All Around The World…

Fargo Force director of player personnel Jesse Davis said defenseman Victor Bjorkung (Maine) will play with the team next season.

Bjorkung, 19, was a late-round selection last month in the USHL Entry Draft.

“We just offered him last week and he’s coming for sure,” Davis said. “He had to work on getting his visa and stuff like that. He got everything in place and booked his plane tickets and he’s coming to play in our league. The rumors that he was looking at other options are pretty much all done.”

Bjorkung has spent three of his last four seasons playing with the Djurgarden program in his native Sweden. He also spent a season with Malmo. He played 42 games last season scoring 17 points (4 goals, 13 assists) for the U-20 team. In the 2010-11 season, he split time between Djugarden’s U-18 Elite Team, the program’s U-18 Allsvenskan and one game in the Super Elite league.

Between the three leagues, he scored 27 points in 38 games. Altogether, he played in 120 games scoring 77 points during his time in Sweden.

Davis previously said leading up to the draft the team hadn’t heard about Bjorkung but kept hearing his name come up from various parties.

Those same parties told Davis that Bjorkung had accepted a scholarship to play at Maine but was also weighing options to play professionally back in Sweden. It is why the Force took him in the later rounds and it’s what Davis called taking a pick on a player whose still sorting over their future.

“He’s all set to come over and we spoke with his father,” Davis said. “Now they’re just trying to figure out what to bring over. I just told them to pack some warm clothes.”

Bjorkung has been described as a, “high-end, skilled defenseman” at the time the Force took him in the draft. The plan would be for Bjorkung to play on the power play, which was one of the best in the entire USHL last season.

Getting the 6-foot, 174-pound Bjorkung could also help make up for the losses the Force’s blueline have suffered this off-season. The Force were already losing Willie Corrin (Minnesota-Duluth) and potential second-round selection Brian Cooper (Nebraska-Omaha) to college for next season.

Shortly after training camp, the team lost Taylor Richart who accepted a scholarship from Miami (Ohio), where he will be playing next season.

It leaves the Force with at least four defensemen expected to return from last year’s team in Justin Wade (Notre Dame), Dominic Racobaldo, Neal Goff and Taylor Fleming. Defenseman David Mead’s future is still up in the air with the team which could leave another opening on the blueline.

The returning four defenseman plus Bjorkung and tender signee Butrus Ghafari (Western Michigan) give the Force at least six justified defensemen before heading into their pre-season camp which will begin in August.

Nothin’ On You…

Turns out the chat between Miami (Ohio) and Taylor Richart turned out to be a good one after all.

Richart committed to Miami on Friday and will be at the school for the fall bringing his tenure with the Force to an end after one season, which was certainly successful.

He was only one of two players to play all of the team’s 60 games last season and put up an offensive punch every now and again by scoring 16 points. Richart burst onto the scene picking up the league’s defenseman of the week award to open the season.

Richart might not have put up the numbers as he did finish outside the Top 25 among defensemen in points. Yet what he did do was give the Force a defenseman comfortable enough to play in every scenario.

The 5-9, 160 pound Richart was part of a power play and a penalty kill which finished in the Top 5 last season helping the Force overcome a torrid start to end the season in fourth heading into the playoffs.

Richart to Miami started to really generate momentum after the Force’s tryout camp, which was held last week here in the Minneapolis area. Force director of player personnel Jesse Davis addressed the rumors Richart committed right after camp stating both Richart and Miami were seen talking to each other in the lobby of the rink where the camp was held.

His departure now means the Force have lost two players for next season who could have come back. Forward Jonny Brodzinski, who played at Blaine (MN-HS) with Richart, said weeks ago he will play next season at St. Cloud State.

Richart’s departure also means the Force’s defense will have a bit of a different look. He becomes the third defenseman to leave the team meaning Justin Wade (Notre Dame), will be the team’s only Top 4 returning defenseman.

