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.”

Hometown Glory…

Add finding a forward for tonight’s USHL Entry Draft plans for the Force as Jonny Brodzinski said this morning he would not return to the team.

Brodzinski, instead, will be playing next season at St. Cloud State. He said in a text message he would be going to college. The 6-0, 185-pound former Blaine (MN-HS) star committed to St. Cloud State shortly after he joined the Force last season.

He becomes the seventh known player to leave the Force due to a college commitment and is the fourth forward to depart.

Brodzinski was used in a multitude of roles during his one-plus year tenure with the Force.

Under former Force coach Jason Herter, he was used as a winger on the second and third lines putting up five points in 10 games. Under John Marks, Brodzinski became a third-line player who took a more active role in his defensive game.

He scored 22 points (10 goals, 12 assists) in 58 games which tied for third among Force players with most games played this season. Brodzinski was tied with Alex Iafallo (Minnesota-Duluth) while Willie Corrin (Minnesota-Duluth) and Taylor Richart, Brodzinski’s former high school teammate, played all 60 games.

Brodzinski and his line of Nate Arentz and Neal Goff were one of the Force’s strongest during the postseason playing a hybrid offensive/defense role, which got the team to the second-round for a tightly-contested series against the Lincoln Stars.

Back in February 2011, he came to the Force as a free agent signing as he led Blaine in scoring and to another Minnesota state hockey tournament. Following Blaine’s elimination, he and his family drove through blizzard-like conditions for him to make his Force debut and to get in the 10 games needed to stay protected for the following season.

His senior season and exposure with the Force resulted in Brodzinski being recruited by multiple schools including Bemidji State and Maine, which offered him a scholarship. He was also slated to visit with Minnesota-Duluth and Michigan before he committed to St. Cloud State.

Brodzinski’s father, Mike Sr., set numerous school records at St. Cloud State including most goals in a season.

Going to St. Cloud State adds to what is already a robust pipeline between the school and the Force. Former Force forwards Nick Oliver and Joe Rehkamp – a mid-season addition – played there along with former goaltender Mike Lee. Lee recently signed a contract with the Phoenix Coyotes.

Brodzinski will also be joined by former Force teammate and Omaha Lancers forward Jimmy Murray next season. It remains to be seen if former Force coach Steve Johnson will be at St. Cloud next season.

Mick Hatten of the St. Cloud Times recently reported Johnson was under strong consideration for an assistant opening at Nebraska-Omaha, another school with a Force pipeline.

Brodzinski’s decision comes a day after his younger brother, Michael (Minnesota), had a successful operation to remove a tumor. Brodzinski posted a photo of his brother via Twitter, which showed bandaging around his head.

Michael Brodzinski led Blaine to another state tournament appearance this year and afterward, came to the USHL where he played with the Muskegon Lumberjacks. He played in three games with the Lumberjacks picking up one point.

“He’s doing great,” Brodzinski said in the text about his brother.

Out The Door…

For so long Kevin Hartzell was considered to be an example of the United States Hockey League’s stability among coaches.

Not anymore.

Hartzell was fired by the team on Monday after his seventh season resulted in a season where youth, a lack of scoring and the loss of elite talent resulted in the Stampede faltering and finishing last in both the Western Conference and the USHL.

The former University of Minnesota captain completed his 14th season as a head coach. His career was one of the most successful in the USHL having amassed more than 400 wins while winning two Clark Cup trophies and two Anderson Cup titles as well.

He previously coached the defunct St. Paul Vulcans for six seasons where he won 195 games, according to the Stampede’s website.

Hartzell between his stops in St. Paul and Sioux Falls established himself as one of the league’s best coaches. Coming into the 2011-12 season, he had won 30 or more games in four of his five seasons.

This year wasn’t as kind to Hartzell who led the Stampede to a 17-36-7 mark as he coached one of the league’s most inexperienced teams.

Sioux Falls’ season started rough when brothers Ryan, Connor and Mike Reilly (Minnesota) all left to play for Penticton (BCHL) joining up with Mario Lucia (Notre Dame/Minnesota Wild), a 2010 Stampede Entry Draft Pick, spearheading one of Junior ‘A’s most prolific team.

If the Reillys and Lucia had stayed, it could have very well been the difference between finishing last or making the playoffs in a Western Conference where talent, regardless of experience, paid dividends.

Yet Sioux Falls struggled offensively scoring a league-worst 127 goals while its defense and goaltending gave up 215 goals after establishing itself as one of the better defenses earlier in the year.

