basically become code for many University of Maine fans and alums that the school needs to get rid of current head coach Tim Whitehead and hire Montgomery, the school’s all-time scoring leader.

Whitehead hasn’t exactly had the best seasons lately to put it mildly. Maine has missed the NCAA Tournament the last four years and that’s not sitting well with the Black Bear faithful considering Whitehead started his first six years at the school reaching the tournament in every year along with winning a minimum of 20 games every year during that stretch.

Maine looked like it was going to turn the corner this year with early season wins over North Dakota but it turned out to be another disappointing season further fueling the fire of Whitehead getting canned.

Four years is a long time to go without making the tournament. So the frustration is understandable. But will hiring Montgomery really solve everything?

Being a Maine alum, I’ll provide this insight into Montgomery. Paul Kariya was the most-well known player to play at Maine. Montgomery, among some, is the most popular with fans and alumni. Montgomery has a display case at Alfond Arena with his jersey, awards and photos detailing why he might be the greatest player in school history.

He was part of this surge that turned Maine into a hockey power in the early 1990s. All that plus the fact he’s been an assistant at Notre Dame and RPI is enough for some to say Montgomery is the guy for the job.

Maybe he is. Just not now. Montgomery, though he’s a great GM in the USHL, needs time before he takes over the Maine job if it is indeed something he wants to do. There hasn’t been any indicator that says otherwise but you just never know.

As for Maine fans disappointed with the program. Yeah, get in line with others that aren’t too happy with things. Minnesota is going through it right now. Every program, at some time, just goes through a bad stretch and right now its Maine’s time.

That and it feels like whenever a program isn’t achieving what fans want, it is way too easy to say “get someone from our glory days” to return a program to prominence. Don Lucia has heard that quite a bit these days and it doesn’t help that he potentially has Dean Blais looming over his shoulder.

Whitehead’s situation is different because there isn’t anyone one figure outside of Montgomery that’s really being touted as a successor. Whitehead’s done his part in terms of recruiting but he can’t exactly help the fact that the major pieces he wanted to build around jumped ship and bolted for The Q. Hiring Montgomery isn’t going to change that. No coach can change a kid’s mind into jumping for Major Junior.

Maine fans need to give it time and before they know it, they’ll be drinking to all the happy hours and careless days soon enough.

That being said, it really is a make or break year for Whitehead. If Maine misses out on the tournament – again -it might not be fun times around Orono and it could be proof that a change really is needed. In turn, that makes the upcoming season a make or break year for Maine hockey in general.

But its just to early to say that Montgomery is the right guy to fix what some may consider to be broken.