It appears, at least for now, Wade will be joined by fellow returners Neal Goff, Taylor Fleming and Dominic Racobaldo. Defenseman David Mead’s future with the team is in flux after he was one of four Force players selected in the NAHL Draft.

Assuming the Force only return four defensemen, the team does have its options. Tender signee Butrus Ghafari (Western Michigan) will be on the roster next year as league rules require the Force to dress him in a specific amount of games.

Though the Force do have plenty of options. Entry draft pick Charles Hemstrom appears to be one of the players the Force will rely upon to fill that void. Hemstrom spent last season in the NAHL and was a plus-19 in 38 games last season. Davis hinted weeks ago Hemstrom will make the team  when he said Hemstrom fit the one of the needs the Force would have for the 2012-13 season.

Another option could be another entry draft pick Victor Bjorkung (Maine), who is also weighing offers to turn professional in his native Sweden.

This also means there’s a stronger chance both Charlie Pelnik (North Dakota) and Dante Suffredini among others could be included in the team’s plans for next season.

Pelnik, who at 6-4 and 185 pounds, might have been the team’s most vaunted prospect for the entire year. He committed to North Dakota at 15 becoming the first person from North Carolina to do so.

It was expected for Pelnik to play for the Force last season but he spent the season at Shattuck-St. Mary’s (MN-HS) to further his development.

Suffredini, however, spent last season at Detroit Honeybaked playing midgets.

Brain…

So far the latest not-so-shocking news with the Force is captain Brian Cooper (Nebraska-Omaha) was named the USHL’s Scholar Athlete of the Year.

Cooper, 18, practically held a 4.0 grade point average while he was here in Fargo and finished with a 3.9 GPA. He graduated from Fargo South last weekend as a member of the school’s National Honor Society.

Per a release from the USHL, Cooper won the award based on his grade point average, coursework and overall school participation.

Cooper, the release said, took classes in pre-calculus, psychology, advanced math, physics, English, government and forensics. He was also named of one of South’s “students of the month.”

He pulled this off in one of what was easily one of the more demanding years an individual Force player could have had.

Cooper, who is eligible for the NHL Draft, was heading into his third year with the Force. He was named captain and led a group which featured 13 first-year players and guided them to a fourth-place finish after losing 13 of their first 15 to start the season.

Though he didn’t have the offensive outburst many expected, he scored 24 points (6 goals, 18 assists) in 55 games, tying a career-high in games he’s had with the Force. In the playoffs, he had three points in six games. He also marshaled a defense which ranked third on the penalty kill, a year after it was ranked eighth.

In addition to all that, he represented and captained Team USA at the World Junior “A” Challenge in British Columbia leading the team to a bronze medal.

He recently completed the NHL Combine in Toronto further cementing the chances he will be taken this summer.

Cooper has said in previous interviews his goal, should hockey not work out, is to attend Creighton University and become a doctor.

Winning the award wraps up what has been a trophy-case heavy season for the Force. Cooper and goaltender Zane Gothberg (North Dakota) were named to the all-USHL team last week. Gothberg was a first-team selection while Cooper was a second-team choice.

Gothberg was also named the league’s co-Goaltender of the Year with Green Bay’s Ryan McKay (Miami (Ohio).

Work Hard Play Hard…

It’s becoming clear the Force’s roster plans are getting murky.

The last week has seen the Force’s roster, which was set to return up to 16 players, undergo potential changes which could give the team a bit of a different and younger look for next season.

It appears the Force could lose up to five players from the 2011-12 team heading into next year.

Forward Pavel Zykov was drafted in the second round of the KHL Amateur Draft less than a week ago by Metallurg, the program which produced Pittsburgh Penguins star Evgeni Malkin. Zykov was also one of four Force players drafted in last week’s NAHL Draft.

Defenseman David Mead along with forwards Nick Stoskopf and Stanislav Dzakhov were also taken in the NAHL Draft.

The Force already lost forward Jonny Brodzinski (St. Cloud State) to college after he’d been teetering back and forth between school and staying another year with the team.