Forwards Kyle Rankin (Princeton) and Justin Selman (Michigan) tied for the team lead in points with 34. They finished in a tie for the league’s 59th leading scorer as three players in the league had more goals then the two had points put together.

All of this resulted in the Stampede being a dismal minus-283 on the season while racking up 1,020 penalty minutes, the fifth-most in the USHL.

Whoever replaces Hartzell walks into a team which does have a strong future depending upon how players develop.

Sioux Falls could return up to 16 players including goaltender Charlie Lindgren and Todd Skirving, who finished fourth on the team in points with 25 last season. The team also made six selections in last week’s USHL Futures Draft taking St. Mary’s Prep forward Cody Milan with the ninth overall selection.

Hartzell becomes the sixth head coach to be fired in the league this year and the most recent since the Indiana Ice fired former Yale assistant Kyle Wallack prior to the start of the Clark Cup Playoffs.

In all, 12 of the USHL’s 16 teams have hired new head coaches in the last season either due to coaches leaving for college jobs or being fired.

Summit…

Even with a 2-0 series lead over the Dubuque Fighting Saints, there are some losses for the Indiana Ice.

The Ice lost forward Cristoval “Boo” Nieves (Michigan) for the remainder of the USHL Playoffs as he returned to school to complete his coursework, his father Rafael said in a text message on Sunday morning.

“It is a simple matter of priority to ensure Boo graduates in the spring so he can be at the U of M (University of Michigan) in the fall,” Rafael Nieves wrote in a text message.

Losing Nieves, who is projected late first-round selection to early-second round choice, is the second loss the Ice have suffered this month. Forward Kirill Lebedev returned to Russia earlier in the month, according to his Twitter account.

Lebedev signed a contract to play with Metallurg Magnitogorsk back in his native Russia.

Lebedev was a big part of Indiana’s offense late in the season scoring 17 points in 23 games forming a strong partnership with fellow Russian Daniil Tarasov, the league’s second-leading scorer.

As for Nieves, the 6-2, 190-pound forward came to the Ice from The Kent School (CT-HS) where he was regarded by scouts as the best high school player in the nation. Nieves scored 39 points (7 goals, 32 assists) in 26 games this season.

Nieves was already a high-profile draft-eligible player watched his stock soar with his strong high school season which was later boosted by what he did in the USHL. He was ranked as the No. 27 top eligible North American skater in NHL Central Scouting’s final list.

Nieves, who is from Baldwinsville, N.Y., a Syracuse suburb, was drafted by the Niagara IceDogs in the OHL but his rights were later acquired by the Saginaw Spirit, which do not appear to be an option given his desire to complete his high school coursework.

He played 13 games for the Ice scoring 10 points (2 goals, 8 assists) helping the Ice take the No. 2 seed in the USHL’s Eastern Conference. It gave the Ice a first-round bye giving them a week off to prepare for the second round.

Getting rest appears to have worked with the Ice getting a 6-3 win on Saturday over defending league champions, the Fighting Saints. A win Wednesday would send the Ice back to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since the 2008-09 season when the team won the Clark Cup.

The departure of Nieves and Lebedev comes at a time where changes have been a theme for the Ice.

Head coach and former Yale assistant, Kyle Wallack, was fired two games before the playoffs start and was replaced by former Ice head coach and former NHL veteran Charlie Skjodt.

Weeks later the team announced it would be playing the majority of its home games the next two seasons at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, which is home to the Indiana Pacers. A limited number of games will also be played at Pan Am Plaza, which holds up to 1,000 people. The move comes after the Ice’s home, The Pepsi Coliseum, will be undergoing renovations.

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.

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.

Got My Mind Made Up…

Oh USHL Trade Deadline. We hardly knew ye. You could have accomplished so much.

So it isn’t exactly “An Athlete Dying Young” by Housman but nonetheless the trade deadline did generate much discussion. Some teams made moves for the short term while others for the long term. There were some teams which didn’t make any moves.

Either way, it’s time to look at the teams who were winners and losers at the trade deadline.