“We’re in a situation where we can only have four (1992-born) players on our roster for next season,” said Force director of player personnel Jesse Davis. “We have some guys who are on the fence for next year.”

Davis said its a situation which is up in the air right now and final plans will not be determined until later.

Whether or not those players will return becomes even more of a question considering none of them were at the Force’s tryout camp, which was held in the Minneapolis area over the weekend.

Davis said last week in a text message Zykov was back in Russia making it unlikely he would fly back for the team’s camp regardless.

As for Dzakhov, Mead and Stoskopf, not being at camp isn’t exactly damning. Last season, defenseman Brian Cooper (Nebraska-Omaha), was not at the team’s camp as he was back home in Alaska.

Twelve players expected to return for next season’s team were present at the camp.

The only notable absentee from Sunday’s all-star game was forward Nate Arentz, who was a senior this year at Fargo South which held its graduation ceremonies on Sunday.

If the departures were to occur, it means there are five potential openings the Force have and plenty of options to choose from.

Affiliates list forwards Brendan Harms (Bemidji State), Zach Doerring and Dominic Toninato (Minnesota-Duluth) are just a few of the forwards the team could rely upon to fill the gap next year. Davis also said following the USHL Draft, incoming forwards Matt Pohlkamp (Bowling Green) and Futures picks Mason Morelli and Michael Booth are expected to make the team next season.

That’s not including if the Force find favor in a forward who they didn’t draft similar to the way they did with Bryn Chyzyk (North Dakota), who came out of nowhere to become one of the team’s best players.

Defensively, the Force would return five defensemen and will already have Butrus Ghafari (Western Michigan) coming into the fold. Similar to their forwards, the Force have a number of options off the affiliates list such as Charlie Pelnik (North Dakota), Dante Suffredini or any one of the players they took in the Entry Draft.

Davis said he was pleased with how the camp went as they saw some promising performances from their Futures Draft players.

It also appeared to be a good camp for defenseman Taylor Richart, who spoke with Miami (Ohio), Davis said. Davis acknowledged the rumors of Richart accepting a scholarship with the school, but said that isn’t true.

Richart, who played at Blaine (MN-HS) with Brodzinski, only played one season with the Force after coming over from Aberdeen (NAHL). He put up 16 points for the Force and was one of two players to play in all 60 games during the regular season.

Miami recently lost NTDP defenseman Patrick Sieloff, who opted to play next season with the Windsor Spitfires in the Ontario Hockey League.

“He hasn’t accepted anything from them,” Davis said. “I think what it was, was people saw him talking with Miami in the lobby.”

Time Is Running Out…

So we interrupt (OK, for a few minutes) the Force’s playoff run to remind folks about the affiliates list.

Remember those guys? They are the ones set to be the next members of the Force. Some will get to Fargo next year. Some will get to Fargo in a few years and others, such as Corey Ward (Bemidji State), don’t appear to be coming at all.

Here’s a look at how the Force’s future is looking at the present time:

-Charlie Pelnik (North Dakota), defenseman, Shattuck-St. Mary’s: Pelnik’s lone season at Shattuck is over. He featured in 44 games for the private school’s U-16 team scoring 11 points (3 goals, 8 assists). He helped the team to a 28-15-11 record and appears he will be playing for the Force next season on a blueline which could return as low as three or as many as six. The 6-4, 190-pound Pelnik,16, was the Force’s No. 10 pick in last season’s USHL Futures Draft.

-Brendan Harms (Bemidji State), forward, Portage (MJHL): Harms was a monster during the MJHL playoff scoring 20 points (10 goals, 10 assists) in 21 games helping Portage to its fourth league title since 2005. Harms will now try to lead Portage to a consecutive Anavet Cup, which goes to the winner of a best-of-seven series played between the MJHL and SJHL champions. His playoff campaign adds to what was an already strong regular season with Harms scoring 57 points (22 goals, 35 assists) in a shortened 42-game schedule. He missed part of the season with a shoulder injury but appears to pretty healthy these days. Harms is expected to join the Force next season.

-Brett Heikkila (Northern Michigan), forward, Marquette Electricians (Midget Major): Heikkila’s season ended with Marquette in March but showed improvement compared to last season. He finished with 54 points (26 goals, 28 assists) in 67 games. Heikkila had 24 points in 53 games last year. Heikkila, 17, appears he will be in Fargo next year and beyond as he’s expected to be at Northern Michigan in 2014, according to Chris Heisenberg.

-Johnny Baiocco (Yale), forward, Delbarton Prep (NJ-HS): Baiocco was a big part of helping Delbarton repeat as New Jersey’s private school champions this season. Delbarton went 28-1 as Baiocco scored 54 points (27 goals, 27 assists) re-affirming the school’s dominance in New Jersey. He was also a first-team selection by the Newark Star-Ledger and was a first-team all-state selection to boot. Baiocco, a junior, will spend one more season at Delbarton and will then come to the Force for a year before heading off to Yale.

-Trevor Hamilton (Miami (Ohio), defenseman, NTDP (USHL): Hamilton and the U-17s suffered an expected first-round exit from the USHL Playoffs at the hands of defending Clark Cup champions, the Dubuque Fighting Saints. Hamilton ended his first season at the NTDP scoring eight points in 29 games. He also overcame an injury this season somewhat limiting him in his first season. Hamilton will stick with the NTDP for a second season playing more of an international schedule rather an a USHL-based schedule. Hamilton will join the Force after he has aged out of the NTDP and will spend one year here before heading to Oxford, Ohio.

-Butrus Ghafari (Western Michigan), defenseman, Detroit Compuware (Midget Major): Ghafari was actually in town a few weeks ago to take in a weekend so he could get a feeling of what to expect next season. Force trainer Paul Wixo said at a recent practice Ghafari’s hands were massive and he already had strength for a 15-year-old. Ghafari, who is listed at 5-11, 175 pounds, finished his season with 13 points (1 goal, 12 assists) in 28 games. Ghafari was the first – and appears to be only player – the Force have tendered with the new system.

-Dominic Toninato (Minnesota-Duluth), forward, Duluth East (MN-HS): Toninato played four games with the Force scoring a goal before the playoffs started. Coach John Marks said he was pleased with how Toninato played and said he was looking forward to him joining the Force next season.

-Cory Ward (Bemidji State), forward, Aberdeen (NAHL): Ward is having one of the better seasons of any player in the NAHL for what is the second year in a row. He finished the regular season with 63 points (35 goals, 28 assists) in 55 games. He also had three points in four playoff games. Ward, however, will go straight to college next season meaning he will not play with the Force next season.

-Zach Doerring, forward, Blake (MN-HS): Doerring was in town for the Force’s last regular season game of the year. He and his dad confirmed that he’s received quite a bit of interest from school in Hockey East such as Northeastern and UMass. It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise as Doerring brother, Blake, just finished his first season at Vermont. Doerring scored 53 points for Blake this season and his 40 assists were tied for ninth in the state and sixth among players in Class 2. The 6-3, 175-pound Doerring will be in Fargo next season.

-Nick Kulmanovsky, goaltender, Alaska (NAHL): It has been established Reed Peters, this year’s back-up, will be the No. 1 guy heading into next season. Kulmanovsky, though, appears to be one of a few names in the running for the team’s No. 2 goaltender. He went 21-11-3 with a 2.61 GAA and a .906 save percentage. Kulmanovsky spent time with the Force last season appearing during the stretch of games where injuries and international commitments left the team without a No. 1 goaltender.