WINNERS:

-Waterloo Black Hawks: Anyone wondering about how serious this team’s playoff ambitions were got their question answered during the deadline. Trading for goaltender Stephon Williams (Minnesota-Mankato) and defenseman Alex Barron (Quinnipiac) gave them two players with serious playoff experience. Williams last season won 20 games in Sioux Falls and was virtually lights out in net come the playoffs when he helped his team reach the Western Conference Finals. Adding Barron gives Waterloo a defenseman who was a captain with indiana and can potentially provide that down the stretch. Also, giving up Michael Zajac (Princeton) to grab Kevin Duane (Boston University) wasn’t a bad move either. GRADE: A

-Tri-City Storm: Tri-City probably had the best Deadline Day of any team in the league. They held onto Nick Lappin (Brown), a forward many teams were coveting. Lappin made it clear he wanted to lead the Storm, which are tied for the sixth and final playoff spot, into the postseason. Keeping him was big right there. But they did more. No one else might say it, but they fleeced Des Moines yesterday by sending goaltender Pheonix Copley (Michigan Tech), two prospects plus third and fourth-round Futures Picks in exchange for goaltender Christian Frey, two of the top prospects in midget hockey in Chase Rey and Joel L’Esperance (Michigan Tech) while snagging a first and second round pick for the Futures Draft. Tri-City now has four picks – No. 3, 15, 16 and 28 – in the Futures Draft. Copley, in truth, is a rent-a-player as he’ll be in college next season and it depletes Des Moines’ future while making Tri-City, which already is the youngest team in the league, stronger for next year and years to come. Yes, they traded promising defenseman Desmond Bergin (Harvard) to Dubuque but they got Garrett Cecere (Colorado College), which isn’t a bad deal by any means. Finally, they picked up Breck (MN-HS) star Grant Opperman (Dartmouth) to boot once the high school season ends. If Tri-City reaches the playoffs, without question, this will be the most memorable move on Deadline Day. GRADE: A+

-Indiana Ice: Losing Barron might hurt but there’s enough talent on the team to make up for it. Then again, when you get two defensemen (Peter Hand and Trevor Owens) it isn’t bad to have extra bodies this time of year. Though the biggest move could be getting Cristoval Nieves (Michigan) who could have a huge impact. Nieves is thought to be the top high school player in the nation and could be a second-round pick. Getting him and his 6-2 frame on an already highly-touted offense could go a long way for the Ice and improving Nieves’ draft status. GRADE: B+

-Omaha Lancers: Trading Jonathan Liau to Youngstown opened the door for them to get Grand Rapids (MN-HS) defenseman Jake Bischoff (Minnesota). Bischoff, in quite a few minds, might be the best defenseman in Minnesota. The 6-foot, 185 pound defenseman has 32 points (7 goals, 25 assists) in 25 games for the Thunderhawks this season. He’s set to join Omaha after the high school season ends. If he gets in the ten games and stays with the Lancers, it could certainly benefit them in the long run. Think about how Ben Marshall (current Gopher and Red Wings Draft Pick) helped Omaha and that’s what Bischoff could do here. GRADE: B+

 

LOSERS:

-Muskegon Lumberjacks: You’d think Muskegon would have done a lot more dealing than they did in the hopes of building for the future. It didn’t happen. Trading Nick Seeler (Nebraska-Omaha/Minnesota) to Des Moines for the rights of Blaine (MN-HS) defenseman Michael Brodzinski (Minnesota) could help towards the long run assuming they’re able to keep Brodzinski. Brodzinski is a junior in high school and could stay for one more year before heading to join The Last Don and what’s said to be a really talented freshman class. Muskegon appears to be dead in the water when it comes to the playoffs, but there were enough chips there to build for the future. GRADE: C-

-Cedar Rapids RoughRiders: One would have though they’d have tried to gun for some experience considering they are right in the thick of things in the Eastern Conference. It appears they can hold on to the last spot given how far back Chicago is. Even still, getting an experienced forward to come in could have paid off. Maybe this team will turn the corner with what it has. GRADE: D

-Des Moines Buccaneers: Getting Seeler and Copley might help them stay in the playoff race. Though trading off first and second round picks in the Futures Draft could really come back to bite them. The USHL is constructed for teams to be smart about the present but smarter about its future. Even if Des Moines did get Zajac, not having a first-round futures pick along with losing Brodzinski is a big, big loss. Even if this is a league where there’s players who are learning about maturity, seeing recently acquired forward Luke Voltin (North Dakota) tweet his feelings on life in Des Moines yesterday isn’t a good sign. Argh. Argh, indeed. GRADE: D-

So Special…

Quite a bit has happened this season but even more things happened in January.

There were plenty of players which got some eyeballs in their direction and put themselves in position to potentially pick up some trophies, at least of the non-Clark Cup variety, at the end of the year.