-T.J. Black, goaltender, Chicago Mission (Midget Major): Black finished as one of the best goaltenders in the High Performance Hockey League this year. He went 8-4 with one shutout, a 2.34 GAA and a .924 save percentage. He finished third in GAA while playing in a two-goaltender system. The 5-8, 165-pound Black was in Fargo a few weeks ago where he did practice with the team. A couple of players described him has being “quick” in net. Black, should he come to the Force next year, would be a junior in high school.

-Dante Suffredini, defenseman, Detroit Honeybaked (Midget Major): Suffredini was part of an immensely-talented Honeybaked team which finished second in the HPHL this season. He played in 26 games scoring eight points (1 goal, 7 assists). Given that the Force will lose at least two defensemen from this year’s team, it could result in Suffredini and potentially Pelnik joining Ghafari on next season’s roster.

-Gage Torrel, forward, Alexandria (NAHL): Torrel had a strong first season with the Blizzard scoring 28 points (12 goals, 16 assists) in 53 games. Torrel left what would have been his senior year in high school to play for the Blizzard which were just recently eliminated by Austin in the NAHL Playoffs.

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.

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?

Please Ask For Help…

With four weeks left, it’s becoming clearer who the front runners are for postseason awards.

But what about the Goaltender of the Year award? It isn’t like Forward of the Year where we’ve seen Lincoln’s Kevin Roy (Brown) dominate the league and have a legitimate chance at scoring 100 points in a season.

And as we saw yesterday, it isn’t like Defenseman of the Year where it’s been a two-man race all year. We’ve seen multiple goaltenders who could lay claim to being the league’s best this season.

Now it’s time to find out, who might have the best chance of walking away as goaltender of the year.

 

-Adam Wilcox, Tri-City (Minnesota): Tri-City hasn’t officially clinched a playoff spot. Though it still hasn’t stopped some coaches from thinking what would happened if they were to face Wilcox and the Storm in a three-game series. Force coach John Marks admitted a few weeks ago, he’s already thought about it. Wilcox, who was acquired in a trade with Green Bay, has turned Tri-City into a team who could walk away with stealing a first-round series. Wilcox is 16-16 with Tri-City but altogether is 23-18 with a 2.76 GAA and a .916 save percentage. Wilcox has had to make up for his team suffering injuries on the blue line along with a change in philosophy once coach Josh Hauge was hired. We’ve already listed Wilcox as an MVP candidate because what he’s done has been valuable. If its not for him, Tri-City might not be in the running for a playoff spot. With him, however, they’re are in the running for stealing at least one series and maybe more.

-Jon Gillies, Indiana: Gillies has made Indiana more than just an offensively-gifted team with the way he’s played. He’s used his hulking 6-5, 215-pound frame be a durable wall which has withstood the season. Gillies is second in the league in minutes played and leads the league with 28 wins. He’s first in saves, third in save percentage and eighth in GAA. The East has been a three-team race for second place and Indiana holds the edge by three points with two weekends left. How Indiana does over the next month will largely depend upon how Gillies is playing. Like Wilcox, he’s been an MVP candidate earlier in the season. All Gillies has done this season is become one of the league’s premier netminders, pose a realistic threat to Green Bay and boost his stock for this summer’s upcoming NHL Draft. That’s not a bad year by any means.

-Ryan McKay, Green Bay (Miami (Ohio)): McKay, once again, is putting up the kind of numbers that can’t be ignored. He’s 25-4-3 with a 2.21 GAA, and a .921 save percentage for what is statistically the USHL’s best defense. He leads the league in GAA, he’s tied for first in save percentage, he’s tied for third in wins and is the only goaltender in the league with at least 30 starts to give up 70 or fewer goals. McKay has three seasons of 14 or more wins. If he wins his next start, it will be a career-high in wins. McKay’s numbers have always been solid and the results (one Clark Cup title and a Clark Cup appearance last season) cannot be debated. It appears he’s on route to lead Green Bay back to another Clark Cup appearance. Yet the question remains. In a year where we’ve seen so many good goaltenders, does McKay finally get his due?

-Matthew O’Connor, Youngstown (Boston University): So many things have gone well for Youngstown this season. The Phantoms have one of the league’s best No. 1 line combinations, a promising young coach in Anthony Noreen and a goaltender like O’Connor. O’Connor, compared to how he started, has cooled off a bit but still has Youngstown in a nice position heading into the playoffs. No goaltender has played more than O’Connor who has logged 2,778 minutes. His 27 wins are second in the league and he is second in the league in saves. O’Connor’s season comes when McKay is putting up record-setting numbers and Gillies is showing what the hype is all about. What O’Connor has done isn’t forgotten, but to a degree, it has been overshadowed. Though if Youngstown can have a strong playoff run, maybe he gets more limelight.

-Zane Gothberg, Fargo (North Dakota): Where do we start? Is the league-leading seven shutouts? Is it that he has as many franchise records as he does shutouts? Is it the fact he’s tied with McKay for first place in the league in save percentage (.921) or his 25 wins are tied for third? Or could it be his 2.23 GAA is the second-lowest in the league or is it that among league goalies with at least 40 starts he has given up 98 goals, which is the fewest amount for those who qualify for that category? Gothberg came into this season with questions regarding if he could handle being a No. 1 in the USHL. He’s certainly answered those questions and has helped his team overcome a torrid start where they lost 13 of their first 15 games. Since then, Gothberg has lost nine times since January showing he’s going to be tough down the stretch. He’s statistically been the best goaltender in the Western Conference. He’s arguably has the strongest stats of any goaltender in the entire league when looking at his overall workload. Will it be enough for him to win the league’s Goaltender of the Year award?

 

VERDICT: This really is a tough one to answer. If we narrowed it down to three guys, McKay, Wilcox and Gothberg would all advance. McKay advances because his consistency cannot be argued. Wilcox because he means more to his team than anyone else on this list. Gothberg because he’s been the backbone of a team which started slow but has really come on since January to be a postseason threat. Take Gothberg away from this for a second. Remember, Wilcox and McKay were actually a two-man tandem for last season and part of this year. McKay is the reason why Green Bay could free up Wilcox for a trade. So you have to ask, who is better in this case? Gamblers management went with McKay over Wilcox. We are going to risk drawing their ire by saying that for the purposes of this discussion, we take Wilcox because he has less to work with compared to McKay and has made Tri-City a dangerous proposition in a three-game series. Now as for Gothberg and Wilcox, that’s another tough one. Even head-to-head, they’re tied at 3-3 this season. We’re going to risk drawing more ire. This time from the Force because what you have to ask is this. Could the Force make the playoffs without Gothberg? It could be dicey but, yes. Could the Storm make the playoffs without Wilcox? No. That’s enough for us to say Adam Wilcox is our frontrunner for who will win the USHL’s Goaltender of the Year.

 

NEXT: Rookie of the Year

Always On Time…

We had a story in today’s Forum about former Force goaltender Mike Lee forgoing his senior year at St. Cloud State to sign with the Phoenix Coyotes.

Lee, 21, signed a three-year deal with the team and will play in the organization next season so he could focus on his college coursework. Lee admitted he wasn’t really worried about when he’d reach the NHL.

“I just want to work hard,” Lee said. “When it happens, it happens.”

It’s another example of how timing just happens to have a way with Lee given the way his career has played out.

Guy said yesterday he just had a feeling it was his time to leave. There was no sign or anything like that. It just hit him one day that it might not be a bad idea to pursue his professional career.

Considering what the guy has done over time, no one can blame him.

His resume is impressive. Lee’s work reads as if it should belong to someone older who has done this longer.

For example:

-He won a Minnesota state championship at Roseau, of all places, as a sophomore.

-As a junior he was 25-0 with a sub-1.00 goals against average heading into the Minnesota state hockey tournament. He and the Rams were a favorite to win but somehow finished fourth.

-When he left Roseau to play for the Force, it apparently resulted in his family facing the cold shoulder back home because this would have been his senior year.