So where do certain players stand when it comes to awards like Player of the Year, Forward of the Year and Goaltender of the Year? Let’s find out.

 

PLAYER OF THE YEAR

-Kevin Roy, Lincoln, forward (Brown): The league’s scoring leader kept up his impressive season in January. He now has 55 points (29 goals, 26 assists) so far this season but it made some wonder how he’d do in the second half with teams now knowing more about him. Roy has been electric since the post-Christmas break scoring 18 points in 11 games. He’s only had one game in January where he didn’t get a point.

-Andy Welinski, Green Bay, defenseman (Minnesota-Duluth/Anaheim): He’s led what’s easily been the best team in the USHL this season to what could be one of the best year’s in this league’s history. Welinski’s true mark on this team could be how he’s spearheaded a defense which has been indomitable. Green Bay still hasn’t surrendered 100 goals on this season we’re more than halfway through the year. Don’t forget about his offensive production scoring 23 points (11 goals, 12 assists) in 33 games. He’s already surpassed his numbers from last season and has a remarkable plus-26 to his name.

-Austin Farley, Fargo, forward (Minnesota-Duluth): Fargo’s nine-game winning streak was powered by many players and Farley was certainly at the top of the list. Farley’s 48 points (24 goals, 24 assists) put him on a pace to shatter the franchise mark for most points and possibly most goals in a season. Eighteen of those came during the Force’s nine-game winning streak. Throw in how he’s extremely good at agitating opposing players and it can be argued he serves a dual role making him even more valuable to the Force.

-Jon Gillies, Indiana, goaltender (Northeastern): Gillies is proving month in and month out he’s one of the best – maybe the best – netminder in the league. Indiana, like Fargo, went on a strong stretch winning seven games in a row and Gillies helped his team try to climb what feels like the impossible ladder which is the Eastern Conference. Gillies won his first six straight starts following the Christmas Break and as a result has some of the best numbers of any goalie in the league. He’s 19-6-5 with a 2.56 GAA, a .921 save percentage and has 1,760 minutes too.

-Nolan Zajac, Omaha, defenseman (Denver): Zajac is the name on this not many people expected to see but get familiar with it. Zajac is tied with Green Bay’s Jordan Schmaltz (North Dakota) with 25 points, the most among defenseman in the league. Zajac showed last season at Cedar Rapids with his 30 points in 47 games campaign, he could put up points. This year, however, he was traded to an offensively-starved Omaha and has chipped in 24 points in the 31 games he’s played there. He has 12 points in his last seven games and has helped Omaha reclaim first place with a four-point lead over Lincoln.

OUR PICK: It has to be a toss-up between Roy and Welinski. We’ll go with Welinski for now because it’s hard to argue against anything he and the Gamblers are doing right now.

 

FORWARD OF THE YEAR

-Kevin Roy, Lincoln (Brown): See our argument for Roy when it comes to Player of the Year. Dude has been incredible for Lincoln all season and it appears what he’s done to this point is not a fluke.

-Austin Farley, Fargo (Minnesota-Duluth): His season jump started a team and a franchise which didn’t have the greatest start in the world. He hasn’t scored in the last three games and that’s bound to happen because no one in this league scores in every game all the time. Going back to Farley’s role as an agitator, it certainly helps him get into an opponent’s head and it can’t be overlooked how good he is at it.

-Daniil Tarasov, Indiana: Tarasov is having one the best seasons for any player in the USHL as his 48 points (24 goals, 24 assists) practically mirrors that of Farley. Tarasov’s numbers aren’t a surprise given the high-octane system Indiana runs. The fact he’s done it with a younger cast is extremely impressive. Aside from Roy and Dubuque’s Zemgus Girgensons, there isn’t another forward who can change a game like this guy.

-Zemgus Girgensons, Dubuque (Vermont): Injuries and international duty took a few games away from the Latvian superstar but let’s face it, he deserves to be in this talk because he’s just one of those players who teams do gameplan around. Girgensons has 31 points (13 goals, 19 assists) in 29 games and he’s a four-point game away from being in the Top 15. Getting into the Top 5 might seem improbable but if anyone has the talent to do it, it is him.