-He came to Fargo leading the Force to a Clark Cup Finals appearance going 26-15-4 in his lone season.

-In 2010, he helped Team USA to a gold medal at the IIHF U-20 World Championships, the premier event for the world’s future hockey stars.

-Lee walks away from St. Cloud State playing 74 games with the Huskies in three seasons, going 32-29-9 with a 2.59 GAA and a .919 save percentage.

“I thought about it for a couple of weeks and just like any other major decision you weigh both ends of it,” Lee said of signing with the Coyotes in Friday’s Forum. “You decide what is best for your life. My family and I thought about it and decided this was a great opportunity.”

Signing a professional contract also does more than just give Lee and his family another item to be stoked about.

There’s this aspect of it: He could potentially become the next Roseau alum to play in the NHL which already features Winnipeg’s Dustin Byfuglien and his Lee’s former teammate, Aaron Ness, who had a call-up with the New York Islanders this summer.

Once again, he’s in no rush but this time it is for a different reason.

“Whoa, whoa,” Lee said when asked about being the next possible Roseau alum to make it to the NHL. “There’s a lot of great company on that list. You are throwing something really heavy at me right now.”

Fair enough.

Maybe it was a bit too early to ask that question or even raise that point.

Yet what can’t be argued is how Lee’s contract also sets the bar for anyone now wearing a Force jersey. This franchise has been around for four seasons and has now done everything but win a Clark Cup title.

Lee signing now sends a message that it is indeed possible for a Force player to sign a professional contract. Yet when he features in his first NHL game, it will probably resonate even more.

“It’s nice to look back on what we did that first year back in Fargo,” Lee said. “It’s nice to see what they are doing now too.”

With Lee, the Force can now state that it has a player who is closer to reaching the universal dream.

He’s not the only one. Former captain Luke Witkowski is a Tampa Bay draft pick who is heading into his senior year at Western Michigan. Witkowski said he’s returning for his senior year and could be the next one to sign a pro contract.

Then there’s more recent players like Witkowski’s current teammate, Garrett Haar, who is a Washington Capitals draft pick. There’s also Miami’s Jimmy Mullin, a fellow Tampa Bay draft pick.

And then there’s Lee’s perpetual and almost perennial former teammate, Nick Oliver, who is at St. Cloud State and was drafted by the Nashville Predators.

Now ask Lee about his time with Oliver and its clear it meant something.

“We’ve played together since we were in sixth grade,” Lee said of Oliver, who is now his former high school, junior and college teammate. “To have a close friend play with you for so long. It really is something special.”

Maybe Lee’s voice was getting shot from the interviews he did on Thursday.

But you could hear his voice become a little shaky when he was talking about Oliver and just how much it meant to have a friend always there with him.

Perhaps realizing it won’t ever be like that again could be a reason why his voice did sound a little shaky.

Its like lyricist Rakim once said, “I like the way it went down and all of that. In fact, it means a lot because you can’t bring it back. Remember that.”

Something says Lee certainly will remember where he’s been in order to know where he’s going.

I Got You…

A lot has changed the last time we looked at the favorites for specific USHL Awards but we’re back one more time before the regular season has come to an end.

There are still the usual faces you’d expect in the Player of the Year race but there are some who have made strides over the last month or so and have earned consideration. Same can be said for other awards as well.

We’ll take a look at the other awards later in the week but for now let’s look at the candidates for Player of the Year.

 

-Player of the Year:

Kevin Roy, forward, Lincoln Stars (Brown): With 90 points (47 goals, 43 assists) in 53 games, there’s no doubt he’s having the best individual campaign this year and maybe one of the best in the history of the league. With seven games left, he has to score 10 points to reach the century mark. Given the year Roy’s had it is extremely possible he could pull that off. He’s also helped the Stars to the third best record in the USHL and one point within first place in the Western Conference. Let’s take away what his season has done in context to his team’s performances. Roy is having the kind of year that will go down in USHL record books. It is also the kind of season that could perhaps dissipate a few myths and beliefs about the USHL not being enough of a high-scoring league.

Mike Ambrosia, forward, Youngstown Phantoms (Princeton): Youngstown has had points this year where it has teetered between being a top team in the East or a solid team in the East. The Phantoms are tied for second in the Eastern Conference and barring an epic collapse, will host at least one playoff round. Ambrosia’s role in this has been that of a playmaker. His 44 assists – second in the league – have helped scorers like Austin Cangelosi (Boston College) and J.T. Steinglein (UMass-Lowell) to having solid seasons. What Ambrosia has done in this comeback season cannot be overlooked. It might be easy to forget but Youngstown was fighting for a playoff spot this time last year. Youngstown fell a point short of qualifying but was bringing back 14 players plus most of its coaching staff and has proven what experience can do for a team. Ambrosia, a second-year player, has been an embodiment of how the experience can pay off.

Andy Welinski, defenseman, Green Bay Gambers (Minnesota-Duluth): A historic season for his team, an extremely high plus/minus total (+35), he’s fourth among USHL defensemen in scoring and he’s captaining a team which appears it hasn’t lost focus despite its dominance. That is what Welinski has accomplished this season and don’t think he can’t accomplish more when the season ends. And by that we mean a Clark Cup along with a few individual accolades. The superlatives could continue with Welinski as there’s a real debate among scouts and league pundits regarding if he is the best player in the league right now. He has the tools, the size, the talent and everything else that comes with a dominant player. Or, in truth, a complete player.

Daniil Tarasov, forward, Indiana Ice: Before we get into why he’s on this list, let’s get into why he’s just now getting on the list. Indiana is certainly a Jekyll-Hyde team where one week, it can be the most dominant force on skates. The kind of team that appears to be so balanced it could pose problems for just about anyone in the league. Then there are weeks where they’ll look lost against teams it should be beating. That said, the one constant in all of this has been Tarasov. Tarasov has withstanded inconsistency, younger teammates and the expectations of being a top-flight player to prove last season was not a fluke. His 76 points (41 goals, 35 assists) in 54 games is second in the USHL only to Roy, who is just having the season of a lifetime. Tarasov had 75 points in 57 games playing with high-end teammates in Blake Coleman (now at Miami (Ohio)) and Brian Ferlin (now at Cornell). He’s been that leader on offense this year and has proved he can be the centerpiece of an attack.

Adam Wilcox, goaltender, Tri-City Storm (Minnesota): There have been a few goaltenders put in this spot. Youngstown’s Matthew O’Connor (Boston University) was once here. So was Indiana’s Jon Gillies (Northeastern), who could end up back in this spot. There’s even a legitimate argument one can make about Green Bay’s Ryan McKay or Fargo’s Zane Gothberg (North Dakota). Yet when you look at Wilcox, you can’t help but realize he could mean more to his team’s playoff chances than anyone else in the league right now. Tri-City is two points clear – or one game – of the sixth and final playoff spot over Des Moines. Wilcox has had his ups and downs since being traded to Tri-City going 15-15 with a 2.89 GAA but we all saw during his time in Green Bay, scoring on him isn’t easy. Wilcox has won three of his last four starts and those have come against Omaha and Fargo, two of the better teams in the Western Conference. Face it. Tri-City’s playoff possibilities hinge on Wilcox. If they get in, there’s a strong chance they could upset someone because if that guy needs to win two games, he can do it. He’s been through a playoff race before albeit under different circumstances with Green Bay last season.

 

VERDICT: It’s tough. Roy is having the best season. Ambrosia is the best example of what his team has stood for. Welinski is the best player on the best team. Tarasov is having one of the best seasons in the league while Wilcox is his team’s best chance at making the playoffs this season.

We will go with Roy, for now, because what he’s doing hasn’t been done in this league in a long time.

 

TOMORROW’S AWARD: Forward of the Year