-Nolan LaPorte, Green Bay (Western Michigan): LaPorte’s a victim of the whole, “Good team, good system” argument but he shouldn’t be. The talent is there and he’s showing it but there is a difference with him and everyone else on this list. The other four guys need to score for their teams to win. Green Bay’s success doesn’t hinge on just LaPorte but let’s face it. If he’s not there, maybe their first line isn’t so stacked and neither is their power play. He has 10 power play goals and seven helpers on the one-man advantage. Argue all you want but you can’t overlook him.

OUR PICK: Roy yet don’t be surprised if Mr. Girgensons wants to make this interesting. He’s good at that.

 

DEFENSEMAN OF THE YEAR:

-Andy Welinski, Green Bay (Minnesota-Duluth/Anaheim): Same with Roy. He’s an MVP candidate and at least in our eyes, has to be the easiest player to choose for this award Then again, that’s us.

-Nolan Zajac, Omaha (Denver): Zajac is becoming an example of Omaha’s system of “Give us your tired, your hungry, your tradeable and we’ll take those players and beat you and everyone else with them.” Zajac’s offensive injection has helped Omaha comeback into focus. Also, did you see we had him listed as a Player of the Year candidate too?

-Jordan Schmaltz, Green Bay (North Dakota): We had a post here not too long ago talking about how this is when Schmaltz strikes like opponents like they’re the newest piece of meat coming into the state pen. He has 19 points (6 goals, 13 assists) in his 23 games with Green Bay since the trade.

-Brian Cooper, Fargo (Nebraska-Omaha): Cooper’s numbers are starting to get back to the pace he was on last season when he scored 33 (11 goals, 22 assists) in 53 games. He now has 17 (5 goals, 12 assists) in 33 games. What people aren’t really saying about Cooper is how he has become better as a defensive-defenseman. Plus, a few scouts have said he was the best player at the USHL Prospects Game.

-Michael Matheson, Dubuque (Boston College): Matheson and Cooper are so similar in terms of expectations. They haven’t been putting up these glittering offensive numbers but they have been better about adapting to being more complete players. Matheson is anchoring a defense which has only given up 96 goals in the league this season. And yes, if it’s not for Green Bay, this would be the lowest in the league.

OUR PICK: If we’re taking Welinski for Player of the Year, we might want to take him for this one too.

 

GOALTENDER OF THE YEAR:

-Jon Gillies, Indiana (Northeastern): Balls so hard. It’s crazy. Hova lyrics aside, guy really is having one of the best years for any goalie in the league. At 6-5, 190 pound he always had the physical tools but people questioned if he could put it together in regards to the USHL. It appears he has.

-Zane Gothberg, Fargo (North Dakota/Boston): Gothberg’s January was the stuff many goalies dream of winning nine straight starts and in the process climbing into the Top Five in wins, goals against average, shutouts, save percentage, etc. When this season is over, he could hold FIVE franchise records in the two years he’s spent with the Force. Everything from his attitude to his style of play has changed. It’s made him better and life for others a lot more difficult.

-Matthew O’Connor, Youngstown (Boston University): Gillies and Gothberg without doubt had better months, but O’Connor’s season easily ranks up there with anyone. Youngstown has had quite a few reasons for their success but O’Connor is one of the big ones. He’s provided a steady presence in net and that’s why they’re in fourth. They could be higher and they’re going to be, they need this guy who is 18-8-3 this year with a 2.67 GAA.

-Alex Lyon, Omaha (Yale): Like O’Connor, Lyon has been a constant for his team this season. He was great when the Lancers were struggling to score goals and he’s continued to be good helping them reach first in the Western Conference as of Monday. Lyon’s line is 17-8-2 with a 2.78 GAA.

-Jay Williams, Waterloo (Miami (Ohio): This spot could have also gone to Green Bay’s Ryan McKay, a fellow Miami commit, who once again is having another fantastic season but we go with Williams instead. Everyone talked about Waterloo’s offense but Williams was extremely overlooked and has put up the numbers to get hm noticed. He’s 11-5-4 with a 2.62 GAA. Waterloo is in third by a point over Fargo but they do have some games in hand on everyone else. If he plays big, Waterloo could move up.

OUR PICK: We go with Gilles but if Youngstown, Omaha and Fargo make some late season pushes, this could get fun to watch.

 

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR:

-Kevin Roy, Lincoln (Brown): Mama, there goes that man again. Yeah, he’s a rookie. So in one year he could potentially walk off with Player of the Year, Forward of the Year and Rookie of the Year.

-Taylor Cammarata, Waterloo (Minnesota): Aside from the first guy on this list, there hasn’t been a first-year player with no prior junior experience to have the impact on a like Cammarata. His 39 points (18 goals, 21 assists) are eighth in the league and he’s just two points out of being in the Top 5. If it really isn’t for Kevin Roy, Cammarata in many minds would have to be the frontrunner. Maybe he still he is.

-Michael Downing, Dubuque (Michigan): Defenseman are, at times, the biggest project a coach can take on in terms of a rookie. Downing has made Montgomery look extremely smart helping out a defense which lost its starter but still managed to never waiver in the Eastern Conference standings. Downing only has six points in 30 games but he’s achieving consistency.

-Austin Cangelosi, Youngstown (Boston University): He’s like Cammarata. Great season. A major reason why people are taking notice towards his team. He’s a gamer. He’s a baller. Playmaker. Shotcaller. He’s second on his team in points with 36 (16 goals, 20 assists). What hurts him is Kevin Roy. Between Kevin Roy and Green Bay, they’re making a lot of us forget how good others have been.

-Dave Gust, Fargo: Gust was playing midgets back in Chicago and the Force brought him in and since then he’s been everything the Force has needed and more. He has made his line, which also features fellow rookies Alex Iafallo and Gabe Guertler (Minnesota), the second-best line on a team which won nine games in a row. Gust has 16 points in just 21 games. Not bad for such a short amount of time

OUR PICK: Common sense says go with Roy. The side of us which has a heart says Cammarata. In the end, we’ll take Roy.

The Turn…

NHL Central Scouting released its mid-term rankings on Wednesday morning and there are a few surprises on the list.

NTDP defenseman Jacob Trouba (Michigan) is the highest-rated blueliner in the USHL on the list while Dubuque forward Zemgus Girgensons (Vermont) is the highest-rated forward. None of this comes as a surprise.

Indiana’s Jon Gillies (Northeastern) is having the best season of any draft-eligible goaltender in the league and he’s rated as the fourth-best goalie among all North American skaters.

Below is a list of the Top 25 USHL players and where they were ranked:

Skaters:

-Jacob Trouba, NTDP (Michigan), defenseman: No. 9 overall

-Zemgus Girgensons, Dubuque (Vermont), forward: No. 12 overall

-Stefan Matteau, NTDP, forward: No. 13 overall

-Brady Skjei, NTDP (Minnesota), defenseman: No. 18 overall

-Nic Kerdiles, NTDP (Wisconsin), forward: No. 27 overall.

-Michael Matheson, Dubuque (Boston College), defenseman: No. 29 overall

-Patrick Sieloff, NTDP (Miami (Ohio)), forward, No. 34 overall

-Jordan Schmaltz, Green Bay (North Dakota), defenseman: No. 35 overall

-Matt DeBlouw, Muskegon (Michigan State), forward: No. 37 overall

-Robbie Baillargeon, Indiana (Boston University), forward: No. 43 overall

-Brian Cooper, Fargo (Nebraska-Omaha), defenseman: No. 51 overall

-Thomas Di Pauli, NTDP (Notre Dame), forward: No. 72 overall

-Zach Aston-Reese, Lincoln (Northeastern), forward: No. 76 overall

-Dakota Mermis, Green Bay (Denver), defenseman: No. 77 overall

-Alex Kile, Green Bay (Michigan), forward: No. 82 overall

-AJ Michaelson, Waterloo (Minnesota), forward: No. 83 overall

-Austyn Young, Sioux Falls (Minnesota-Duluth), forward: No. 100 overall

-Gavin Stoick, NTDP (Cornell), defenseman: No. 101 overall

-Cameron Darcy, NTDP (Northeastern), forward: No. 103 overall

-Kevin Roy, Lincoln (Brown), forward: No. 106 overall

-Quentin Shore, NTDP (Denver), forward: No. 109 overall

-Frank Vatrano, NTDP (Boston College), forward: No. 118 overall

-Matthew Lane, NTDP (Boston University), forward: No. 133 overall

-Nikolas Olsson, NTDP (Northeastern), forward: No. 136 overall

-Vince Hinostroza, Waterloo (Notre Dame), forward: No. 137 overall

 

Goalies:

-Jon Gillies, Indiana (Northeastern): No. 4 overall

-Collin Olson, NTDP (Ohio State): No. 9 overall

-Alex Lyon, Omaha (Yale): No. No. 19 overall

-Stephon Williams, Sioux Falls (Minnesota State-Mankato): No. 23 overall

-Matt Morris, Dubuque (Maine): No. 28 overall